Road To The Grammys: The Making Of Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Where Is The Love’

Song may have saved Black Eyed Peas from ending their career.

“Where Is the Love” dominated radio airwaves for months and earned a
Record of the Year Grammy nomination. But more importantly, it may have
saved the Black Eyed Peas.

“Two and a half years ago, the Black Eyed Peas were about ready to hang
it up,” Ron Fair, who co-produced the song with the group’s Will.I.Am, revealed.
“They’d had two sort of critically acclaimed albums. They had songs
like ‘Weekends,’ ‘Joints and Jams’ and ‘Request + Line,’ but none of
them ever really connected. They were kind of in this rap netherworld
and weren’t able to cobble together either a huge hip-hop or pop
following. There were maybe 100,000 devoted backpacker dudes in their
dorm rooms supporting the Black Eyed Peas, but they weren’t enough for
them to make a living. The group was very despondent.”

Fair, who produced Vanessa Carlton’s Record of the Year-nominated “A
Thousand Miles” and oversaw Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, met
Will when he recruited the Peas for the ‘Legally Blonde’ soundtrack,
and the pair hit it off. “I said, ‘Look, you’re on Interscope, I’m
president of A&M and we could switch you over to A&M,’ ” Fair recalled.
” ‘It’s really the same company. The only difference is you get me. So
let’s put our heads together and try to make this thing work.’ ”

After they made the move, Fair said he posed a difficult question to
the Peas. “I asked them, ‘How would you feel about taking a leap and
going more into the pop world?’ They replied, ‘We don’t want to lose
our credibility or our fanbase.’ I said, ‘Well, if you don’t take a
shot at it, it’s gonna get worse, because the backpack crowd are the
people who will download the records for free.’ ”

That grabbed the Peas’ attention, so Will asked what Fair had in mind.
“I thought, OK, I’ll run the risk of them thinking I’m the corporate
record-company pig or some kind of sell-out a–hole. And literally off
the top of my head I said, ‘Why don’t you do a song with somebody like,
uh, Justin Timberlake?’ Justin hadn’t done his solo album yet. They
said, ‘Really? We know that guy, he’s our friend. Whenever he comes to
town, we roll, we dance, we party, we hang out.’ ”

Fair gave the group specific directions: “Find him. Keep me out of it.
Keep your manager out of it. Keep his manager out of it. Keep everybody
in the business out of it. Just go make a song with him and see what
happens. No strings attached.”

On the night after Christmas in 2001, Will came up with a beat and
wrote a guitar part he liked. He then got some socially conscious
thoughts off his chest he’d been holding in since September 11,
including the verse, “Overseas we tryin’ to stop terrorism/ But we
still got terrorists here livin’/ In the U.S.A., the big CIA, the
Bloods and the Crips and the KKK/ But if you only have love for your
own race/ Then you only leave space to discriminate.” Apl.De.Ap and
Taboo added similar emotionally charged verses.

Will later called the song “a tear-jerker.” “It’s like if Marvin Gaye
was alive today,” he said. “It’s classic soul, some thinking sh–.
… The world needs this song right now. There’s no song like that in
urban music, pop music. We’re saying some pretty deep stuff, some
conscious stuff.”

Timberlake had never touched anything like it, but Will had a hunch he
might like it and was right.

“I remember when he played me the track on the phone, I had already
started hearing a melody,” Justin said last year. “It was just one of
those [instances of] creative people working together [and it] just
worked out.”

The words “Where is the love” were stuck in his head, and Timberlake
wrote the song’s chorus within 15 minutes. He sang it for Will on his
voicemail and before he knew it was in Los Angeles recording the vocals.

There was only one problem. “It wasn’t very good,” Fair admitted. “It
really needed a lot of attention. Will tends to make records very
quickly, on the fly, with a lot of heart. He cops a vibe and then moves
on. So about a year into [working on] the Black Eyed Peas album, I asked him, ‘Can I
fool around with it?’ He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Let me
do my thing on it. If you don’t like it, you can trash it.’ ”

Will obliged. “I went in with my crew and we spent 14 days on the
record,” Fair said. “We re-edited Justin’s vocal. We put [new Peas
female singer] Fergi on it. I wrote the string part and recorded the
strings. We took things from the third verse and put them in the first
verse. We basically buffed it and made it a lot more powerful and
concise.”

Fair’s string arrangement, based on the original guitar and bass parts, made a dramatic difference in the song, but Will liked parts of it and hated
others.

“He kind of added another layer of salt and pepper to make it less
glitzy and return the balance it struck,” Fair said. “It’s a mixture of
a lot of things. It’s a hip-hop record, a pop record, a sing-song kind
of nursery-rhyme record and a soulful record. And it’s certainly a
message record.”

The Peas planned to release “Shut Up” as the first single from
Elephunk, but everyone agreed “Where Is the Love” was too strong
to be just an album track. “The decision made itself,” Fair said.

There was another problem, though. Timberlake was promoting
Justified by then, and his record label thought another single
might deflect attention from his own song.

“So Jive Records said, ‘You can use the record, but you can’t say it
features Justin. We don’t want Justin in the video. Just let it be a
record,’ ” Fair said. “That ended up working very favorably, because it
made kids feel like they had something they maybe weren’t supposed to
have.”

When “Where Is the Love” was finally released, Black Eyed Peas were
actually touring with Timberlake, so he often performed it with them.
In the end, the song helped sell nearly 5 million copies worldwide of
Elephunk.

“It’s actually one of the biggest records of all time in terms of its
radio spins,” Fair said. “Will’s fears about losing
credibility and his audience base worked in reverse. He actually gained
credibility, and people realized what a talented heavyweight he is.
He’s on his way to becoming the next Pharrell or Outkast. The whole
thing is just a giant miracle.”

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