Will.i.am first caught the public ear as a member of the Black Eyed Peas, which started out as a trio making underground hip hop before pivoting to become a pop-rap group and finding international success. He’s also a solo artist and a producer who has worked with some of the biggest artists in the world — including Ricky Martin, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber — but still finds time to channel his love for old school hip hop. More recently he’s been nurturing the dreams of other artists as a judge and coach on the UK version of The Voice. And this modern day Renaissance man has his fingers in lots of other pies, becoming a notable tech entrepreneur in recent years.
Growing Up in the L.A. Projects
Will.i.am was born William James Adams on March 15, 1975, in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Debra, raised him alone after his father — whom he has never met — abandoned the family. Adams grew up in a housing project, which he described to the Daily Beast as being "raised in the ghetto, on welfare, two minutes from homeless." Having music as an outlet helped him look beyond his bleak surroundings. While in high school, he met Allan Pineda (stage name: apl.de.ap). The two combined their hip-hop and break-dancing styles to form the rap group Atban Klann with several others. They were signed in 1992 to Eazy-E's Ruthless Records label, and appeared that year as guests on his 5150 – Home 4 Tha Sick EP. They recorded an album, Grass Roots, which was shelved, although a single from it, "Puddles of H2O," was released in 1994, before the group were dropped from the label following Eazy-E’s death in 1995.
The Formation of the Black Eyed Peas, Fergie
In 1995, will.i.am renamed the group first The Black Eyed Pods, and then Black Eyed Peas. At this point the line-up consisted of will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo. After signing with Interscope Records, the trio dropped their debut album Behind the Front in June 1998, showcasing an approachable, fun style that was still undeniably rooted in hip hop. Rolling Stone liked the “alterna-rap” feel of the music, noting that the album offered “an organic mixture of sampled melodies and live instruments aimed at those of us seeking a little enlightenment with our well-oiled boogie.” The group had also begun to employ backup singers, including Macy Gray, Sierra Swan, Kim Hill and Dawn Beckman, a move that pointed to the group’s future success. The Peas' second album, Bridging the Gap, was released in 2000 and the single "Request + Line," a track with Macy Gray, became their first Billboard Hot 100 entry. In 2001 will.i.am released his debut solo album, Lost Change, on which he displayed a more experimental approach to music.
Realizing that adding a female to the mix improved their potential, will.i.am first approached Nicole Scherzinger to become a member of the group, but after she declined, Fergie signed up — her mighty vocals paved the way to stardom. The Peas' 2003 album, Elephunk, took off thanks to the single "Where Is the Love," featuring Justin Timberlake. It hit No. 8 on the US Billboard Hot 100, while becoming the biggest-selling single of 2003 in the U.K. With will.i.am leading the charge as frontman, producer and songwriter, more hits followed, including "I Gotta Feeling," "Boom Boom Pow" and "Let's Get It Started." To date, the foursome had sold over 76 million albums worldwide and earned six Grammy awards. They had released another three albums — Monkey Business (2005), The END (2009) and The Beginning (2010). But they had also lost favor with some critics due to successful-but-divisive songs like 2005’s "My Humps" – rated by Rolling Stone readers as the most annoying song. The group has since been on hiatus — but there are reports of new material that won't feature Fergie but, going full circle, Nicole Scherzinger.
All-Star Music Producer
When not focused on Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am has produced music for other established acts, including Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson and his one-time bandmate Fergie, after she struck out on her own. Fergie's success prompted will.i.am to follow suit in 2007 with another solo album, Songs About Girls. In 2013 he released #willpower, which featured the duets "#ThatPOWER" with Justin Bieber, "Fall Down" with Miley Cyrus and "Scream & Shout" with Britney Spears. He has also kept a hand in with hip hop, contributing to records by The Game, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Too Short and Common.
will.i.am: The Brand
Willi.i.am has expanded his career into acting, appearing in the 2009 blockbuster X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the character John Wraith. He has also been featured on American Idol and The X Factor, and has served as a coach on The Voice UK and The Voice Australia. He has also taken classes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and has released several lines, including a collaboration with Coca-Cola, Ekocycle, which incorporates recycled plastic bottles into new products including garments, bikes and luggage . He is a shareholder in Beats Electronics, after a personal invitation from Dr. Dre to invest, a director of creative innovation at Intel, and has put out his own line of camera accessories. He recently established a hi-tech laboratory in Hollywood, telling The Sunday Times Magazine: “Now I’m making devices. Tech can do so much more than music. Tech is the new rock’n’roll.” He has been developing products that reportedly include rucksacks with built-in speakers, smart spectacles and a smartwatch collaboration with Gucci. However, reaction to his first few releases – the i.am+ accessories to bolster the iPhone camera and the Puls smartwatch — have been overwhelmingly negative. Techradar lauded will.i.am for embracing tech, but concluded: “Sorry Puls, there’s plenty to dislike here. The design, display, lack of apps, battery life, worst texting experience ever… I think that’ll do.”
Activism, Accolades and Art
Will.i.am has also embraced the worlds of politics and social activism. He created songs and a website to support Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. His innovative music video for the song "Yes We Can," which spliced together snippets from Obama's speeches, won an Emmy and a Clio award. He also has his own foundation, I.Am.Angel, to support education; one of its initiatives, I.Am.Steam (Steam stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), exposed underserved students to learning opportunities outside the classroom and earned him recognition as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2013.
With a new solo album in the pipeline, plus the return of the Black Eyed Peas – and his continuing role on UK television and behind the boards for top artists – the always futuristic will.i.am shows no sign of slowing down.
(Profile photo of will.i.am by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP)
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