By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006
This is the house that Will built? The creative command post for "Will.I.Am" Adams, catalyst behind the massively popular if polarizing pop-rap outfit the Black Eyed Peas? The hit factory that's become one of the hottest properties in popular music?
The dilapidated brown building sits on a grungy corner in Los Feliz, wedged between the Los Angeles River and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, a few car lengths east of the interstate. It's a drab, two-story stucco structure that looks as though its tenants ought to include a bail bondsman, a disbarred attorney and a private investigator. There is no signage -- and there are no signs of pop celebrity, either.
Maybe you wrote down the wrong address.
So you call Adams's assistant.
She pops out of one of the doors and waves.
This is the house that Will built -- the place where that obnoxious Black Eyed Peas hit "My Humps" was recorded, in the second-floor studio known, curiously, as "the Stewchia." It's also where the Peas' wardrobe is stored, in what must look like a Goodwill donation center, given the group's off-center thrift-store style. Adams's nascent I.Am Clothing company is headquartered here, too, as are the art department for his Will.I.Am Music Group label and his collection of vintage keyboards.
But the rapper-producer-songwriter-remixer-arranger-keyboardist- drummer-dancer-clothing designer-label executive-product pitchman himself is nowhere to be found: Adams is running behind, a long night of parties having wreaked havoc on his afternoon docket.
"He's on his way," his assistant says, unconvincingly, as she ushers you in.
Apparently, the building's exterior is skeezy and unremarkable by design, so as to avoid advertising the building's As-Seen-on-MTV occupants. Inside, it's all state-of-the-art recording equipment, platinum certification plaques, freshly painted walls and stylish Asian design accents, including a cushioned wood chair with a $980 price tag still attached.
There's something sort of metaphorical about the building -- as in, try not to judge based on initial negative impressions.
The Black Eyed Peas, who perform tonight at Merriweather Post Pavilion, were slagged and written off by suspicious hip-hop fans on the basis of their foray into the land of crossover commercial success and commercial sponsorship. "Saturday Night Live" mocked them for their commercial ubiquity, and All Music Guide referred to their 2005 album, "Monkey Business," as a "deflated sellout."
Suddenly, though, at 31, Adams is being recognized as one of the more potent creative forces in the industry. His swelling résumé includes collaborations with Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake, the Pussycat Dolls and Sergio Mendes. As the Peas continue to move units -- the group's latest big hit is the Dick Dale-sampling "Pump It" -- major hip-hop stars are lining up for Adams's production and remix services, including Sean "Diddy" Combs, Nas, Too Short and Snoop Dogg. New York rapper Busta Rhymes, whose profanely titled new single was produced by Adams, calls him "a genius" and one of the greatest hit-makers of "our time and our generation."
Even Elliott Wilson, editor-in-chief of the rap journal XXL, is becoming a believer. "I've always been adamant about my hate for the Black Eyed Peas," he says, "but I like Will.I.Am. He's a really talented musician and a real student of hip-hop. I think he's going to be taken as a real credible force. You need to lump him in with the Pharrells and Kanyes -- the smart nerds of hip-hop who are really pushing the envelope."
When Adams finally surfaces at his studio, nearly an hour late, he looks as though he'd like nothing more than to push a pillow.
Slumping into a chair, his eyes drooping, he can't seem to stop yawning. (Then again, it is the day after the Grammys, where the Peas won an award for the single "Don't Phunk With My Heart.")
"Sorry," he says, his voice reedy and raspy. "I was at Prince's house all night -- until, like, 8. We were talking about life. He's deep."
But he's quickly awakened by his buzzing BlackBerry. His eyes pop open as he stares at an incoming e-mail message.
"WOW!" he shrieks. "Mick Jagger!"
"Yes! I swear!"
Adams proffers the screen, and sure enough, there's a congratulatory note from Jagger.
"Dang," Adams says, "how crazy is that? I'm getting e-mails from Mick Jagger? Like: Yeah, right . Whatever dude. It doesn't seem real. I tell my mom about stuff like this, and she's like, really ?"
Adams grew up in the projects, in an East L.A. neighborhood dominated by Mexican Americans and immigrants. He was raised by his schoolteacher mother, Debra Cain, who had her hands full. "I have an older brother, a younger sister, a little brother," he says. "Plus, my mom adopted two girls, and she now has custody of two more boys. She did it all by herself. No husband, no dude, no nothing. She's super-mama, dude."
Enrolled in a magnet program, Adams was bused to schools in affluent neighborhoods, including Brentwood Heights and Pacific Palisades. "It was dope," he says. "I went to school with [the actress] Amy Smart, and the daughter of Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind and Fire. It was a great opportunity for kids in the projects to get a better education. Definitely a blessing."
In high school, he joined a break-dancing crew, which also included a Filipino American b-boy by the name of Allen Pineda. Adams and Pineda teamed up to form a rap group called Atban Klan and wound up landing a contract in the early 1990s with Ruthless Records, the label owned by gangsta-rap pioneer Eazy-E. Adams did some ghostwriting for Eazy-E, and Atban Klan recorded its own album; but the LP was shelved, never to be released, and the duo was dropped from the Ruthless roster.
Undeterred, Adams and Pineda joined forces with another break dancer, Jamie Gomez, and adopted the Black Eyed Peas name, with Pineda using the nom de rap Apl.De.Ap" and Gomez calling himself Taboo. A multiracial group specializing in funky, positive-vibes rap with a social conscience, the trio found success on the underground Southern California rap circuit, which led to a deal with Interscope Records.
Despite critical acclaim, the Peas' first two albums, 1998's "Behind the Front" and 2000's "Bridging the Gap," didn't resonate with consumers in the gangsta-obsessed U.S. marketplace -- even if fans overseas were responding. The group considered disbanding.
"They were languishing," says Ron Fair, the president of A&M Records, for whom the Peas now record.
Enter Stacy Ferguson -- and controversy.
The fair-skinned pop vocalist known as Fergie added an alluring new dimension to the group, which, with the release of 2003's "Elephunk," suddenly found itself selling millions of records stateside on the strength of the hits "Where Is the Love?" and the Grammy-winning "Let's Get It Started." The Peas also landed multiple sponsorship deals (the first iPod commercial, a Best Buy promotion, the campaign for the NBA finals). Embraced by mainstream and corporate America, the group incurred the wrath of the hip-hop community.
"The Black Eyed Peas became divisive because they were accepted by the establishment," says Erik Parker, music editor at Vibe magazine. "A lot of hip-hop fans resented them for being the token hip-hop group that was representing hip-hop culture to the mainstream. It wasn't their fault; they're just an accessible, easy-going group that started making really good pop music and was celebrated by everybody after they added Fergie. But there was a lot of resentment and hate."
It continued with last year's release of "Monkey Business," which produced a top-selling download in the much-derided single "My Humps" ("a sex trifle some consider the worst record of all-time," Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice). Because nothing says ANSWER THE PHONE! quite like the sound of Fergie chirping, "You love my lady lumps/My hump, my hump, my hump," the song also became the first cellphone ring tone to surpass the 2 million sales mark.
Nothing wrong with any of that, says Dion Summers, senior director of urban programming for XM Satellite Radio. "Inasmuch as hip-hop is about keeping it real, it's also about reaching an audience," he says. "Will has kind of taken the mystique out of hip-hop."
Translation: Pop go the rappers!
Musicians generally hate to be classified and categorized, but it's especially true in rap, where "pop" is a pejorative. (Never mind that hip-hop has become one of the most dominant forces in popular music.)
Accordingly, Adams turns defensive when the subject of his critics comes up.
"I'm gonna start hating on the haters," he says. "Them [expletives] is fickle. But you just don't spend any time worrying about it."
At least they're paying attention, he says.
"When people ain't sayin' nothing, you ain't doin' nothing. It was like we'd been making food for chefs with our first two records, dude. The last two, we were still making food for chefs -- but it just so happened that other people ate it, too, and liked it. And the chefs were like: 'Man, you sold out! You put extra spice in it! You didn't used to use sugar.'
"But really, it was sugar cane. It tasted a little sweet. Okay, that's all right. So I put pineapple on the pizza, homey. You just wanted cheese, 'cuz that's what you're used to. But it's good, right? People like that pineapple. It's still pizza. But people were flipping out, like I committed a [expletive] crime."
"People hate on the Black Eyed Peas for making dance-pop music," says R&B singer John Legend, whose superlative ballad "Ordinary People" Adams co-authored. "I understand why they feel that way. But the group wasn't selling any records and they were on the verge of breaking up. Now they're really successful, and I'm really happy for them -- but especially for Will. He's one of the most talented people I know in music. Period. He's a great person to create with. And I think he's underrated."
Not in Peter Baron's world, he isn't.
The vice president of label relations for MTV and MTV2 is effusive about Adams, whose current, beyond-the-Peas MTV hits include the Pussycat Dolls' "Beep," which was produced and co-written by Adams.
"Will is one of our favorite artists at MTV," Baron says. "His videos always work for us. He really speaks to our entire audience. I don't think he casts any negatives. He's likable, good-looking, stylish; he's popular with 14-year-old girls and 40-year-old housewives, which is a rarity. He's got that broad likability that you don't find too often in artists on the hip-hop side.
"Everything he's involved in seems to work. I just don't know how he budgets his time to get everything done; the demands on him have to be outrageous. But he delivers every time. I don't know of anybody else does what he does, with that quality and creativity, working with the range and caliber and number of artists he works with. I don't know if you can compare him to anybody in the current day."
Fair, the A&M president, has a thought, though it's not exactly a contemporary data point -- and it's somewhat outrageous, to boot.
"When you talk about Will, you're going to put him in the same breath as Quincy Jones some day," Fair says.
But wait, there's more!
"Except Quincy was never a frontman."
Right. But . . .
"There's really nobody like Will," Fair continues. "He's a brilliant collage artist who can mix up pop, jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop, live music, canned beats, put it in a mixmaster and add inspiration. He doesn't care what other producers may consider to be boundaries of what's hip-hop, what's right. He just does what he feels."
Despite such adoration, Adams's dreadlocked head still fits through standard-size doors. He's not even eager to feed his ego with a solo star turn, though Fair believes "the world is ready" for a Will.I.Am album.
Adams, who says his formal musical training consists of one month of a piano course at Santa Monica City College, says he'll get around to it. First, though, he has to finish projects with Nas and Diddy and Macy Gray and Timberlake, and he's working on new material with Legend, and there's a Fergie solo album on the way, too, plus all those other collaborative possibilities.
Including the crunk-soul diva Ciara, with whom Adams is meeting next.
"She wants to talk about having me work on her album," he says, then yawns. He extracts himself from his chair, ambles slowly out of the plain brown building and hops into a sleek silver Mercedes V8 Kompressor.
Think Ciara would be coming to this grungy corner near I-5? No. Way. The summit is across town, at a swanky hotel in Beverly Hills.