Interview With Will.i.am

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Musician Will.i.am in Los Angeles. Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum for Newsweek

You’ve played the World Cup and the presidential inauguration. How does the Super Bowl measure up?

The Super Bowl is different. I mean, it’s practically an American holiday! Plus my family are huge football fans. I had an uncle who played with the L.A. Rams. He never made it to the Super Bowl, so at least we’ll now be able to say someone in the family did.

Do you consider yourself a celebrity?

Please don’t call me that [laughs]. Most of these people who are celebrities now don’t do anything to deserve it, so by that fact alone, I don’t want to be one. I’m just a guy who is passionate about music, and people have gravitated to what I put out there.

You’re constantly writing songs for other people. Don’t you ever run out of ideas?

I have to say when I did “Oh My God” for Usher, I thought that I gave a monster away. I kept thinking, I hope I can do that again for us!

You’ve also produced for a lot of icons. How do you tell someone like Bono he’s out of tune?

I panic before I go in the studio, like “Oh, God, I’m about to be chillin’ with M.J. for a week in Ireland.” So you geek out on your way there, but as soon as you get there you have to be responsible. You also have to humble yourself and not get all extra cocky, like “Yeah, you want my expertise ’n’ s--t?” Well, that s--t’s wack. You can’t ego out.

The songs you worked on with Michael aren’t on the CD that just came out. Given the chance, would you have released them now?

The only thing that came out after three years of working together was the “Thriller 25” remixes. All the other songs we recorded haven’t come out, and I don’t think they should. It isn’t right to put that music out without his final say or blessing. He was all about getting it right.

Your new CD is The Beginning, while your last one was The End. Isn’t that backward?

For every ending there is a new beginning.

What ended?

The whole way the recording industry works. Now we’re in a whole new technological age.

But the album’s loaded with call-backs to the 1980s, from 2 Live Crew lyrics to Dirty Dancing riffs.

Well, the 1980s was the beginning of everything we have now—computers, high-def TV, the Internet, etc. But it also shows you that we’re still in our infancy. No matter how advanced you think we are, it’s really just the beginning.

You started doing soundtracks and commercials. Do you think that set a precedent for all the multi-platforming you do today?

I did a Nivea hair-product commercial—that’s how I paid my mom’s mortgage. Then I did a Dr. Pepper commercial, and I bought my mom a new house. I got paid more for 30 seconds of music than I did making 72 minutes of music, and it allowed me to move my family out of the projects. From Otis Redding to Miles Davis to every single major artist I think about, all their record deals sucked. Ads paid. I knew at least that much.

Do you worry about overexposure?

If your only trick is utilizing media, then you run the risk of overexposure. But if your trick is making something good, then all you’ve done is give people something they like. If your creativity outweighs the exposure, then there’s nothing wrong with that. I just call it connecting on a really big level.

So how do you come up with fresh material?

You have to anticipate that people got hip to what you were doing before, and they’re not gonna gravitate to that old thing anymore. It’s very tricky.

When you started out, your eclectic take on hip-hop surprised people.

I was born and raised in the ghetto, on welfare, two minutes from homeless. I wanted to change that. I did that by saying I don’t wanna dress like a gangsta. Instead, I wanna look like MC Hammer. I wanna be like De La Soul. I wanna sound like Tribe Called Quest. I didn’t wanna be like homeboy who just went to jail.

You were criticized though for not making a harder sound.

Crime and violence are the easiest emotions to reenact. But I never played that, and I feel proud that I didn’t. I didn’t have to set African-Americans and urban communities back to move forward.

It’s ironic because recently you were criticized for wearing black face paint during your VMA performance.

Here’s Twitter, this amazing forum, and some people are so disconnected they’re tweeting about black face paint, on a black man! “He set black people back a thousand years.” I’m like, “Why don’t you tweet about your local congressman who does nothing about putting money into education and see how far that sets African-Americans and Latinos back, bonehead!”

You campaigned hard for President Obama in 2008. Are you still politically active?

It’s hard to feel motivated. All this red vs. blue, it’s like, Are you guys Crips and Bloods? What about tackling jobs, obesity, poverty? Since red and blue make purple, why not unite, because scientifically speaking, purple is the fastest light. If they were to come together, they’d be faster and more powerful.

What would you like to see done?

There are five issues that make a fist of a hand that can knock America out cold. They’re lack of jobs, obesity, diabetes, homelessness, and lack of good education. Those things are messing up America, and no one seems to be talking about them! If we’re not careful, America could become a Third World country sooner than we think.

You recently set up a scholarship and mortgage-rescue program.

Having some responsibility gives me the drive to work as hard as I do. The drive isn’t just, “I want to be in Us Weekly, and followed by paparazzi at the market!” I want purpose behind it. I’m not trying to be Unicef. But I have the means to do it now, so I do.

Outside the studio, you hang with an unlikely crowd.

I like science and technology. It’s creative, like music, so I like to be around people in those fields—whether it’s Dean Kamen [the Segway inventor] or Brian Dunn [CEO] at Best Buy. They give me a glimpse into the future. Like, I’ll be in the studio, and I’ll say, ‘No, we can’t do that!’ And someone will say, “Why not?” And I’ll say, “Because I got a peep at tomorrow, and this won’t work.”

How are you and Fergie? There’s always rumors about a breakup.

It would be impossible for us to break up. The bond is that strong. If we haven’t split yet, we ain’t ever gonna.

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