In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
How did this happen? If this column has a point — debatable — then it’s that question. How did this song cut through the noise and, however briefly, become the most popular single in America? That’s what I’m always trying to figure out. I’m reviewing these songs — talking about if I think they’re any good or not — but the song’s story is usually a whole lot more interesting than whatever my opinion might be. I write this column because it’s fun to trace the social and musical threads that brought all these songs to the top of the mountain. When it comes to the Black Eyed Peas, though, I have no idea. Shit is confusing.
When the Black Eyed Peas reached #1 for the first time, the group had been around for many years. They’d been fluffy alt-rap also-rans and even-fluffier pop-rap punchlines. Somehow, though, they rose up to absolutely dominate the pop charts, both in America and around the world, for half of the 2009 calendar year. It seemed strange in the moment, and it seems even stranger in retrospect.
Look, I can tell you the story. I can point out the currents that led to that moment. I can tell you how the 2008 economic collapse left millions of young Americans in desperate financial straits and about how those young Americans turned to shiny, frictionless European club sounds for consolation — how that sensationalistic inebriation-soundtrack shit hit the zeitgeist. I can tell you how the Black Eyed Peas built a shameless brand over the decade, how the unexpected pop stardom of group member Fergie benefitted the rest of the Peas. I can tell you that will.i.am went to raves as a kid, that he knew the history of intersection moments between rap and dance music. But I can’t tell you how “Boom Boom Pow,” a song with no real structure or chorus or lyrical point, held the top of the Hot 100 for three months straight. Sometimes, things simply don’t make rational sense. Maybe the Black Eyed Peas simply got a feeling.
“Boom Boom Pow” was the culmination of a long, long journey. William Adams Jr., the man who would become will.i.am, grew up in the Estrada Courts housing projects in LA’s predominantly Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood. His father wasn’t around, but his uncle Lynn Cain played for the Atlanta Falcons. (When Will was born, the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” was the #1 song in America.) As a kid, Will went to raves and rap club nights. In eighth grade, he met the Filipino-born Allan Pineda Lindo.
In the late ’80s, Will Adams and Allan Lindo would go hit LA clubs and battle-rap other kids. They joined up with a couple of other friends and formed a dance crew called Tribal Nation. Adams became known as Will 1X, and Lindo, for reasons that I will never understand, took the name apl.de.ap. In 1991, David Faustino, the kid who played Bud Bundy on Married… With Children, opened up a rap club night called Balistyx. (He also released an album with the same title a year later. The early ’90s were wild.) One night, Tribal Nation performed at Balistyx, and gangsta rap legend Eazy-E caught their live show. He was impressed enough to sign them to his Ruthless label. (Eazy-E’s highest-charting Hot 100 solo hit, 1995’s “Foe Tha Love Of $,” peaked at #41.)
In 2011, will.i.am told Vibe that Eazy-E wanted him to play a very specific role: “Dr. Dre had left Eazy, and Ice Cube left Eazy, so he had no one else in the camp to ghostwrite. Eazy signed me to Ruthless to be a ghostwriter.” But Eazy also had plans for Tribal Nation. He changed the group’s name to Atban Klann. The new name supposedly stood for “A Tribe Beyond A Nation,” though I don’t get why anyone thought it would be a good idea to put the word “Klann” in a rap group’s name. Eazy told them, “You guys are going to be the West Coast version of Digable Planets. No one will ever see you coming.”
Atban Klann never became the West Coast version of Digable Planets. Really, the West Coast already had a couple of those. Atban Klann’s 1994 single “Puddles Of H2O” sounds like a take on the nerdy, adenoidal rap that California teenagers like the Pharcyde and Souls Of Mischief were making around the same time. (It’s not as good as what the Pharcyde and Souls Of Mischief were doing, but that’s a high bar to clear.) “Puddles Of H2O” never made much impact, and Ruthless never released Grass Roots, the album that the group recorded. Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995, leaving Atban Klann without a label. Eventually, group members Mookie Mook and DJ Motiv8 left, and Will 1X and apl.de.ap went off to form a new group.
Atban Klann did have one weirdly big impact. During one of the group’s recording sessions, Will 1X introduced producer Epic Mazur to white rapper Shifty Shellshock. Those two quickly became bandmates, which makes Will indirectly responsible for the existence of Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” So these Atban Klann guys were out there. They were in the mix. When Atban Klann came to an end, Will 1X and apl.de.ap joined up with their old friend Jaime Gomez, who went by the rap name Taboo, to start a different group. They started out as the Black Eyed Pods, and then they became the Black Eyed Peas. Somewhere in there, Will 1X changed his rap name to will.i.am.
Early on, the Black Eyed Peas took inspiration from casually thoughtful New York groups like De La Soul and from the whole boho-rap movement that was on the rise. They dressed eccentrically, they performed with a live band, and they incorporated their breakdancing background into their stage show and their videos. The Black Eyed Peas signed with Interscope and released their debut single “Fallin’ Up” in 1997. A year later, they came out with their Behind The Front album, which didn’t set the world on fire but did decent numbers. Their single “Joints & Jam” popped up on the Bulworth soundtrack.
Unlike most of the groups who inspired them, the Black Eyed Peas weren’t anarchic, absorbing personalities. They were also pretty average rappers, but they loved to perform. The Black Eyed Peas toured hard, hitting the college circuit running, and they cultivated a fanbase that wasn’t really paying attention to mainstream rap. You can hear some of their pop ambition at work on their sophomore album, 2000’s Bridging The Gap. Will.i.am was (and is) the group’s primary producer, and his tracks got brighter and friendlier. That album gave the Black Eyed Peas their first Hot 100 hit when the Macy Gray collab “Request Line” reached #63. (Macy Gray’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “I Try,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)
Then came Fergie. We already got into this part of the story in the piece on Fergie’s “London Bridge.” To recap: The Black Eyed Peas toured and often recorded with a backup singer named Kim Hill, who was never officially part of the group but who went off to go solo. Stacy Ann Ferguson was finishing her time with the mildly successful girl group Wild Orchid, and partly at the behest of Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine, she became a full-time member of the Black Eyed Peas. When Fergie joined up, BEP pivoted hard toward pop-rap, and they immediately became hugely successful. In 2003, they teamed up with Justin Timberlake, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times, on the single “Where Is The Love,” which blew up around the world and peaked at #8 in the US. (It’s a 6.)
The transition was a bit awkward. For a minute, the Black Eyed Peas still had half a foot in the backpack-rap world. Shortly after “Where Is The Love,” I saw them open for Gang Starr, which made for a weird vibe. But BEP’s 2003 album Elephunk went double platinum, and the group never looked back. They went even more shamelessly pop on their next album, 2005’s Monkey Business. The singles “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” and “My Humps” both peaked at #3, and the album went triple platinum. (“Don’t Phunk With My Heart” is a 4, and “My Humps” is a 3.) By this point, nobody in the rap world took the Black Eyed Peas remotely seriously, but when you’re doing numbers like that, you don’t have to care.
Fergie’s 2006 solo album The Dutchess did better than anyone could’ve possibly anticipated. It sent three singles, including the will.i.am production “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” to #1. Fergie was now a massive pop star, and she could’ve gone off on her own. Instead, she kept her position within the Black Eyed Peas. The group took a bit of a break from recording. They toured the whole planet. Will.i.am played the much-memed voice role of Moto Moto in the 2008 animated film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and then he played John Wraith in 2009’s wretchedly shitty Wolverine: X-Men Origins. Not even his death scene is cool.
Will.i.am spent a few months in Australia filming that Wolverine movie. While he was over there, he went to a music festival and had his mind blown by a set from Australian blog-house duo the Presets. That kind of blown-out, party-hard dance music had a huge club moment in the late ’00s, and will.i.am was into it. He later told Adelaide Now, “Their audience — it was like the new generation, new fans. These kids are ready. They’re the future. They are the Jetsons… That’s the reason why this record sounds the way it does – my three months in Australia.”
While he was filming Wolverine, will.i.am also campaigned hard for Barack Obama. He released the campaign song “Yes We Can,” and he famously did a hologram interview on CNN on election night. It looked stupid. But when Will had the time, he hit up clubs and listened to electro. When the Black Eyed Peas started making their next album, 2009’s The E.N.D., he brought that sound with him.
The title of The E.N.D. stands for The Energy Never Dies; this group loves acronyms. The Black Eyed Peas recorded it with a bunch of dance producers, but will.i.am was the main driving force. Lead single “Boom Boom Pow” draws on the electro-house of the moment, and it connects that stuff to the early ’80s electro — specifically Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” — that was always part of the rap canon. (“Planet Rock” peaked at #48 in 1982.) Talking to The New York Times, Will situated The E.N.D. within rap history: “The birth of hip-hop wasn’t slow. It was dance music. The only place it lived was the clubs… The Jungle Brothers were sampling Todd Terry. This record is like that era.”
You can hear a few echoes of early-’80s electro and late-’80s hip-house in “Boom Boom Pow,” but the track sounds more like Flo Rida trying to make his own version of 808s & Heartbreak, the Auto-Tuned sad-computer album that Kanye West released in 2008. “Boom Boom Pow” is a weird record. It doesn’t really have verses and choruses. Instead, it’s the Black Eyed Peas describing the effects of their own beat, which will.i.am co-produced with DJ Poet, the Black Eyed Peas’ touring DJ, and Jean Baptiste, a songwriter who’d been working with the group for years. The high-pitched whine on the intro is a sample from Sweet Mercy and Rowetta’s 1990 house single “Reach Out.”
Early on in “Boom Boom Pow,” will.i.am says that he’s got that rock ‘n’ roll, that future flow. The members of the group then spend the rest of the song describing just how futuristic they are, and their reference points make for a funny time capsule: spaceships that zoom, HD flatscreens, the fictional Transformers planet Cybertron. (I suppose that last bit could just as easily be a shoutout to the pioneering Detroit techno duo Cybotron.) Lots of that futuristic stuff soon became painfully mundane. Will says, “Here we go, here we go, satellite radio” — a relic of an era when satellite radio wasn’t just the thing that you get in your rental car. Taboo talks about how his competitors are “on that Super 8 shit, that lo-fi stupid 8-bit,” blissfully unaware of how those aesthetics would soon come back into vogue. Most famously, Fergie asserts that she’s so 3008 and that you’re so two thousand and late.
In attempting to describe just how advanced they were, the Black Eyed Peas ensured that “Boom Boom Pow” would instantly be forever dated. Honestly, it seemed dated the moment that the song came out. (I’m fairly certain Fergie would’ve talked about being so 2008 if the song had been ready for release a few months earlier. Instead of rewriting the line, she just set the dial forward 999 years.) The rapping on “Boom Boom Pow” is clumsy and ultimately uninteresting, even as will.i.am slathers glitch effects and Auto-Tune all over everything. The only person on the song who displays any real charisma is Fergie, who rips into her line about “people in the place” like a classic house diva. She’s the one who sounds like a star. The three guys are mostly just there.
“Boom Boom Pow” got a lot of hate for being repetitive, but dance songs are supposed to be repetitive. You’re not supposed to focus on the lyrics. To the track’s credit, the beat really moves. Will.i.am keeps switching it up, adding in bleepy synth riffs or jacking the tempo up and down. “Planet Rock” didn’t have great rapping, either. Still, if you weren’t out clubbing when “Boom Boom Pow” was huge — and I wasn’t — then the single’s success was flummoxing. The constant “boom boom boom” chanting was downright annoying, and I didn’t get much out of apl.de.ap insisting that he’s got the beat that beee-ounce. I did like how will.i.am put the echoing deep-voice filter on his voice so he could scream the phrase “let the beat rock!” That part was fun.
The “Boom Boom Pow” video looked like pure dogshit. The clip tried to translate the song’s retro-futuristic aesthetic, but it mostly just looked like an ugly echo of Tron, a movie that was already 25 years old. (The sequel Tron: Legacy came out a year later, but I don’t think anyone much cared about it.) The “Boom Boom Pow” clip also has a ton of product placement for the Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart, which now looks deeply silly, and I really hate the bald CGI lady who lip-syncs some of Fergie’s parts. It’s that Lawnmower Man thing: Most of the time, when some new visual technology is supposed to blow minds, it comes out looking like pixelated farts. We never learn.
At the time, Fergie said that the “Boom Boom Pow” video represented the group’s “rebirth into this music world, into the digital afterlife.” Really, the clip was supposed to echo Kraftwerk’s 1986 video for “Musique Non Stop,” but that video kind of sucks, and it didn’t improve with 2009 aesthetics. (Kraftwerk’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1974’s “Autobahn,” peaked at #25.)
Janky as it may be, “Boom Boom Pow” had a huge zeitgeist moment. In its first week, the track sold hundreds of thousands of downloads. Will.i.am told Billboard that he wasn’t expecting all that: “‘Boom Boom Pow’ was made for underground clubs. Like, if I would’ve thought that was gonna be a radio song, I would’ve made it different.” The Black Eyed Peas still capitalized on the moment, releasing about a million remixes. Tons of people were involved in “Boom Boom Pow” reworks: Flo Rida, Kid Cudi, David Guetta, LFMAO.
The “Boom Boom Pow” remix that I heard the most came from German producer Boyz Noize, and it featured verses from 50 Cent, someone who’s been in this column a bunch of times, and Gucci Mane, who was in the midst of a huge mixtape run but who wasn’t anything like a pop artist at the time. On that remix, Gucci says, “Gucci, Black Eyed Peas, that’s what people ain’t thinking.” He was right. I was not thinking that. (Gucci Mane’s two highest-charting lead-artist singles, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest, Gucci will eventually appear in this column.)
“Boom Boom Pow” held the #1 spot for an unfathomable stretch of time. It was the #1 song in America when my daughter was born, and she is not particularly thrilled about this fact. When “Boom Boom Pow” finally fell out of the top spot, the Black Eyed Peas had an even bigger hit ready to go. We’ll see them again in this column very soon.