The success of the Black Eyed Peas flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the music business sacrifices long-term artist development in favor of quick hits and short-term corporate profits.
Signed to Interscope Records more than six years ago by chairman Jimmy Iovine, the progressive hip-hop group’s first two albums, “Behind the Front” in 1998 and “Bridging the Gap” in 2000 earned rave reviews but failed to go gold (shipments of 500,000 copies). The first album peaked at No. 139 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 197,000 units, according Nielsen SoundScan, while the sophomore set stalled at No. 67 with sales of 258,000.
Then came “Elephunk.” Released June 24, 2003, the album rolled past the platinum (shipments of one million) certification mark in March, on the strength of the band’s upbeat hit single “Where Is the Love?”
To date, “Elephunk” has sold an estimated 6 million copies worldwide, according to Universal Music International, including 1.4 million units sold in the United States.
Leading the international charge is the United Kingdom, where sales have matched those in the States. “Elephunk” has sold more than 400,000 units in Germany, 300,000 in Australia, 200,000 in Japan and 100,000 in Italy, Universal reports.
In keeping the Peas on the boil, Iovine kept his promise, the band members say.
“I remember when we first signed to Interscope,” says William Adams (aka Will.I.Am), who founded the Peas with Allen Pineda (aka Apl.de.Ap) and Jaime Gomez (aka Taboo). Another major label offered the band “tons of money,” but with no guarantee of a chance at long-term development. “There was a bidding war and Jimmy Iovine said, ‘With me, you’ll always be able to make records.’ He has kept his word.”
Iovine’s faith paid off big time. But it didn’t happen overnight. The Peas’ breakthrough came with perseverance, hard work, connections and a series of coincidences.
Despite Iovine’s support, the band had little label guidance during the recording of its first two albums. In 2001, however, it gained another important supporter when veteran producer/executive Ron Fair became president of A&M Records. A&M had moved under the Interscope umbrella following the consolidation of the Universal Music Group.
Fair first worked with the Peas on “Magic,” the group’s reworking of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which was featured on 2001’s “Legally Blonde” soundtrack.
With Fair’s guidance, the group began working on a third album. During early sessions, female vocalist Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie) was tapped to sing on the track “Shut Up.”
Adams met Ferguson in 2001 at a multiact radio show in Minnesota – at the time she was a member of female trio Wild Orchid. “She was talking about leaving the group, and she wanted someone to produce her,” Adams recalls.
Months later, when Adams was looking for a female voice for “Shut Up,” a friend suggested Ferguson. Adams, however, wasn’t convinced she was the right singer for the song.
“I never listened to Wild Orchid, but my friend said she could sing her ass off,” he recalls. “When she came in, I was like, ‘Whatever.’ But when she started singing, it was natural. We did the song in 30 minutes.”
BAD LUCK, BAD HAIR
By coincidence, Fair knew of Ferguson; he was executive producer on Wild Orchid’s two RCA albums. “Wild Orchid was the greatest white-chick harmony band of all time, but they got caught in the backdraft of bad luck and bad hair,” Fair says.
During Christmas-week sessions in 2001, three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Peas began work on the song that became their signature hit. On Dec. 26, “Where Is the Love?” was born.
Recording continued into 2002. Gomez had befriended ‘N Sync member Justin Timberlake, who was then finishing work on his solo album.
“Taboo played (the song) to (Timberlake) over the phone, and he came in the studio the next week and recorded (additional lyrics),” Adams says. Once the track was completed, management and representatives from the band’s label agreed “Where Is the Love?” was a smash.
But then Timberlake’s label, Jive Records, expressed concern about the track competing with the singer’s solo album. Negotiations were needed to allow “Where Is the Love?” (featuring Timberlake) to be the first single from “Elephunk.”
“We had to work out all kinds of things contractually,” says DAS Communications president David Sonenberg, who co-manages the Peas with Seth Friedman. “That was a difficult thing to accomplish, but we had a lot of help from Interscope.”
Timberlake’s credit also became an issue. “They gave us the right to put (his name) on our record and (release) the single, but Justin was not in the video and we weren’t making reference to him in advertising because (Jive) didn’t want to dilute what was happening with Justin’s record,” Sonenberg says.
But a hit changes everything. “Then everybody relaxed the legal requirements, nobody was damaged and he got credited appropriately,” Sonenberg says.
By now, Ferguson had become a full-time member of the group, adding a female voice, personality and sex appeal previously supplied on the Peas’ prior releases by such guests as Macy Gray, Esthero and Kim Hill.
READY TO TOUR
With “Elephunk” set for release in June 2003 and the revamped foursome ready to hit the road, the band and its label faced the challenge of gaining exposure for an album primed for success.
Again, fate and connections helped. Fair had worked during his tenure at RCA with Christina Aguilera, who was co-headlining a major summer tour with Timberlake.
Fair campaigned heavily and was able to land the Peas on the Justified and Stripped tour as the opening act.
But when the Peas joined the tour, tickets had already been printed, without their name. Fair saw the oversight as good fortune.
“If our name was on the ticket,” Fair says, “most people would go, ‘Black Eyed Peas? Who are they? Never heard of them.’ They might not have gotten there until 8 p.m. and would have missed our set. Because we were not on the ticket, we were seen by 500,000 people at a very critical time.”
On June 4, 2003, during the opening show on the tour in Phoenix, co-manager Seth Friedman realized the Peas had truly arrived.
“They closed their set with ‘Where Is the Love?’ The place was 99% full, and when they started playing the song, seeing the reaction and hearing the fans sing along was something I’d never seen with this band before,” Friedman says. “That’s when I knew that this really was going to happen.”
With the buzz from the tour and interest in the band growing overseas, U.S. radio programers began to take notice.
MTV, which had given the group support prior to “Elephunk,” once again joined the party by airing the video for “Where Is the Love?” By August, the song had reached No. 1 on the Mainstream Top 40 and Top 40 Tracks airplay charts.
In addition to the road, radio and video support, the Peas licensed their music to commercials to secure additional exposure, as well as income.
Although “Shut Up,” the second single from “Elephunk,” didn’t fare as well in the United States as it did in other territories, the band found success with other tracks.
In late 2003, “Hey Mama,” which would go on to become the third single from “Elephunk,” was featured in an ad campaign for Apple Computer’s iPod.
In June, three months after “Elephunk” went platinum, A&M released a new version of the album containing the track “Let’s Get It Started.” The song, a revised version of the group’s “Let’s Get Retarded,” was picked by ESPN and the NBA to be the official theme of the NBA playoffs and finals.
Following the rerelease, “Elephunk” climbed the charts again – peaking at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 last month.
The band recently completed a European tour and has been recording its next album, “Monkey Business,” at London’s Metropolis Studios.
After performing shows in Japan late this month, the Peas return to the United States. Before hitting the road, the group heads to New York for an appearance Aug. 13 on “Good Morning America.” The Peas will close out the summer with an appearance at the San Diego Street Scene (Aug. 27) and a pair of dates – Aug. 28-29 – opening for the Dave Matthews Band at the Home Depot Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson.
The band is expected to release “Monkey Business” in November, then headline a U.S. tour. Also on tap is a solo album from Ferguson, produced by Adams and due next summer.