In a neon-colored Manhattan television studio filled with screaming pre-teens, the Black Eyed Peas sit blindfolded and covered by green plastic smocks. ''The last time I did this, I threw up,'' warns one of the group's three rappers, Taboo, looking more than a little queasy. When the cameras roll, Taboo and pint-size Peas singer Fergie take turns dipping their fingers into bowls of unidentified food substances, then trying to guess what they are. (For the record: cottage cheese, tapioca pudding, and black-eyed peas. Fergie won.) ''I guess it's better than typical press,'' says Fergie, wiping pudding residue off of her fingers.
Musicians have to suffer all sorts of indignities in the name of album promotion, and appearing on Nickelodeon's frenetic U-Pick Live, a show boasting liberal references to farts and mucus, seems about as low as a big-time act like the Peas can go. Yet this isn't a frivolous stop. In the past couple of years, 13-year-olds have become one of the group's key demographics. Besides, the Peas have some extra time: Unlike most hip-hop groups with new product to hawk, they won't be stopping off at any of New York's rap radio stations to talk up their latest disc, Monkey Business. ''The Peas don't really get played on hip-hop formats,'' says Paul ''Cubby'' Bryant, music director of New York Top 40 station Z100. ''Most urban stations would argue that it's just too poppy for them.''
It wasn't always this way. When the Peas began as a trio of break-dancing B-boys in the mid-'90s, they were regulars on Los Angeles' cred-obsessed underground hip-hop scene. ''Those guys were just dynamos,'' remembers ex-Pharcyde rapper Fatlip, whose group was then at the center of L.A.'s alternative-rap world. ''They would be on stage rhyming, freestyling, and dancing all at the same time.'' All that energy didn't translate into big sales, however: Their first two albums 1998's Behind the Front and 2000's Bridging the Gap sold around 500,000 copies between them.
So in 2003, they made a decision to walk away from that world, and in the process transformed themselves from a second-tier rap act into the biggest multiculti, family-friendly pop-rap group in the world. Eight million records later (2.6 million of them in the U.S.), they have no regrets. ''At one point I thought, 'Career or local-MC respect: Which one do I want?''' says the group's founder, producer, and de facto leader, will.i.am (a.k.a. Will Adams). ''I could always go back and get respect. My thing was career, dude. Career. Career. Career.''
From the beginning, the Black Eyed Peas stood out. ''I heard about Will being an ill battle rapper, but when I saw him, he didn't look like what I expected him to, for better or worse,'' recalls MC Rakaa of L.A. indie-rap trio Dilated Peoples. ''Honestly, there were places he could've been beat up for dressing like he did.'' The Peas grew out of Atban Clan, Will's first group with childhood friend apl.de.ap (a.k.a. Allan Pineda). Despite the duo's jazzy, bohemian sound and outrageously eclectic gypsy B-boy fashion sense, Clan was signed, surprisingly, by gangsta-rap godfather Eazy-E to Ruthless Records in 1992. ''I think Eazy-E saw all of the 'conscious' rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest coming out then, and he wanted one for himself,'' says Apl. But their album never appeared, and after Eazy died in 1995 the band left the label, added a third member (local dancer Taboo, a.k.a. Jaime Gomez), and changed their name to the Black Eyed Peas.
Their electrifying live show bolstered by a real band and plenty of break dancing won the Peas a strong California fan base and the interest of several major labels. They signed to Interscope in 1997 (they currently record for Interscope imprint A&M) and watched their two albums barely make a dent in the marketplace. ''I think it's because they were neither fish nor fowl,'' explains A&M Records president Ron Fair, who has worked closely with the group since 2001. ''They weren't the main urban type of music, but there wasn't really a pop element, either, so they would sell a couple hundred thousand and just sort of stop.'' When a strong single from their second album ''Request Line'' featuring Macy Gray failed to break through, the band began to rethink its approach. ''After those first two records, I was thinking, We sold out the House of Blues, we have a cool fan base, but how do we get...'' Will holds his hand high above his head for emphasis ''there?''
The group wasn't just ambitious; they were also scared. When they started on what would become Elephunk in 2001, there was a very real chance they could get dropped if it didn't sell. ''We definitely had that in mind when we began working on it,'' says Apl. Then, a month after they started recording, 9/11 happened, and suddenly things like street cred didn't seem so important. ''I felt like our career might not be the only thing that might end,'' says Will. ''We could also die.''