Will.i.am gave an interview to ST Technology and he talked to them about all his projects and many more. There are also two photos of Will in the studio taken by Amanda Marsalis for this magazine.
Will.i.am is on a mission to make science and engineering as appealing to young people as pop music – while reinventing the smartphone, running a car company and beaming a song back from Mars. Georgia Dehn tries to keep up.
Will.i.am doesn’t like to be told that something is impossible, such as being in two places at once. It is just after lunchtime and he is at the Record Plant recording studio in Los Angeles, working on tracks for his new album, having spent the morning taking part in the Royal Television Society’s Digital World Conference on the future of broadcasting, at the Barbican Centre in London.
Unfortunately, he could not be at the London event in person because of important meetings he had to attend in LA (‘Just court stuff,’ he tells me later, without wishing to elaborate), but it wasn’t for his lack of trying. Eager to find a way to get to Britain in time for the conference, he suggested to his publicist that they charter a private jet, but that would have shaved only 30 minutes off his journey time. Next, he put forward the idea of appearing at the event as a hologram. He has done this before – in 2008 he was beamed into the CNN newsroom to talk about the US election – but it was ruled out as too costly. Eventually he prerecorded a conversation with Richard Taylor, a BBC technology editor, while they were both in New York; he then appeared live on screen to take questions from the Barbican audience via ooVoo – a rapidly growing video-chat service – while sitting in front of a computer at home in Hollywood.
One of the themes of Will’s talk was interactivity. He told Taylor that television networks need to develop new ways of connecting with audiences, to expand their revenue streams. As a viewer watches his or her favourite drama, Will suggested, a victim running from a killer could reach a house where, after entering, they make a phone call. At that exact moment, the viewer’s mobile phone would ring. When the viewer answers the phone, the character would be talking directly to them. ‘You are participating in the drama. You are part of the script,’ Will told Taylor. What’s more, he said, because the viewer has given the TV network their number, the network ‘knows exactly who you are, where you are and what you are buying – because you are buying things on your phone. None of the networks is thinking like that. Why? Because they are trying to figure out how to monetise yesterday instead of coming up with new ways to monetise today.’
A few hours later, wearing a snazzy pair of red patent Christian Louboutin loafers covered in rubber spikes and a grey Prince of Wales check Vivienne Westwood jacket, Will.i.am bursts through the door to the control room in the studio where I have been waiting for him. Before addressing me, he sits down in front of a MacBook Pro with a microphone attached to it, clears his throat and raps some lyrics into the mic.
Born William Adams, Will.i.am is a musician, producer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, best known as the frontman of the multi-Grammy-winning hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas, and more recently as a coach on the BBC talent show The Voice. He is also a man obsessed – a word that gets used lightly, but which in his case is appropriate – with technology. Not only is he permanently plugged into the digital universe – as photographs of him tweeting while he jogged through Taunton carrying the Olympic torch this summer proved – he is also an evangelist for technology as a tool for solving many of the world’s economic and social problems. He is on a mission not only to share his passion for all things tech, but also to make the idea of working with technology much more appealing to young people. In a Huffington Post blog last year, he said, ‘Most kids are not dreaming of being programmers, scientists or engineers. The ones that are… are looked at as being geeks or uncool, when in actuality technology is the only thing that is cool today.’
A highly vocal champion of Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) education, he says his aim is to help the next generation ‘dream what the future will be’, and shift their aspirations. ‘I am trying to encourage kids to do something that isn’t yet on their mind because it is not in popular culture,’ he tells me now. ‘Popular culture tells you “music, music, sports, sports”. It neglects the importance of a Stem education.’
His i.am.angel Foundation, set up in 2009 ‘to trans4m lives through education, inspiration and opportunity’, works non-stop in Boyle Heights, the deprived East Los Angeles district in which he was raised, but it has a global reach. Will recently gave £500,000 to the Prince’s Trust to fund Stem schemes in underprivileged London boroughs. ‘What I did with Prince Charles,’ Will says, ‘I was like, “Hey, your Prince’s Trust is amazing, but do you know that you don’t have technology in any of the programmes? Let’s bring a Stem programme for the Prince’s Trust.” It is kicking off now. Money has been sent.’
Last month it was reported that he was in the process of developing a technology-based TV talent show to find the next Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg. I ask how plans for this are going. ‘That’s on its way,’ he says, a little hesitantly. What will it be called? ‘I’d rather not say all the potentials because then you are going to say it [in print] and that is going to be the name. It is in process.’
He has dabbled in tech talent shows before. Last year, in collaboration with First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organisation founded by the Segway inventor Dean Kamen to inspire students in engineering and technology fields, he produced the TV showi.am.First: Science is Rock and Roll. It featured highlights from the 20th annual First Robotics Competition and a live performance by the Black Eyed Peas in front of the international teams of high-school pupils taking part. The programme aired on America’s ABC network, where it caught the attention of the Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden.
Bolden wanted Will’s advice. How, he asked, did Will think Nasa could encourage young people to engage with space exploration. Will came up with the idea that they could beam a song back from Mars when the Curiosity rover landed in August this year. Reach for the Stars, a catchy tune that will feature on Will’s new album (#Willpower – the hashtag, as any Twitter user knows, is significant), was beamed back from the rover on August 28. Will was ‘with all the Nasa folk’ at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – its centre for robotic exploration – with students and other invited guests to witness the event. ‘When [the rover] sent the signal back and the song started, we had a geekebration,’ he says. ‘Everybody was like “Yeah, it did it, woah!”
‘I was proud,’ he says, grinning. ‘It is surreal to think that for nine months a rocket was travelling to a different planet and when it landed it sent a song back to earth. The Nasa folk were open-minded enough to want to do it, because it was for a good cause. Many people who would never have known about a rocket leaving earth to go to Mars knew about it because of the song.’
Will documented the Nasa project in an hour-long TV special, made by his own production company, which is the latest listing in the 37-year-old’s ever-increasing business and technology portfolio. It includes Ekocycle, a partnership with Coca-Cola, which produces branded products from recycled materials. Ekocycle’s first two deals were with Beats by Dr Dre headphones (Will was an early investor: ‘I own a piece of Beats’) and New Era baseball caps – both of which are available now – and it has just signed up Levi’s and Case-Mate, which makes accessories for smartphones. Will also owns a car company, i.am.auto, which has created a number of jobs, as well as bespoke cars (including Will’s own customised white DeLorean) on his home turf in East LA. ‘[At this stage] it is just a Stem project in Boyle Heights,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to make thousands of cars. I want to make vehicles so that when kids learn a Stem skillset, something tangible comes out of it.’
Unsurprisingly, more and more digital businesses want a piece of him. Last year Intel hired him as its ‘director of creative innovation’. It is hard to pinpoint quite what that role entails, but it sounds like more than the usual celebrity ambassadorship. Will admits that he doesn’t get involved with the technical aspects of the products Intel produces but he does, he says, advise on the new things a computer user might want or need. ‘I consult and bring ideas,’ he says. ‘But it doesn’t mean they are going to make the hardware.’
In May he was the keynote speaker at the Royal College of Art’s annual Innovation Night where, discussing new technologies, he said that ‘The world is in a Play-Doh state right now, for the dreamers and the moulders to define and shape what tomorrow will be.’ Asked by Dr Paul Thompson, Rector of the Royal College, to share a big vision he has for the future, Will enthused about the potential of wearable technology, ‘when software is put on things like a jacket – things that we don’t think of as technology – so that the jacket picks up thoughts or gesture control’. It may be far-out stuff, but he makes no apologies for that. ‘Not many people give you a vision of what the future will bring,’ he says now. ‘It is usually a regurgitation of what everyone was dreaming of yesterday. But I think, “Why do we have pockets?”’ Before I have the chance to respond, he says, ‘For wallets. And in the future we are not going to have wallets.’
Spend a few minutes with Will.i.am and you realise that his mind works at an incredible speed, and bounds from one big idea to the next. While I am still pondering the idea of intelligent clothing, he has moved on to the extinction of business cards. ‘I go to all these tech conferences and people give you business cards,’ he says. ‘You would think they’d have some new shit.’ He never bothers with business cards but types people’s details straight into his phone, where they are labelled according to their profession: songwriter, dancer, singer, coder. ‘I say, “Hey, man, what do you do? You’re a freaking code writer? Let me get your number.” You are going to teach me.’
Next year, Will says he is going to go back to school to learn computer programming. ‘I want to contribute. I could always sell an idea to somebody and they could do it, but I want to know how to do those things.’ Does he think that in future it will be paramount that people learn how to code? ‘Yes. Remember in school they told you how people in the Middle Ages didn’t know how to read or write? Now here we are, 2012, people want to know how to code. Our lives are dependent on technology. It should be mandatory that you understand computer science. Everything is based on computers.’
Everything, including the way he records music. These days, he admits, he doesn’t even need to be in a studio to put together a song – he can produce it on his laptop with software such as Pro Tools. ‘I could take this anywhere,’ he says, picking up his MacBook. ‘Pump It [a 2005 Black Eyed Peas song] was made on a train from Osaka to Yokohama.’ He says the reason he comes to the studio is to have access to the broadest range of recording possibilities and because the tuning of the room is important. (He has a hi-tech studio at home too, but seldom uses it because he thinks it is haunted by Michael Jackson, with whom Will worked before Jackson’s death.)
His work with the Black Eyed Peas has helped him to amass an estimated fortune of $75 million, yet success and wealth have not diminished his drive and determination. So where does he get his work ethic from? ‘Competition,’ he says quickly. ‘From having a very stylish older brother, who always made fun of me when I was little. Carl is five years older – a shoe designer and a stylist – and I still look up to him. He is cool.’
Will has two brothers, a sister, two adopted brothers and two adopted sisters. He is very close to his mother, who raised her children by herself – he never met his father. He says something he learnt from her is, ‘Always make sure you know what it is you are trying to accomplish, be able to articulate what you want to accomplish, and never take no for an answer. You have to figure out a way around the no.’
His interest in technology came early. ‘I was using Apple IIcs in third grade,’ he says. ‘Computer class with Mr Lipwalk.’ Boyle Heights was – and still is – a deprived area and Will’s mother sent him to a ‘Magnet’ school on the other side of Los Angeles, which took 90 minutes to get to by bus every day. Magnet schools emerged in America in the 1960s to ensure racial and ethnic integration and are now considered superior public – non-fee-paying – schools. It was at school that he developed his love of music, became transfixed with machines on which to record songs, and, in eighth grade, met his Black Eyed Peas bandmate apl.de.ap (Allan Pineda). He swings his chair around to face the computer, pulls up a Google window and says out loud as he types, ‘SP-1200… this was the piece of beat.’ An E-mu drum machine and sampler, popular with hip-hop artists in the late 1980s, and used by Will and apl.de.ap to craft homemade demos, appears on the screen. ‘The other was a Roland S550 [sampler].’ He calls up a picture. ‘I learned on this. Dang, look at that, dude.’
Suddenly leaping out of his chair, he launches himself across the room and unzips a Valextra holdall. He says he wants to show me a treasured possession that illustrates his early musical ambitions. ‘Dude, check this out. This was a long time ago.’ He returns with two brightly packaged cassette tapes, titled Get in Shape Girl and Barbie and the Rockers. ‘My sister Qiana got these for Christmas one year. I was 12 and she was six or seven. I recorded over her tapesto make my very first demo,’ he says.
Will’s mother had a stereo system with a record player and two cassette decks ‘so you could record your records to tapes’, and he would record loops from the opening bars of songs – That’s the Way (I Like It) by KC and the Sunshine Band, among others – to provide backing tracks for his vocals. ‘I would make five-minute loops, and then record me rapping over my loop.’ Did his sister get upset? ‘No, she was my background singer. My rap name then was Will Chill, and I did a song with her called The Chill Dance.’ He says he keeps the cassettes with him when he is working to remind himself that ‘the dream paid off.’
The word ‘dream’ crops up frequently with Will.i.am – but despite all the sci-fi talk of wearable technology and making TV audiences part of the drama, and the absence of tangible results in some of his business projects, he is determined to turn his dreams into reality. He talks the talk, and follows it up with direct action. In the 2008 election he came out in support of Barack Obama, and then recorded Yes We Can, a musical interpretation of Obama’s speech in the New Hampshire primary, which went viral online, attracting 24 million hits on YouTube, helping to encourage significant numbers of young Americans to vote.
Will’s phone rings and, as he politely switches it off, I express surprise that, for someone so into tech, he uses a BlackBerry. ‘I’m waiting for my accessory to be finished so I can switch over to iPhone,’ he says. What accessory? ‘This thing right here,’ he says, taking a leather case from around his neck. Inside is an iPhone 5 with a protruding lens in the centre of its cover. This is the first piece of hardware from his new venture, i.am+. ‘This thing turns the eight-megapixel iPhone camera into a 14-megapixel camera,’ he says. ‘We have our own sensor and a better flash. You dock your phone into our device and it turns your smartphone into a genius-phone. We take over the camera.’
He recently received an email confirming that i.am+ has been granted a licence by Apple, meaning it can develop and sell products to work with iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. First, he had to give a presentation to Apple executives. ‘I hadn’t had “cotton mouth” for ever,’ he says. ‘I have performed at the Queen’s Jubilee, Obama’s inauguration, the Super Bowl, World Cup, all of it, and not been nervous. At my Apple meeting, I felt like I had just swallowed a desert.’
He came up with the idea for the i.am+ camera at a photo shoot in London in 2008. ‘I was hanging out afterwards, and one of the models took an iPhone picture, which circulated the planet before the shoot was even over,’ he says. ‘I took one of the photographer’s lenses and held it up on my BlackBerry and said, “Imagine this one day.” Then I said, “I’m going to do this.” When we showed Apple, they were like, “This is beautiful, where did you have it made?” I was like, “Same place that makes your stuff.” Eventually I want to have it made in America, but we have to build a factory and in order to build a factory we have to have some success.’ The camera will be the first of a series of digital products that bear his name – to support them, he has invested in what he calls ‘i.am real estate’ online – he now owns the domain www.i.am. Users of i.am+ accessories will be given individual online profiles: www.i.am/Will or www.i.am/Georgia.
He grabs a luxurious leather box that has been sitting next to his laptop and shows it to me. ‘This is going to have a charging dock and storage,’ he says. ‘This box is going to store 200 gigs of information. You take a whole bunch of photos, you need somewhere to store them. I want to have a hard-drive that can sit next to my computer, and look, right here is a drawer for all the different lenses and strap.’
Will.i.am is in full flow, but it is time to get ready for our photo shoot, after which he will do some more work on the album, before heading into a meeting with his accountants. As he leaps to his feet and bounds out of the room, I am left thinking that there is one more thing he needs to dream up: a piece of technology to allow him to fit more hours into a day.
– source: ST Technology