Twenty years ago, the Black Eyed Peas gathered with Interscope Records executives to sign their first record deal and listened in disbelief as reps declared, "Welcome to the family." Two decades later, the group is buzzing from hearing the same welcoming words -- this time from Marvel.
Launching their first graphic novel, Masters of the Sun – The Zombie Chronicles, it marks the culmination of a four-year-old dream, borne from a restlessness in the music industry following the group’s hit 2005 album, Monkey Business. The triple-platinum LP spawned radio jams like “My Humps” and “Pump It,” but after making music together for more than 10 years and producing four studio albums, the band was at odds about what to do next.
Taking a break from making new music, they continued to tour before deciding to explore a new sound. “We were like, ‘Yo, let’s switch it up and do electro music,’” says will.i.am, speaking to ET with bandmates Taboo and apl.de.ap in late July at San Diego Comic-Con. “So, we went out and studied the culture, inspired by what was happening in the underground in Sydney, Australia, with Sneaky Sound System and Cut Copy and all those guys who were doing awesome types of beats. We collaborated with that world.”
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“This novel is the same,” he continues. “It was like, ‘Alright, what are we going to do now, guys?’ We say ‘Black Eyed Peas till infinity,’ and we say we’re so 3008, but how are we actually going to get to 3008? Are we just going to be this group who’s always [about], ‘Let’s do a show now’ or ‘When’s the record coming out?’ -- and that’s the content we’re supposed to make? I’m hypnotized every time there’s a Game of Thrones, Westworld or Stranger Things. I [started thinking about] who built those worlds and went, ‘Our imaginations are deep too. We could create [more]. Why are we only thinking in [terms of] three-minute [songs] and a video? Why is that the only way we create?’ So, we pushed ourselves and went, ‘Let’s build a world that’s not about us.’”
With Fergie focusing on solo music, it was an opportune moment for the remaining trio to work on their creative dream. However, will.i.am still entered the billion-dollar comic book industry cautiously. “We’ve succeeded beyond ways that we ever thought we would succeed in the Black Eyed Peas and with that you don’t want to be arrogant by thinking, ‘We’re going to do a graphic novel and it’s going to be great,’” he says.
The band took a deep dive in the world of graphic novels -- meticulously researching mythology with a focus on Egyptology, scouring Japanese comic book stores to examine paper stocks, exploring gilded edges and finding the best printer to ensure their final product would be “something worth collecting.”
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Working together on the story -- “the most creative project we’ve ever worked on” -- they then reached out to Marvel illustrator Damion Scott, who helped develop it into a graphic novel. Rooted in hip-hop and urban culture, the zombie thriller finds Los Angeles under attack by an ancient alien god, who is turning drug dealers into zombie-makers. In comes Zulu-X and his hip-hop crew, the Blastmasters, to fight the aliens with the guidance of their leader, Master Sun.
With the band having built a successful career with their socially conscious music, it’s no surprise that behind the zombies and aliens lie parallels with gang and hip-hop culture. “Even though it’s a fictional story, there is a lot of truth with good versus evil and overcoming obstacles and evil,” says Taboo. “At the end of the story, [after] going through all these trials and tribulations, there’s a light and that’s what we like to create. We like to create music that has a socially conscious tone and speaks to what’s going on in the world, and this lends itself to that narrative.”
“It allows us to tell a story of what’s happening in our inner cities in a different realm -- from police shootings to drug abuse to culture-on-culture crime,” apl.de.ap adds.
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“It’s over-exaggerating and calling a crackhead a zombie!” pipes in will.i.am. “If you live in inner cities, you know there’s feuding between gangs over turf, selling drugs and how they get their weapons, so we took that reality and threw in conspiracy theories about who brought the drugs and weapons into our community, what’s the reason behind it and why urban culture is always under the thumb of some oppression.”
The world of gangs is something both will.i.am and Taboo are well aware of, having grown up in the rough neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles.
“I grew up in the projects, so I had the most exposure you could possibly have,” will.i.am says. “There are four types of kids in the projects, or in the ghetto -- you’re the gangbanger to survive, you’re the athlete, you’re the rapper trying to look up to the gangbanger, or you’re kept safe because you’re the church boy and you play music in church. That’s it. Very rarely is there the scholar. Those are the four ways to get out.”
Music helped will.i.am find his way out, and in addition to worldwide success with the Black Eyed Peas, he has released four solo albums, starred in films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, ventured into fashion and worked with artists such as Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and David Guetta.
And fans can rest assured that the group (who recently played the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan with Fergie) is also working on new music. A soundtrack component for the novel is in the works and will.i.am confirms a tour is also coming up. “We’re hip-hop storytellers now. It’s kind of nuts,” will.i.am says. “We’re going to tour in a very, very, very innovative way. I’m not talking holograms, we’re going to tour physically, but the tech that we bring is going to be fresh!”