How the Black Eyed Pea started Beats and cashed-in on the Apple deal with his mentor
“So I was with will.i.am one day and he says, “You know the record business is all screwed up, we’re losing, Jimmy. Jimmy, hardware.'”
"So I said, 'Will, what are you talking about hardware?'”
“He says 'Hardware.'”
So I said ‘Will, you know why they call it hardware? It’s hard. That’s why they call it hardware ’”
“About a year later I was walking down the beach and I ran into Dr. Dre…”
-- Jimmy Iovine, in "The Tanning Effect: Steve Stoute Interviews Jay-Z, Pharell, & Lady Gaga"
First thing will.i.am says over the phone from London is to "Google Jimmy Iovine, the Tanning Effect, Steve Stoute and YouTube and go to about the 1:30 mark." Sure enough, there’s the Beats CEO, now an Apple exec, speaking with the branding expert and giving full credit to the Black Eyed Pea mastermind for sparking the idea that became Beats by Dre.
Unbeknownst to many, will.i.am (née William Adams) owns a founding stake in Beats Electronics. Though his exact share is not public information and he declines to disclose his take, he is guaranteed a big payday. Even if the musician, producer, futurist and deep thinker only had a 1% share ‑- a minimal estimate -- he'd be in for a $30 million dollar pay out, all for an idea that hit him while on tour with the Peas in Europe in 2004. There he saw fans holding up hardware (cameraphones), not lighters like they still did in the U.S.
Asked if the Apple deal will alter his life, will.i.am only says, “It’s going to change my foundation’s life in a major way,” referring to his i.am.angel Foundation, which helps underprivileged kids receive help with their high school studies and supplemental STEM (science, technology and mathematics) and tech-infused curriculums, which can lead to college scholarships. “I used to have 60 kids, now I have 300 kids and there’s a waiting list for people who want to join my program. I was going to raise money to pay for the 300 kids, now I can pay for them myself.”
Much of the pre- and post-Apple-Beats deal speculation focused on co-founders Iovine and Dre’s role in the new partnership. No one has asked will.I.am, the actual catalyst behind Beats brand, if he is going to work for Apple.
“No, my contract’s not like that,” he explains. “That’s why, at the same time, I was also a consultant at Intel and also working at a lot of companies. Before Alicia Keys was at BlackBerry, I was at Blackberry, when BlackBerry was BlackBerry. I used to work with Mike [Lazaridis] and Jim [Balsillie] at BlackBerry from around 2007-2009."
In addition to being a Beats co-founder, will.i.am says he consulted on “navigation and integration to further the product's cultural adaptation.” He recalls wearing his Beats prototypes before the products were even released, to a Larry King interview right after Super Tuesday. “Google Larry King, Maya Angalou and Obama in 2008” he says.
will.i.am sporting a prototype of the Beats by Dre headphones before they were on the market while on CNN with the late Maya Angelou.
He also mentions writing lyrics to “Boom Boom Pow” which reference “rocking them Beats” (not a reference to the blockrocking kind) and, perhaps most audacious, the BEP’s 2011 Super Bowl appearance. There, in the middle of the 50 yeard line in Arlington, TX, the Peas' stage formed a Beats logo with an arrow pointing to it just as Slash emerged from below to play Sweet Child O’ Mine’ with Fergie channeling her best Axl (video below).
"I think he's a creative genius," says Omar Johnson, Beats CMO. "He's been a great advocate for the brand and he's been a great advocate for the mission. I remember standing at the Super Bowl and turning my head and being like 'Holy shit!' Will will always surpise you."
will.i.am says the Super Bowl stunt was a "gift for Jimmy," whom he has called a father figure, mentor and teacher. Iovine has played an integral role in his life since 1997 when Warner, V2, Sony and Interscope were all in the hunt to sign the Black Eyed Peas. According to him there were offers of over a million dollars on the table while Iovine’s offer was only $450,000.
“Jimmy was like, 'Look, Will, this game has gotten out of control,” will.i.am says. “For a group like yours, $450,000 is sill a lot of money. You can go sign with Polly [the late Polly Anthony at Sony] for a million-plus, because I’m not going to give you that kind of money. It’s ridiculous. But I promise you, if you sign with me for $450,000, no matter how many records you sell, you can always make records with me until you guys get it right I promise you that.’"
The BEPs signed with Interscope, but not before Will explained to his band mates that they weren’t actually leaving money on the table. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a million, but they’re paying us with our money. They’re just paying us in advance of money that we’re gonna make already. If we believe in ourselves, we should go with Jimmy because we can record with him regardless of how many records we sell. So let’s go here.’ And Jimmy kept his promise.”
Iovine’s word over the years has come to mean everything to will.i.am, and then some. In fact, just after the Apple-Beats announcement, will.i.am reached out to his mentor, who referenced the deal.
“Check out this text [Jimmy] sent me. I said, 'Congratulations Jimmy, you took the seed of an idea of doing hardware and you planted it, you nurtured it, you watered it and every once in a while I’d come around to soil the ground. But you built an oak tree!’ And he said, ‘You know Will, this is just the beginning of what we are going to do. I feel good that I kept my promise to will.i.am that he could always record with me while I was at Interscope.’ And that shit made me cry. That shit made me cry like, yo, this guy told me the truth in 1997! Sign with me in 1997 and we can always make records.”
But with Iovine out at Interscope, one has to wonder if and how his promise can still be kept. When the question is posed to will.i.am, his answer seems almost prescient. “We have this thing called Beats Music, right? Like, a year ago, before it really launched, I was like ‘Jimmy, this is really nuts.’ And he’s like ‘Really, what’s crazy?’ And I was like, ‘No, I should be making music exclusively for Beats.’ But only on Beats, Spotify can’t spot it if it’s only on Beats Music. We need to do Black Eyed Peas albums only on Beats.”
Students from the i.am college Track program, part of will.i.am's i.am.angel Foundation, at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles/Boyle Heights neighborhood where will.i.am grew up with the The Duke and Duchess of York at an event in April.
While the prospect of exclusives on streaming services raises fascinating possibilities for the future of the music business and tech behemoths, will.i.am paints another interesting scenario. ‘Think if Apple didn’t buy Beats,” he says. “and Beats said to T-Mobile, ‘We’re just gonna take the music service and embed it into the headphone,’ that would be software and hardware. Imagine if Apple didn't buy Beats and then they combined it. Look at how powerful iTunes was when it launched. So Beats and Beats Music was an uh-oh to everyone and Apple saw it. Apple were the first uh-oh to everybody in consumer electronics in 2004."
By “uh-oh” will.i.am means disruption. It's a topic he is well-versed in and even spoke about most recently at the Milken Conference. If the musician-com-technology-and-culture strategist is anything, he is a man of big ideas. He peppers his speech with neologisms like “nexterday” (the future today); speaks knowledgeably about the history of General Electric creating the modern day music industry with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and Victrolas; and meets with venture capitalists and start-ups and paints an alluring future with a “smart house” that will know our every whim. “Tomorrow’s currency,” he says, “is going to be information and data – and it all depends on how we utilize it.”