Will.I.Am: I AM Hip Hop…YOU Aren’t! (HipHopDX 9/26/2007)

By William E. Ketchum III

Think Will.I.Am isn’t hip-hop? He doesn’t care, but this writer will champion the cause anyway. Sure, his production for the Black Eyed Peas has gotten poppier than Orville Redenbacher (18 million records sold ain’t no hoe), and his clientele list includes Fergie and Ciara. But the past two years have seen the Los Angeles native man beats behind gritty tunes such as Game’s “Compton” and Nas’ “Hip-Hop Is Dead,” silky hip-hop hits like Talib Kweli’s “Hot Thing” and Common’s “I Want You.” And even before then, check the history: homie’s got two albums with revered hip-hop label BBE, that feature guest spots by the likes of Planet Asia, KRS-One, and Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg. His first record deal was with Ruthless Records, in which he had a group and ghostwrote for Eazy E himself. Do you fools listen to music,or do you just skim through it?

But William James Adams Jr. isn’t worried about proving people wrong—his music does that for him. While crafting beats for the aforementioned MCs, he’s simultaneously working alongside icons like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. And with the impending Songs About Girls, and, as he tells HipHopDX, Black Einstein, his musical reign should continue. Check the latest Producer’s Corner beatmaker as he talks versatility, technique, and studio time with legends.

HipHopDX: You’re about to go on an international tour with Black Eyed Peas. Why not tour here?

Will.I.Am: Cuz you can’t tour in America. Who tours in America? American tours, are you serious? That’s like me saying, ‘What makes you want to write for the high school newspaper and not for’…the planet is huge. There’s a lot of loot out there, different cultures, you get to learn a lot from people. We do tours in the states, but once you do it once in that same year, that’s it. We’ve already toured the states on this record. We can’t go on tour in America without a record. We have no record, we have no Black Eyed Peas album. We’re selling out 50,000, 60,000 (capacity) venues with no album.

HipHopDX: Why do you think that is, though? Have they just not caught on to the album yet?

Will.I.Am: Nah, it’s just a different mentality. America’s, America. That’s the only way to describe it; it’s America. In a way, it’s not as open-minded as the rest of the planet. Something’s got to be in the club or whatever here. I love the states; it’s a great place, but it’s not a great place to tour.

HipHopDX: Let’s go back for a minute. When did you first start experimenting with music?

Will.I.Am: When I was like 13, 15. At 13, I started rhyming. At 15, I started making beats.

HipHopDX: When you first started, you were signed to Ruthless Records and you were ghostwriting for Eazy E. What was that like?

Will.I.Am: Eazy E was…I was in high school, so it was a dream come true. To be in 11th grade, 12th grade, and you’re running with Eazy. NWA was, still, think about what they were in 92, 93. That was unbelievable. That’s like being in high school right now, and you’re working with…you can’t compare it. You can’t compare it to 50 Cent or Jay-Z, because Eazy E was the first nigga.

HipHopDX: Eazy was a gangsta rapper; how did your sound progress to the pop-friendly sound you’ve established with Black Eyed Peas? How difficult was it for you to transition your beat-making like that?

Will.I.Am: When I was rolling with Eazy, I was just a straight-up killa. He found me straight from the streets. I had like two bodies under my belt, I was in and out of mothafuckin juvenile hall and shit, I was straight up rugged raw. I used to slang crack and mothafuckin twinkies and shit, robbed the liquor store. Then finally, I just started selling my shit out of ice cream trucks, and then the little kids used to run to the truck when they heard the ice cream song. I’m like, “Oooh, this is a hot little market here, this ice cream truck shit!” So with the Black Eyed Peas, I just took it to the next level, and just started making ice cream truck music. You know what I’m saying? Slangin’ mothafuckin lollipops. [laughs hysterically] I can’t even hold a straight face.

The music hasn’t really changed since then. You have to hear; not a lot of people have really heard our album on Ruthless. I was 17, 16 years old. The only difference I can say is that I’m an adult now. I know the business, I understand the marketplace, I’m a lot wiser. I can say I know what I’m doing, and I mastered my craft as a businessman. At the same time, I’m able to make “poppy” Black Eyed Peas songs, and then make rugged songs for Game and Nas. I’m a marksman—you call me, what do you want me to shoot? I can aim long-distance, I can shoot close-distance. That’s what happens when you’ve got years in the music industry. I can make (Fergie’s) “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” that’s like number one in the planet. Or I can make “Hip Hop Is Dead.”

HipHopDX: What did the album with Ruthless sound like?

Will.I.Am: Nothing like Songs About Girls. Songs About Girls is…I like this one better. I love the album that we did on Ruthless, it’s great. But this is here, today.

HipHopDX: What kind of direction were you going in with this album?

Will.I.Am: The direction I was going in with Songs About Girls was keeping steady course of world domination. That’s it. Having songs that play all over the planet and swallow the globe. I’ve got a hip-hop record that’s coming out in February called Black Einstein. That one’s some shit.

HipHopDX: Like you said, you’re able to work with a lot of different artists. Where does that versatility come from? Do you just listen to a lot of different types of music?

Will.I.Am: I graduated high school, and this is what I wanted to do for my career, so I took it as my responsibility to learn music. I went to school and took a theory class, so I knew how to articulate what I wanted to as a musician. I didn’t just want to [hums a simple tune]; I wanted to play that shit, because a guitarist who knows theory can’t take orders from somebody that’s humming out of key. That’s like going to Germany and not speaking German, and saying you want to move to Germany. If you want to move to music, you’ve got to know music talk. And to know music talk, you’ve got to know different time signatures and chord structures. Once you know the fundamentals, you know exactly why Nas likes what Nas likes, why Game likes what Game likes, why Snoop likes what Snoop likes, and why Beyonce likes what Beyonce likes. Because it’s all math, at the end of the day. It isn’t just accidental, “Ooh, that’s a hot sample.” And then you’re just wishing to find a hot sample; “Let go shopping, and maybe I’ll get lucky.” That’s like playing the lottery. And then there’s math: really breaking it down, and knowing how to get what you want.

HipHopDX: Have you ever had a situation where you work on things that are completely different from each other closely to each other, and one bleeds into the other? Like you work on a track with Game, then you have trouble getting into the mindset to work with Whitney Houston?

Will.I.Am: No, not at all. Because like I said, it’s not accidental. If I was a chef, and you said, “I need you to make me a pizza.” I’m like, “All right, I’ll make you a pizza.” Then you say, “Fuck that pizza, make me some peanut butter and jelly. Nah, fuck that peanut butter and jelly, I need you to make me some beef stew.” Just because I’ve been making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day, don’t mean I can’t whip up some ingredients and make some beef stew. It’s all cooking in a fucking kitchen. “I can’t work with you today, Mary J. Blige.” “How come?” “Cuz I been working with Led Zeppelin all week. I’ve got my rock hat on.” It’s just cooking food—only difference is, I ain’t using meat, I’m using notes.

HipHopDX: What artist that you’ve worked with so far has been the most challenging to get in their head and decide what they want?

Will.I.Am: Michael Jackson. You can’t really explain it. Here it is: the nigga that did everything first. The first dude to have a video on MTV that really impacted pop culture. The first dude that ever said, “When you do a video, this is how you dance in it.” The first dude to say, “When you do a Pepsi commercial, this is how you do with brands.” First dude to say, “Yo yo yo yo yo yo yo, I’m about to sell this amount of records, and ain’t anybody ever going to outpass me.” The first dude to say, “Yo yo yo yo yo yo yo, I’m about to do these big-ass arena tours, and this is how y’all mothafuckas do that shit.” The first dude to be like, ” Yo yo yo yo yo yo yo, I’m going to leave this boy band and go solo.” He was the first to do all of that. The first dude that ever said, “Yo yo yo yo yo yo yo, I’m the first nigga to wear one glove. If anyone else wears one glove, they’re biters.” The first nigga to say, “Yo yo yo yo yo yo yo, I’m about to do this fuckin’ little curly shit at the top of my domepiece, and anybody else who does this shit, they’re biting, too.” He’s the first dude to do a lot of shit. So when you’re in the studio, you know that. And he ain’t some soft dude. Like you think you’re working with Michael Jackson, and he’s like, [does stereotypical Michael Jackson whimper]. He really knows what the fuck he’s talking about.

HipHopDX: As a producer, you go into the studio and give artists a certain guidance. How do you do that with Michael Jackson?

Will.I.Am: That’s not the kind of producer I am. I’m not the kind of producer that says, “I made this beat. Rap over this.” That’s not me; those are other producers. I’m the kind of producer, if I say, “What do you want to work on today?” And you say, “I don’t know.” You and I will sit down and vibe something out; it’s a joint effort. I’m pulling the best out of you, I’m not telling you what to do. That other shit is just some ego bullshit, to be honest with you. You hired me to pull the best out of you, you didn’t hire me to tell you what to do. An artist doesn’t need to be told what to do; you’re an artist.

HipHopDX: Is there anyone left that you haven’t worked with who you would like to work with?

Will.I.Am: Stevie Wonder. The song I did with Whitney (Houston) came out really nice. That’s about it right now, Stevie, and Prince.

HipHopDX: A couple years ago, you and the Black Eyed Peas got a lot of flak from people, saying that you “weren’t hip-hop.” Did you give harder tracks to Game and Nas with the intention of quieting that criticism?

Will.I.Am: Like I said, I’m a marksman. You tell me what to shoot, mark the aim, and I’ll shoot it. The difference between me and a lot of producers, artists, rhymers and MCs is that I know what I’m shooting at without you telling me what to do. Black Eyed Peas were aiming at what we were aiming at. The fact that we didn’t hit the people that said we weren’t hip-hop, maybe we weren’t aiming at those niggas. [The other fans] applying to what we’re trying to accomplish. And the fact that I did the stuff for Game and Nas wasn’t to shut people up, like, “Yo, I can do this, too.” Because I know what I can do: I can rhyme, I can freestyle. I’ll go up against anybody, and I’ll probably take a lot of niggas out. But I don’t make music to make points; I make music to make music. I’m not about to make an album because journalists say we aren’t hip-hop; it’s music. It’s not like a talent show where I’m trying to win the likes of Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul and shit. It’s all good. Niggas think I ain’t hip-hop, then fuck it, I ain’t hip-hop. I know I’m hip-hop, and that’s the only thing that matters.

[via HipHopDX]