'Timeless' Takes Hip-Hop Star to Brazil

Brazilian Bossa Nova legend Sergio Mendes teams up with Black Eyed Peas front man Will.i.am to make hip-hop with a Brazilian flavor. Renee Montagne interviews Mendes and Will.i.am about the album Timeless.

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(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Back in the 1960s, a Brazilian piano player helped introduce Americans to a new sound: Bossa Nova.

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MONTAGNE: Sergio Mendes scored a string of hits on the American pop charts with his groups Brazil '65 and Brazil '66. The music combined a cool jazzy sound with the rhythms of Brazilian samba. Now, the classic Mas Que Nada and other songs, are getting an update. Singer Erykah Badu and rapper Q-Tip are among the younger artists who appear on Sergio Mendes's new album, his first in a decade. And, the album was produced by one of hip-hop's biggest stars, the artist known as Will.i.am. Will.i.am is the leader of the group, the Black-Eyed Peas, and a fan of Sergio Mendes, going back to his teen years in the 1990s.

Mr. WILL.I.AM (Recording Artist, Record Producer): When everybody was listening to other musics, you know, I had Sergio Mendes in my catalog, and people thought it was, like, cool, like, you know, girls...

MONTAGNE: (Laughs) Girls thought it was cool?

Mr. WILL.I.AM: Yeah, you know, like, what do you listen to? You know, Tribe Called Quest, Sergio Mendes. Sergio Mendes! What's that? So I'd play it. Ooh, wow, you're eclectic.

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MONTAGNE: Will.i.am and Sergio Mendes recently joined me at NPR West. They both live here in Los Angeles. With the new album, called Timeless, I wondered how they took the old songs like this one, The Frog, and made them new again.

Will.i.am, talk to us about the rhythms. I'm just curious what you found yourself doing when you started playing with it.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: It's like a different perspective on the rhythms. Like, samba like, (makes rhythmic sound), right. So, I just simple it and just (makes rhythmic sound)--took a couple of da-doots out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILL.I.AM: He didn't want to take that da-doot out.

Mr. SERGIO MENDES (Recording Artist): So, I had to, kind of, re-update my piano playing to get into the new da-do's, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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Mr. MENDES: I like both versions, but it's something about the new one that I love. You know, when Q-Tip comes in, there's a sound that's just like--it's like magic. The Frog strikes again!

Mr. Q-TIP (Recording Artist): (Rapping) Don't have a lot of time, man. I've really gotta move, man. He's waitin' for me now, man. Don't want to blow the move, man, 'cause you know I gotta go to the place I go, to another space, when I look in her face and look in her eyes...

MONTAGNE: So, it doesn't throw you at all to hear this?

Mr. MENDES: It's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: I mean, you were laughing.

Mr. MENDES: Oh, yes. It's a joy. This record has a smile all over the place.

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MONTAGNE: In a way, these songs combine both the old and the new. One doesn't necessarily have to go back and play an old or original version to find it in what you have done together.

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Mr. MENDES: Well, I think, you know, both me and Wil, we love melody. So, when we do Mas Que Nada, which I recorded 40 years ago, and Wil brings his arrangement and he is--all the things that he does, it's fresh. It's new again and that's the joy of this project for me.

(Soundbite of "Mas Que Nada")

Mr. WILL.I.AM: (Singing) Black-Eyed Peas came and make it hotter. We (unintelligible). Bubblin' up just like lava. Like lava, heated like a sauna...

MONTAGNE: Well, Mas Que Nada has a little kick in it. And there's a real original kick, and then there's the new kick, and they're not so different.

Mr. MENDES: Well...

MONTAGNE: In spirit, I mean.

Mr. MENDES: In spirit, yeah. The chant is there, you know, it's like this tribal, universal chant. I mean, you can go to Jakarta(ph), they will say, oh-ya-di-ah-yo-bow-bow-ba(ph), which doesn't mean anything; it's just sounds, but those are the sounds that you can not forget.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we play the tune, it's Berimbau?

Mr. MENDES: Berimbau.

MONTAGNE: Berimbau.

Mr. MENDES: Yes.

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MONTAGNE: This is Brazil '65.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: The trio.

Mr. MENDES: Oh, I haven't heard that in a long time.

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Mr. MENDES: I like the new version with Stevie Wonder.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: Yeah.

Mr. MENDES: Yeah (laughs).

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MONTAGNE: Now, that's a tale. Turns out Will.i.am just happened on Stevie Wonder late one night at the studio. Stevie Wonder knew Sergio Mendes from the old days and listened to the Black-Eyed Peas nowadays. So, Will.i.am asked him to play on their album and was astounded when he agreed and showed up the next day, harmonica in hand.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: I don't know about Sergio, but for me, it was just unreal. It didn't really seem--seemed like I was watching a movie.

MONTAGNE: How so?

Mr. WILL.I.AM: Because that's Stevie Wonder in the vocal booth, Sergio Mendes in the control room and my eye's glued on it. You know, cause I'm on Pro Tools, you know, recording it and I'm, like, shaking like, uh-h.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILL.I.AM: There was one take, oh, actually it was two takes, because the first take, I was so nervous, I accidentally erased it.

MONTAGNE: Oh, my gosh.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: I was nervous. I was, like, ah...

Mr. MENDES: That's the first time I heard that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENDES: Usually, he doesn't erase anything (laughs).

Mr. WILL.I.AM: I, I, yeah, I was nervous, man. C'mon, I was nervous. Stevie Wonder...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENDES: You're right, it was magical. For me it was like a dream, too.

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MONTAGNE: Coming from, I mean, different musical backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds--doesn't sound like you ever had any difficulty working together.

Mr. MENDES: Not at all.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: I've learned, like, so much in this time, you know, just from everything. But, the small things--I mean we took a take, and Sergio says, I want to re-do that again and I go, it's perfect. He's, like, I want to play it more lazy. I was, like, more lazy? Never heard of that one before (laughs). So, now when I go to the studio, I tell people, take that back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILL.I.AM: I need to do it more lazy, more effortless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENDES: Yeah.

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MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WILL.I.AM: Thank you.

Mr. MENDES: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Sergio Mendes and Will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas talking about the new Sergio Mendes album, Timeless.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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