Will.i.am leads a deeply unusual life. He’s a bona fide pop star, who’s won seven (!) Grammy’s, sold millions of records as a solo artist and as a member of The Black Eyed Peas, and has been a judge on the Australian and British versions of The Voice. He’s also a source of derision who seemingly employs a minion to paint Looney Toons-sized targets on his back: he’s a wearable technology entrepreneur who doesn’t appear to have any grasp on the nuances of wearable technology and a skilled musician with a Svengali-like nous for well-crafted, cynical schlock.
The gulf between his financial success and his artistic success, or between his fantastical ideas and their execution, is not an abnormal cleavage. What makes Will.I.Am’s life unique is that, before the wealth and and the anthemic, full-throated choruses, he was Will 1X, a member of Ruthless Records’ Atban Klann, and a mentee of Eazy-E. On assignment for Vice, I spoke to him about that period of his life, which he understandably views with a mix of regret and nostalgia. He got ripped off for unknowable thousands of dollars by Jerry Heller, but he got to spend birthdays with Eazy-E. Life’s unusual like that. —Torii MacAdams
Thanks for talking to me. Nick and Rasmus [of production duo Madness 4 Real] say hey, by the way.
Will.I.Am:Oh what up bro? Last time I saw them was 2005 in Denmark.
Yeah I spoke to them this week.
Will.I.Am:Yeah we were in Denmark and we were just thinking like, “I can’t believe this. Who would have freaking thought?” We were just talking about Eazy. Like if you think about [the] music that were were making when we were doing Blood of Abraham stuff, it’s like if you like Flying Lotus and those kind of hip hop beats–Blood of Abraham was doing that shit in 1992.
One of the guys lived with Eazy right?
Will.I.Am:Yeah Mazik and Benyad. Benyad does all my videos, all Black Eyed Peas videos. Mazik lived with Eazy, we’ve all been friends ever since Eazy days. And Atban Klann with Digable Planets, Tribe, De La–those are our heroes. That’s who we model ourselves after. And then Bone Thugs-n-Harmony which was pre-trap. Go back to N.W.A.–what would Eazy be doing if he was alive right now? I don’t think the people, I don’t think the emperors of the empires, would be there right now. It would be a totally different empire structure.
You linked up with him at David Faustino’s rap night Balistyx, right?
Will.I.Am:No, what happened was, the same guy who introduced me to Fergie– his name was Dante Santiago–had suggested to David Faustino that there should be a rap contest there. There was a rap contest at that club and I used to win that every week, I used to win the rap battle. And Jerry Heller’s nephew, Terry Heller, would go to that club all the time and see me. Either he was looking for new L.A. guys, because everyone was leaving–Cube left, Dre left–and he needed new writers and shit like that. Terry pushed and pushed and brought us to Jerry. That was the summer of 1991 and in January of ’92 I signed with Ruthless. That Christmas of ’91 is when Merry Mu came out.
How did you react when Eazy-E told you he wanted to make a Christmas song?
Will.I.Am:It was like, at the time Run-D.M.C. was the only ones that had a Christmas joint. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, I went back to school after he recorded it. Think about it dude, that was in 11th grade. I had just turned 17 years old and I recorded “Merry Muthafuckin’ Christmas” with Eazy-E.
You must’ve felt incredible.
Will.I.Am:Yeah, I still lived in the projects and I would ride the yellow bus and everyone would be like ‘Oh shit you recorded with Eazy-E?” But at that point in time, there wasn’t like. the internet, so the people that knew were the people that knew. Everybody didn’t know. You couldn’t really play it on KDAY. “Merry Muthaphuckkin’ Christmas”–where do you play that in 1992? It’s not like we can go to radio and hear it. [Could] they play it on KDAY?
Will.I.Am:Where do they play that song? In cars, where people roll through the hood and swap meets, blasting through stereos in the neighborhood. The internet at that point in time was the neighborhood. When people had big-ass ghetto blasters and people blared their music to let you know what time it was. That was the internet back then. It wasn’t like we could all go to the local water fountain and get downloaded with all the new shit. The world was different then.
Were you ever in the studio with Menajahtwa?
Will.I.Am:When we recorded that, yes.
Do you have any memories of them? No one seems to have much to say. I could only get an email address for one of the members and I didn’t get a response.
Will.I.Am:They were cool at Christmas events at the office, when Eazy filmed “5150,” when he shot the video for “Real Muthafuckin’ G’s.” Everyone from the label would show up so I would see them there. They were cool. Bitches With Attitude, they were cool, too.
Do you think your career would have been different had Ruthless released Grassroots [Atban Klann’s debut record]?
What do you think would have happened?
Will.I.Am:We wouldn’t have [had] a blank slate. Sometimes things not coming out is good—then you get to learn on why they didn’t come out and then apply that so that when it comes out, you have…We were 17 years old. I used to like the Boogiemonsters, I used to like Artifacts’ “Wrong Side of Da Tracks”–I liked all that stuff. There’s something about those groups that were [too soon], whether you were on Sleeping Bag records, or Delicious Vinyl, or Nervous records, a lot of those records [were] in that too early bag.
It was just too early–and thank God that we didn’t come out then–but we got to hang out with one of the greats and learn from him. Nobody really put Eazy on. Eazy put himself on. It wasn’t like nowadays, [where] you have co-sign people that are successful but they have co-signers. Eazy-E didn’t have a co-sign. Every single person you can think of right now, I can tell you their co-sign. Eazy-E didn’t have a co-sign. Who was his co-sign? Nobody put him on, he put himself on. I learned from that, and because we never came out, Black Eyed Peas we don’t have a co-sign. Nobody put us on. We put ourselves on. That’s something to say what I learned from him. Every single person you can think of, somebody put them on.
That’s a very important lesson, especially in the music industry.
Will.I.Am:That’s the lesson I learned from Eazy, and if we came out then, Eazy would have put us on and we wouldn’t be able to sustain. How long have I been in here? I’ve been doing music as a career since I was sixteen, seventeen years old. The good thing and the bad thing about never coming out on Ruthless is I learned how to put myself on.
Nobody put me on and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that everything that I’ve earned, from being able to sell out stadiums and write number one songs and cross demographics and be accepted on a political level, accepted on a philosophical level, and accepted on a street level…I don’t have a co-sign. And because of that, in this day and age, I’m a little alien. I have a little bit of that and if you think about me it’s like, ‘I don’t really know where he fits.’
That’s why I put myself on, because nobody put me on. And I fit everywhere. And I think that’s where Eazy-E would be if he was still around. Why would he sign us? Because he was trying to fit everywhere. Why would he sign Blood of Abraham, a Jewish hip hop group, he’s trying to fit everywhere. Why would he go have dinner with the President at that one point in time, he was trying to fit everywhere.
Ruthless Records at that time was incredible. He had every kind of act pretty much.
Will.I.Am:‘We’re JJ Fad and we’re here to rock.’ I learned from that. Fergie is Tairrie B and JJ Fad sandwiched with a little bit of Teena Marie. That’s Fergie. I learned from Eazy-E.
What did you think of Jerry Heller?
Will.I.Am:Jerry Heller was cool to me. I was afraid of him, right? But he was cool, like, “Hey little buddy.” “Hey, are we gonna get paid this week, because our agreement was we got signed for 10k?” [For] sixteen, seventeen year-olds, 10k is a lot of money. After we got signed, we got [a] 150 dollars per week allowance. In 1992, 10k advance and 150 dollars a week. Now that I look at it, it was a really shitty deal and we were signed for like, ever. Our lawyer was Jerry’s best friend, so we were doomed, but he was a really nice guy. At the end of the day we didn’t know any better, we got taken advantage of. Thank God we never came out, because if we came out we would’ve got fucked. So, [since] we never came out, Jerry was great.
That’s kind of what everyone says. Everyone says Jerry’s nice and then everyone’s like, “He also fucked me.”
Will.I.Am:We never got put in a situation to get fucked, so to me Jerry was cool. You never give an asshole the opportunity to fuck you. It’s always the nice guy that fucks you. When is the last time you heard somebody be like, ‘He’s an asshole, but Imma work with him.’ You work with nice people, but then they fuck you. You don’t work with assholes. No one signs up to work with an asshole willingly. You end up working with nice guys and then the wrong nice guy fucks you and then that’s why you call him an asshole. That’s the rules.
What was the scene around Ruthless like? Did you feel out of place?
Will.I.Am:No, for some reason I didn’t feel out of place because they were like, “Aye, nigga, freestyle! Y’all think these niggas dress weird; freestyle, nigga show these niggas what you got, nigga.” So I would go up there and freestyle and everybody be like “Aight, aight this nigga got it, this nigga got it. You made that shit up, nigga? Off the top, nigga?” Yeah, nigga, that’s off the top. “Damn freestyle me a verse and I’ll write it down, that’s gonna be my verse.” That’s how it worked. I would go in there and freestyle, and those freestyles would turn into people’s verses.
Did you essentially ghostwrite for most of Ruthless at that time?
Will.I.Am:No, shit never came out. Just like any camp, there’s a camp of writers that you put out, and there’s a guy that’s there who’s learning the ropes, and eventually that will be the go-to guy. It never got to that point with me. I was being groomed and groomed and ghostwriting, but it never got to the point—just like those people in my camp now they’re being groomed. I was at Interscope for a long time being groomed and then [Black Eyed Peas] came out.
What were some of your favorite memories from that time of your life?
Will.I.Am:So every birthday, from 1992 until 1995, Eazy would take me to this place called Monty’s, he and Jerry would take me on March 15th to celebrate my birthday. Now looking back at it, I was like “Wow, he took time to go to my birthday at Monty’s in the Valley.” For a 17 year old, now looking back, like wow. “Hey, happy birthday nigga.” “Nigga why you wear them clothes, nigga? You dress like my grandad nigga.” I was 17; I would go to thrift stores and wear old man clothes. Our whole shit was vintage and we wore like, butterfly collars. That was our whole steez.
I remember in 1992 I was like “Jerry, there’s this group called Pharcyde, [and] they’re getting ready to come out. We need to come out first! We’ve been in L.A. underground way before them, those guys are dancers, we’re the rappers.” I remember saying that to Jerry. “Jerry, there’s this group called Pharcyde that’s about to come out on Delicious Vinyl–we’ve been in the underground longer than them, rhyming. Those guys are just dancers. They don’t freestyle, we need to come out. I want to MC.”
I remember saying that to Jerry Heller and he said, ‘Look, little buddy, you could try to rush yourself out, but as soon as you rush in you’re also gonna rush out.” I remember him telling me this. He was like, “You wanna come out when it’s right, not because somebody else is infringing on your territory.” I remember that like if it was yesterday.
That’s pretty incredible advice actually.
Will.I.Am:“There’s a group called Pharcyde, they’re getting ready to come out, they haven’t been in the underground longer than us, those guys are dancers, we’re the MC’s.”
What’d you think of the Straight Outta Compton film?
Will.I.Am:Some parts were accurate from my memory, and then some parts where like, “Eazy would never do that. Eazy-E would never say that.” That wasn’t the Eazy I knew. There’s some parts in it, like, naw, Eazy wasn’t broke. How could he be broke? Bone Thugs was big as fuck then. How could Eazy run out of money then? Some parts were like, eh he didn’t run out of money. Bone Thugs was, fucking, the biggest shit in America.
Do you remember Bone Thugs around?
Will.I.Am:I remember the conversation like “Eazy how come Bone Thugs is out before us? We were signed before them.” “That’s because that’s my group, nigga. You Jerry’s group.” And then before he died he called me on my birthday, March 15th, 1995, and said, “Look, y’all Jerry’s group but I want y’all to come over here on my side because MTV really likes your video for ‘Puddle of H20.’ I know what the fuck to do with y’all now, y’all need to come over here with me.” So obviously there was something happening with Jerry and Eazy that I didn’t know about.
I knew there was something weird because things started getting thick in there. All of a sudden, one day security was really heavy in the building, so I was like “Hey what’s going on?” I never saw Suge in my whole entire time being there from 1992 to 1995, I never saw Suge. Never ran into him, never met him I didn’t even know what a Suge was. [Eazy] was like “Yeah I’m in [the hospital] looking at my cough for bronchitis.” I remember it like it was yesterday, March 15th, 1995. “I’m gonna be getting out soon, and let’s talk about the project because I think it’s ready to come out now, MTV really liked your video.” He died 11 days later.
Somebody with AIDS would have known they have AIDS. He wouldn’t have said ‘I’m coming out soon.” That’s why there’s some things to me that are puzzling, still to this day. I talked to him on the phone on my birthday. Every birthday he would take me out to Monty’s, so this birthday he was like, “Hey I ain’t gonna be able to make it lil’ nigga. You know I’m out here fixing my bronchitis and I’ll be out shortly I want y’all to be to my project now.” Because we were really Jerry’s project.
You’re suspicious of the idea that he died of AIDS?
Will.I.Am:A lot of people. Call Bone Thugs up they’ll probably tell you the same thing.
You don’t think it’s possible that he was in denial?
Will.I.Am:No. Nope. I’m just saying there’s no other cases for the people around him that he was intimate with, not even his kids. I don’t understand it. It’s weird. Explain the people he was intimate with then.