Will.i.am appears in latest issue of London Evening Standard magazineincluding new photoshoot by Matt Writtle and following article.
Will.i.am – Napster, the net and the Prince’s Trust
He’s back on The Voice and his single is a Number 1 — but his heart is in hardware and he’s teaching London kids about tech. Will.i.am explains why he’s become a Black Eyed geek
Something about this interview is back to front. In a role reversal, I have found myself in the spotlight, while Will.i.am, the Black Eyed Peas front-man and The Voice judge, takes a photo of me.
Will’s idea is for the Evening Standard photographer to get a picture of the back of his head as he takes the shot. “This picture is going to go around the world,” says the LA-born hip hop artist positioning himself in the dining room doorway of a suite at the Metropolitan hotel on Park Lane.“People will know it’s me from the shape of my hair,” he says. Suddenly I’m wondering whether I am about to get a big celebrity endorsement.
Just one week before the 37-year-old, (born William James Adams) begins filming the second series of The Voice in Manchester, he is in London.
Will is launching his awkwardly-named i.am+™foto.sosho™ in Selfridges. It’s a case for your iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S (the iPhone5 version is out next year) that turns your phone into a stylish and better quality camera.
It has taken Will a while to warm up and focus. “I was sick last night and jetlagged, which was a bad combination,” he explains. One of his assistants has admitted he has a hangover and Will has to duck out to the bathroom mid interview because he’s not feeling well.
Now, however, he is excited, playing with his new toy and showing his little-boy smile, which regrettably tends to get switched off when it’s him in front of the camera.
It was an impromptu photo-op not unlike this one that first inspired Will to embark on his latest project — the camera he has pointed at me. “Adriana Lima [the Brazilian model] had a photo that went all over Instagram,” Will explains. He had been at the photoshoot, but instead of the professional photos it was Lima’s own picture that everyone saw. So, thought Will: “Let’s do cameras.”
This may sound like an odd decision for a musician but Will’s focus at the moment is on technology. Not only is he addicted to Twitter (as well as immediately Tweeting from our photoshoot he was criticised for Tweeting on air during The Voice and while carrying the Olympic torch in the summer), but he has a role as “director of creative innovation” at Intel, had one of his songs broadcast from Mars by Nasa’s Curiosity space rover and is an investor in Dr Dre’s Beats Audio headphones. “Meeting Shawn Fanning [co-founder of Napster] in 2000 really changed my whole perspective on technology and that’s what got me here,” explains Will. “From then I’ve been fascinated by these young folk who create disruptive platforms by saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’”
Will is starting with cameras because, “I’m in front of cameras more than I am in front of my computer making music and there is a better opportunity to disrupt by rethinking cameras,” he says. And although he is vague on exactly what product he plans to produce next, it’s clear he wants to invest in tablets, phones and dominate video and song-making equipment — first by “using Apple devices as chips for our products”.
He is so confident that he is investing his own money in his projects. I discover this is a habit for Will when he later admits that for his current single, Scream and Shout, with Britney Spears, “I paid for the video myself”.
“The UK was like, ‘We want something now, hurry up it’s hot. It used to be America, but right now the UK leads the world … The American [record] company was hesitant because This is Love [his last single] didn’t really work in America.”
“I don’t do OPM,” he says, meaning other people’s money. “It takes too long. These ideas that I’ve had, if I’m thinking them then somebody else is about to do it. Right now you have got to go fast on things.”
So he’s building hardware. “I don’t want to write songs for other people’s hardware any more. I’m going to develop my own hardware and then write songs for my hardware.”
It’s to Napster that he attributes this way of thinking. “Up until [Napster] we thought we were selling music. We were never selling music. We were selling CD players, we were selling microphones…” he goes on with a long list of hardware, right back to pianos.
“Greed of selling CDs kept the music industry from being new because [Napster] disrupted the way they sold music.” Indeed, Napster’s influence and the prevalence of file-sharing upended the music industry, where 13 years later music sales are still in decline.
“It was the music industry’s fault for not evolving. Napster was the zeitgeist letting you know what time it was.”
In 2000 Will bumped into Shawn Fanning in Hollywood. “At the time everybody was against him, so I thought, ‘I’m going to be his friend.’ That was the dopest decision in my whole frigging life — befriending the person who created the revolution.”
The pair have remained in touch and when Fanning and his Napster co-founder Sean Parker launched their video chat service, Airtime, earlier this year, Will’s name was on the list of investors.
Yet it’s not just the tech veterans in whom Will invests. This year he donated £500,000 to the Prince’s Trust to go towards teaching technology skills to disadvantaged children in London.
“East London reminded me of East Los Angeles. There’s athletics [from the Olympics] but there’s no tech, so I’m going to take my money from The Voice and try to build tech centres to take these kids up to speed.” He has a foundation which invests in similar programmes in the US.
“When you think of science, a kid doesn’t know a company that is connected with science. That’s the reason they don’t want to do it. Google and Facebook and Twitter aren’t synonymous with science or math in school. That’s why I’m so passionate about tech and philanthropy around schools.” But why London? “I came to London, did The Voice and the country really gave me a nice welcome. They didn’t have to do that,” he explains. “I became a popular little character.”
As a result, he signed up for a second series. Although the rumours of him ever doing UK X Factor with Cheryl Cole he says are untrue.
“That’s like saying I’m playing for Manchester United and Chelsea. I’m passing to myself … What I like about The Voice is I take pride sitting there doing that. I could be doing something for money somewhere and you know on BBC it isn’t about the money. The fact we’re there doing it is not because we’re getting rich. Really, we had so much fun.”
Pickings weren’t always so rich for Will. He grew up with his mum, three blood-related siblings and four adopted siblings in the “projects” in LA. As a bright child he managed to get into a science programme that allowed him to go to a better school out of town.
“I wanted to be a scientist in elementary school because that’s what I enjoyed in school,” but in the end, he says: “Music was magnetic. You can’t fight attraction.”
Share air with Will.i.am and you notice this as his eyes dart in the direction of any stray noises while you talk to him. “I hear walking and stepping as songs.” He sings the note of a chair being dragged along the floor and starts up a beat to demonstrate. “It’s kind of irritating for people who are trying to have conversations with you and you’re going, ‘Wow, that would be a frigging good song dude.’”
Yet now Will’s technology projects are taking, “Hopefully 100 per cent of my time,” he says, which I immediately assume will be a blow for fans of his music. “I wish I could take you downstairs to see my hard drive so you can see how many songs I just have sitting there.” And if he does run out, “You can make a song in two minutes.”
I can’t help but notice that his tech talk revolves heavily around Apple products, with his first product — the camera — relying completely on owning an iPhone.
“Apple is for musicians. In the music land, that little chart thing they’ve got up there [the iTunes chart] I don’t think you understand what it’s done psychologically to our community,” he explains.
“That now is the race. Imagine we are Usain Bolt and that track that we race on is called iTunes. The place where you are [in the chart] resembles how you are tracked. People buy your track, which represents your attraction,” he says lyrically. Then, as if he willed it to happen, mid-photoshoot his assistant announces that Scream and Shout, his collaboration with Britney for which he had to front up his own cash, has hit Number 1 in the US iTunes chart. He brims with childish excitement. “Holding this product [the camera] and seeing that success [of the song] it’s like, ‘See I told you’,” he says. “Sometimes you have just got to invest in yourself.”