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will.i.am Changes the Game

Posted in MusicWorld on July 22, 2010 by
Photo: Ari Michelson

Make no mistake: will.i.am is out to change the world.

You can hear it in the futuristic beats and rhymes of the Black Eyed Peas’ monster hit “Boom Boom Pow.” You can see it in Will’s cutting edge fashions, feel it in the passion he brings to his philanthropy and political activism. And you know it from his conversation.

Bring up any topic — any topic at all — and chances are it’s something Will has not only thought about, but thought about a lot: He’s educated himself about it, experienced it first-hand; heck, he’s probably already put his thoughts into song, posted it online, and watched it go viral in a matter of hours.

Such is the power of will.i.am’s digitally fueled, multi-platform reach. The rest of us, to borrow a line from “Boom Boom Pow,” are so two thousand and late. will.i.am is already there.

“Being involved with someone like Will, with his bandwidth, is really a gift in the current business of music,” says Steve Berman, president of sales and marketing for Interscope Records, who has worked with Will and the Black Eyed Peas since they joined the label in the ’90s. “Will doesn’t see the world as just about selling a song. Will sees the world with a much bigger view, and art is at the center of it.”

Indeed, Will is a creative juggernaut who operates on an astonishing array of platforms. At any given time, he’s juggling half a dozen or more different endeavors: his own projects, Black Eyed Peas efforts, plus collaborations with other artists. For example, one April day saw him working on the Black Eyed Peas’ new album; preparing for an international tour; putting together a tour documentary, a “sci-fi musical” which will be out next year; launching his I.am men’s clothing line; preparing a new project dubbed “Visionary”; and managing his new philanthropic program, I.am.home, which helps those affected by the mortgage crisis.

“My attention span was always too short,” Will notes. “I have ADD, but I’ve learned how to make it work for me.”

More accurately, his mastery of digital technology and social media has allowed him to excel in a world that now seems to require this kind of frenetic multi-tasking. Will’s mind ping-pongs around so many things at once that if the BlackBerry hadn’t been invented, he no doubt would have created it himself.

“This guy has ideas coming 100 miles an hour, 100 times a week,” says Berman. “Some of them are ideas that I haven’t even got my brain around yet, and he’s already spent hundreds of hours figuring out a solution.”

Will is most animated — and perhaps prescient — when he discusses the shifting role of music in today’s culture.

“Music should be used to bring awareness to what’s happening culturally, socially, economically, environmentally, politically,” he declares. “That’s what music is for. It’s a  way to communicate to a large amount of people in a form that makes people want to hear your message. It entertains them when they hear it and there’s a deeper connection to it via music.

“A long time ago people were like, ‘Music is disposable.’ Now it’s not disposable, it’s current. It’s like, what? That just happened? Well, let me show you what I feel about that! You like that? Let me show you what I feel about that!”

Will’s creative output elicits numerous labels, but the most important and precise may be “culturally relevant.” He hasn’t just mastered the latest high-tech gizmos: His medium is pop culture itself.

“Before you had to do, like, ‘shipping and marketing and whatever’ bullshit,” Will says, adopting a theatrical “corporate” voice. “So I like the social media. I like how interactive it is, and I like how inclusive it is. It isn’t exclusive anymore.”

Will is an artist who writes songs on his Blackberry Smartphone. In April, he headed to San Francisco for Chirp, the Twitter developer’s conference. To his utter amazement, he was the only artist there.

“I barely use my Twitter account, but I wanted to come to the Twitter conference,” he laughs, wondering why none of his peers in the industry bothered to show. “Other artists  get it, they use it; everybody’s on it. I just don’t think they care about what’s coming that much. They care about what’s here. Even though what’s here is just a sketch of what’s coming.

“I care about what’s coming,” Will states. “And I care about helping develop what’s coming.”

What’s coming, in Will’s view, is “the total collapse of the industry that once was. Done.” And in its place? “The emergence of the new industry. A new industry that thrives on consumption rather than purchases.”

That may sound scary to people whose livelihood depends on a system of purchased media, perhaps rightfully so. But resistance, as the saying goes, is futile.

“As many walls as they put up, technology is gonna make ladders,” Will notes. “Put up a wall — hey, check this out, I just built a ladder! There’s always going to be a ladder business. And from the ladder business there’s going to be a freaking invisibility business. And then we’re going to be walking the wall!

“That’s why I like going to things like Chirp, to see what’s coming,” Will says. “And if it ain’t there and my mind sees how it can be, then I like being there to develop what’s coming.”

This brave new world is portable, immediate, ecumenical and accessible. Boundaries keep crashing, gatekeepers have been banished. While the music industry has spent years arguing about how best to navigate these treacherous waters, will.i.am has been building the ark.

“The business has changed dramatically, and I think you can either hide from that and pretend it’s not, or you can embrace the change and embrace the opportunity,” Berman reflects. “Will sees a real opportunity in that changing global landscape, an opportunity in changing how you see music, and what you can represent.”

“What’s coming is what I call community,” Will explains. “People in the community will utilize technology to disburse concern, action, opinions. You will see new products developed that aren’t harmful to our health or our environment. You will see a whole bunch of stuff coming in the next 20 years that totally makes us look at where we came from like, how … did we do that? And why  … did we do that? And it’s only going to be made possible through social connectivity.”

If this all sounds a tad too esoteric to wrap your head around, no worries: Just keep your eyes on Will. He’ll lead the way.

Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based freelance writer who covers entertainment and travel. She is currently working on her first novel.