Why you should care
Because music makes the world go around.
“I Gotta Feeling,” “Scream & Shout,” “I Like to Move It,” whether with the Black Eyed Peas or solo, or for an animation score, the impact will.i.am made on the music of the 2010s is undeniable. But in this episode of The Carlos Watson Show, he explains why he calls himself much more of a computer scientist than a musician. You can find excerpts below, or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
The Computer Is My Instrument
Carlos Watson: How did you go from becoming a musician to, I now think of you as a technologist. I think of you as a futurist. I think of you as an active investor. And I know that you are a philanthropist as well. How did that transition happen? How did you go from Black Eyed Peas, Will.I.Am, hitting the charts, making stuff happen to talking about the World Economic Forum in Davos, and AI, and robots, and writing trend reports?
will.i.am: When I lived in the projects and I had a dream about making music, you can say that I was a futurist then. Because those dreams and those ideas to enter a field when I’m not the best pianist, I’m not the best singer, but I got some pretty cool ideas. And I loved music. But how did I enter the field of music? Oh, that’s right. That computer. The computer is my instrument.
So I’m more a programmer, a coder than I am a musician, because I write in code with short keys on my MacBook. And I freaked the hell out of this machine to make music. Am I a musician like Miles Davis? Hells no. Am I a musician like Herbie Hancock? No way Jose. Am I a freaking musician like Carlos Santana? Not even an inch, but am I will.i.am who knows how to make this computer do whatever is in my mind? Freak yeah.
So I’m a computer scientist from that perspective, if you compare me to musicians. But if you compare me to computer scientists, am I computer scientist? Hell no. All I know is I download software and I work on my computer and then I complete what I do and it gets downloaded and streamed on some other software. So I do work in the world of computers. And whether I’m working on Logic, which is an Apple program, or I’m working on Pro Tools, which is Avid, and you download it on iTunes or stream it in Spotify, it’s still interfacing with the computer.
Watson: And will, as a kid, you were this computer geek, this computer lover? What were you like in high school?
will.i.am: I went to an awesome elementary school. It was called Brentwood Science Magnet. And in that elementary school, they taught us oceanography, physics. We had a computer lab. We were one of the first schools in LA that had Apple IIcs. So I learned on Apple IIc in the ’80s. And that was my favorite course.
I remember the teachers like it was yesterday. And I was the teacher’s favorite, because I always asked questions. Super curious, super hyperactive, and creative. And that passion for computers, whether it was Photoshop at the time. Then in high school, it continued. And then after high school, I just worked on computers, making music.
Watson: And how long was it until you broke big? How long was it until you guys actually became a household name?
will.i.am: Yeah. So I got a record deal back in 11th grade. I was 17 years old and I was signed by Eazy-E from Ruthless Records.
Watson: Wait, wait. You got a real record deal while you were still in high school? So how does a high school kid get a record deal?
will.i.am: When NWA broke up, he started looking for talent in LA. So we got signed for around $10,000. In high school, that was a lot of money, and I was in the projects with my mom. I was taking a yellow bus to school. And my mom didn’t know. I came home with my contract. I’m like, “Ma, I got a record deal.”
She was like, “Well, ain’t nobody give me no business to sign no contract. Who gave you all this money?” I came home with three grand, because we split it three ways. I came home with 3,333 bucks. I was like, “Ma look.” She’s like, “Where did you get this money from?” I was like, “My record deal.”
So I got in so much trouble for signing that contract. Turns out the contract was void because we didn’t have a guardian or our parents approval, and we were underage. It was so illegal to sign a minor, but I love Eazy-E. Acknowledgement goes a long way, bro. To be acknowledged by somebody that’s successful. For somebody to tell you, “That’s good.” A mentor. He validated my passion. And then he passed away in 1995.
Then from there I was like, what in the hell? And I was really slacking off in school. My mom was like, “Well, you need to get these grades up.” I was, so, like, “Ma, the school is not teaching me what I need for my career. They’re not teaching me finance to save the money that I just got. They’re not teaching me business for the field that I want to go in.” I was so clear like, “Mom, this is it. One day I’m going to buy you a house.” She was like, “How are you going to buy me a house when you can’t even get your grades up. You better not have no promises you can’t keep.”
I was like, “I don’t think you get it, mom. Watch.” And so that last six months of high school, I didn’t go. I was hanging out with Stefan Gordy, Berry Gordy’s son. And he and I were making music in his garage, because music was my passion. That was what I wanted to do.
Watson: It feels to me like you’ve let the music maybe take a little bit of a back burner while you focus on technology, futurism, entrepreneurship, philanthropy. Am I right, or am I seeing it wrong?
will.i.am: Black Eyed Peas, we started in 1995, and 2011 was the highest mountain you could climb. And that’s the Super Bowl, the World Cup. “I Gotta Feeling” being the number one most downloaded song on iTunes, of all time. And I think we still hold that record because now streaming is the metric. But we reached some pretty high mountains. And then from there, I did a solo project in 2013 and realized that I’m a group guy. “Scream & Shout” and some of the songs that I did solo wise had some number ones, but I’m a group dude. Black Eyed Peas, that’s it. I like touring by myself, that’s cool, but that’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to be in a group with my friends.
But then I went into tech. The success of Beats told me like yo, beats. And we sold it to Apple. Then from there, I took my earnings and build this AI team. And we’ve been working hardcore ever since.
But then I need to return to music. Two years ago, we started working on a Black Eyed Peas Latin influence project. And we were a little nervous that we’re a trio now. People know the successful Black Eyed Peas as a quartet. And we got dropped from our label, Interscope, after 20 years of being on Interscope because we were a trio, not the quartet.
So Sylvia Rhone picked us up at Epic and this is one of our biggest successes, Translation. “Ritmo”, number one. “Mamacita”, number one. “Feel the Beat” with Maluma, number one. Now we have another number one on the way with Shakira with “Girl Like Me”. Four number ones. Over a billion views. And “I Gotta Feeling” doesn’t have the numbers that we are seeing on YouTube with these new songs. So we’re seeing the most success in 2020 at 45, 2021 at 46 than we’ve ever had as a trio. And the Latin community is awesome.