It took nearly a decade, and a bilingual song in English and Spanish, for what was once the biggest pop group in the world to reenter the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. But the fact that the Black Eyed Peas would return to the charts with a Spanish-titled track, featuring one of Latin music’s most in-demand stars, should not have been too surprising.
Long before they were a chart-conquering, arena-ready quartet, the Black Eyed Peas were a trio of high school friends in Los Angeles — an African American (William “Will.i.am” Adams), a Mexican American (Jaime Luis “Taboo” Gomez) and a Filipino (Allan “Apl.de.ap” Pineda). They made hip-hop with a vast multicultural mindset, blurring ethnic and genre lines beyond distinction years before ever dreaming about ruling pop radio.
“Hip-hop and urban music, in the beginning, they really didn’t fuck with Black Eyed Peas — we weren’t hard enough, we weren’t gangster enough,” says Will.i.am, who grew up in the projects in Boyle Heights in East L.A., a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood. “I’m as street as it gets, but I don’t want to make music like that. To me that reminds me of pain and suffering, and my friends being shot and overdosing drugs. I want to make fantasy, feel-good, people-travel-the-world music.”
After starting out as a left-of-center rap trio in the late 1990s, the Black Eyed Peas exploded in the latter half of the 2000s, in part by focusing on markets outside of the United States and relentlessly touring Europe and Latin America. The addition of Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson in 2002 led to blockbuster mainstream success, culminating in 2009, when their pop-rap smashes “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling” occupied the top of the Hot 100 for a combined 26 weeks.
Yet despite their long history of border-crossing hits, their plurality has never been as markedly evident as it is on new album Translation. Out June 19, the set features 10 collaborations — more than any other Black Eyed Peas album — with Tyga, along with a veritable who’s who of Latin music, including Maluma, Ozuna, Shakira, Nicky Jam, Becky G, Piso 21, El Alfa and J Balvin. The lattermost is featured on “Ritmo,” which samples Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” and recently became the Black Eyed Peas’ first top 40 hit on the Hot 100 in nine years, peaking at No. 26. On the June 20 chart, “Mamacita” (featuring Ozuna and J.Rey Soul) entered at No. 90.
The new album, their first on Epic Records after two decades on Interscope, marks a new beginning as the group’s first commercial set since 2010 and since the departure of Fergie to start a family (her son, Axl, was born in 2013). Will.i.am released solo projects, produced for artists like Britney Spears and ran myriad educational programs through his I.Am.Angel Foundation in the downtime; he briefly toured by himself and hated it. Meanwhile, Taboo’s testicular cancer diagnosis in 2014 indefinitely sidelined the group — but it was precisely that event, the specter of loss, that finally galvanized the three friends to get back together, this time as a trio.
Although it feels like a lifetime has passed since the Peas’ hits-packed performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2011, the group has managed to restate its identity. The Peas tested the waters with 2018’s Masters of the Sun, Vol. 1, a more experimental album and their last on Interscope. They brought in a new female guest singer — J.Rey Soul, whom Apl.de.ap discovered on the Philippines edition of The Voice — and took a calculated, but still significant, gamble on the newfound global appeal of Latin music. They also bet on their potential to attract artists at the height of their careers to collaborate with a group that hasn’t been on the charts in nine years.
After ruling pop music in the late 2000s, the group lost a core member and remained dormant for years. Will.i.am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap explain what took so long — and why their new album had to have a global approach
STORY BY LEILA COBO
“They said, ‘Black Eyed Peas as a trio? I don’t think they’re going to have success.’ But we had to prove them wrong,” says Will.i.am. “Everybody took a leap of faith.” That includes Epic president Sylvia Rhone, who signed the Peas after Epic executive vp A&R Ezekiel Lewis heard “Ritmo (Bad Boys for Life)” in the studio. “Ritmo,” included on the Bad Boys for Life soundtrack, went on to top Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart for 21 weeks, while follow-up “Mamacita” is now at No. 3.
“Sylvia was [like], ‘You’re doing a whole Latin album? Why?’” recalls Will.i.am. “I said, ‘Because that genre, that world, is the most creative world right now.’ And [Epic] also has Sony Latin, and they kill it,” he says of the company’s U.S. Latin division, which is helping market and promote the album. Adds longtime manager Polo Molina, another high school friend: “Will is a guy you can never discount in music. We know when we have something that’s perfect for the times.”
In a series of Zoom interviews, the Black Eyed Peas look back on their career and explain why their music, now more than ever, can be a bridge between cultures.
Although you released the project Masters of the Sun, Vol. 1 in 2018, Translation feels very much like a comeback album, given its repertoire, its tone, its stars. How do you view it?
Will.i.am This is a comeback. Two years ago we were, “Y’all, let’s do an underground jazz record that reflects our origins and beginnings. Let’s purposefully not make songs that are about high-volume streaming or radio. Let’s make social commentary music.” And usually songs like that don’t take off.
This record was, “Alright, now that we did that one, let’s focus on doing what we know how to do and let’s make international songs.” “Ritmo” was a song we already had on our hard drive, and we said, “Yo, this can’t be on Masters, because this is a hit.”
So you make a comeback with a bilingual album that mostly features Latin stars and is called Translation. Did you want to send a message to the world?
Taboo It was really cool to really focus on the Latin artists that we’ve been inspired by. The J Balvins and the Malumas and the Ozunas. For us to collaborate on songs is a natural progression because we’ve always been influenced by Latin rhythms, even in our earlier work in the ’90s. We had songs like “Karma,” “Latin Girls” on Elephunk. We collaborated with folks like Juanes and Daddy Yankee.
Will.i.am Between 2003 and 2011, Black Eyed Peas were bigger in Latin America and Spain than we were in America. We could play Stadium Azteca [in Mexico] before we could play the Rose Bowl. The only stadium we played in America was in Miami, which has a lot of Latinos. We were playing stadiums in Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala. That’s where we were successful, and we didn’t have to play [songs] in Spanish.
What’s awesome about the Latin community that I wish the rest of the world adopts is, you guys play any song that’s a good song. Not only are we inspired by this new group of talented icons, we also wanted to say thank you to all the folks in the Latin world who have accepted, played our music and given us a career.
Now everyone wants to collaborate with popular Latin artists — but 10 years ago, very few people did. Were you surprised to see Latin take off globally in the past few years?
Will.i.am Surprising, no. Because Latin music had its time in popular culture everywhere with the Tito Puentes back in the day. But I’m inspired by what’s happening right now. The [Latin] parties are beautiful parties. Everybody dresses to the tens, the guys are just as freaking showing their style as the girls. It’s an amazing environment. Everybody’s super creative. And they’re like, “No, I’m not singing in English.” If you remember the Enrique Iglesias days, he had to sing in English to have a career. These guys are [like], “You know what? We’re not going to sing in English. I’m the one singing choruses in Spanish.”
Taboo We grew up in L.A., and Will was living in the projects since he was born. So he was used to hearing Sonora Dinamita, Juan Gabriel, Los Bukis. So all these songs and influences from when we were little kids have always been part of our DNA.
Apl.de.ap To take it even further, my last name is Pineda, Pineda from Filipinas. And I’m so excited because there’s a whole region in the Philippines that is mostly Spanish[-speaking].
This whole globality that Black Eyed Peas represents, is it particularly relevant today? Is it destiny that it’s coming out now?
Will.i.am I’m a black guy in a Mexican neighborhood building bridges. And here we are in the middle of a race issue that I can’t believe we’re still having. Building bridges and translating is what we need. To translate, you have to be patient, you have to be understanding, you have to be empathetic. If you go to Japan, the person translating for you is the most patient, open-minded person. We all have to be translators.
I recently read an interview where someone was saying traveling to other countries should be obligatory.
Will.i.am I remember going to Panama and seeing black people like me, all speaking in Spanish. I was [like], “I’m Panamanian too!” Or you go to Dominican Republic, and my cousins all look like they’re Dominican. Because if you grow up in Los Angeles, your cousins have kids with Mexicanos and they look Dominican.
You have a new member, J.Rey Soul. But I have to ask: Has Fergie heard the new album yet?
Will.i.am: She hasn’t heard it. She’s going to hear it when everybody else hears it. I hope she likes it. We try to keep in touch. We reach out every once in a while and say our hellos and happy birthdays and Merry Christmas and Happy Easter. She knows where we’re at! We’re at the studio. And we love her, and she’s focusing on being a mom. That's a hard job, and that’s what she really wants to do and we’re here for her, and she knows how to contact us for a retreat or a breakaway. It’s really the way Fergie designed it, so we’re respecting her design. We love Fergie, and we don’t want anything but awesomeness for her.
Apl.de.ap Fergie is our sister. So even with these small connections, she’s always going to be our sister. But unfortunately our schedule is displaced by [her] wanting to be a great mom, and she wants to focus on that. And like Will said, we support her 100%.
Taboo I want to say how proud I am of J.Rey Soul as well, because I know people are probably wondering who this artist is. The question always is “How’s Fergie doing?” and I get that. [But] I also want to say that our album will be coming out on the 19th and the following week will be June 24, and that will be my six years of being cancer-free. We’ve come a long way since that time period and we’ve worked really hard to get to where we’re at. We’ve reflected, we’ve done everything possible to keep motivated, keep ourselves never looking back but always looking forward and staying positive and optimistic, and I feel we’re giving birth to a new artist, J.Rey Soul. I really want to give her ultimate praise and respect. What the fellows said — Ferg, she’s doing the mom thing — but we have an amazing artist we’re developing. She’s part of this new album, she’s part of “Mamacita.”
Will.i.am Imagine you’re 23 years old … and you step out onstage and the audience says, “That’s not [Fergie]!” And you still step onstage and give it your all, and you sing your ass off. … Ozuna could have said, “I don’t know that girl. Put someone famous on.” But they judged her by what she could do, not what she has done.
What has been your biggest lesson learned between your last album and now?
Will.i.am It’s OK to forget about your successes if you want to have success again, because remembering that success is going to keep you from being how you need to be. And how you need to be is, you need to fucking be humble, you got to be a student and learn.
I was afraid. We put out The E.N.D. in 2009 and we didn’t think it was going to be that big, and it just went everywhere. Then we did The Beginning [in 2010]. And then it stopped. We didn’t want to stop. And then I was like, “I want to do a solo record because I just want to continue putting out music.” And I hated it. I hated touring by myself. I would say, “I miss Apl! I miss Taboo!” And that ended in 2014 and boom, that’s when Taboo got diagnosed with cancer. That’s when I realized: It’s me, Apl and Taboo.
One day, I was doing all my tax shit and I was frustrated, and Apl said, “Will, you’re frustrated because of you. You’re not around. You want Black Eyed Peas to be what it was? You have to focus.” That was a hard reality, because me and Apl have never had an argument in our entire friendship. And that’s fucking 30 years I’ve known this motherfucker.
I said, “Yo, Tab, you ready to go back as a trio? Because I don’t know how to make that decision. I can’t make that decision. I need you to be strong.” And he said, “Fuck, let’s go.” And Apl said, “There’s this girl from the Philippines who was on my show. Let’s bring her out.” But I said, “Let’s do an underground record first, just to be safe. Because if we come out swinging pop and it don’t work, we’re done. Let’s save the pop shit for later.” And now, here’s the pop shit.
How was working with Shakira?
Will.i.am I was so inspired. [She was like,] “Did you get my notes?” “I got your notes.” “OK. Let’s begin. Note No. 1: When you say that word, can you swing that back a little bit? When I say, ‘Girl like me,’ the tail end of the reverb, can you make it just a little bit louder?” This girl is the definition of music. I’ve worked with everybody — Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson. I’ve never experienced that detail. And she conducts the session like she’s teaching!
You could also say you’re taking a leap of faith by working with artists who are not huge yet, like El Alfa.
Taboo We’ve been fortunate to do that with a couple of artists. We did Macy Gray before she was Macy Gray. David Guetta was this cool underground DJ producer and after [he produced] “I Gotta Feeling,” he became a superstar. El Alfa, he’s an amazing artist, and the world needs to know about his energy.
Will.i.am The beautiful part is, now it’s being done to us. These artists could have easily said, “Black Eyed Peas, you think these guys can come back?” Because it’s not like it was right after “I Gotta Feeling.” It has been eight years, bro.
Apl.de.ap When people say, “What up, legend!,” it could mean two things: You’re a legend, or you’re old.
Taboo Balvin taking that chance on us is an example of his humility and his open mind. Same thing with Ozuna. These folks were [like], “We’ve seen what they’ve done in the past. We know how they get down. Let’s rock and make some magic together.”
PHOTO: Gary Tyson/SEA Games/Getty Images
Prove Themselves Again
— With a Little Help From Some Latin Stars
Apl.de.ap For me it’s [about] remaining hungry and remaining a fan of other artists and stepping outside of yourself. This hiatus made me think of other people. We wanted to utilize our platform to discover new artists like we’ve done before. I was sponsored as a kid, adopted from the Philippines, and that’s how I met my brothers. It was very simple to follow the footsteps of my adopted father and the foundation that got me to the U.S. I said, “I’m going to do the same thing.”
Taboo My lessons came at a price. I remember laying in bed doing chemotherapy and thinking, “Man, what I would give to beat this horrible disease and be on a stage again.” Besides my wife and my kids, Will and Apl are my life. There’s nothing else that makes me happier, that makes me more proud, that makes me feel like a champion, whenever I step on that stage with my brothers. That’s one of the main components that kept me fighting on, so I could be back onstage.
The album samples from a lot of iconic dance tracks: “Ritmo” samples Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night,” “Feel the Beat” with Maluma samples Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “Can You Feel the Beat,” “Vida Loca” with Nicky Jam and Tyga samples Rick James’ “Super Freak.” What was the impetus?
Will.i.am We wanted to treat the album like a playlist more than an album. Curating a playlist, every song has to be the jam. Yes, you have to do new music, but you want to do charting music, and you want to throw other songs that complement [each other] so the listener enjoys it. Everything is a continuous set.
“Ritmo.” What can go after that? If I were DJ’ing, “Can You Feel the Beat.” Then it goes into “Mamacita,” and that has a reference to [Madonna’s] “La Isla Bonita,” a white person’s perspective of Latin music. It’s like a continuous spot of our appreciation of Latin music. Then we throw a monkey wrench: It’s “Super Freak,” and I’m going to sing a Latin chorus. What’s the most typical Spanish phrase that everyone knows? “Vida loca,” but the beat will be Afrobeat, and let’s put Tyga on, too. And that song will go into El Alfa, who’s the most creative artist in the Latin community. So everything is retro futuristic, because we’re taking ’90s and ’80s, but updating it with future sounds and Latin rhythms.
I love “Duro Hard,” the song with Becky G.
Will.i.am There was a song we were [originally] working on with Becky G, and it was kind of artsy urban. And she said, “Will, I can’t approve this song. It’s not a hit and you know it.” I said, “Well, it’s a vibe record — not every song needs to be a hit.” She said, “I’m working with the Black Eyed Peas. If, after ‘Ritmo,’ my song doesn’t sound like a hit, I’m going to look bad.” I said, “OK, thank you for your honesty, let me work on this.” And out of that came “Duro Hard.”
From left: Taboo, Will.i.am and Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas.
In July 2018, Anuel walked out of a Miami prison. Two years prior, he’d been stopped while riding in a car driven by one of his backup singers, who was on probation. The police found weapons in the vehicle, and although Anuel had no prior arrests, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for unlawful possession of a firearm. Denied bail and parole, he served nearly his full sentence, spending time between four prisons in Puerto Rico, Atlanta and Miami.
At the time of his arrest, Anuel’s graphic and sometimes violent songs — released independently on his Real Hasta La Muerte label and with no radio support — had gained a fervent underground following in Puerto Rico, making the then-22 year-old rapper one to watch just as the Latin trap movement was beginning to explode. Behind bars, Anuel had to simply watch as friends like Ozuna and Bad Bunny became stars. But his audience was ready and waiting: The day he was set free, Real Hasta La Muerte was released, and a week later it hit No. 1 on Top Latin Albums.
“Real Hasta La Muerte is everything I’ve lived, what I live now and what I will live,” Anuel told Billboard at the time of the album, which was produced by established hitmakers Chris Jeday and Gaby Music, and released through indie digital distributor Glad Empire with support from The Orchard. But the person Anuel truly had to thank for his straight-out-of-jail success was further behind the scenes: his close friend and manager, Frabian Eli.
Just a year older than his client, Eli was the one who’d kept Anuel relevant for those two crucial years, steadily releasing previously recorded material, selling Anuel merchandise, paying the bills (at least as much as possible) with his own gigs as a violinist and ultimately negotiating Anuel’s distribution deal while keeping ownership of his masters. The album, which featured collaborations with Wisin and Ozuna, was all hardcore trap and reggaetón club tracks, and received little radio play. Yet it struck a chord, remaining on Top Latin Albums for 96 weeks thanks in large part to the audience attracted to Anuel’s no-filter attitude on social media. On Nov. 3, 2018, Anuel kicked off a 17-date U.S. tour of arenas and large theaters, produced by indie promoters La Commission and Zamora Live along with Eli. According to La Commission, between November 2018 and December 2019, he grossed over $21 million from 35 shows.
“This is very visionary for everyone involved, including the artist and management,” said David LaPointe of La Commission at the time. “It’s definitely raising the bar for the trap/urban genre.” Looking at the crowd of mostly 18- to 40-year-old men at his 2018 American Airlines arena show in Miami, it was clear that a significant portion of the audience liked its reggaetón less pop-leaning than Ozuna’s or Balvin’s, and related to the man onstage who said things as they popped into his head, with disregard for political correctness or consequence. Offstage, too, demand for Anuel’s trademark baritone and signature “Brrr” was growing, and he didn’t shy away from controversial collaborators: “Bebe,” a feature with 6ix9ine, became his first Hot Latin Songs No. 1.
This album is coming out in the middle of the biggest conversation on race that the United States has seen in years. The Black Eyed Peas are multiracial, multicultural — how does the significance of the moment weigh on you?
Will.i.am What’s going on in America right now, the far extremes, that has always been there, since my grandma and her mom and my grandma’s grandma. I was blessed to be raised in a Mexican neighborhood [Boyle Heights], so I see the world from, ‘Wow, Mexicans are no different than I am.” … When I met Apl, he didn’t speak English. And Taboo is a pocho [an often derogatory term applied to acculturated Mexicans in the United States who largely do not speak Spanish] — he’s the kind of Mexican that didn’t know much Spanish growing up. He had a black girlfriend, I had a Mexican girlfriend. He lived the black life, I lived the Mexican life.
Apl.de.ap No color lines!
Will.i.am It’s an example of how people can get along and respect each other and have tolerance and patience and understanding and respect and take the time to really know someone’s culture.
Taboo Something I take from this partnership is the pride [artists like] Maluma and Balvin have in being Latino — making sure the world knows, “We’re not going to change for shit. This is who we are.” A lot of folks in the States, we got to learn from that, and know how to have integrity and how to take a stance and really follow through.
Will and Apl, you’ve taken part in some of the marches for Black Lives Matter. Why was it important for you to actually take to the streets?
Will.i.am The whole premise was, “Let’s go to the protest and let’s sing [the Peas’ 2003 single] “Where Is the Love?” We get there, we have our megaphones and our masks on, and I said, “Apl, do you feel like I feel? We shouldn’t sing this song right now.”
Apl.de.ap It felt more opportunist than the goal we wanted to reach. It’s important to be part of the movement, and we all want to fix inequality and we want to ask everyone to utilize their voice and vote. Even though sometimes it feels hopeless to vote and focus on the problem: police brutality, excessive force and the way they’re trained to treat people. It’s too much.
Taboo I was part of the Standing Rock [Dakota Access pipeline] movement. I was doing the native march even before [the coronavirus] existed. And the idea of going into that mass of people knowing my immune system [is weakened from cancer] made it impossible. Thank God my brothers respected me for that.
it could mean two things:
PHOTO: Nabil Elderkin
PHOTO: Sterling Hampton
PHOTO: Al Bello/Getty Images
PHOTO: Sterling Hampton
PHOTO: Nabil Elderkin
J.Rey Soul (left) onstage with the Black Eyed Peas at the Festival de Carcassonne in France in 2019.
Fergie and Will.i.am at the Super Bowl XLV halftime show in 2011.
From left: Apl.de.ap and Will.i.am with J Balvin at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2019.
From left: Taboo, Will.i.am and Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas.
From left: Apl.de.ap, J.Rey Soul, Will.i.am and Taboo performed at the closing ceremony of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines.
“When people say, ‘What up, legend!,’
You’re a legend, or you’re old.”
The Black Eyed Peas Want To