The line winding around the auditorium at UC-Irvine is a snapshot of all-inclusive hip-hop culture: Asian girls shuffle forward on dictionary-thick platforms; Jell-O-haired white punks with lip piercings scam for tickets; and black couples in leather and braids hold smoky sticks of incense. The large crowd of fans for tonight's show has charged the Black Eyed Peas; they can't wait to get onstage.
Apl.De.Ap (wearing fatigues, with Bob Marley dreads), Will.i.am (in Shaft-era leather) and Taboo (rocking the breakdancing sheik look) are capping off this tour -- with De La Soul, Talib Kweli, and Wyclef Jean -- close to home. Once given the word, the Los Angeles trio hurls itself into its crazy kaleidoscope of a live show, and it's enough to change the mind of anyone unimpressed by its two albums. Backflipping into hip-hop's glorious block-party past, the group thrives live. Taboo, the show's hyperkinetic centerpiece, is no stage stalker; a dancer at heart, he bobs and locks, pumping the energy sky high, lording his perfectly synchronized moves above the crowd. Will and Apl take turns breakdancing in back, transforming the stage into a Whodini-era breakdown of pinwheel arms and legs.
The Peas grew up in L.A., birthplace of thug rappers N.W.A, but also of narrative-bending compatriots like the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and Jurassic 5. Breaking through in 1998 with Behind the Front, the Peas proved themselves to be smart rappers with history poised eloquently on their deft tongues. They helped kick off a movement to bring back rap's early, New York street-centric era of breakdancing and Afrika Bambaataa. In fact, the Peas have been dubbed latter-day West Coast bearers of Bambaataa's Native Tongues torch, placing them in an illustrious line that includes De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. Like those groups, the Peas marry rap's party-loving side with social consciousness, creating feel-good music that seduces critics and college kids as well as b-boys. Courting popularity with a fluid philosophy -- a polymorphic cause for celebration -- they avoid hard and fast poses. They might have underground impresario Mos Def guesting on their record, but they're not above touring with No Doubt.
But 2000 was not a great year for the Peas. Even though their new record, Bridging the Gap, is better than Behind the Front -- digging into far more subtle and arresting tunes while riffing on the debut's scratch-happy party jams -- it has been relatively ignored, especially by hip-hop radio. Ernest Hardy wrote in Rolling Stone that "the album's power increases with repeated listenings," but most critics haven't been nearly as kind.
So now the hard work starts.
The Peas sit in a dressing room backstage at Claremont-McKenna College, their energy abated by the sight of a clutch of aimless, war-story-swapping security guards where the long line of excited kids had waited at Irvine just two days before. Will, the group's leader and producer, is so tightly wired that he can't follow the conversation. He's a fidgety interview. And the trio's dueling, conversation-killing Motorola e-mail alerts -- beeping out something like "Flight of the Bumble Bee" -- make the room feel like a psychotic arcade.
"I feel so much more pressure now than when we were making the record," says Will. "Making an album, that ain't nothin' -- it's what happens when it comes out."
"Will has no attention span," confides his good friend, Canadian singer Esthero, who met him at the Opium Den in Los Angeles, "but that's because he's an artist in the true sense of the word. He never goes out, he works all the time -- that's why he's so nutty. He's created his own universe, and he has to work constantly. When he was touring with No Doubt, he hooked up a U87 mike in the bathroom for me and had me singing vocals in the tub. He's always somehow going to have a makeshift studio -- the amount of energy he has is incredible."
Energy is certainly a necessity in the Peas' current situation. They remain poised between radio rap and a thriving underground scene that's trying to bring back KRS-One's philosophical approach, or at least the stripped-down essence of curbside b-boy culture. "That's where we're from -- that era when it was fun," says Apl. "We're not really listening to new stuff now, because we can't really relate to it."
"The old school is the only school," Will asserts, "because the school that's 'new school' now isn't even in school. They're not learning anything about music. Our music has the essence of what everyone back in the day was speaking on, as opposed to what they're talking about now -- the bling-blings, the tits."
"Hip-hop is in distress," says Taboo. "Now they're trying to turn it into a marketing tool for Burger King. We're the ones -- and the Roots, and the De Las -- trying to revive the culture."
"The culture is as strong as it's been in a while," Will clarifies. "Right now hip-hop's dope -- the business is wack. And the only reason why I don't like the radio is when they don't play us." He's kind of joking, but he's not.
The roots of the Black Eyed Peas began with Apl's move to Los Angeles from the Philippines when he was a kid. Apl's adoptive father was a roommate of Will's uncle.
"Will lived in a ghetto," recalls Apl, "and I thought it was this luxurious [place] in comparison to where I'd been."
Will grew up in East Los Angeles, and his family members were the only blacks on his street ("We had a big family, though, so it was equal," he quips). The neighborhood opened his mind to different cultures, foreshadowing the Peas' multiethnicity: Apl is black and Filipino, and Taboo is of Native American and Mexican descent.
"I'm pretty blessed to be able to share all those experiences, from living around Mexicans to going to church with all black people," Will says. "I don't look at it as, 'Wow, I'm the only one -- fuck you.' I look at it as, 'Wow, I'm blessed to be able to relate.'"
While Apl and Will were hooking up and building record collections filled with Stevie Wonder and De La Soul (and dipping into Will's mom's favorites, the O'Jays and Earth, Wind & Fire), Taboo was losing his heart to Sade and entertaining family members with his breakdancing. "I'd go up there, do a little poppin', break my neck," he jokes. "I was crazy back then."
"I grew up in a predominantly Asian and Mexican community," Taboo says, "and because I did breakdance and poplock and all that, I did get a lot of criticism: 'You're Mexican, why are you doing that?' I would say, 'It don't matter if you're Mexican, white or black, I just like to dance.' It made me a stronger person. 'Oh yeah? Check this out.' It didn't matter, because I still had that skill."
Will and Apl were also testing their dancing skills, and they formed a dance group called Tribal Nation that eventually evolved into the rap outfit Atban Klan. They signed to Eazy E's ill-fated Ruthless Records in the mid-'90s, just before the rap star's death.
"Back then we were young," says Apl. "We would just mash all forms of music together and come up with something."
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This approach eventually yielded the organic pop-rap of Behind the Front, which actually earned radio airplay with the fun-loving rabble-rouser "Joints and Jams" and "Fallin' Up." A more involved, evolved record, Bridging the Gap is also more difficult. And judging from the Peas' recent experience, spanning the gulf between the mainstream and the underground is nearly impossible these days. KCRW's Garth Trinidad seems to be the only L.A. DJ hooked on the trio's contemporary spin on brick-house funk and balmy R&B, and it's not much better in every other radio market across the country. In fact, it's a lot worse.
Loaded with soul, and a slew of guest artists (Esthero, Ozomatli/Jurassic 5 rapper Chali2Na, De La, Mos Def, and freaky soulstress Macy Gray), Bridging the Gap delves into the kind of self-referential braggadocio that's launched a thousand battle raps. There are also heartfelt odes to girlfriends ("Hot," "Rap Song"), attempts to uncork the pressure with a little funky scream therapy ("Release"), and bossa nova relaxation meditation ("Bridging the Gaps"). The Peas preach a gospel of enlightenment and nonviolence: "Every rapper's talkin' about killin' somebody, but they ain't hip-hop to me" goes one line on the kick-off track, "BEP Empire." But at the record's core is the raw energy of the trio's live shows -- and that translates into incessant touring. As soon as the Peas finish the current round, they hit the road again with Macy Gray and Chicago rapper Common.
Asked what's keeping him grounded in the midst of this constant motion, Will jokes, "When I go in my pocket and only have a couple of dollars." Then he gets serious. "My mom keeps me down to earth. I'd hate for my mom to see me act like a dick, so I try not to act like a dick."
Beyond that, there's always the art-squashing machinations of the industry to remind him of his -- and hip-hop's -- limitations. "Just to do one thing creative takes about 10 political power moves," Will says with a sigh. "That makes you appreciate that one creative thing."