will.i.am (then Will 1X) and apl.de.ap were breakdancers and part of a group called Atban Klann that was signed to West Coast legend and N.W.A member Eazy E's Ruthless Records. In 1995, when Eazy died, the Ruthless label was rearranged and the Atban Klann were dropped. Adding Will's breakdancing friend Taboo, the Atban Klann became the Black Eyed Pods and, soon after, the Black Eyed Peas.
And the Black Eyed Peas of 1995 were different still?
The Black Eyed Pods turned Black Eyed Peas were, like the Atban Klann, a positive, fun-oriented hip-hop group. In sharp contrast to the gangsta rap Los Angeles is known for, B.E.P performed with a live band, featured female vocalist Kim Hill on their hooks, and became part of a mini-movement of uplift, smiley-face L.A hip-hop along with the Jurassic 5.
Who's this Kim Hill?
In some ways, Hill was the original Fergie, though she'd probably be offended by that comparison, if the fairly bitter bio on her official website is any indication. Hill met Will, apl.de.ap, and Taboo in 1995 and helped write the group's 1998 debut Behind the Front and 2000's Bridging the Gap. She left the group in 2000 to develop a solo career.
When did Fergie Ferg enter the picture?
Stacy Ferguson was first a child actor, and then, in the '90s, a member of the all-ladies pop-R&B trio Wild Orchid, a second-rate group in an era where poppy R&B was all the rage. Fergie, frustrated with the group's image (and apparently, dealing with a meth addiction) left the group in 2001 and joined B.E.P in 2002, working with them on their 2003 breakout album Elephunk. Go listen to “Shut Up!” from that album and you begin to hear the palpable shift Fergie vocals brought to the group.
And the hits started coming?
Basically, yeah. B.E.P's “Where Is The Love” (featuring Justin Timberlake, though contract issues didn't allow him to be credited) arrived as a hedged but effective response to the Iraq invasion. It's exactly what pop-rap crossovers are supposed to sound like. “Shut Up,” “Hey Mama,” and “Let's Get It Started” (originally called “Let's Get Retarded” and changed for obvious reasons) soon followed.
Is it better than the earlier stuff?
Totally. B.E.P's transition from quasi-underground rappers to pop megastars is fairly organic—and, more importantly, they're a better pop group than throwback socially conscious hip-hop crew. 2005's Monkey Business is cleverly caught between worlds. You get go-for-broke pop songs like “Don't Phunk With My Heart,” “My Humps” and “Pump It,” along with a Q-Tip and Talib Kweli collaboration called “Like That,” and a production style that's Puff Daddy meets Kanye West.
Why were their nearly four years between Monkey Business and 2009's The E.N.D.?
So strong were those hits that B.E.P were able ride the success of Monkey Business for nearly half a decade. Fergie released The Duchess in 2006 which spawned five hits (“London Bridge,” “Fergalicious,” “Glamourous,” “Big Girls Don't Cry” and “Clumsy”) and will.i.am dropped the alright Songs About Girls in 2007. Both are basically B.E.P. albums, anyway.
When did they become this weird beat-up-the-beat avant-techno-bubblegum group?
When they returned with 2009's The E.N.D., will.i.am had all but abandoned a hip-hop style and developed an electro-tinged, house music-like pop-rap thump with the help of French dance-floor filler David Guetta. Hits followed: “Boom Boom Pow,” the inescapable “I Gotta Feeling” and “Imma Be.” 2010's The Beginning takes this even further, continuing the sound and success of The E.N.D. and Usher's will.i.am-produced “OMG,” bending the B.E.P. style in new innovative and dare-we-say experimental ways. Listen to the parts of “The Time (Dirty Bit)” that steal from DeadMau5, and not the parts that grab from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and you get the picture.