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THE ENVELOPE | CONTENDER Q&A

Man of the moment

Will.i.am is focusing on the next phase of his career. Watch out, Quincy Jones.

February 07, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

FOR Will.i.am, it all began with a turntable from Rent-a-Center.

The 26-year-old pop star and studio auteur was still known as William Adams, a bright-eyed freshman at Palisades High School, when his family brought home the cheap, belt-driven JVC turntable that, for hip-hop kids in the 1990s, had replaced the Fender guitar as the wish-list gift from the music store.

His first sample was from an Isley Brothers record and it started a backbeat in his life that has carried him on to his latest accolade: a Grammy nomination in the prestigious producer of the year (nonclassical) category. Pop fans may know him best from the music videos of the Black Eyed Peas but Will.i.am is one of the most in-demand producers of the moment or, as Mary J. Blige calls him, "the producer that really matters in his generation."

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The Peas had the highest-grossing hip-hop tour of 2006 and have become a major global success selling CDs, even in markets where rap acts struggle. How do you have time to produce music for so many other people?

"It's hard but it's what I want, the next phase of my career. I'm really proud of the work I've done this year and I think the industry acknowledgment is for success in different genres -- I did stuff with Sergio Mendes, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake, Santana, Fergie ... I have this hunger to do all kinds of music and learn about it all.

What did you learn in the studio this year?

How to be different things to different people. Sometimes you need to get out of the way a little, just help people hear what they have inside them. Other times you have to push people to be great, to be focused. Rock producers, they're going to say hip-hop producers are just programmers. Hip-hop producers are going to laugh and say that some rock producers just arrange the mikes or work as engineers. Other types of producers will look at those guys and say they can't play instruments and arrange horns or strings. But to be special, you have to go to the next level. You have to be a musician and a producer and an arranger and programmer and all of these things. You also have to have ideas and vision and the ability to work with different types of people.

What's next for you?

I've been talking to Michael Jackson and I'm hoping to do something with him ... the main thing for me is to make music and just keep growing and learning. I can arrange horns but I can't do strings yet, not the way I want to be able to do it. And, in general, I want to be doing this in 10, 15, 20 years and, like a Quincy Jones, I want to be able to do it the right way. He's the one I want to follow as far as shaping a career.

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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