Although their latest album features the platinum-selling, "b-boy" style-appropriating Justin Timberlake, the Black Eyed Peas have not sold out with their third CD, Elephunk. The group simply wanted to expand its sound and its reach. In other words, the critically loved underground hip-hop trio with two commercially overlooked albums under its belt wants to sell records. And there's nothing wrong with that, says group member Taboo. The musical freshness fans have come to expect from BEP still pulsates through Elephunk.
This time around, though, it was about "growth, man. As producers, we wanted to make the record sound more crisp," says Taboo, who's calling from Los Angeles. (His band mates, will.i.am and apl.de.ap, are apparently too tired to chat.) "We were hands-on. It's like taking some kids who knew about music going in, but coming out with a more professional sound. Knowing the technical aspect and being behind the control board - the growth is all there."
Known for its energetic blend of backbone-slipping dance, live instrumentation and clever word play, the group, which plays Washington's 9:30 Club Sunday night, has amassed a solid cult-like fan base since dropping its classic debut, 1998's Behind the Front. That album and its free-flowing follow-up, 2000's Bridging the Gap, eschewed the unimaginative sampling that plagues a huge chunk of hip-hop. The sound was warmly organic, dominated by kitchen-knife-sharp grooves. The smart lyrics spun Technicolor stories about coming of age, surviving, dealing with mixed-up politics.
But on Elephunk, the guys (plus Fergie, the female newcomer with a radio-ready voice and a video-friendly look) have a little fun. A strong party vibe permeates the record, blistering on "Hands Up" and "Let's Get Retarded."
It seems as if the Black Eyed Peas want to get you out of your seat and onto the floor. Shake somethin'. Move somethin'. If you're looking for a more pronounced underground flavor (airy, jazz-inflected beats overlaid with biting socially conscious lyrics), then you may shake your head in disappointment after sliding Elephunk into your stereo.
The CD's first single, "Where Is the Love?" which features Timberlake on the hook, is the only cut on the 14-track album that examines social wounds. The last tune on the CD, it leaves you with something serious to ponder as you wipe away the sweat from dancing.
There was definitely a game plan with Elephunk. "Now, we all have our hands in the business aspect," says Taboo, 27. "We know now about the marketing, the promotion. We really weren't into that before, so the last albums didn't do as well. It is a show. It is a business. In order to maintain your longevity, you have to know the business. It's not about just rapping and performing."
Anymore. Back in '89 in East L.A., it was all about rhymin' and breakin', being "funky-fresh" in a neighborhood ripe for social and economic change. BEP's visionaries Will "Will.I.Am" Adams, who's black, and Allan "Apl.de.ap" (pronounced apple-d-ap) Pineda, who's Filipino, were eighth-graders then. The two danced briefly with a group called Tribal Nation. Eventually, will.i.am, 27, and apl.de.ap, 28, split off into their own unit called Atban Klann (an acronym for A Tribe Beyond a Nation) and incorporated rap into its routines.
In 1992 with help from Eazy-E, the two signed with Ruthless Records, a label smoking with so-called "gangsta rap" at the time - namely, NWA. Atban Klann recorded an album, but because Ruthless didn't know how to market the group's mostly positive, food-for-thought rhymes, the project never saw the light of record stores. And after AIDS killed Eazy-E in '95, the duo didn't have a champion at the label. So Ruthless promptly showed will.i.am and apl.de.ap the door.
Undaunted, the two recruited their homeboy, MC and laws-of-physics-defying dancer Jamie "Taboo" Gomez, who's Mexican. The three called themselves the Black Eyed Peas and snagged a contract with Interscope Records in 1997.
Although the group tours constantly (this summer, BEP is the opening act on the Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake tour), the hip-hop group is slowly breaking into the mainstream with "Where is the Love?" Folks who appreciate real hip-hop with energy and substance dig the Black Eyed Peas. But the guys hope to pull more in with the slicker sound of Elephunk.
Taboo says, "Timing, management, attention from the record company - all are factors that help or hurt the record. This time around, we got that in order. So we expect, you know, a better response. We hope to touch your mind, body and soul."
The Black Eyed Peas play the 9:30 Club, (815 V St. N.W., Washington) Sunday night at 7:30. Tickets are $20 and are available via www.930.com.