NPR

Will.I.Am Is The Hit-Making Machine

When it comes to making hit records, few are as consistent as William James Adams Jr., or Will.I.Am. The producer and front man for the group Black Eyed Peas has written more than a dozen top 10 hits, and has been a part of seven Grammy Awards at only 35. Adams' formulas never seem to fail, and he's always been able to adapt to the times.

"Black Eyed Peas is a chameleon group," Adams tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "If I played you 'I Got a Feeling,' and then played you 'Pump It,' and then played you 'Let's Get It Started,' and then played you 'My Humps,' and then played you 'OMG' by Usher, you would never think it came from the same group."

The Black Eyed Peas were undoubtedly a different group when Adams founded the group more than a decade ago. The hip-hop act was written off by many industry insiders, but Adams always had a vision for mass appeal. That vision was realized with the addition of Fergie in 2002, who before the Black Eyed Peas, was a child actress and pop singer who suffered from drug addiction. The group's popularity has been rising ever since.

"First, she's a fan of music," Adams said. "She was like us, and it was a perfect match. She's also a chameleon."

Adams' method of writing music has also proved to be instrumental in his formula.

"I don't write it on paper," he says. "I record and write into the machine. I would mumble a cadence. I know if it feels good or not because I'm hearing it rather than writing it on a piece of paper."

In addition to founding and heading one of today's most successful pop groups, Adams will produce U2’s next album and continues to churn out hit records for some of the biggest names in music. But he has even higher aspirations.

"Everything's changed [and still is changing]," Adams says. "These new groups [of code writers] bring tens of millions of people together everyday, so when I see Twitter and Facebook, I see The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Ten years from now, I could be [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Cole Porter knew how to write a hit song. He wrote dozens, like "Night and Day."

(Soundbite of song, "Night and Day")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Night and day, you are the one.

RAZ: And Johnny Mercer had the gift, too. He could write a hit song - and he did also, dozens of them, like "Moon River."

(Soundbite of song, "Moon River")

Ms. AUDREY HEPBURN (Actress): (Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile...

RAZ: Well, today, it could be argued that Will.I.Am, the founder of the mega-group Black Eyed Peas, is the biggest hit maker in the world.

(Soundbite of song from CD, "The Beginning")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Someday, one day. Someday, one day...

RAZ: Will.I.Am's written more than a dozen top 10 singles for his group and others. This is a new song off the Black Eyed Peas' new record. It's called "The Beginning." And what Will.I.Am does is to think hard, really hard, about how to make a song a hit. And here's how he makes it happen.

WILL.I.AM (Musician, Songwriter): Peaking the music is, you know, the season right now, where you take like (singing) this is thriller-ler-ler-ler-ler - and you just loop the ler. Everybody knows "Thriller," right? Then you can rock the pits. So it's like, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. But yesterday's D.J. was like, this is thriller (makes noise). That's what a record player did back in the '80s, manipulating back and forth - scratching, right? Nowadays, I could go, this is thriller-ler-ler-ler-la-la-ler-ler. I could make new music with music, right?

So I was trying to think of a new one I could do, you know? So I was like, ooh, let me flip time of my life.

(Soundbite of song, "The Time (Dirty Bit) )

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) I had the time of my life and I never felt this way before, and I swear this is true, and I owe it all to you. Oh, I had the time of my life, and I never felt this way before...

WILL.I.AM: So I flipped it. And, you know, I peaked it on the you, you, you, you...

(Soundbite of song, "The Time (Dirty Bit) )

WILL.I.AM: The crowd went nuts. But they went nuts to the dirty bit part, the beat.

(Soundbite of song, "The Time (Dirty Bit) )

WILL.I.AM: So it's like the conflict of, like, something you were familiar with that was coupled with the antithesis of what the initial was all about.

RAZ: Will.I.Am, you have been part of seven Grammys; you've written more than a dozen top 10 hits. What do you think about when you put pen to paper? I mean, how do you - what do you do when you sit down to write music?

WILL.I.AM: Well, first, I don't write it on paper. I get my little mic. That's why I said - right when I came in the studio, I was like, hey, what kind of mic -this is the kind of mic I use in the studio. And I record, I write into the machine.

And if it sounds right - say, for example, you were like, hey, let's write a song right now. I'd be like, OK. You're probably going to get your pen and paper out - and I'll get my mic out and my computer out. And then I would mumble occasions like - say, for example, the song is called "How We Gonna Do This."

(Singing) How we gonna do this, how we gonna make it happen, how's it gonna -no. How we gonna do this, how we gonna make it happen, how we gonna keep the party people clapping, how we gonna make it, how we gonna demonstrate it. OK. How we gonna do this. How we gonna make it happen. How we gonna get the party people clapping. How we gonna make it. How we gonna demonstrate it. Why won't we gonna go ahead and go rotate it. No, no. I don't like that part. Let's hear it back.

Now, I hear it back, and I know if it feels good or not because I'm hearing it rather than writing it on a piece of paper.

(Soundbite of song, "Whenever")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Love through the trace past the sky, beyond the northern lights. You're the same, my delight, reflecting in your eyes.

RAZ: Will, you put this band together more than a decade ago and, you know, you were written off at first. I mean, there was this kind of hodgepodge of seemingly random people. And then you added Fergie - who was a child actress; she went through drug addiction. No one really had heard her at the time, but you recognized something in her that others didn't see at the time. What was it? How did you know?

WILL.I.AM: First, she's a fan of music, right. And she's transparent, meaning that the love of music comes first rather than like, this concept of diva and celebrity. She was one of us. She liked going out; she liked, you know, going to clubs not just to party but just to see what was happening in the club. And it was like, a perfect match.

RAZ: And she has an amazing voice.

WILL.I.AM: Yeah. She's a switchblade.

(Soundbite of song, "Whenever")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) You and me we collide, ignite the starry fire. And you woke me up, and you wait for it, whenever, whatever. And you...

WILL.I.AM: She's a chameleon. Like, here's a task - guys, this is what we want to have to do right now. We're going to tour with Metallica. Transform, right? Now we're going to do - we're doing a song with Tribe Called Quest. Transform. So Black Eyed Peas are chameleon. It's a chameleon group. If I played you "I Got a Feeling"...

(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Feeling")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) I got a feeling...

WILL.I.AM: ...and then played you "Pump It"...

(Soundbite of song, "Pump It")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Pump it...

WILL.I.AM: ...and then played you "Let's Get It Started"...

(Soundbite of song, "Let's Get It Started")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Let's get it started...

WILL.I.AM: ...and then played you "My Humps"...

(Soundbite of song, "My Humps")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) My hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump...

WILL.I.AM: And then played you, you know, "Oh My Gosh" that I wrote for Usher...

RAZ: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "OMG")

USHER: (Singing) Say oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh...

WILL.I.AM: ...you wouldn't think that it all came from the same band.

RAZ: The same band, no.

(Soundbite of song, "OMG")

USHER: (Singing) Oh my gosh. You make me wanna say, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh...

RAZ: My guest is the singer, actor, rapper, producer, entrepreneur - what am I forgetting, Will? What else are you?

WILL.I.AM: A fan - I'm a fan of music, first.

RAZ: His name is Will.I.Am, of course. He's the man in front and behind the mega-group Black Eyed Peas.

Did you always have ambitions to become as big as you guys became? I mean, did you know? Did you think that this is going to happen?

WILL.I.AM: Yeah, there's a lyric on our second single, off of our first record. It goes: I like the way the rhythm make me jump and move, it got the feeling that makes me wanna do my do. Got me feeling joy, gray sky blue, people break their neck from the demonstration, we're about mass appeal, no segregation, got black to Asian and Caucasian.

It was all about that. From the beginning, we wanted to do that. Another lyric off of the same record: Yo, my man, I got a plan to do it all, I got a plan that none of y'all ever thought about 'cause underground people don't be thinking, I'm going kinda leno(ph) like Lincoln.

(Soundbite of song, "A8")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) How can you make moves when you're always strapped under, I plan to read the scriptures, tell you more about the thunder. I wonder what really makes the world go round...

WILL.I.AM: And we were always about that. Being intercontinental, international...

RAZ: Multiracial, multi...

WILL.I.AM: Multiracial, multi-demographic - we were always about that.

(Soundbite of song, "A8")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) So what's the definition of a true MC, someone who rocks while I put my soul at ease. Lyrics with entertaining capabilities, now that's the realest, see all around 360 degrees. Baby, do what you want. Baby, do what you want. Na, na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na, na, na.

RAZ: Will.I.Am, you're about to produce U2's next album. You've created this incredibly, amazingly successful band, you've got Grammys and number ones and acting credits. You were in "Wolverine" and "Madagascar 2." And where do you go from here? I mean, you're just 35 years old, right?

WILL.I.AM: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Where do you see yourself in 10 years or 20 years from now?

WILL.I.AM: That's a good question, because someone hit the reset button. What I mean by that is, everything has changed. For example, media, traditional print -it's changed. Ain't going to be here five years from now. Television, it's changing. Won't be the same five years from now. Everything's changing, and I see that.

RAZ: Do you think you're going to be a performer? Do you think you're going to be making music and performing music?

WILL.I.AM: I'm going to be performing music 'cause I love music. I'm going to be making music because I'm addicted to making music. But I'm also going to be, you know - I love animation. I want to assemble a group of animators. I want to assemble a group of code writers. I want people to write code. I want to think of concepts, and write applications and programs based on my concepts. But to do that, you need code writers.

So I remember a long time ago, when I started the Black Eyed Peas, I was like, dude, we need to get a band. Yo, we need to find a drummer. You know, we need to find a guitarist, too. Got to get a bass player. Yeah, we need to get a guy who could write chords so we could write songs. The reason why we did that is because we wanted people to come see us and hear our music, bringing people together, right? Today's groups are code writers, but they don't just bring 20,000 people at Staples Center or, you know, Madison Square Garden. These new groups of four cats coming together, writing code, bring tens - and millions of people together every day - using the platform, not listening to it. And on the platform that they built, you listen to music. You listen to perspective and see opinions. It's a different group.

So when I see like, Twitter or Facebook, I see the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. It's the new groups. So 10 years from now, I could be Mr. Zuckerberg. I could be that dude, right? Some little kid that's 15 years old could be that dude 10 years from now, but the next version of it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Coming")

WILL.I.AM: Right? Because someone hit the reset button.

(Soundbite of song, "The Coming")

BLACK EYED PEAS): (Singing) Here I come, come, come, come. Here I come, come, come, come. Come, come, come, come...

RAZ: That's Will.I.Am. He's the front man for the mega-group Black Eyed Peas. The band's new record is called "The Beginning."

Will.I.Am, thank you so much.

WILL.I.AM: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song, "The Coming")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) I got these haters on my back, these haters on my back. Gotta get these mother(deleted) haters off my back. I know why they hating 'cause I'm sitting on stacks. Now I'm steady chilling and I'm spending all that. I'm a big beat pumper, they rocking my...

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We say goodbye today to our intern, Will O'Connor. Will, we'll miss you here. And folks, remember that name. This kid's going places.

As always, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Go to npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great Saturday night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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