Singers Fergie, Will.i.am, Apl.de.ap, and Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
Will.i.am didn't want to get inside the box.
The 35-year-old mastermind of the Black Eyed Peas was at a late-night rehearsal last week for the American Music Awards, where the group was to perform its new single, "The Time (Dirty Bit)." During the song's chorus, Will.i.am and his band mate Fergie were supposed to enter a pair of glass-walled elevators, but an important call had reached his cellphone, and you know what reception is like in an elevator.
At the same time, Fergie was experiencing some trouble with an especially sticky door, raising the troubling possibility that come showtime the singer might find herself locked inside her elevator, staring out helplessly at a live Nokia Theatre crowd studded with stars and a television audience numbering well into the millions.
After a run-through, Fergie sought help from, well, from anyone capable of providing it. "Who am I talking to on this?" she asked into her microphone. (She had a right to be nervous, it turns out. During the live performance, she very nearly suffered a Spinal Tap moment when the door did momentarily stick.)
The Black Eyed Peas have never been big into boxes — of either the literal or the metaphorical variety. (By the way, if you saw that analogy coming from a mile away, you now know what it's like to experience a Black Eyed Peas song.) Rounded out by Taboo and Apl.de.ap, the pseudonym-brandishing L.A. group emerged over a decade ago as part of the touchy-feely conscious-rap scene that also produced Ozomatli and Jurassic 5. Fergie's addition on 2003's "Elephunk" led the foursome toward pop, yielding a series of joyously on-the-nose radio hits such as "Let's Get It Started," "Where Is the Love?" and "My Humps."
Last year the Peas changed direction yet again with "The E.N.D.," a largely electronic affair influenced by Will.i.am's giddy immersion into international club culture. The result was the outfit's biggest success yet, with three Grammy wins, worldwide sales of more than 11 million albums and three No. 1 singles, including the seemingly deathless "I Gotta Feeling." In February the Black Eyed Peas will headline the Super Bowl halftime show, a high-profile appearance awarded in recent years to Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
"With 'The Time' we took one listen and said, 'How quick can we get this on?'" said John Ivey, program director of L.A. pop radio station KIIS-FM. "We started out playing it at the top of every hour on that first day because we figured everyone would want to hear it."
On Tuesday the band is set to release "The Beginning," a sequel of sorts to "The E.N.D." that finds the Peas moving further into the synth-driven dance-music realm. Gathered in a suite at the JW Marriott downtown shortly before their AMAs rehearsal, the musicians described the album as a product of having been on the road for the last 14 months.
"Will and Apl have their recording studios set up in their hotel rooms," Fergie said, "so you can just walk in, and if you hear something you're inspired by, you can just say, 'Hey, put me on mike.'"
Nearly every night, Will.i.am and Apl.de.ap would head to a nightclub after the group's concert in a given city to spin records, including fresh Black Eyed Peas material. "It's almost like testing out the music," said DJ Ammo, who toured with the group and co-produced several tracks on "The Beginning." "You're seeing what people react to so you can choose which songs should go on the album."
Ammo remembers the evening Will.i.am decided to sample "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," the "Dirty Dancing" hit that provides the foundation for the Peas' "The Time (Dirty Bit)." "Will had a DJ gig at Pacha," he said, referring to the venue in the Spanish club capital of Ibiza, "and he played that as the second song in his set. The crowd just erupted and started singing along."
Ever since "My Humps" — in which Fergie memorably celebrated her "lovely lady lumps" — the Black Eyed Peas have been widely reviled for their lyrical content, which Rolling Stone called "a dizzying barrage of doggerel" in an assessment of "Boom Boom Pow," the lead single from "The E.N.D."
That opinion isn't apt to change with "The Beginning." "I like to go out every night!" Will.i.am announces in "Fashion Beats," and that's about as deep as he digs here.
Yet the frontman insists the Peas' music isn't about lyrics. "It's about the beat," he explained. "If you've been stressed out because your boss has been yelling at you all week, you don't want someone else telling you all this other stuff. Don't tell me to throw my hands in the air — I'll throw them when I feel like it!" He laughs. "It's about escape, about just wanting to zombie out to some music."