Nightly News   |  February 07, 2010

Artist, activist, mentor: The many faces of Will.i.am

Inspiring a generation with a rhythm all its own, the Black Eyed Peas frontman is making a name for himself without forgetting where he came from. CNBC’s John Harwood reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> of a special list. 100 people making history today. as compiled by our partner website, thegrio.com. it's all part of black history month. tonight will.i.am, a man who's made a name for himself in popular music but never forgets where he came from. here's nbc 's john harwood .

>> i'm trying to figure out the chord progression.

>> reporter: at a boys' and girls' club in urban los angeles -- *

>> can we change the beat a bit?

>> reporter: it doesn't take long for will.i.am to find a beat. * then another. and one more. * * got to get that * it's the same thing he does as leader of the hip-hop group the black eyed peas . grammy winners last week with the two longest-running consecutive number one hits in billboard's history. * will.i.am drop the beat now * they don't call him will.i.am back in this mexican-american neighborhood in east los angeles .

>> willie, como esta?

>> reporter: where he grew up and fell in love with music.

>> i'd hear cumbias, big mexican rhythms.

>> reporter: his mother sent him to an affluent school away from the gangs. she also saw his passion early.

>> they used to sing on the porch and he always insisted on being the leader.

>> reporter: on the front porch because she wouldn't let him leave the yard.

>> i'd be like can i go outside? she's like you can't go past the grass.

>> reporter: but he could always see beyond the front yard .

>> when you go to my studio you'll see this.

>> reporter: getting the record contract he promised his mother as a teenager.

>> it's the beginning. of course when you're 20 you think that's it. no.

>> reporter: and now at 34 trying to master the digital technology that's shaken the recording industry. posting music and video on his social networking site . he's equally comfortable producing for other artists.

>> i called slash from guns & roses, like you down to come and rip the guitar on this? because i'm doing a new version of "my generation."

>> reporter: most recently with the who, remixing a classic for a super bowl commercial for qualcomm's flow tv .

>> he's got a searching mind. i see him all the time. in all different directions, too. he has a vision.

>> reporter: and like legendary producer quincy jones , will's an activist on the national stage, joining in the 25th anniversary version of "we are the world" for the haiti and making a splash in the 2008 presidential campaign. * yes, we can *

>> reporter: but he never forgets the beat close to home . * l.a. * * l.a., l.a. * financing scholarships for college students and joining the peas in a local new media program called the pea pod academy. * i feel real good * * inspiring a new generation with a rhythm all its own. zbl.

>> yes, i'm next.

>> john harwood , nbc news, los angeles .

>>> that's all for "nightly news" this sunday. brian williams will be with you tomorrow. reporting from vancouver, for all of us here at nbc news, good night.