RNR Globe’s exclusive chat with Speech of the groundbreaking Atlanta hip-hop group
If you turned on your radio or tuned into MTV in 1992, you were familiar with Arrested Development.
The Atlanta-based group did something that was quite unique for its time; standing in stark contrast to the gangsta rap of the era, Arrested Development made conscious, melodic hip-hop rooted in folk musuc. For its trouble, the group scored early and massive success, but was tagged with a genre label it didn’t really want: alternative hip-hop. The group has had major ups and down since then, but remains a vital force in and beyond hip-hop.
I recently spoke at length with leader and founding member Speech about the band’s past and present.
Arrested Development’s debut album was a commercial and critical success; that kind of phenomenon is fairly rare in popular music. And what’s rarer still is for the artist to continue successfully beyond that. Arrested Development’s commercial period pretty much corresponds with the Chrysalis years. Was there a freedom and sense of control that came with releasing your material yourselves beginning in 2001?
Yes and no. I mean, there was creative freedom to do what we wanted to do, but there wasn’t the machinery to help market and promote that we were used to. I wish we would have had more of a slow build in our career so that we could have learned how to market and how to reach our fans in a more intimate way. Like a Michael Franti, who used to open up for us. He started off with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and then moved on, and was able to sort of understand who his fanbase was over time, and cater to that fanbase. We didn’t have that luxury.
I think – while I’m extremely grateful for the creative freedom that we were able to [have] later – it’s been an interesting ride trying to find the audience again.
Arrested Development has found success beyond the hip-hop fan base in a way that other acts haven’t always done, and you’ve done it without compromising your approach. What do you think explains the group’s appeal to listeners who might not otherwise be all that interested in hip-hop?
The music was looked at as an alternative to hip-hop. I think it ended up being called that, just because of how expansive it was. For me, it was in the same school of thought of where Three Feet High and Rising from De La Soul was going, or maybe Public Enemy with some of the experimental places they went with a barrage of sound and noises and different concepts.
So for me, it felt like a natural progression. But I think the hip-hop world in general felt like it as very [far] from the core of what hip-hop is. Therefore, fans and other peers felt like it was hip-hop, but also other genres. I think that was an unfair [analysis] for us. Because later, groups would do exactly what we were doing. Black Eyed Peas, for instance, crossed numerous genre boundaries and would do very big pop numbers with a lot of types of sounds. Groups like Outkast would very much expand their sound way beyond the average, what they would call boom-bap, hip-hop from New York or what-have-you. And of course Lauryn Hill would do that. And now Drake and others do that constantly; it’s pretty common nowadays that you’re going to expand way past what was known as hip-hop, and still be a hip-hop artist.
I wish we would have been able to have the benefit of that kind of defining of us, because I think it would have allowed us to be known as innovators as opposed to just alternative and different.
Arrested Development has always been about conscious lyrics. Have you found it easier or more difficult in various times to create material that expresses that worldview?
Oh, definitely. It’s been a challenge to try to write material that’s, first of all, relevant. And to some extent, since our debut album, we’ve failed at that. I made a documentary called The Nigga Factory that expresses what I’m about to say, which is that the music industry took a very hard and strange turn. In 1996, for instance, the Telecommunications Act came out, singed by Bill Clinton. Basically, it gave corporations the ability to have [mass communication] monopolies in every city and state across the nation. They would own newspapers, video channels and radio stations. And that would shrink the [number] of people making decisions about music, and it would also change the philosophy of music from artist-driven to being corporate and financial-based [with regard to] what music should get out there.
That very much affected our ability to stay relevant. Because most of the music, especially in hip-hop, is about materialism – what watch I’ve got on, what car I’m able to buy, how much “ice” I have on my wrist or in my teeth – and we’re talking about redemption from 400-year-old injustices, those two themes don’t match together in the corporate paradigm.
You were in your early 20s when the group started; now you’re 50. Do you recognize the guy who wrote those lyrics back in the early ’90s?
I do recognize him to some extent; yeah, I do.
How has your perspective changed?
In huge ways. First of all, I’m way more jaded. That’s an unfortunate truth. The industry can jade you very quickly, especially the more success you have. I think that the less success a band has, to some extent you’re able to stay naive about things. Because you’re hoping for that day when success will come. But when you’ve had that big success, then you start to see the magic behind the curtain. And it can jade you. And I think that’s part of what changed in my character and in who I am as an artist today.
And at the same time, I still feel very inspired like that young Speech was. But I don’t think I’m willing to ask as if I don’t know what’s behind the curtain; I’m unwilling to do that. Lyrically and musically, I want to be honest and real, and at the same time be innovative. That’s my hope; that’s my goal.
VIDEO: Arrested Development MTV Unplugged 1993