While most chart-topping rappers broadcast the familiar ghetto manifesto of bling-bling, bitches and bullets, Black Eyed Peas (BEP) say they have a different agenda: they want to raise their listeners' eyes beyond the Benjamins. Although BEP came up in Los Angeles, home to the laid-back sound and guns-drawn lyrics that helped the West Coast win the hip-hop sales wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they continue to emphasize their deep, philosophical differences with mainstream hip-hop. Their message is positivity.
Success hasn't changed that. The group's 1998 debut, Behind the Front, produced something like career whiplash. In October 1998, barely a year after they signed with Interscope and only a few months after Behind the Front premiered, Rolling Stone named BEP one of the 50 most important hip-hop artists, producers and entrepreneurs. From being nearly anonymous, BEP suddenly found themselves alongside the likes of Russell Simmons, Dr. Dre, Method Man and the Roots. "It was a great honor," says MC Taboo, one of BEP's three lyricist-rappers (the others are Will-I-Am and Apl-de-AP) backed by singer Kim Hill. "I was very overwhelmed. When we first started, we just thought, we like to emcee, we like to produce tracks, we like to breakdance. We didn't know how much of an impact we would make. It's a pleasure to be held at that level."
Blending soul, funk, acid jazz, hip-hop and Latin-American elements with bass-heavy grooves produced by a full band known as the Beat Pharmacie, the multicultural BEP has declared war on their genre's misogyny, violence and obsession with wealth. "We're still the same creative and innovative people who don't want to lose touch with who we are—and who we were when we first started," Taboo says. "We've grown a lot, but we haven't changed our view."
That view—you could call it positivity, but "anti-pathological" works, too—would be an odd one in almost any genre but Christian contemporary; it's especially exotic in rap. While chart-topping Eminem is rapping about raping and killing his mother, for example, BEP are singing about the strength of the women they know. On the group's first album, it was "The Way You Make Me Feel." On the new release, Bridging the Gap, it's "RapSong," on which Wyclef (who also produced the track) plays guitar while he and BEP compare the women in their lives to great rap songs—like when you're cruising alone in your car and you keep skipping back to a phat track until you can sing along with every verse. "She's like my melody from Erik B and Rakim, but she be rocking me steadily," the song goes. And then Wyclef drops, "And if she was a rap song, she'd be Bonita Applebaum, and now I'm going to put you on, you're my favorite song."
And shake your ass to "Weekends," which borrows Debbie Deb's song and beat. Mixed with modern turntable scratching, trip-hop queen Esthero's vocals (over a bubbly sample from Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair") get you slinkin' up and down the dance floor. And Macy Gray lends her cords again (she appeared on BEP's debut before she hit it big herself) to "Request Line," an ode to the DJs behind the radio mics.
Bridging the Gap is three great flavors together at last: booty shaking, cerebral lyricism and star power. Interscope opened its immense wallet to secure the talents of GangStarr's legendary beatmaker DJ Premier. His contribution, a production credit on "BEP Nightmare," leads off the new CD—at Interscope's insistence. However, the band preferred a remix concocted by MC Wil, whose version of the song is included as a hidden track.
"Everyone liked the second one better," keyboardist Printz Board offers. "But [Interscope] paid such a large amount of money for the DJ Premier track that they felt they needed to keep it on there. We felt that immediately."
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Was there protest? Revolution? Resentment? No. If BEP are hip-hop radicals, they are also business pragmatists. Says Printz Board, "It was kind of like, 'This is what we have to do.'"
In addition to DJ Premier, the new album features such artists as De La Soul, Les Nubian and Mos Def, Wyclef, Macy Gray, Esthero and on one track the horn section from Ozomatli. It's a cross-marketing scheme designed to bring fans of well-established performers into the BEP fold.
If that's a compromise, it's a good one—and the group knows it. Commercial success, says Taboo, is not simply a matter of pure talent. "It all depends on the timing and when the record company wants to put money into marketing and promotion," he says. "Basically, we keep our validity and remain BEP from Behind the Front—not so much as the musicians BEP, but as the people."
BLACK EYED PEAS PERFORM WITH NIKKA COSTA AND 4TH AVENUE JONES AT THE GLASSHOUSE, 200 W. 2ND ST., POMONA, (909) 469-5800. SAT., 7 P.M. $19.99. ALL AGES.