How will.i.am Turned Imagination into an Empire

Curiosity, followed by preparation, has powered the success of the musician-businessman-philanthropist.
September 28, 2014

Ideas are currency. Ideas plus implementation are the bank.

Even before he grasped that he had a gift for conjuring beats, hooks and melodies that the world would find as irresistible as a virus and a whole lot more fun, will.i.am intuitively understood the power of collaboration.

“I never wanted to be a leader of a group,” he says, reclining in The Future, an appropriate moniker for his Hollywood studio. “I always wanted to be the ideas man, the one who said, ‘Hey guys, let’s try this!’ ”

Implied in that statement are the importance of community and teamwork, and the fact that the power of one seldom is enough to create something worthwhile. Will’s gift is ideas. He has a high level of curiosity, and a love for curiosity in general: He encourages and stimulates it in others. He acts on his imagination. When he approaches a partner in art or business or in fixing something broken, he comes prepared, with well-thought-out plans. He enjoys putting things together and doesn’t insist on credit or compensation.

In his business, working hard is important, but so is wondering hard.

That combination, whether it’s what he intended or expected, has nonetheless grown Will into the face of a pop-funk sensation, The Black Eyed Peas, which in the first dozen years of this century sold an estimated 91 million records and 42 million downloads, and played to packed houses all over the world. They are one of a handful of groups legitimately in the conversation for Most Successful Band Ever.

At the height of the group’s power in 2011, will.i.am, Taboo, apl.de.ap and Fergie played before a television audience of some 163 million people during the halftime show of Super Bowl XLV. The headliners that evening were the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, but in terms of sheer global recognition, The Black Eyed Peas were the most famous performers on the field.

Music history has taught us to believe that this might be the climax of the story and that we could look forward to seeing the graying Peas on their reunion tours. In the case of will.i.am, the band is just one thread in a tapestry of interests, just one vehicle through which he is involved with the world.

He has used his fame and success to indulge his restless love of ideas and to open alliances with Coca-Cola, Apple and other corporations. His identity has grown beyond mere musician, as he has embraced the roles of consultant, investor, entrepreneur, activist, advocate and philanthropist. He has to be one of the best-connected men on the planet, a member of a proud line of American renaissance figures that includes, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Howard Hughes, Oprah Winfrey and Paul Newman.

Compact, muscled, and constantly possessing a sly grin, Will is a fast talker whose speech is laden with vivid turns of phrase and studded with puns. (On an interview show in Britain, host Alan Carr asked Will if he had “beef” with Simon Cowell. “I’m vegetarian,” Will answered. “I  don’t have beef with anybody.” Undaunted, Carr asked “Do you have tofu?” Cracking up himself and the host, Will shot back, “I got 10 toes, fool!”)

Born William Adams to a single mother in the poverty-ridden Eastside Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Will, now 39, enjoyed the support of a large but tightly knit extended family. He fairly bristles at the suggestion that his fatherlessness was in any way a disadvantage, as though entertaining the notion at all would be disloyal to the mother, uncles, aunts and grandmother who raised him.

“Really, my grandmother raised us all,” he says. “Everybody looked up to her. She probably had God’s cellphone number.”

Determined that her son would not attend the same underperforming Boyle Heights public schools that she did, Will’s mother, Debra Cain, enrolled him first in the Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School and then Palisades Charter High School. Commuting required an hour-long trip each way, but the experience gave the young man some grounding in science and math, and showed him a wider world.

Music, however, was his first love; it provided a creative outlet and a consistent identity that carried him through the halls of Palisades High and the streets of Boyle Heights. While still in high school he formed his first rap group—the Atban Klann—a teen trio so precociously talented and popular that it signed a recording contract in 1992 with the label run by Eazy-E, the legendary rapper, whose premature death momentarily stymied the band’s progress. Before long, however, Will rejiggered the group’s membership, and after briefly dubbing them the Black Eyed Pods, he settled on its modern soulful moniker. In the process, he also abandoned his original stage name, Will 1X, for the simple, confident will.i.am.

After making such a bold statement, he had no choice but to become a star.

As long as the public could afford to pay attention, celebrities have been cannily leveraging their fame to create new opportunities to enrich and express themselves. The pioneering slugger Babe Ruth endorsed dozens of products, including not only bats, balls, gloves and underwear, but rival brands of cereal, gasoline and cigars. Bob Hope used his vaudeville stardom as a launching pad to conquer a succession of new media, first radio, then motion pictures and later television. Elvis Presley leveraged his sex appeal and singing ability into a profitable if less-than-serious film career. Some stars have even parlayed their popularity into real financial power by taking control of the means of production. Frank Sinatra and The Beatles formed their own record labels. Clint Eastwood was among the first movie stars to produce his own films, an arrangement now commonplace.

Will has followed his show business predecessors in expanding his collaborations in some conventional ways, albeit with some new twists. He has moved into film, lending his voice to the animated movies Rio and Rio 2. He’s done some television, too, appearing as a coach on the Australian version of The Voice. He has expanded his musical collaborations beyond the Peas to include other musicians, becoming one of a handful of star performers who have devoted themselves to the relatively anonymous role of producing; he’s had a hand in hits by Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, U2, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj.

Still, sliding from one showbiz endeavor to another is a fairly commonplace maneuver. Where Will has broken new ground is in the alliances forged with the likes of Apple, Intel, AT&T, Coca-Cola and others to launch new ventures. His aim isn’t just to develop exciting products. Will hardly shies away from his most ambitious objective—to change the world.

“I have always enjoyed puzzles, riddles… problems. I enjoy the challenge, and I enjoy being the one who comes up with the solution. Often it’s a matter of recognizing patterns—finding the similarities in what seems like very different styles of music. I believe it’s the same for the other things I do. I mediate oddities. I take unlikely things, mismatched things, and pattern-match. I try to make something that’s not a Frankenstein monster, not forced, but harmonious. I want to be a mediator who helps awesome things come together.”

Will is well-qualified for this role because he possesses a wide-ranging intelligence that defies compartmentalization. Reconcile this: The author of the catchy Clubland dance hit My Humps was the same artist who produced stirring videos for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Add to that picture a businessman determined to master the intricacies of his enterprises, a geek with an unbounded enthusiasm for all things tech, and an idealist who not only recognizes the issues that are plaguing poor communities but envisions the solutions as well.

“Will has the most advanced right brain and left brain of anyone I  know,” says Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the company that produced Rio and Rio 2. “Usually people are logical and analytical, or intuitive and creative, but Will is each to a high degree. He’s a creative genius who thinks pragmatically about the way the world really works.”

Almost from the beginning, Will grasped that musical talent bestowed upon him more power than just to move people to step onto a dance floor and start grooving. Once The Black Eyed Peas began to chart, companies like Vans and Levi’s paid to sponsor the band’s tours. “I saw that it was worth a lot to these companies to be associated with us,” Will says. In one case, a company paid more to use a song in an ad than the band had earned from sales of the tune.

In 2001, Dr Pepper wanted to use one of the band’s songs in a commercial. “I don’t know what gave me the balls to do this,” Will says, “but I told them we’d do it if we could make the commercial.” None of the Peas knew anything about making commercials, but they learned, and it empowered them with new skills.

Making connections was the next step. The ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day invited Will to consult on a number of its campaigns, wanting to hear the opinions of someone whose sound and look had so quickly conquered the youth market. “I’d just go in and say, ‘That ad’s cool’ or ‘Work on that slogan’ or ‘Try a different song,’ ” he recalls. This led to meetings with executives from such companies as BlackBerry and Verizon. “I  picked their brains even more than they picked mine,” he says. “I talked to them about everything: technical issues with mobility, licenses, logos, color palettes.” The thirsty mind of will.i.am absorbed the information for later use.

At the same time this was happening, he was at the forefront of a generation of artists who grasped the potential of the Internet and other advances in digital technology, and figured out how to use them.

“I told Jimmy Iovine [then the head of Interscope Records], the key is to control the tech,” Will recalls. “I told Dr. Dre that we shouldn’t be in sneakers, but speakers.”

As a youngster, William Adams was fascinated by machines and devices, taking them apart on the kitchen table and infuriating his mother. This interest provides key insights into the mind of the future entertainer.

“The music business is rooted in tech,” he says. “RCA started making records in order to help sell record players and radios. Then RCA went over to Japan and established the Japanese Victor Corp., which became JVC.” Responding to constant pleas, Iovine authorized Will to create BlackEyedPeas.com. “It was a pretty advanced site for its time,” Will says. “Our fans downloaded tens of thousands of pictures. We were becoming more than a band. We were becoming a brand.”

Today tech is enmeshed with all of Will’s interests. Like a great many modern musicians, he now does most of his composing on a computer—in his case, a Mac. Along with Dr. Dre, Iovine and others, he helped develop the Beats headphones, a brand bought by Apple this spring for some $3 billion. Plus, his company, i.am+, is developing a smartwatch, the PULS, to be sold in the U.S. and U.K.

The deal not only brought Will into closer alignment with the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech and lifestyle giant, but provided an infusion of funds for the i.am.angel foundation. Among other activities, Will’s foundation underwrites tutoring and science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs at Roosevelt High, the Boyle Heights school he was fortunate to escape. Now he has returned as a benefactor.

The spark was seeing the film Waiting for "Superman" and discovering the dire state of public education. Much of the 2010 documentary by Davis Guggenheim was filmed at Roosevelt High. “I thought, Wow! That is really sad. I meant the title. The title was the sad thing, not just what’s happening. It’s the fact that they’re waiting for this hero who wears tights and a cape. But he’s fictitious. He’s never going to come. I figured I  had to do it, because if I didn’t, who would? Congress? The private sector? They all say, ‘Oh, yeah, nothing is more important than education.’ But when you talk about funding, they’re all out of the room.

“I’m one of those kids. And if I got out, they can get out. But they can’t rely on music. They need the science and math.”

So Will stepped in, put together a team and began filling the gap. Initially, 60 students took part; now enrollment is up to 300.

And then there is the most elaborate and fully developed of the programs with which will.i.am is involved: Ekocycle. The initiative is dedicated to reducing waste by heightening awareness of recycling. As one might expect, Will’s point is not to explain that recycling is responsible, or moral, or even in our self-interest, but that it is cool.

“The idea came to me one night after a concert,” he says. “I walked out onstage after the show and looked at the empty auditorium. Only it wasn’t empty. It was full of plastic bottles.” He wondered why people didn’t recycle and recognized his complicity in the problem—if people hadn’t come to a Black Eyed Peas concert, they wouldn’t have been there to buy those sodas and then abandon the bottles. He asked, ‘What can I  do to help?’

Making use of his seemingly infinite connections, Will found a friend of a friend who put him in touch with Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer. He invited her to a  concert.

“I met him backstage with my 9-year-old son,” Perez recalls. “I remember how enthusiastic he was, how focused. ‘I want to make people understand how valuable this material is,’ he said. His idea was to create a line of cool stuff—T-shirts, bags, jewelry—that everybody would want and that everybody would understand came from recycled material.”

Perez’s experience has taught her to be skeptical of big ideas, particularly ones pushed by celebs, she says. But this time she felt differently, and when her son blurted out “Mom, Coke’s got to do this!” she began to feel drawn in.

Perez took the next step of organizing a formal meeting at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, where all of the company’s affected departments would be represented. “Will came in and delivered a presentation that just blew everybody away,” she says. Using storyboards, he talked through the issues. “Why don’t people use recycled products?” he wondered aloud to the room. His answer boiled down to an important observation: The products had no cool factor. The recycled material was used in utilitarian items or in cheaply made goods. The items were predominantly green in color, and a dull green at that. Overseas, it was a different story: Recycled material was being used to make all sorts of fashion items that were brightly colored and fun.

“His presentation was so compelling,” Perez says. “He had a very clear goal: Increase recycling rates. He had a very clear message: We’re part of the problem, and we can be part of the solution. We can do this together and make it cool. He even came up with a terrific name—Ekocycle—which cleverly incorporates the name Coke spelled backward. He also had developed a memorable tag line: Waste isn’t waste unless we waste it.

“But there comes the key point in every meeting where we find out what the quid pro quo is. I kept waiting for it, but it never came. Finally I asked Will, point blank, ‘What do you want out of this?’ I expected him to say that he wanted an endorsement deal or some other kind of compensation.

“His answer floored me. He said, ‘I  want to make a difference. I want to leave a legacy.’ ”

Since then, Ekocycle has waged a multipronged campaign to promote recycling. A grassroots effort was launched, dedicated to raising awareness through concerts, celebrity involvement and social media; Ekocycle estimates this campaign resulted in the repurposing of 1.5 million items that otherwise would have been tossed. Ekocycle has also been working to enlist top U.S. brands to incorporate recycled material in their products. The National Basketball Association, New Era caps, MCM bags and Levi’s, among others, have teamed up for the cause.

In June, at the White House Maker Faire—an event celebrating students and entrepreneurs who are developing and using new technologies and techniques to create things—the breadth of Will’s interests and connections were put on display. Through his matchmaking brilliance, he and Coca-Cola teamed with 3D Systems—which he serves as chief creative officer—to provide more than 1,500 new Ekocycle Cube 3-D printers to FIRST, an organization founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen (of Segway fame) to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders. Among FIRST’s programs is a robot-building competition, to which Will has frequently volunteered his time and also underwritten a team from Roosevelt High.

The Ekocycle Cube 3-D printer uses cartridges containing plastic recycled from empty soda bottles. It is a will.i.am production from stem to stern, as clearly as if “I Gotta Feeling” played whenever its on-switch was flicked forward.

In March, will.i.am is to turn 40, beginning the decade of life in which a person is often most productive. If that is to be the case, he has set a high bar for himself. “Sometimes it’s hard to do all these things. It can be very overwhelming.”

But Bea Perez explains that whenever the Ekocycle team asks Will to do something or to be somewhere, he always agrees, and seemingly without short-changing any other commitments.

“All these people are saying ‘You gotta,’ and ‘Fix that!’ and ‘It has to happen,’ ” Will says. When that happens, “I just take a deep breath and collect myself, and then get right back in the game. I just remind myself, there are no problems that can’t be solved. The world is too full of options. If you can’t solve the problem, it’s because you haven’t found the right option, or you haven’t found the right collaborators that will make that option work.

“But the answer is always there.”

Find out who will.i.am, in his own words, really is, including his take on things like what gets his adrenaline flowing.

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