Perhaps only William Adams could have turned his name into such a statement of self-belief. The great i.am.
So at 38 years old, the hip-hop artist and coach on The Voice UK has numerous number-one hit records (both solo and with the Black Eyed Peas), i.am clothing, i.am auto, i.am philanthropy… Will.i.am is not simply a brand these days, he’s a whole can-do philosophy.
We meet in a London hotel. I bring my daughter. The publicist thinks she’ll have to stay outside the room, but Will.i.am insists on her presence, and within seconds is interviewing her.
“What are you doing with your life?” She tells him she’s a student.
“Great. I’m going back to college.” And he’s off. Will.i.am, worth an estimated $75 million and rapidly counting, is bored with conventional success. The time has come to go back to school and do some regular learning.
“I’m going to learn computer science in September – coding. I want to prepare for the new world.”
He’s still choosing between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of the Arts. Initially, he’ll be a full-time student, then will take a tutor on the road with him as he completes his degree.
Will.i.am is a fascinating character. On television and stage he is wacky and hyper, an explosion of semi-voluntary tics and noises. In private he looks pretty much the same: outsized shades, larger-than-life leather jacket with Union flag stitched into a shoulder pad, bright-red slippers. But he’s quieter, more reflective and infinitely curious. What does that new world look like?
“Tablets, apps, always being connected, access to information, platforms, user interfaces, robotics… I wanna be a part of that conversation in a creative way. I want to bring things to culture.”
It was recently suggested that Will.i.am and Simon Cowell were going to collaborate on a show to find tomorrow’s digital superstar – The Techs Factor, if you will. He says that’s both right and wrong; he never talked to Cowell about it, but yes, he’s putting together a technology reality show.
“It’s something I’m passionate about and we’re a step away from making it reality.” Where will he find the kids? “I’m plugged into this network of kid coders, kid robot builders, and that’s a pretty cool network.”
Even if he isn’t working with Cowell, can’t he just nick the title? The Techs Factor would be such a great name for the show. He grins.
“No, we have a better name. It’s freakin’ dope. It’s a dope name.” What it is? “I can’t tell you.”
Will.i.am has been obsessed with music, fashion and technology since he was a boy. He grew up in the tough projects [public housing developments] of the Boyle Heights area of east Los Angeles. His mother Debra brought up her three children herself. But that’s not all, he says.
“When I was ten she adopted another couple of kids.” He still sounds in awe of what she did. And there’s more, he says. When he became successful, he bought her a home in a nice area, and she adopted some more kids. “She’s the best mom ever. Think about it! How d’you have kids of your own, adopt other kids, adopt some more and there’s no jealousy among any of them? She’s pretty dope.” Will.i.am could trademark the word “dope” – we hear it all the time on The Voice UK.
Dope is good.
His mother started off nannying lots of the local kids, then ran an after-school club. She taught Will.i.am that nothing was impossible; you just had to believe. By the age of 17, he had a record deal.
“When you get a record deal or when you get acknowledged and you’re taken seriously at an early age, it helps mould your confidence. I didn’t even speak the language of failure.” He says the self-belief went through his family – right back to his grandmother, Sarah, the great matriarch.
At 22, he had moved out of the family home and in with his teacher girlfriend, another powerful woman, who knew how to put men in their place. They went out together for eight years.
Did he know his father? “Yep!” he says instantly. I’m surprised – I’d read that he didn’t.
“My mom’s my dad.” Pardon? “I had this conversation with my mom. It was like a Darth Vader moment. I was talking about him, and she said, ‘I am your daddy.’ She said, ‘Willy, let me ask you something. When it was raining that day and I put an umbrella over your head, were you upset that I didn’t let you get wet? When it was cold and I put a jacket over you, were you upset that I didn’t let your skin get cold? So don’t be upset I protected you from things… and as a matter of fact I am your dad.’” He says it was a huge lump-in-the-throat moment.
Did he ever try to find his father? “No. Why? For what? My mom is my freakin’ dad.”
The family had little money, and at school he received government milk and cheese. Again, he says that shaped his character. This year he donated his £500,000 salary from The Voice UK to the Prince’s Trust. He says it felt wrong to keep it when it came from the taxpayer. And, he says, he was a beneficiary of philanthropy – it gave him opportunities, so why wouldn’t he want to do the same for others?
In the past he has criticised celebrity do-gooding, saying it means so much more if you choose and invest in a project that’s personal to you.
“Look, it’s cool for celebrities to lend themselves to others’ endeavours,” he says today. “When it’s noisy, you need something to break through the noise and if the celebrity wants to lend himself to amplify activity that’s great. But I didn’t want just to be an amplifier. I wanted to be a guitar, an amplifier, the stage, the lights, I wanted to be the whole kaboodle!”
For one project he and his mother visit banks, find out whose homes are about to be repossessed through no fault of their own, and help pay off their mortgage. Another project is an i.am scholarship, which pays for books and equipment for students.
Is it true that despite paying off all these mortgages, he has never owned a home himself? “I so don’t have a home. But I bought my mom, uncle, aunt and grandma their homes.
“And then what some people call my home is really my studio, where my other uncle lives…”
He’s travelling so much of the time, loves living out of hotels, and just hasn’t got around to building his dream home. What would that look like?
“Well, you pull up and you say, ‘So where’s the house?’ And I say, ‘Right here, don’t you see it?’ And you say, ‘It’s a hill, dude.’ Then you go on the hill and out of it shoots an elevator, and then you live in the ground and there’s little holes in the grass that bring light to the subterranean home.”
I’m lost for words at his surreal vision. That’s not the half of it, he says. He has an even more ambitious plan for people currently living in the projects where he was raised.
“Me and my brother were making a video in a field the other day, and I said, ‘I wonder how much this field costs?’ He said, ‘Willy, it’s crazy you can even think like that. Where we come from nobody ever thinks you can have those kind of thoughts.’”
He says if you don’t dream in the first place, there’s no chance of making it real in the end – which takes us back to the projects.
“I said to my brother, ‘Imagine if we bought this field. We could re-do the projects here, with whole families together.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but who’s going to live in the projects, it’s all going to be poor people.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah it should be: orphans, families with no money, kids who excel at school, and they come and live here in this compound. It would be great. We’d teach them science, birth the next mathematicians, architects and entrepreneurs. It would be freakin’ amazing.’ ”
And his mother would run the whole thing – it would be just like the after-school club writ large.
The wonderful thing is that Will.i.am does believe he can make this happen. Does he fancy having kids of his own? “Yes, one day.” Is there a prospective Mrs Will.i.am on the scene?
“I got this new video I did a couple of weeks ago. Oh my gosh, you’ve got to see it,” he replies. And Mrs Will.i.am? “The video cost around $300,000. You did ask that, didn’t you?” Anyway, he says, he’s too busy to be thinking about a family right now, when he’s got a solo career to look after, producing, the tech reality programme, numerous inventions, the philanthropy, the dream home to build, the university degree and of course The Voice UK to contend with.
The Voice has been trailing Britain’s Got Talent on ITV by a couple of million viewers most weeks this series. That’s not a problem, he insists; in fact, he says, The Voice has done brilliantly considering ITV’s budgets.
But, he admits, it is a problem that the winner of the first series, Leanne Mitchell, didn’t even reach the top 40 with her single (nearly all The X Factor winners have had number-one hits), which was released on major label Universal.
“The record company should be freakin’ embarrassed. Somebody should be held accountable. These singers are on television every week. So you’ve already accomplished things that stars don’t accomplish.” He says it was ridiculous that there was no record ready to be put out within days of the winner being announced.
“Do you wait a year later? Somebody should get slapped because you waited too long. The show paid all this money for make-up, the lighting guy, wardrobe person, editor, director. Where are the bloody songwriters and producers? Boom! Somebody should be ready.
“If you’re having performers sing other people’s songs, you should have a whole bunch of songs ready in your arsenal. It’s hopeless to release a record so long after the series finished, especially in the attention deficit disorder society that we live in today.”
He also accepts there’s another fundamental flaw with The Voice. While the blind auditions and battles make for a great start, the series trails off towards the end; just as it should be reaching a climax, viewers lose interest. He suggests it needs a radical injection of drama.
“If it was always blind auditions, you’d get bored of that, too. I think something has to happen at the end that is just as unique. As the series nears its end it needs to be better than it was at the beginning. Something like where you could actually dunk ’em: ‘I don’t like ’em,’ and they’re in the water. F****** bubble singing. Pshhooooo.”
He imitates contestants being fired into a pool of gunk. “An exit button and you just catapult them out. Pshhooooo.”
He laughs, ecstatically. Yes, that would liven up the show nicely.
See The Voice Live Final tonight at 7:15pm on BBC1