The Black Eyed Peas: Peas be with you

The Black Eyed Peas' socially aware hip hop is suddenly big news. But have they sold out? Not at all, they tell Alexia Loundras
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Taboo - a quarter of The Black Eyed Peas - bounds into the hotel penthouse suite happier than a Labrador chasing a stick. Having marvelled at the exceptional view of the Thames from the room's wall of windows, he perches himself on the sofa, raring to go. Despite having arrived from Singapore only this morning, he is a bundle of energy, firing off anecdotes and preaching the joys of fully reclining aircraft seats. Taboo is tireless - which is just as well. Recently, he has had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take a break. "We're selling five million albums across the world - hell, ya, I'm excited!" he says. "I wake up every day with a smile - I'm a blessed man, and every day is special."

The band are here on the final leg of what Taboo calls their "awards tour". In the past four days, the Los Angeles hip-hop act have played in three continents: at the Grammys, in LA, the MTV Asia awards, in Singapore (via engagements in Japan and Vietnam), and then, the Brit awards, in London, where they were also nominated for two awards.

There's an air of frantic energy surrounding the band. While Taboo and his equally elated, motor-mouthed front man, Will.i.am, settle down for a chat, their bandmates busy themselves with last-minute arrangements. Fergie, the Peas' female vocalist and newest member, who has just celebrated her first anniversary with the band, has rushed off to select outfits for the Brits. The band's third rapper, Apl.de.ap - presumably not yet a convert to the sleeping-at-40,000ft idea - is taking some precious shut-eye before the evening's rehearsals.

Theirs is a hectic schedule. Since the release of their breakthrough third album, Elephunk, last September, The Black Eyed Peas have played 377 shows worldwide, made hundreds of TV appearances and given innumerable interviews. "I love doing it - all of it," Will.i.am says. "And besides, you got to be grateful that someone wants to know something about us."

Because the fact is, for a long time no one did care much about them. After Will.i.am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap formed the group as a rap/break-dancing collective 11 years ago, they existed in relative obscurity. Although their socially conscious, old-skool hip hop had earned them a fervent cult following among fans of acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Jurassic 5, they had never managed to break out into popular consciousness. Their first two albums, Behind the Front (1998) and Bridging the Gap (2000), were well respected but sold less than 10,000 copies apiece in the UK.

"Where Is the Love?", the first single from Elephunk, changed all that. Written in the aftermath of September 11, the pro-peace song fell on sympathetic ears, echoing the frustrations felt by those opposed to the war in Iraq. But it was also ferociously catchy and armed with a vocal hook courtesy of the pop prince Justin Timberlake. Having taken over the airwaves, it proceeded to occupy the No 1 slot in the UK chart for six weeks and, in a time of shrinking sales, became the year's biggest seller, shifting 625,000 copies).

Timberlake's contribution was small - his name didn't appear on the single's cover nor his face in the video - but instrumental. His involvement ensured that the song got attention. But far from being an orchestrated marketing ploy, it came about by chance. Taboo and he met in a club break-dancing circle and exchanged phone numbers. Mutual musical appreciation followed. "At the time, nobody was checking for Justin," Will.i.am recalls. "He had NSync written all over his face. He was not cool in the urban world, not hip, not creative, not groundbreaking. I was like, why are we going to put Justin on 'Where Is the Love?'? You put Justin on it, you're going to mess it up!" But Timberlake didn't wait to be asked. He just went ahead and wrote what Will.i.am calls "some 'We Are the World' shit" for the song.

And yet the band could go only so far by riding on coat-tails; and they had to prove they were more than one-hit wonders. The follow-up single, "Shut Up", was another smash, and the band have gone on to sell more than a million copies of Elephunk in the UK. But The Black Eyed Peas' journey to such highs began in the pit of despair.

"We were going through a seriously life-threatening time," Will.i.am recalls. After the release of Bridging the Gap, the bandmates' lives started to spiral out of control. Both Taboo and Apl.de.ap succumbed to addictions, while family bereavements, the discovery of the identity of his father and painful infidelities left Will.i.am distraught and out of control. Unable to focus on making music, they doubted that they could write another album - and having to failed to deliver new material in more than two years, they realised they were also on the cusp of being dropped by their label, A&M. It took a global catastrophe to snap them back to their senses: after the World Trade Centre attack, The Black Eyed Peas made a do-or-die pact. "I remember, we sat, the three of us," Will.i.am says, "and it was like: 'This is it. This could be our last record - so let's go out with a bang!' "

Taboo adds: "If this was going to be our last chance, we wanted to make an album that described who we were. We thought: 'Let's write songs about our relationships, the world, our anxieties - let's make the most of this.'"

They didn't just write songs about their anxieties: they all began seeing a therapist. And in the studio, they threw themselves into Elephunk. While the lyrics deal with regrets, injustice and heartache, Latin vibes tussle with heavy funk riffs and what Will.i.am describes as "fat, club-smashing beats". It is not only the Peas' most liberated album but, as proven by its sales, also their most accessible. The problem is, for hip-hop cognoscenti, "accessible" isn't a good thing. It didn't take long for the snobs to start sniping about "selling out".

Will.i.am winces. "All that 'sell-out' stuff comes from the same people who held us close to their hearts for our first two records," he says. "And they call it 'sell-out' for what reason? Because we have a white girl in our group now? I don't think that just because one day you do a jazzy record and then you do a funk record, don't mean you sold out. It just means you like music and you're trying to dabble in every ray of colour in the music world." He shakes his head in disbelief.

Certainly, some of the band's recent award nominations (Best Pop Act at the Brits, for example) have not added to their hip-hop cred. But they won't accept the "pop" tag. "Pop ain't music - pop's a marketing campaign. The Cheeky Girls, that's pop," Will.i.am says, as he is called away to the group's Brits rehearsal. "We may sing over melodic beats, but we have a hip-hop sensibility. We hold bands such as De La Soul close to our heart, and that's what makes it hip hop."

Two days later, the four-piece have left the glamour of the Brits behind as they head to Birmingham for the start of a UK mini-tour. Will.i.am sounds relieved that Busted pipped them to the Best Pop Act award: "I'd have been in a tough place if we'd won that one," he says, unconcerned that the band came away empty-handed (having also failed to win Best International Group). "It's a cool losing-streak," he chuckles. "But our performance was really good, and that's what's important - playing great shows is what got us here, not receiving awards.

"We've always had it in us to be a mainstream band," Will.i.am continues brightly. "Music - sound - is the only thing that you can't direct. You can direct light, a bullet or traffic. But sound spreads out as it travels - you can't aim it at a target; you can't choose who hears it. All you have to do is let it free. Then it just goes and goes. Because our music is positive, people like it - it's like medicine." He lets loose a big, gurgling laugh. "And medicine is good."

The Black Eyed Peas play Brixton Academy, London SW9, on 3 March, and The Forum, London NW5, on 12 March. The single 'Hey Mama' is out on A&M/Will.i.am Records on 8 March

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