Will.i.am wants all young people to aspire to be 'makers'. Marketing caught up with the celebrity and businessman in Paris, where he offered a glimpse of the madness and magic behind his life as the world's 'dopest' content creator.
Kanye West said at this year's Cannes Festival of Creativity that musician-cum-inventor-cum-businessman will.i.am was one of the only people among the current crop of celebrities that could credibly succeed as a creative director.
Certainly, behind the celebrity, will.i.am has built up a far-reaching career that spans not only music-writing, performance and production (his credits for the latter include working with Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber), but also fashion-design, acting, entrepreneurship and business partnerships. In short, he wants to play a role in changing the world. As he once said:
"Oddballs are always the ones that reshape the sphere."
To illustrate, how many people have changed their name into a hyperlink? Type will.i.am or add any prefix to .i.am and it will, as if by magic, become a hyperlink, redirecting the user through to his personal website.
The 39-year-old – real name William Adams – has not been out of the limelight since his band The Black Eyed Peas hit success in 2003. With a portfolio of carefully selected brand partnerships, not to mention an armful of Grammy awards, he has emerged as a shrewd businessman; part of a new breed of artist celebrities that can add genuine value to brand partnerships – and he’s in demand.
In 2011 he became Intel’s director of creative innovation, described as "a hands-on creative and technology collaboration", with the aim of developing new technologies, music and tech advocacy. He has also dipped into political activism, backing Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign with a specially created song to boost the bid.
At the centre of all will.i.am’s work lies technology. He was a co-founding equity partner in Beats Electronics, has his own camera-accessories business and even developed a bespoke smartwatch, launched in October at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, which can be used to make and receive phone calls.
It’s one of his most highly prized gadgets. "It’s the most exciting thing that I’ve ever done; I think it’s pretty fresh," he says.
All this makes will.i.am’s schedule a hectic one, perhaps offering some excuse for his two-hour-late arrival for our interview in Paris, where reporters from around the world have flocked to speak to him at the launch of the Lexus NX.
In this latest tie-up, will.i.am is fronting the ad campaign for the car and even designed his own version of it for the launch, which he unveiled as he drove it on to the stage. Both Lexus and will.i.am are keen to stress this is more than a badging exercise, it is about "collaboration".
Doubly keen to ensure his every word is heard, will.i.am hushes the crowd as he talks through
the new design. It’s clear he takes his collaborations seriously – and likes a compliant audience.
In conversation, he is somewhat random in his thoughts, darting from point to point and subject to subject, with a connection that makes sense only in the context of a will.i.am interview. This makes him a frustrating, albeit entertaining, interview subject. His responses take him off on so many tangents that it’s sometimes hard to stay on track.
What is clear, however, is will.i.am’s passion for ‘making’. If he could take another path, he says he would "make a career out of dreaming things into reality and bringing things into existence".
His preoccupation is creating the ‘extraordinary’ and being inspired by the future. But he also finds a spark in the everyday, with the fires of his creative inspiration often stoked by a seemingly insignificant conversation.
Technology, he explains, is a great "creative tool" that has democratised and revolutionised content creation.
"If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, would he be painting or would he be making virtual reality? Would he paint the Mona Lisa or would he [create] an Oculus Rift experience?
Technology, adds will.i.am, "amplifies and expands creative people’s vision. It helps them grow from A to, beyond even, Z – to the @ sign".
"Technology is awesome," he surmises, showing no hint of that trademark, ice-white smile so often seen on screen. And without so much as a tip of his hat, from which protrudes a single feather, he spins, almost robotically, away from Marketing and on to his next interview.
Will.i.am once said he worked 12 days a week. He might be notorious for such flamboyant statements, but you can’t help but believe he is far more than just ‘dope’ talk. No doubt there are plans to add plenty more feathers to his cap.
"Conversations spark my creativity, I like to stay open-minded, and by having an open mind, I like to connect the dots, it sparks creativity.
"Technology is a great space to be creative in... creating on new technological tools, like editing on Pro Tools. It wasn’t around when I first started creating music, but it’s a new technological creative tool, and a great place to be creative in and creative with.
"Technology amplifies and expands creative people’s vision, it helps them grow from A to, beyond even, Z, to the @ sign – from all the alphabets, to all the numbers, now you arrive at symbols. And symbols are universal. The @ sign is the same in Chinese as it is in Portuguese. Technology is awesome."
...his alternative career
"Other than what I’m doing now, I would make a career out of dreaming things into reality and bringing things into existence. Whether they’re gadgets, solutions to problems... I’ll make that my career."
...the importance of design
"Creating something extraordinary – it’s about collaboration. The [Lexus] NX is a beautiful car, but it also leaves room for people’s imagination.
"My taste for striking and beautiful designs inspires other people’s interpretation of that design. That’s what I like about the NX - the subtlety and simplicity, but then, at the same time, a type of design that distinguishes it from just being default.
"It has all the right angles, all the right simplicity, all the right openness for re-interpretation."
…his ideal roadtrip
"I would start it in Germany, and travel on the autobahn, then I would like to travel through the South of France and go along the coast to Spain, to Barcelona. Then make my way
from Barcelona, five hours to Madrid, and then I would like to travel through Switzerland, to Montreux, a jazz festival. Or I’d like to go to Monaco, to Saint Tropez to Cannes. That’d
…his ideal travelling companions
"If I were travelling to the South of France, I’d be driving with [architect] Zaha Hadid, picking her brain, learning. I would be hanging out with [entrepreneur] Dean Kamen, asking him about engineering and crazy mathematical equations. Or I’d like to hang out with Larry Page from Google, ask him questions. Or [be] with very close, close friends."
…rolling with inspiring people
"I would like to roll around with [co-founder of PayPal] Elon Musk, I would also like to roll around with Prince Andrew, just to pick his brain. I would like to roll with Danny Cohen, from the BBC, because he’s smart."
Founder and front man The Black Eyed Peas
Co-founder and equity partner Beats Electronics, creator of Beats by Dre headphones
Founder i.am+ foto.sosho, a camera accessory developed for iPhone
Director Creative Innovation, Intel Corporation
Co-founder EKOCYCLE, an initiative launched with Coca-Cola that aims to support recycling and encourage brands to create products made using recycled materials
October 2014 Launched a wearable smartwatch called Puls, which allows users to text, make calls, use maps and play music. He also unveiled a ‘smart fashion’ range, including a jacket that can charge the device.
Accolades Awarded Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2013; seven Grammy Awards; one Latin Grammy Award; one Emmy Award; one CLIO Award; two NAACP
Image Awards; one VH1 Do Something Award; one BMI President’s Award; and one 2008 Webby Award. Sales of 31m albums and 58m singles worldwide.