He has won seven Grammy Awards, eight American Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards and three World Music Awards. He is Will.i.am, frontman and founder of the internationally acclaimed group The Black Eyed Peas.
One thing that fans might not know is that he is heavily invested in technology – all kinds of technology – he has even developed his own gadget for mobile phone cameras.
In an Africa exclusive, IT News Africa caught up with the award-winning artist at Intel Capital’s recently-concluded CEO Summit in San Diego, California.
* Growing up in a poor neighbourhood, what was the first piece of technology that you came in contact with, or which triggered your interest in technology?
A double cassette deck. It was a record player with a double cassette deck. So you would take a record, record on this side and then loop it. Pause and then unpause, and then you would have like a 3-minute piece of music. If you put on the other side, you put in another record, and put your rap over that. So I learned at 13 how to make multi-tracks out of a record player and two cassette decks. And then I took a radio apart to make it louder or make it record when it didn’t have a record function – stuff like that. For a true technologist, I don’t want to say for me taking apart a record player or tape deck is technology – it was me ripping things apart to make them do things that they weren’t supposed to do.
* Do you still do that?
No. Actually, yeah I do that, yeah, yeah. I don’t rip it apart though, but I do a combination of things like taking a USB stick and combining the USB stick with other appliances to make new appliance. You know, stuff like that…
* Mobile photography and iPhonography has been taking the world by storm. Are you still working on your i.am+ mobile phone camera lens?
Yes! Its f*****g amazing! Seriously. Oh man, next year I would love to sit down with you and show you all the stuff that we are doing. Man, man, it is freaking… man. We launch in January at CES with two products, two amazing products. Stuff like, whoa, like I can’t even believe it. I’m like “Are you serious? This is like freaking hot sh*t”.
* It is a rather big step to turn an 8MP mobile camera to function as a 14MP camera…
Oh no, I’m not talking about that. That stuff is little. That stuff was just me putting a stake in the ground. That was for me to say “Hey, I do consumer electronics, I’m an entrepreneur – boom! Talk to me about that.” Next step is CES, and then… *boom* The company is called i.am+ and we don’t have names for the two devices yet. It’s like whoa, watch out!
* You founded the i.am Angel Foundation, which includes the youth Trans4m centre. Your aim is to “transform lives through education, opportunity and inspiration.” What does the program entail?
At the Trans4m Centre we try to utilise programs that are really effective and then combine the effective programs that were never meant to talk to each another, like College Track, ESRI, US First and California Endowment – and sandwich them. It’s like when you think of elementary school, they taught you math, science, history, Physical Education – but they didn’t teach your future, they just talked to you about your past. So the combination of College Track, ESRI and California Endowment is project-based learning, but future – not history.
* How did the idea come about?
It was my thing that I started, and then I would ask people like, say for example, you have a program that… um…. Say you make 3D printers, and I’m like “hey, can you bring your 3D printer to my school? How much would it cost to have my school outfitted with your equipment? That’s how much it is going to cost? Ok, let me go and raise some money because I need those 3D printers in my school.” So I’m a curator, no different to you being Britney Spears and saying “I need you to executive produce my record.” Alright, show me some beats. “Hey, I need that track for Britney Spears” Remember that hook you wrote? I’m going to take that chorus and put it onto that beat he made. And Britney sings it – it’s no different. It’s no different than designing, designing a curriculum that you see needs to be a void that needs to be filled for inner city kids to participate in the future. It’s no different than pattern-matching.
* When did you first realize that you wanted to make a difference in people’s lives?
After the tsunami in Indonesia, I spent my birthday in Banda Aceh for tsunami relief. So when I was there, I really enjoyed helping and assisting, then from there we started the Peapod Foundation. And then to South Africa, and for some reason, when you think philanthropy, you think “Let’s go to Africa”. Well, let’s go to places where people are in messed up situations. And you never want to say that your neighbourhood or your country is worse. Because your country is marketing that it’s wonderful here, but then you go to Detroit you realise it is no different than Soweto. So I saw some stuff in America that I wanted to help fix. Let me see if I can suggest to some of my friends that have juggernaut companies to put some of their tools in these areas. Because everybody wants to help, they are just not told where to help.
* How does Intel play a role in your organisations and foundations?
Intel helped when I needed them. I haven’t figured out how they fit into the cluster yet, but they helped with the outreach that I did initially with the US First program, and they helped me with that piece of content and being able to take the risk – the blow – for the amount of money that it cost to do that.
* Streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora have gained a lot of traction in the last couple of years. Being a musician and artist, what are your views on streaming services?
Streaming right now is only for music that has been sold. And what if I heard a song yesterday that I really loved, and it’s not for sale yet and it’s not on Spotify? And say for example in a week a billion people heard it, and the person who wrote it says “I don’t want it to be on iTunes.” It’s never going to be on Spotify. Right now, YouTube is the best freaking ocean. So YouTube, that’s it – in my eyes. So if somebody says that album sales were X and you didn’t sell any albums, I’m like “Wait a second here guys. That little device you have, has an option for people. You could go to YouTube or you can go to iTunes. And what’s on YouTube is just as clean as what is on iTunes, because of Vevo. Thank you Vevo for making everything high-definition really fast. So that’s awesome. But I like Spotify- and I don’t want to crap on streaming.
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor