Inside The Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Leap of Faith’ Second Act

Inside The Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Leap of Faith’ Second Act

The group has sold 12.4 million albums and garnered 2.5 billion streams and 48.8 million downloads in the United States, according to MRC Data. The Black Eyed Peas have earned six Grammy Awards out of 15 nominations, including wins for best pop vocal album in 2009 and consecutive wins for best rap performance by a duo or group for “Let’s Get It Started” in 2004 and “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” in 2005.

As a global act with multicultural roots, the Peas earned endorsement deals and tour support from brands such as Apple, Snickers and Pepsi; and in 2011, they played arguably the biggest stage in music when they headlined the Super Bowl halftime show — a milestone in a career that came to a surprising pause that July when the group announced a hiatus. “They were a real example of a global act,” says J Balvin. “It’s one thing to be big in the States, and we all dream about that, but globalization is something else. It’s when different cultures are translated into our world, and that’s what happened with the Black Eyed Peas.”

A decade later, after moving to Epic Records, the band resurfaced as a bilingual trio with 2020’s Translation, recorded in both English and Spanish and featuring collaborations with top Latin stars. The album earned 11 entries on Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart and four No. 1s: “Ritmo (Bad Boys for Life),” with Balvin; “Girl Like Me,” featuring Shakira; “Mamacita,” with Ozuna and J. Rey Soul (the Peas’ new female vocalist); and “Feel the Beat,” with Maluma. “Ritmo” also stayed at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs for 24 weeks. “They said, ‘Black Eyed Peas as a trio? I don’t think they’re going to have success.’ But we had to prove them wrong,” says will.i.am. “Everybody took a leap of faith.”

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify

Taboo, Apl.de.ap and will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas and J Balvin perform onstage during the 2020 Spotify Awards at the Auditorio Nacional on March 5, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico.

In June, the group played its first post-quarantine concert for 8,500 fans at FPL Solar Amphitheater in Miami, with upcoming shows in France and Sweden, as well as KXOL Los Angeles’ Latin music festival, Calibash, at the Staples Center in January 2022. The band is also working on a follow-up to Translation that will.i.am says will be “an extension, with similar templates, similar vibes, but heightened.”

As the Black Eyed Peas celebrate their 25th anniversary, the founding members spoke about their unique bond and bright second act.

In a way, the Black Eyed Peas began with Apl coming into Will’s home after arriving from the Philippines. It seems like such an unlikely friendship.

will.i.am: He’d be at my house all the time. It wasn’t weird to hang out with somebody who didn’t know any English. In my neighborhood, there were people that were from Tijuana and Chihuahua. A lot of my friends didn’t know English. But Apl, he was a different type of dude.

apl.de.ap: There was a lot of gang activity, but we were still able to walk around the neighborhood and be neutral. I came with these high-top Converse and polo shirts. I liked Michael Jackson, so I tried to make my hair look like Michael’s with a band. I was a mess.

A year after that, you started to make music together, inspired by A Tribe Called Quest and other jazz-rap fusion groups. Was the goal to have a crosscultural sound?

will.i.am: I always made music and rapped at people’s quinceañeras and birthday parties with DJ Gus and DJ Gil in our projects. When Apl came, we started going to these Filipino parties in Glendale because he was a dancer.

apl.de.ap: Dance was my first introduction to hip-hop. I saw break dancing in a Pepsi commercial and it blew my mind, so I started researching and practicing it. When I finally met Will, I showed him the “running man” and he said, “Yo, you should start rapping. If you can dance, you can rap.” I didn’t speak English, man. We would make beats on the tape deck and freestyle over the instrumentals. He said, “Just rhyme anything off the top of your head.” I only had one thing in my head — the ABCs in Tagalog [the national language of the Philippines] — and Will says, “You got it, man!”

How did the record deal with Ruthless Records and Eazy-E come together?

will.i.am: There was this club called Ballistics. It was like the Hollywood spot for all the teenage actors. Leonardo DiCaprio went there. So Apl and I decided to go to battle. We had a seven-piece crew that was pretty dope called Tribal Nation, and we used to run circles around all the different crews in Glendale. The first time we went we were in line for like an hour. We took the bus to Hollywood then walked to Ballistics on a freaking school night. What was my mom thinking? We’re 16, 17 years old. But that changed our lives.

Taboo, your role was more of as a hype man, right?

Taboo: I always looked at myself as the showman, trying to get the crowd involved. I learned that from pro wrestling and watching people like Hulk Hogan. I always knew what my energy was on the stage. I was going to transfer that energy even if I didn’t say one rap. As long as I controlled that part of the show, I was good with that. I looked at Will and Apl as my guides to be able to find myself as an entertainer, as an MC, as an entrepreneur.

How did your early gigs in Los Angeles kick-start your career?

apl.de.ap: We would shop our demos to different record companies. We were from L.A. but we didn’t do gangsta music. So, we had to prove ourselves playing live.

Taboo: We built a fan base performing. That’s how we got college students who were working at the labels to come check us out.

When you finally signed with Ruthless, you were getting pressure to do alternative careers as well. How did you stay determined?

will.i.am: We had a Ruthless Records artist showcase at the Mayan the summer of 1993, and [apl.de.ap’s adoptive father] Mr. Hudgens came. Afterward, he sat us down and said, “I’ve seen your show, and I think you need to go to college. William, I brought Allan to this country to take care of his family and go to college. Allan is your responsibility now.” Ap would cry himself to sleep when he was 15. He was real homesick. I always said, “We’ll get back to your country. We’ll figure it out.”

You were looking for a bigger label deal when you got to play your music for Jon Platt, who was then at EMI, correct?

will.i.am: He said something that changed my life. He said, “You guys obviously can rap. But these songs just aren’t tangible.” I’m like, all right, whatever tangible means. I was like, “Yo, what does he mean by that?” So I went home, got the dictionary and thought, “This guy wants hooks.” That meeting changed my whole writing process. My response was to write the catchiest choruses ever. Fast forward 25 years and check out this text from Big Jon from May 2021: “I’m in the studio with Wisin. He played one of the songs you worked on together. That s–t’s tangible.”

At the time, though, that must have hurt.

will.i.am: It’s deflating to go in there thinking that you’re going to have your life changed and then you get a reality check. But you put your ego in check and then you’re like, “All right, well, how do I learn from this?”

And that led you to sign with Interscope?

will.i.am: There was a bidding war for us. We had no hits, but we had L.A. buzz. By then, all the college kids knew us. Sony offered us $1 million but we signed to Interscope for $400,000. Jimmy Iovine said no matter how many records we sell, we could always make records there.

Iovine left the label in 2014, and five years later you were dropped. Was that disheartening?

will.i.am: It really hurt, because we could have worked something out. Now we’re at Sony, and Jimmy helped us negotiate that deal. He said, “It’d be great if I helped you sign to the label that you should have signed with in the first place. And it would be great if you accept the same amount of money they wanted to give you in 1997.” In 1997, they offered us a million dollars, which is not the same as a million dollars today. Jimmy said, “Do you need the money? Or do you want a better back end? Negotiate the best back end you can.”

You had always incorporated guest female vocalists, from Macy Gray and Kim Hill to Debbi Nova. But how did Fergie come into the picture?

will.i.am: We like writing songs where it’s guy-girl. The record was done in 2002. I was working on Fergie’s demo project, and she was only on one song on Elephunk, and that was “Shut Up.” I had asked Jimmy if we could change our A&R and work with Ron Fair, but his assistant didn’t like any of the songs. We went to Record Plant studio and Pharrell [Williams] was there, so I played him “Let’s Get It Started” and “Hey Mama.” And then Jimmy Iovine walks in like, “Whoa, these songs are great, but go look at the magazine rack down on Vine and Hollywood and tell me what you see.” There’s all these girls on the covers. And he says, “Exactly. Now why don’t you put Stacy [Ferguson, aka Fergie] in your group?” It was a long conversation. What are the fans going to think? She’s not really part of the cloth.

But you had already worked with Justin Timberlake on “Where Is the Love?,” which also ran counter to the culture.

will.i.am: Yes. We were already breaking the rules. Fergie sounded great on “Shut Up,” so we said, “Let’s see how she sounds on ‘Let’s Get It Started.’ ” Where were we going to put her? I didn’t know. The song was finished. What if we put her just at the beginning — the a cappella line of “let’s get started in here.” Then we added a part to “Hey Mama.” So candles and embellishing was how we finished Elephunk. With Monkey Business, Fergie was working with us from the beginning. That was the only record I could say we worked from the beginning to the end with no time constraints. That record is a quartet. Then we blow up and management comes to f–k things up. Now we only have Fergie for a little bit.

What do you mean?

will.i.am: The idea of divide and conquer comes into play. It was the same tactic that broke up The Fugees, and we had the same management as them back then. We were doing 400 shows a year over 300 days, working with 65 days off from 2003 to 2004. So we took 2008 off and campaigned for [President Barack] Obama. Then we did EDM collaborations with all these DJs. And, then, we only had Fergie for 100 days, including touring and recording, so what do we do? She just wanted to not get burned out, so we had to be smart about maximizing our time recording. Everything she did was treated as samples and chops. We invested a lot of money on the tour so we could cash in on the next one, but it never happened because Fergie stopped after the Super Bowl.

What is your relationship to Fergie now?

will.i.am: She’s part of the family. Playing the Super Bowl was a big milestone because at the time that event didn’t program contemporary artists after the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. It was between Black Eyed Peas and Bon Jovi, so I flew out to New Jersey with my DJ equipment for the pitch, and told them the Black Eyed Peas have always been safe. We take pride in bringing families to our show. And I did a little DJ set for them.

That gig must have been a real pinnacle.

Taboo: The show itself was electric. The stadium was so new and we were coming down from the scoreboard, skinning wires. That was the first time coming down from 200 feet for a show. I was scared.

will.i.am: And my uncle played football for the [Atlanta] Falcons. He always wanted to go to the Super Bowl. Going to the Super Bowl with my uncle watching was a big deal for a football family.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Fergie, apl.de.ap, will.i.am and Taboo of The Black Eyed Peas perform during the Bridgestone Super Bowl XLV Halftime Show at Dallas Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.

What was your goal with your latest album, Translation?

apl.de.ap: The way we approached Translation was with a DJ mentality. You could just play the whole album and let it roll for a party. Every song is bam, bam, bam.

Taboo: It forced us to go back into loving the hunger of the hunt. Going to the Billboard Latin Awards in Las Vegas and meeting Balvin on the red carpet, we were hunting.

will.i.am: And Shakira will always be my darling of “no good ideas ever get old,” because that song was from 2008. Translation did beyond what we thought was possible. Very rarely do people in their 40s get played on top 40 radio. And very rarely does Spanish music get played on top 40. We got four No. 1s in France! They don’t play Spanish in France. What we were able to do as a trio when everyone doubted us is amazing.

Will the new album be Latin-inspired as well?

will.i.am: We learned a lot from Translation — it was too Latin for the gringos and not Latin enough for Latin people. This will have a little less Latin, but hopefully a song we’ve done with Wisin makes it. We’re also working with Anuel, Lele Pons and Saweetie. It’s “11 seconds proof,” meaning the choruses are 11 seconds. It’s the reverse of sampling, where usually a sample is three seconds long and you loop it. Here, every 11 seconds needs to be interesting. We string them together and make a f–king awesome sequence of stuff that I think is 11 seconds proof. We like to make music to fast forward five years. Is that s–t still dope? Would you still play it right now, five years later? Hell, yes.

What has been the biggest lesson from your 25 years in the music business?

will.i.am: That it’s OK to forget about your successes if you want to have success again. You need to f–king be humble, forget the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the World Cup. Be a student and learn. That’s what we did. And I was afraid. We put out The E.N.D. in 2009 and we didn’t think it was going to be that big and it just went everywhere. We played three stadiums in France back-to-back with 80,000 people each night. Then we did The Beginning in 2010, and it stopped. We didn’t want to stop.

Members of the Black Eyed Peas have carved out niches in business and philanthropy during their downtime from touring and recording together. What each artist has been up to outside the group.

Apl was born clinically blind but received early treatment for his eyes in the United States from the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. The experience led him to found the Apl.de.ap Foundation, which supports Filipino youth by partnering with organizations that focus on computer technology, the arts and eye care. As a coach on The Voice Philippines, he has mentored new artists — the group’s latest member and female vocalist, J. Rey Soul, competed on Apl’s Voice Philippines team in 2013 during the series’ first season.

After battling stage two testicular cancer, Taboo has become an advocate for better health care, particularly in Indigenous communities. His 2016 single, “The Fight,” was made in partnership with the American Cancer Society, for which Taboo is a global ambassador. His autobiography, Fallin’ Up, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2011, and his solo music has appeared in films including Legally Blonde and Coach Carter. In 2020, he worked with Marvel to develop a new volume of the comic Werewolf by Night, which he co-wrote alongside Benjamin Jackendoff.

As a superproducer, will.i.am has racked up credits with Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, among others, earning him seven Grammy Awards, an Emmy and a CLIO Award. He has also served as a judge on The Voice UK and The Voice Australia. In 2012, he launched an artificial intelligence-focused tech startup, I.am+, based in West Hollywood that helps companies develop human-like customer service experiences. His i.am Angel Foundation, launched in 2009, is devoted to providing scholarships, preparation and opportunities in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) to kids in Los Angeles and earned him the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Crystal Award for leadership in creating education opportunities for the underserved.

The Black Eyed Peas have placed seven albums on the Billboard 200, including one No. 1 and three top 10s.

Behind the Front (1998)The group’s debut album is a fusion of samples and live instrumentation that peaked at No. 129 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the Heatseekers Albums charts and includes the singles “Fallin’ Up,” “Joints & Jam” and “Karma,” which featured a sample of Blondie’s “One Way or Another.”

Bridging the Gap (2000)The group’s reggae- and drum’n’bass-laden sophomore set peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard 200 and included collaborations with DJ Premier (“BEP Empire”) and Esthero (“Weekends”).

Elephunk (2003)The Peas’ breakout album reached No. 14 on the Billboard 200 in June 2004 and included the pop smash “Where Is the Love?” with Justin Timberlake. The album marked Fergie’s debut as a lead female vocalist and was the first to feature four members on the cover.

Monkey Business (2005)The follow-up to Elephunk solidified the Peas as one of the top pop groups in the world and reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of the hits “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” and “My Humps,” which both hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The E.N.D. (2009)The most successful BEP album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and yielded three Hot 100 chart-toppers. “Boom Boom Pow” ruled for 12 straight weeks only to be replaced by “I Gotta Feeling” for 14. The one-two punch kept the group at the top of the chart for a record 26 consecutive weeks.

The Beginning (2010)The quick follow-up to The E.N.D. peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and featured two Hot 100 top 10s: “The Time (Dirty Bit)” and “Just Can’t Get Enough.” The album also marked the band’s last collaboration with Fergie.

Translation (2020)The bilingual set peaked at No. 52 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 3 on the Top Latin Albums chart, producing two No. 1s on Hot Latin Songs: “Ritmo (Bad Boys for Life),” with J Balvin and “Mamacita” with Ozuna and J. Rey Soul.

This story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.