The Black Eyed Peas: They gotta feeling
The Black Eyed Peas' Apl.de.ap laughs dryly. "We were just paying homage to a woman's body you know," he says. "Come on . . . everybody's got humps. It's nothing negative." In his mansion high in Beverly Hills, the mohawked rapper (real name Allan Lindo) is discussing The Black Eyed Peas' break-out smash, My Humps, the chorus of which ("My hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps") has gone down as one of the most notorious in recent pop history. "All we were doing," he repeats, "was paying homage to a woman's anatomy."
The days when The Black Eyed Peas were the scourge of the moral majority are, it's fair to say, long over. Nowadays, the California quartet are everyone's favourite feel-good pop act. On first-name terms with Barack Obama, Bono and Nelson Mandela, their latest album The E.N.D. (an acronym for the Energy Never Dies) has shifted some three million copies in the US alone, an extraordinary feat at a time of tanking record sales. They've also claimed a unique spot in the record books -- single I Gotta Feeling is the first download to achieve in excess of 10 million sales worldwide.
"You know what, it's pretty amazing," says the sweetly spoken, rather shy Apl (pronounced Apple), his accent still bearing the imprint of his impoverished Filipino childhood. "When we made that song we didn't know it would have the success it had. We wanted to write a college party song. It blew up all over the place. It's astonishing how people gravitated to it."
In this part of the world, the group's fame was magnified further when they recently took Cheryl Cole on the road for their Ireland and UK tour. According to insider gossip, Cheryl, recently split from husband Ashley, forged a special connection with BEP leader Will.i.am. Indeed, Will was so taken with the Girls Aloud vocalist, he declared her his favourite person in the world to eat fried chicken with. As Will.i.am's best friend since high school, did Apl feel somewhat of a backstage gooseberry?
"I hadn't really heard of her until Will.i.am worked with her," he says, diplomatically. "She's not really exposed in the US yet. I was only exposed to her when we did the European tour. She's a very nice person -- very cool and with great charisma."
If Apl sounds a bit underwhelmed by Cole, it's hardly a surprise. The Black Eyed Peas aren't exactly short on celebrity chums. In London recently, they were joined on stage by Tom Cruise, who treated the audience to his marrow-chilling manic shark grin before leaping in on vocals during I Gotta Feeling.
"He came to our show in Miami," recalls Apl. "That was the first time we met him. We did a song for his new movie, Knight and Day. He visited us in London. Apparently, he knew the words to I Gotta Feeling -- so we gave him the mike."
Another famous acquaintance is President Obama, for whom the band campaigned via Will.i.am's Yes We Can single (with cameos by Scarlett Johansson, John Legend and others). "We supported him in creating that song," recalls Apl. "And then we encouraged the youth to participate. I think kids have actually started to pay attention to what is happening in society."
The subject is close to Apl's heart. After he moved to LA from the Philippines aged 14, he was astonished by the mayhem and violence. At school in the racially divided Boyle Heights neighbourhood, he and his friend Will Adams (later to be Will.i.am) were chased home each day by knife-wielding gangs. Coming from Asia, he was shocked at how much Americans took for granted.
"There were a lot of gangs in high school. Instead of being in a gang, I decided to dance. It wasn't for me, you know. I came to the US to have opportunities. I saw a lot of people in gangs. I just didn't understand that -- you live in the US, you have all these opportunities. And then you get in a gang?"
It seems preposterous now, but early in their career The Black Eyed Peas were considered an edgy, musically progressive hip-hop act. That all changed after they drafted in former pop warbler and recovering crystal meth addict Stacy Ann Ferguson as vocalist and resident fem-bot. She had an immediate impact -- the first record the new line-up made together, 2003's Elephunk, went multi-platinum, transforming BEP into a global pop phenomenon.
"We had always used female singers, people like Macy Gray," says Apl. "When we toured, we had nobody to sing the parts. We met Ferg at one of our shows in LA. She gave us her number. For the song Shut Up on Elephunk, we needed a vocalist. Someone said 'yo, remember that white girl -- we should get her in the studio'. Since then, we've become friends. She's one of the guys now, she isn't just a girl."
On their recent tour, The Black Eyed Peas caught some flak on account of very visible corporate sponsorship. Shows were presented "in association" with BlackBerry, while Bacardi was touted as their "official" spirit. How far we've come from the days when artists were branded sell-outs for the relative triviality of allowing their music to be used in TV commercials.
"With the way the music industry is going, you gotta find other avenues," says Apl. "You can't just sell CDs. If you can be a partner with a company then, as long as it goes with your lifestyle, it's a good thing."
As a child in the Philippines, Apl worshipped Michael Jackson, whose dance moves he would imitate on the slum streets of the northern city of Pampanga. So there was a sense of things moving full circle when The Black Eyed Peas worked with Jacko on his never-finished last album, at Grouse Lodge Studios in Westmeath and at a rented house along the south Dublin coast. "I spent a lot of time with Michael Jackson in Dublin," Will.i.am said last month. "Out of all the places he'd been to, he loved Ireland most of all."
"Everybody wanted to be Michael Jackson," adds Apl. "That's how Will and I got to know each other. I was doing this dance, The Running Man, and he told me I was doing it wrong. Looking, back, it's pretty hilarious. That was how everything started for us."
The Black Eyed Peas headline Oxegen Vodafone Stage on Saturday, July 10