On entering The Future...

On entering The Future...

On entering The Future...

American musician and entrepreneur will.i.am talks to Harry Wallop about his love for technology, his time as a judge on ‘The Voice’, and what’s keeping him busy these days...

Will.i.am’s office in Hollywood is part Bond villain’s lair and part California playground. The concrete building is called The Future, for no other reason than the singer being able to say, when he greets you, “Welcome to The Future.”

The floors are lacquered black, the windowless walls whitewashed; the workforce is made up of earnest young staff clad almost entirely in black, and video-conferencing robots that move between meeting rooms. The only decorations are bowls of avocados in the canteen and fake trees made from pink and orange moss stuck on to gnarled trunks.

Before I go to The Future, I am handed three sides of A4 by one of his PR people, entitled Tips for maximising your interview time with will.i.am. It informs me that I cannot discuss his income or net worth and includes the advice, “If he asks you to repeat or restate a question, this indicates that you need to ask crisper, more direct questions’, along with various ‘fact checks’. For music references, he is a 7-time Grammy Award winner, the frontman of The Black Eyed Peas, and has a solo career hip-hop artiste. Please do not use “rapper”. He is the first music artiste to beam a song back from Mars.”

And: ‘If editorial policy dictates that you must use his legal name at the top of the story, it is William Adams. His title / descriptor is: entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Founder & CEO of i.am+.’

This makes him sound like a class-A narcissist — and a world away from his role as a judge on the BBC’s The Voice, where he comes across as fun, if slightly loopy. But when we meet, he is devoid of ego.

Smartwatch setting

If anything, he is anxious, shuffling from one foot to the other and occasionally getting his words jumbled up. “Sorry for stuttering, I’m just so nervous,” he says at one point. That is because he is about to show me a project he has been working on for 4 years, and into which he has poured a large chunk of his personal fortune. It is a device called dial, a smartwatch that he hopes will rival those produced by Apple or Samsung.

We’re chatting in his music studio, which has a distinct smell of cinnamon. We’re only 16 km from Boyle Heights, the rough East LA neighbourhood where he was brought up, but we are in a different world. “Boyle Heights is like Brixton. Kinda,” he explains. “But imagine it instead of being heavy African-descent influence it is Mexican and El Salvadorian. You have London and you have Brixton. You have LA, and you have East LA / Boyle Heights. You never see anyone in Hollywood from Boyle Heights.”

It remains a neighbourhood where education levels are low, poverty high; 9 people have been murdered there in the last year. “Boyle Heights is dangerous. But my mom was really strict. I couldn’t really go out after a certain time. And she’d say, don’t go past Roberts Yard.” What was the fear? “My fear was my mom! My mom’s fear was that I’d get caught up in things that were the opposite of how she was raising us.” I ask if he knew people from his school who ended up in gangs. “Yeah, dead.”

His mother was a single parent — he has never met his father. Instead of sending him to the local school, Roosevelt High, she bussed him 2 hours across town to the upmarket Brentwood area to a school that specialised in science and technology. He speaks of his mother with awe and says he is truly “the product of how my mom raised me, not my environment.” If he’d stayed and gone to Roosevelt High, “my life would be totally different.”

At his new school he experimented with various different names before settling on will.i.am: “It was about the dots.” There he met Allan Lindo with whom he founded The Black Eyed Peas. They would go on to be one of the most successful bands of the 1990s and 2000s, with hits such as Where is the Love? and I Gotta Feeling. But Will always had an eye on the business side of the band. “In 1999 they asked us to do this beverage spot. And they paid us buckets of money.”

It was for Dr Pepper. He soon twigged that if he wrote the music and hired his own director the money would be far greater than if he just sang. He compared that fee with what he earned from an album. “Damn! That’s how I got my mom out of the projects.”

It also gave him a taste of how big corporations, particularly technology companies, were desperate for a bit of street cred. He was hired as a consultant to Intel. This allowed him to spot the potential of Beats Electronics, a headphone company co-founded by Iovine, the Peas’s producer. Will was one of the first investors. Though his stake has never been declared, he will have become a much, much richer man when the company was sold to Apple in 2014.

Later, I have dinner with Will and he is utterly charming. He looks both amused and appalled when I tell him about the document. “You’re sh—ing me!” he laughs. He talks fondly about how much he loves not just being a judge on The Voice, but also spending time in London. He spends his downtime sneaking to the cinema at Westfield Shepherd’s Bush and eating sushi at Nobu, his favourite restaurant. I feel at home there.”

In the ‘friend zone’

Children are not an immediate prospect, not least because he doesn’t have a partner. In the past, there has been the occasional high-profile girlfriend, such as singer Natalie Imbruglia, but he is quite coy when it comes to his private life. He explains that he has always struggled to win over girlfriends because they put him in the friend zone. If you are close to mom, if you’re nice, you listen more than you talk — for some reason the girls never want a relationship. The girls say, ‘I never want to ruin this’.”

How about starting a family? “I am not quite ready to Angelina Jolie it yet, but I have kids that I have kinda adopted in a roundabout way.” By this he means the many children — from Boyle Heights — that he has funded to undertake science, technology, engineering and maths courses, in order to help them get scholarships to elite universities.

Considering how far he has travelled — from Boyle Heights, via Buckingham Palace, to The Future, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him finishing his journey running a seriously profitable company in Silicon Valley. Then he can truly say, “I’m in charge of the future.”

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