will.i.am and Sérgio Mendes: how we made Mas Que Nada

Sérgio Mendes, pianist and arranger

At the turn of the 1960s I was working in clubs in Rio de Janeiro with trios, quartets and quintets. I became close friends with the great Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim, who co-wrote The Girl from Ipanema, just as bossa nova was emerging. It was a progression from samba, but with haunting, more romantic melodies that the world fell in love with. In 1962, I went to the US for the first time for bossa nova shows at Carnegie Hall. I worked with so many great musicians including Jobim, João Gilberto, Stan Getz and Cannonball Adderley. It was a wonderful, incredible time.

Mas Que Nada was a song I used to play with my quartets in Rio and the first song I recorded in the States. I first heard it when I was working in Bottles Bar in Copacabana. This guy called Jorge Ben came in and played this song he’d written. I loved the melody. For my version, I changed the arrangement and tried to make it even more melodic. I put a band together called Brasil ’66. I’d always had instrumental groups, but when I added the two female singers – Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel – it made a different kind of sound. We recorded the song in Los Angeles, with me, the drums, bass and guitar all performing live. Then we overdubbed the vocals.

It’s a great, haunting chant that is fun to play and sing along with, but I had no idea it would become such a special song. Once it was played on the radio, it became a huge hit in the US, and the rest of the world followed. It was the first song in Portuguese to be a hit, and it opened a lot of doors for me. I supported Frank Sinatra, who became a good friend. I worked with Fred Astaire, who danced to Brazilian music. Then, 40 years later, Mas Que Nada became a worldwide success all over again with the Black Eyed Peas’ version. will.i.am’s idea of adding a rap was great. Now young people call me the Boss of Bossa Nova.

will.i.am, rapper and producer

I’ve been a fan of Sérgio since I was 16. I got into him because A Tribe Called Quest used to sample bossa nova. In 2003, the Black Eyed Peas were brainstorming who we could collaborate with. Almost jokingly, I said Sérgio Mendes. This guy at the record company said: “I know Sérgio and I’m going to connect you.” I turned up at Sérgio’s house with every record he had ever made, and said: “I’m your biggest fan.” He started tearing up and said: “This is too much for me. The youth is still listening to my music.” I said: “Bro, your music is the ingredient to my favourite hip-hop group!”

If a rap sticks in my head, there's a good chance it'll stay in yours

I told him I wanted to do a hip-hop celebratory version of Mas Que Nada. The chorus, “Oriá raiô. Obá obá obá!”, is a sort of Brazilian-version of “La, la, la.” Sérgio taught me how millions of Africans who were brought to the Americas ended up in Brazil, and how that chant reflects the African influence on Brazil. Hanging out with Sérgio was like absorbing his brain. He was the country’s first cultural export, the Beatles of Brazil.

We did the beat in São Paulo with some musicians, and then I did the rap in LA in one take. I don’t write on paper – I improvise into the microphone with whatever comes into my head and if I like it, I keep it. So I came up with stuff like, “Mas que nada / Black Eyed Peas came to make it hotter / We be the party starters / Bubblin’ up just like lava.” If it sticks in my head, there’s a good chance it will stay in yours.

Listen to the official Mendes and Black Eyed Peas version of this song on YouTube

Much of my rap is about the song itself – “Rhythmically we massage ya / with hip-hop mixed up with samba.” Brazilian music is universal, because the people who wrote those songs experienced poverty and appreciated joy, and were able to express those complex emotions in the songs. Working with Sergio was an honour and a blessing and the realisation of a dream.

• Sérgio Mendes is at the Cheltenham jazz festival on 4 May, and at Royal Festival Hall, London, on 5 May.