Black Eyed Peas Bring Phunk

After several delays, hip-hop trio to release third album

It's been almost three years since soulful hip-hop trio Black Eyed Peas released Bridging the Gaps, a vocal tour de force featuring guest spots from Macy Gray, Mos Def, Wyclef Jean and more. It wasn't supposed to take so long for the follow-up to hit the streets -- but finally, in early May, Elephunk will arrive in stores.

Work on the album started in the summer of 2001, when the hip-hop ensemble spent two months working in the tranquility of Bodega Bay -- just north of San Francisco. They left the studio to return to L.A. on the morning of September 11th. After that, of course, everything changed.

"We had the vocal direction of our songs down," says BEP frontman Wil.I.Am. "But after September 11th, we switched the direction a bit, edged it up a whole lot. Refined it."

While in Bodega Bay, Will and bandmates and Taboo, would drive down to San Francisco on Thursday nights and host a freestyle jam where jazz musicians and funksters would back up whichever MCs took the stage. One guy brought a tuba, and "This Smells Like Funk" was born. "That's where we got the album title from," says Will. "He was sounding like an elephant."

But aside from "Funk," no other songs from the Bodega Bay sessions made it onto the album. When the initial shock of the Twin Towers tragedy had subsided, the group returned to a studio to record a new batch of songs. The resulting record now features guests including Blink-182's Travis Barker and Papa Roach's Jacoby Shaddix.

Shaddix appears on "Anxiety," a topic that Will says is often swept under the carpet. "I've been having anxiety issues since 1993," he says. "I have panic attacks on stage sometimes. I start gagging. You hold a lot of things inside and they just churn in you and churn in you and churn in you until they blow up."

The track with Barker, "Had to Do It," is about haters, inspired by some of the group's experiences with product endorsements. "I'm not down with people that judge you on business endeavors," Will says. "When business endeavors have nothing to do with your creative integrity. If we do something, obviously we believe in it. We're not puppets."

But even with a scattering of issue songs, there's plenty of room for fun on Elephunk. Former "fourth" Pea, backing vocalist Kim Hill, departed the group after the release of Bridging the Gaps and has been replaced by Tracy Ferguson, known to the group as Fergie. Her solo vocal track, "Fly Away," is "basically our 'Killing Me Softly'," Ferguson says, "A chance for me to show a bit about who I am and what I do. It's a song about a past relationship . . . about letting go and moving on and being okay with it without all the drama."

Add to that a no-nonsense barn-burner produced by Rockwilder called "Fire," and the building blocks of Elephunk are sounding quite solid indeed. "The whole idea of waiting for the right time to put out the record gave us all this extra time, and we wound up writing more songs," says Will.

It also gave the Peas' frontman an opportunity to launch a clothing line and pitch MTV on an anything-goes video show, My Definition. The concept -- the first brought to the network by an artist -- features Will and guest rappers freestyling over a live band in between screening videos. "Everything is improv -- if you mess up, you mess up. If you land it, you land it," he says.

But while the show is taping this month for a debut some time this spring, the group is preparing to hit the road for an extended tour supporting the new album. Of course, that could all change tomorrow. "We get inspired by the things around us," Will says, looking at the window at the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah. "We could go home tomorrow and wind up writing a song about this place."