I went to my first concert when I was in the fifth grade; It was 1999 (I think)and Wyclef Jean was headlining, with direct support from De La Soul, and the Black Eyed Peas as the opening act. Not bad, right? My aunt and uncle took my little cousin Joe and I to the show, at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, and besides my Uncle Jerry getting pissed at the college kids smoking weed behind us, it was an amazing show and among my fondest musical memories.
Oddly enough, the set I remember best was that of the Black Eyed Peas. Coming off the moderate success of their first album Behind The Front, and promoting their soon-to-be-released follow-up Bridging The Gap, the Peas stormed the stage around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Espousing a conscious, alternative hip hop style akin to that of The Roots or The Pharcyde, Will.I.Am, Apl.De.Ap and Taboo put on a great show, freestyling, beatboxing and breakdancing with reckless abandon. From what I can recollect, their set was undeniably impressive.
The only problem: there couldn’t have been more than 50 people actually watching that performance. Nobody was paying attention; nobody cared. This is a ridiculous thought, but a part of me wants to feel that it was this concert, as well as the less-than-stellar performance of Bridging The Gap, that led the Black Eyed Peas to draft Fergie into the group, and sellout beyond belief.
And judging by the epic, big budget, sold out, futuristic pop extravaganza they put on last month in Chi-town (which I attended as well), selling out has never seemed so necessary.
The E.N.D. World Tour was one of the most grandiose, extravagantly-designed shows I had ever been to. Lots of lights and pyrotechnics, tons of special effects and a fleet of those robot dancers from the “Imma Be” video were just some of the highlights of the concert’s staging. Taboo rode a motorcycle suspended 30 or 40ft in the air above the audience, Fergie was joined by former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash for a rousing rendition of that band’s seminal hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and at one point Will.I.Am performed an incredible five minute freestyle using material from text messages being sent from the audience. The massive stage jutted out into a runway that split the audience in half. The Peas used this runway often and, with the concert being completely sold out, its use gave the performers an almost-heroic aura. The Peas ran through hit after hit after hit, never even hinting at an attempt to maybe play a lesser-known album track; they never once gave the impression that they were trying to challenge their audience. The rare bits of profanity in the Peas’ music was censored during the entire performance, and I cannot recall ever hearing a song I didn’t like or wasn’t familiar with; they never even acknowledged material from their first two albums. They might still technically be a “Hip Hop” group, but The E.N.D. World Tour was a Pop show, without question.
Throughout their two hour set, and in between gyrating with my friend Ashlie and chowing down on free nachos, I couldn’t help but think about that concert back in ’99. The contrast is almost laughable; in ten years, these second-rate Hip Hop revivalists went from playing in broad daylight for 50 people to selling out arenas across the world. Since the release of 2003’s Elephunk, their initial crossover attempt, they’ve been nominated for 16 Grammys (winning six) and have literally scored one ubiquitous pop hit after another. It’s arguable that the Peas even deserve some of the credit for Hip Hop’s mainstreaming throughout the 2000s; white soccer moms may not download Gucci Mane’s mixtapes, but you better believe they’ve heard “I Got A Feeling” about 50 billion times by now. Two days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article calling the Black Eyed Peas “The Most Corporate Band in America,” pointing to the ridiculously vast array of endorsements and commercials to which the band licenses their music and image. All things considered, I’d say the Black Eyed Peas are the biggest, most marketable pop group in the world right now. Go figure.
And post-selling out, their rise to superstardom makes a lot of sense. Almost too much sense. They added a sexy, white, female pop singer into the mix, and then refashioned their image from head wraps and “earthiness” to super-accessible, cartoonish futurism. They write light, fun, easily digestible Hip Pop songs, and never offend anyone. They clearly don’t give a shit if people question their credibility or financial motivations, accepting any and every endorsement deal they can get their hands on. And they have a multicultural appeal, in terms of the racial makeup of the group, that in effect mirrors our very society. They’re like Hip Hop’s response to the Spice Girls.
So is selling out a bad thing? Generally speaking, yes. But context matters, if you ask me. The Black Eyed Peas might have seemed to have had a purity in ethos going for them back in ’99, but that was about it. Their music was average at best, at least in comparison to their peers at the time (The Roots, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, etc.), and after their second album tanked, their record company was probably considering dropping them from the label.
Selling out was the best thing that ever happened to the Black Eyed Peas. Sell-out bands don’t necessarily fail because they sold out; it’s about how you sell out. If you sell-out and your music is worse than it was pre-selling out, you’ve failed. That’s not the case with the Peas. You might argue that they’re more annoying now, or that they’ve become pathetic slaves to the almighty dollar, but you’d be hard-pressed not to agree that their music is ten times better than it was before. That’s a fact, plain and simple.
You may not consider them great “artists,” like the Fugees or OutKast, but the Black Eyed Peas have mastered the art of selling out.
And they’ve been selling out arenas ever since.