To some, both those who rely on Spotify’s Billboard Top 100 playlist and those who scowl at such laziness in musical taste; will.i.am is just the guy who made you agree that tonight is going to be a good, good night, whether you fist-pumped proudly or secretly in your apartment.
will.i.am’s commercial success with the Black Eyed Peas is merely the eruption of the volcano, the most visible and talked about, but simply the result of years of creative churning below the surface. Prior to joining the Black Eyed Peas he attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles and has dabbled with several fashion lines of his own in the past. He is also involved with VICE’s Creators Project. His latest venture, EKOCYCLE, is an eco-friendly line partnered with Coca-Cola that works with iconic brands such as Levi’s and Beats by Dr. Dre to create products made with at least 25% recycled material made from Coca-Cola bottles. He won over Coca-Cola back in 2009 when he presented the idea with a beautifully handmade book illustrating the concept, and thus EKOCYCLE was born.
I sat down with will.i.am Wednesday to discuss EKOCYCLE then later attended the launch party.
VICE: How did the EKOCYCLE concept come about?
will.i.am: Well I learned a bunch of information about GA millennium goals, and I learned how companies were moving towards fulfilling those goals, whether it be sustainability, or zero waste around sustainability, or greener solutions, just all around sustainability for our environment. And a lot of times you look out and go, wow, look at those companies, look what they do, and you never realize what you do as an individual, how you pollute. So one day I was on stage (with the Black Eyed Peas,) we just played a concert and there were two hundred thousand people there. I thought, wow they’re here just for us, two hundred thousand people, that’s freaking nuts. And then we hung out after the show and I saw all the waste we caused in that city, so I thought -- what can I do to offset that so that doesn’t happen? So I started thinking of ideas. Having recycling bins at our concerts, that’s one way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that people are actually going to put their cups and their bottles in the recycling bin. So I thought – how do you start it before they even get there? Before they even put on their shoes or their jacket? Those jackets and those shoes should also be sustainable. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place, and should be starting in the culture, something people came be a part of, that is tangible, in their consumption; in things that they want, and desire; a demand for that we can actually supply.
As much as people want things cheap, they don’t really want things made cheap. People want things that are made well, they want things that are expensive looking.
I suppose it depends on what you can afford.
Even if it’s hard, people work their whole lives to get it. They put themselves in debt to have it. And the things that they put themselves in debt for end up being the things that mess up the environment. So I thought that was kind of weird.
Like what sort of things?
Like say you want a product that has to be made by chopping down trees. That kind of messes your environment up, but you want it so you go out and get it. So it should be something that is sustainable for the environment but with still the desire and pull that you want. That doesn’t even exist – wow, let’s make that. So I came up with EKOCYCLE and I pitched it to Coca-Cola in 2009 and here we are.
Why did you choose Coca-Cola to reach out to partner with?
Okay so right now a couple of brands have their recycled shoe or their recycled shirt or jacket; that existed. And then they have the products they make their money off of. And the ones that are green end up getting swallowed by the market, they can’t market the green ones. So then they stop that program. And then you think of the biggest marketer, company on the planet and that would be Coca-Cola.
Now, if they were the center of this sustainable brand that made a base cloth and badge of what their sustainability efforts are, you could probably sustain a side green project – align them all under this thing called EKOCYCLE. So a hat, or glasses, or head phones, a bike, a phone, a phone cover, a computer, a computer cover, a backpack, a briefcase, all these other brands that are already part of this movement, then that’s a real sustainable society and everybody is benefiting from everybody’s sustainability efforts. Right now you got all these one-offs and it doesn’t really make that much noise and it doesn’t coincide with an overall brand identity. So that’s why I picked Coke.
You mentioned a base cloth, how exactly is the EKOCYCLE material made?
What they do is they shred up that plastic water bottle into flakes and then they shred those flakes into thread and now it’s base cloth. And the difference between this and rayon or any other type of fabric out there is that it’s a new fabric.
It becomes a movement that these partners are a part of. So instead of, “What is that jacket?” “Oh, this is cotton.” It will be “What is that?” This is EKOCYCLE.” So it’s the first time taking recycling and sustainability and calling it a fabric via technology.
And it looks and feels exactly the same?
How has your background in fashion played a role in EKOCYCLE?
Just gave me guidelines on what to do, I learned a lot in the past. Who you are designing for, who you are not designing for. A lot of times designers think they are designing for themselves. And that’s a bad idea. Or else I’d be coming out with space shit. Hahaha. So you can’t do that.
Are there other musicians’ fashion lines out there that you admire?
A lot of those musician fashion lines… that’s why I stopped doing my previous fashion line. Because I don’t want to, no disrespect to their stuff, I don’t appreciate….I sound like a hater. I’m not a hater, I’m a lack-of-appreciator.
Hah! I like that, I’m going to steal that line from you.
I don’t appreciate it when people just take their name and stick it on a brand and there’s a whole bunch of designers behind them. I mean that’s cool….I guess. I just don’t want to be looked at like that. Because then when you’re around other designers and you actually have background in that, they don’t respect you because of the crowd that they come from. It just didn’t feel good when I was going and doing design work, for my brand, and I always had to defend myself because I am a musician. It’s like an actor trying to defend their signing because they studied theater. Like, Robert Downy Jr. is a fucking amazing singer but if he was to come into the studio, he would have to defend himself. Most people don’t know that he is an amazing singer. I just got tired of defending myself.
What spurred your interest in environmental issues other than witnessing the waste generated at your concerts?
Well, you go to the store and you see a pair of green shoes that are hideous and they cost $5. And then you want the ones that cost $5,000 and probably not that good for the environment. Just those kinds of voids and things to fix in society. I was driven by filling voids.
“Driven by filling voids,” that’s a lovely sentence. Well, anything else you’d like to add?
Well I know the world of taste-makers, and VICE being a taste-maker when they think of a pop group or a person like myself, just by nature it gets written off like, “nah…” But then when I was up at Creators Project, they asked, “how did you get this Intel gig, and why does your name show up whenever we want to do something creative?” It changed VICE’s perspective on how I play in the role of pop, and other innovative programs. So this -- how VICE adopted my perspective and me as a thinker, EKOCYCLE and Coke is that times a billion for what I do at Intel.
We’ve got nothing but respect for you, man.
I tell you, shit was hard. Because I came full circle. Black Eyed Peas started out as an underground group and everyone is all “yeah! Black Eyed Peas, you guys are so cool,” because we were, but then we blew up and people are like “what the hell you guys doing?” Sometimes it’s a struggle against this tornado wave. But EKOCYCLE is bigger than all off that.