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Will.i.am on rave culture: "The underground is bigger than the surface. That's what people don't understand."

May 30, 2010 |  1:22 pm
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Sunday's Times features a story on the vitality of the electronic music scene in Los Angeles, and the many festivals and parties arriving this summer. There's the Electric Daisy Carnival at Exposition Park and Memorial Coliseum; two Hard events at the downtown Los Angeles State Historic Park; in August, the Love Festival, also at Exposition Park; and countless smaller parties -- including Lightning in a Bottle, which concludes Sunday -- dotting the summer calendar season.

In the story, Black Eyed Peas co-founder and producer will.i.am discussed his experiences discovering the first-wave rave scene in the early 1990s. In fact, he and Electric Daisy Carnival founder Pasquale Rotella went to high school together (Palisades Charter High School), and attended the same early raves and club nights (the most popular being Club What?).

Here's an edited transcript of the conversation. Will was on the phone in Europe while on a break from Black Eyed Peas' 100-date summer tour. The band lands in Birmingham, England, on Tuesday for two dates, then continues on to, among other cities, Paris; Johannesburg, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; Venice,Italy; Athens; and Edinburgh, Scotland. Sounds like a nice summer.

L.A. Times: It seems that right now there's a convergence going on in pop music among hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music and pop. We're hearing a lot of old rave sounds and house samples, and the hits are at much faster tempos.

will.i.am.: There's not a convergence from an industry standpoint. The music industry isn't converging toward dance music. Dance music is dance music. It's been around since disco -- and way before disco. But there's different versions of dance music. Disco is the first technology music. And what I mean is that "disco" music is named after discs, because when technology grew to where they didn't need a band in the clubs, the DJ played it on a disc. The DJ is a disc jockey. So it's technology.

And then, hip-hop was an advanced version of disco, because they rapped over a disco beat. Hip-hop was fast, originally. It was always fast music. They rapped over disco. [He starts beatboxing the bass line of "Good Times," by Chic, sampled in the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"]. That hip-hop song was an uptempo disco sample.

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And sampling Kraftwerk, as well.

Kraftwerk, all that stuff. It was always technological music. And it was done to make people dance, not necessarily for radio play. They weren't playing hip-hop on the radio. They played hip-hop in clubs. And then when it played on radio, that's when it changed, because radio didn't play what they played in clubs. Two different worlds: club life, radio life. People in traffic on freeways, or in offices, or at home, and then the people that go out. The owls. The night owls.

And hip-hop grew to house, and house grew to Detroit techno music -- from Chicago house to Detroit techno to drum & bass to trance. It got deeper and deeper and deeper, and now we have this thing called electro. In L.A. in the early, early 1990s, there were raves that were like secret clubs, and thousands of people would go, and the way you found out about it was you went to a map point and the map point gave you another map point and that map point gave you directions. Way before pagers, way before cellphones and the Internet. You physically had to go to two locations to get the address. Tens of thousands of people would show up in the desert or in the warehouses or these secret locations where the raves would be.

And it was very underground. I went to high school with [Electric Daisy Carnival founder] Pasquale [Rotella], and me and Pasquale would go to these raves. We'd be going to Club What. We were like in 10th grade whispering, "Yo man, you go to that rave last night?" "Yeah man, it was crazy." Our friend would be like, "Dude, I'm still rolling." People were on drugs -- I'm talking about 11th graders, 15-year-olds in high school. Where I was going to high school people were rolling, and coming down from the drug. I didn't do that stuff, and Pasquale didn't do that stuff. But we went, and we liked the vibe and the scene.

When the music industry started collapsing, the logical people understood that the only place to go for shelter was the underground. If the world on the surface is burning up, and you know people that have bunkers, go to the bunkers.

The Black Eyed Peas' "The End" is called "The End" because it is the end. And we have a safe haven, a shelter, in the underground. And we do dance music. The whole industry doesn't operate that way. If that was the case, there would be more DJs. Timbaland would be a DJ. Justin Timberlake would DJ. These big producers would be DJing in underground clubs, because that's the only thing that's real.

You have 80,000 people at Electric Daisy Carnival, and there's not one big superstar there. There are superstar DJs, but there are no Rihannas, no Beyonces, no Jay Zs. It's just DJs. And 80,000 people a day. That's crazy. The record industry can't do that with their superstars. Think about that one.

It's this parallel universe. And the kids all know about it, but it's not covered in the media as much as hip-hop, rock and country.

By its very nature, it's underground. But the underground is bigger than the surface. That's what people don't understand. The underground is bigger than the surface. The surface is the thought now, it's the hypnotism, it's making you think that it's as relevant as it was in 1998, that it's just as healthy as it was in 1989, or 1992. It isn't. What's healthy is underground culture. DJs that can make just as much money as the Pussycat Dolls. There are DJs that make as much money than an individual in the Pussycat Dolls. How does that make sense, logically?

If you were to compare the underground world and record companies, a DJ can make $500,000 a year and never put out a record and the song doesn't play on the radio. And a pop DJ might make $20 million dollars a year and his song isn't played on the radio. Think about that.

I didn't realize the extent to which you grew up in the rave community. You were growing up with Chicago house and Detroit techno?

Yeah, we used to go to dance parties when I was in the 10th and 11th grade.

Other than in the clubs, were there radio shows you were listening to that was playing the music?

Well, it went from hip-hop, from when hip-hop was fast. "It Takes Two" is 127 beats per minute. When hip-hop was uptempo. When Jungle Brothers was sampling Kenny Dope's "The Bomb." When it got even poppier. When Queen Latifah did "Come Into My House." When Technotronic did "Pump Up the Jam." All that stuff, and then it went into the deep house stuff. And we liked that because that's what we danced to.  Black Eyed Peas, before we were Black Eyed Peas, we were what you called "house dancers." We used to dance house.

It was an epiphany for me when Missy Elliott sampled Juan Atkins and Cybotron on "Lose Control."

Yeah, Cybotron's "Clear." But that could be considered freestyle music too. You know, like Debbie Deb and all that stuff. That's kind of in the middle of dance party music and that era of electronic music in the '80s when it was poppier. It was still underground. It wasn't big like the Debbie Deb stuff and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

Our second record, we sampled Debbie Deb's "Lookout Weekend." We always were into dance music, but in hip-hop we couldn't go that far until we said, "... it. I don't give a ... about the rules." We were always into dance music, but in hip-hop we couldn't go that far.

Yeah, it seemed like this unwritten rule that you had to sample from jazz.

But it was a strict rule that came from nowhere. I don't know where it came from, but people abided by it. Some people were brave enough to -- but it's all different versions of dance music.

But then Rihanna's new track has some great, weird rave chords, and there are Lady Gaga's dance tracks, and of course you guys. It's interesting to turn on the radio and hear sounds that were originally generated on weird old synthesizers from the late '80s and early '90s. And with "I Gotta Feeling" you worked with David Guetta.

Well, the groups that you mentioned have producers. And some of those producers that produce those songs that you just mentioned probably have friends or they probably go out and DJ themselves. I DJ, and I've been doing it for a while. I met David Guetta at Ibiza. I had a gig at Pacha on a Friday and went to his gig on a Thursday and met him there. And then I was hanging out with Brad from Beatport in Colorado, and I asked Brad to get me David's phone number, and that's how it all came together. And, actually, it was our first true band/DJ collaboration -- no middleman, no management.

"Boom Boom Pow" sounds like slowed-down Chicago house to me.

Yeah, that's a fusion of Miami bass, Chicago house, and European zombie music. [Does trippy rave sounds] That was inspired by Australia -- the whole electro scene in Australia -- that breakdown. [more rave sounds]

Yep, those are techno sounds.

Yeah. Not a lot of words. I was like, "Dude, I want to have a song with not a lot of words." I just want a beat. That's the hardest thing to do, is minimalism, when you have to take away and still make it feel full. Anybody can put a whole bunch of stuff on a plate. But how do you put the right things on the plate where you're not hungry afterward? That's the hardest thing to do. Anybody can take an elephant and put it in the room and fill it up. But how do you put a chair and a table in a big room and have it look finished? With "Boom Boom Pow," that's what I tried to do. Construct it as architecture, with its own space. It's more sound design that it is traditional song structure.

Who have the Black Eyed Peas commissioned for remixes?

We have what we call our invaders. We do remixes the same time we do songs. We don't like to put a song out and then do a remix.  That's like, "Uh-oh, something happened, it's not working. Let's remix it." We do the song and the remix at the same time, and then give out the parts for the DJs to remix it.  We inspire collaborations. We do the song, then we give it to our invaders before the song comes out, and then when the song comes out we give out the parts so people can do their own.

People meaning the general public?

Yep.

I really appreciate that. Because the parts are going to get out anyway, so why not?

Yeah, and when we write them, I try and put as much parts in the song that can live on their own without the song. [He sings a few notes from "I Gotta Feeling"] You can put that in any track and you'll know that it's from "I Gotta Feeling." We try to put parts in the song that you can take away with you. [He does an extended beatbox performance identifying parts of Peas' songs that are sample-able.]

It's like when you go to France  and you want to buy a souvenir, you get the Eiffel Tower. When you want to go to London you get Big Ben. When you want to go to New York you get the Empire State Building. When you want to go to "Boom Boom Pow" land, there are parts of it that you can take and put into other songs. If [a DJ] won't play a Black Eyed Peas song, they're going to play a piece of a Black Eyed Peas song in a club. 

-- Randall Roberts

Photos: Will.i.am in his Los Feliz studio. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times


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