Teams of music managers, art designers, assistants, photographers, product developers and virtual reality programmers intersect, obliging in swift business chat as they scurry through the all-white dining room area of will.i.am‘s Los Angeles headquarters — aptly dubbed “The Future” — which houses his many business ventures ranging from music to fashion to videography and, now, augmented and virtual reality.
With high-tech sliding entrance doors, interstellar-inspired furniture, a hallway lined with promo shots for his i.am+ BUTTONS headphones brand sported by supermodels Naomi Campbell, Shaun Ross and Kendall Jenner (an investor), and even restroom toilets that automatically lift and warm the seat, the entrepreneur’s operation is a Black Mirror-meets-Ender’s Game mothership masked by a brick exterior nestled on an obscure mid-city side street.
Will’s global multi-purpose mammoth, i.am+, now adds artificial intelligence to the music mogul’s résumé as well. “That’s a dream that I saw, and it’s real,” Will said.
This creative nucleus is now central command for Black Eyed Peas‘ latest partnership with comic book giant Marvel for their socially conscious graphic novel Masters of the Sun: The Zombie Chronicles, which follows a hip-hop group from East L.A. who must battle an ancient, alien god capable of turning street criminals into zombies. “It starts in South Bronx, where hip-hop was started, and then comes to L.A.,” they teased.
In between a photo shoot and an onslaught of meetings, will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap invited Billboard exclusively into their artistic psyche just hours before debuting the augmented reality app for the comic (whose first paper issue was released in July 2017) at the grand opening of INTO ACTION, a nine-day visual arts festival targeted at social justice and community activism.
“I was like, ‘Marvel ain’t gonna put out our graphic novel, dude,'” Will recalled of when Taboo initially approached him with the idea. “When’s the last time Marvel put out anybody’s graphic novel? I mean, they own all the superheroes. [Taboo] tells me, ‘Well, I just beat cancer. Anything is possible.'”
It’s been three years since the emcee of Mexican and Shoshone Indian descent beat Stage 2 testicular cancer, a public journey he says “grounded me” after a decade as part of one of the world’s best-selling groups of all time. “Shit happens. Reality happens. But it’s when you’re faced with adversity, how do you come out of it? How do you take that experience and apply it in a very positive and optimistic way?”
It’s that persistent mentality that indirectly led the Peas to their latest endeavor.
After attending San Diego Comic-Con — the mecca for comic book aficionados — for the past eight years as “just a person who loves the culture and appreciates all the cosplayers,” the 42-year-old nurtured what would evolve into an invaluable relationship with Marvel Entertainment’s executive director of development Daniel Fink. With the prototype for their comic collectible near completion, the group had a product to pitch and lined up a meeting with Fink. Making certain “no” wasn’t a fathomable response, their strategy wasn’t too far off from that of their commercial Grammy-winning success: passion and over-preparation.
“We took the meeting, and [Daniel] said it was ‘beautiful,’ and I said, ‘We need to put it on Bible paper,'” will laughed. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do a graphic novel, it can’t be one of those flimsy ones.’ If you go to these Japanese collectible stores with novels and trinkets, then our stuff has to hold its own in that space. … The edges have to look like my grandma’s bible!”
He continued, “And I was like, ‘But wait, look at this [augmented reality].’ They asked, ‘Who did that?’ I said, ‘We did that.’ They said, ‘You didn’t stop at the graphic novel?’ ‘No, no, no. This graphic novel comes to life with AR.’ At the time, every page wasn’t scored and all the dialogue wasn’t on there, but we gave them the gist of what was going to happen. Then I said, ‘Wait, check out the [virtual reality].’ ‘You got the VR too?’ I was like, ‘Do we?! We thought of everything!'”
Fink was then prompted to call his boss, who again asked a similar line of questioning. “He asked us, ‘Who did you hire?’ I said, ‘Our own team,'” will recalled. “We are AR. We are VR. We wrote it. We paid for it. When it comes to this project, it’s all us. That’s the part that’s super proud — it looks amazing and the story is super awesome. I said, ‘Damn. This motherf—er Taboo was for real.'”
With the stamp of approval to move forward, and certainly a bigger budget, the Peas tapped an all-star roster of acting talent, including Common, KRS-One, Jaime Foxx, Michael Rapaport, Jason Isaacs, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Rosario Dawson and Rakim, among others. Of Rakim, will shouted, “He’s our damn superhero!”
The cherry on top of this fantasy sundae? Hans Zimmer joined to score the bold project. “Get the f— out of here!” shouted a typically giddy Will. “That’s Black Eyed Peas! We went from Black Eyed Peas to Black IP… because we own the IP.”
Apl, who suffers from an eye condition called nystagmus, making him legally blind, chimed in, “Growing up for me in the Philippines was hard to read comic books because I’m blind. Now with the AR app, you point the phone at the book, and it reads to you, so all the kids with disabilities can enjoy the book too. … The ‘A’ in ‘AR’ means ‘accessibility.'”
Facebook-backed virtual reality developer and manufacturer Oculus said this is the first time that someone has thought out the best way to have music and storytelling in VR, according to will. “Up until now, the musician’s contribution to VR has been putting a camera there and they’re just rapping or performing in front of it,” he said. “That’s some bullshit. We created a real world! Somebody has to be a little courageous and do something different. Not just do it differently, but to contribute and show the path to all the other creatives out there.”
Always on the precipice of the next big thing in music and technology, Black Eyed Peas, with their two decades of hitmaking, are most inspired musically by what’s going on around them. Delving back into heavy topics like racism, police brutality, systemic oppression, minority incarceration statistics and black-on-black crime on their new single “Street Livin'” — the first song to soundtrack issue one of the comic’s VR app — the diverse trio are seemingly returning to where they started back in 1998 but ditching the traditional music release schedule.
“We have the graphic novel in AR and VR, and every month we’re going to do songs,” will said. “From that perspective, what the f— is an album? We’re going to commit and do songs every month with videos. The body of work that we’ve done is so beyond an album.”
He continued, “It’s really 1918, bro. If it’s 1918, and we were entertainers, I would say, ‘Come see us perform at this theater.’ … That was entertainment in 1918. And then there’s this dude by the name of Charlie Chaplin that’s like, ‘Yo, bro, my homeboy just made a camera. I can make the pictures move. We’re going to do moving pictures.’ It’s 1918 right now, and that’s the same thing that’s happening with AR and VR in 2018. That’s why I’m proud of Masters of the Sun. We went there!”
Comparing the group’s career up to now, Taboo said, “It takes us back to Bridging the Gap… We were influenced by A Tribe Called Quest. Because we had that education from Tribe, we knew exactly the direction we wanted to go since we were kids. It’s refreshing to go back to that feeling like when we were teenagers.” He then linked artists like J. Cole and Bruno Mars to this ’90s-inspired reclamation, both of whom have brought the nostalgic essence into a new era.
“That’s scary though!” will said. “It’s scary, because, like, imagine you’re a bebop group and you were big in bebop. And then bebop came and went. Then you’re like, ‘Yo! We’re bringing bebop back!’ That’s some scary shit. You have to really commit.
“Streaming and playlists, that’s cool, but the redundancy is that everything is now the same. You’re making music for a playlist and there’s no variety anymore — everything is a different version of itself. If you truly want to get your creative nut off, VR/AR. Think about it: If you want to disrupt travel, Uber. Then somebody’s like, ‘I’m going to do my Uber; it’s called Lyft.’ If you wanted to do a streaming [service], Spotify. Then somebody creates their own Spotify: Apple Music. Tidal. But then, Pokemon! What’s the other Pokemon, bro? Pokemon made a lot of money, by the way. There is no other Pokemon. Masters of the Sun, watch and see what we do after the VR. We did the graphic novel, we did the AR, VR. Wait till you watch the book!”
In that moment, Will and Taboo shared a collective “Oh!” after apl shared: “With all this technology that we have with the book, I can’t wait to apply that to the stage. I’m saying too much right now. “
With an infectious smirk, the kind a mother gives as she asks “How’s dinner?” when she knows just how good it is, apl followed up, “Just the sound of this album — I’m not saying nothing negative, but someone has to balance it out. Everything sounds the same out there right now. Well, not the same, a lot of similar stuff.”
Will corroborated the former statement, “Nah, everything sounds the same, bro.”
Chuckling, apl obliged, “So it does sound the same! You know, it’s just refreshing. It’s exciting again. I’m like, ‘Yo, do I still got bars?’”
As artists with an ultra-amplified platform, Black Eyed Peas have famously woven together earthy-turned-astrological beats and sociopolitical dialogue that pushes the conversation on historically taboo (pun intended) subject matters. While they may have found themselves soaring off into outer space in the mid- to late 2000s — boom boom pow-ing their way into an uncharted pop-electronic sphere and crash-landing back down to earth for a Super Bowl halftime performance — gravity has always pulled them back to their roots.
“Black Eyed Peas started off in the trenches, as far as being poor, and music was our dream, recalled Will. “And then in our first video, ‘Fallin’ Up,’ we were pioneers. We were in black and white climbing up a mountain, right? And then we made it to the top. … In our careers, we actually did that. And then the last two records were like some space shit because what do you do when you hit the top? We’re going to outer space!
“Now, it’s like we left the planet, so let’s come back down to Earth. When we came back down to Earth, it was like, ‘Yo, bro! This shit is f—ing nuts down here. Let’s talk about this shit.’ And that’s ‘Street Livin’.’ We lived that life. We went from having nothing to getting something, and now we want to talk about everything.”
Echoing will’s point, apl noted, “It was kind of hard to make a party song, you know what I mean? We have those, but we made sure we have to touch on this subject because it’s what’s going on right now.”
“It’s just a reflection of where we’re at in this stage of our lives, in our career. We’re definitely making a difference in people’s lives, especially the youth, trying to effect change and bring forth optimism and hope,” Taboo added.
That difference has been demonstrated not only through the group’s conscious hip-hop, but by putting their means where their mouth is within their respective communities. The Peas have become synonymous with the music community’s philanthropic efforts, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the Houston floods, the 2004 tsunami where they performed a Malaysia concert for disaster relief, or the Ariana Grande-helmed benefit concert One Love Manchester. Will began in his neighborhood, East Los Angeles, starting with an after-school program that launched with 65 kids and has grown into 700. Meanwhile, apl invests his time in similar efforts in the Philippines, and Taboo brings resources to reservations in the Native American community.
“But there’s a tsunami every day in the ‘hood,” Will reacted. “There’s a shooting every day in the ‘hood. There’s f—ed-up shit every day in the ‘hood. We wanted to apply ourselves and be the solution because we have the means. And with that, it gives us the license to talk about those issues and not talk about them to profit from it. We’re talking about it because we’re being about it and doing the work.”
A moment of realization from their efforts came during that charity concert in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country. Will remembered, “We were singing ‘I Gotta Feeling,’ and [the crowd] was singing the part ‘fill up my cup, mazel tov, l’chaim.’ We’re singing ‘l’chaim’ and ‘mazel tov!’ F—ing amazing! And from a black, Indian and f—ing Filipino group! Oh shit, we did something, yo!”
Taboo laughed: “We broke the wall!”
In a society that often attempts to tread lightly around the capabilities of technology out of fear of the unknown, Black Eyed Peas are blasting full force ahead with their vision of an augmented world.
“As advanced as humanity is and as spiritual as we are, or religious as you are, or as technological as we are, what is a dream for? Why do we have dreams and what do they mean in the whole scheme of things?,” prompted will. “Do you have the power to shut them off? No. There are certain things we can’t answer, and that’s the reason why people are creative. There’s things that we want to answer and get out. And technology is just a tool to get these things out.
“After every tour, I always have this thought when we’re leaving the hotel and going to the airport — we land and we disperse and say ‘Peace, see you later.’ And I always think when are we going to do this again? And is the next one going to be bigger than this one? I always have that dream, bro.”