By Lathleen Ade-Brown
It’s been 20 years since Arrested Development’s platinum selling debut album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of (the amount of time it took the rap crew to get a recording contract) catapulted the group to mainstream success. The album included hit tracks such as “Tennesse,” “Mr. Wendal” and “People Everday.” Clad in African-garb, with an infusion of spirituality and social consciousness, the group would go on to win two Grammy Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards in the category for Best Rap Video as well as produce rap anthem “Revolution,” for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X soundtrack.
Armed with politically charged lyrics and a deep appreciation for black culture, Arrested Development offered an Afrocentric alternative to gangsta’ rap in the early 1990s. 20 years later, the band’s founder Speech “Todd” Thomas still represents the same themes. In a recent interview with RapFix, he spoke on the 20th anniversary of the group, what inspired3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of and his thoughts on hip-hop in 2012.
It’s the 20th anniversary of Arrested Development; is this how you envisioned the legacy of the group to be 20 years ago?
Yes and no, the yes part is I feel like the legacy of what we stand for and the fact that our shows are the best that it’s ever been and our music is the best that it’s ever been, that is something I always planned for. One of the things we say in our new video ‘Livin’ which you can watch on www.arresteddevelopmentmusic.com is Nas said ‘hip-hop is dead,’ and we say it’s not dead it’s just been buried alive. But the part we didn’t anticipate 20 years down the line is how hard it would be to let people know what we are doing.
Explain what you mean by buried alive.
Basically conscious music right now is so much on the down low, it’s not covered. Radio stations don’t promote the same amount of the conscious stuff as they do with just party music or music about pimpin’ and strip clubs, so it’s this conscientious dumbing down of the culture. We are alive but it’s buried under all the other headlines like ‘Kim Kardashian [this, or that,’]……..the news cycle today is so fast spinning that so many things get buried alive instead of covered for its virtue and what it is.
Coming from the golden era of hip-hop, what are your thoughts on hip hop now?
I think there is no balance, in the 90’s which I also call the golden era of hip hop, you had the 2 Live Crew that would talk about strippers but you also had A Tribe Called Quest which would talk about a number of things, then you had MC Hammer, then you had Arrested Development and Public Enemy and we would all be on tour together, so it gave people a cross section of artistic expression. Everybody co-existed….where as today it’s just one thing as far as mainstream hip hop is concerned, it’s the same subject matter, we’re talking about pimpin’, hustling, sex and strippers that’s what you’re hearing and that’s all your hearing. You might get an occasional Nas song but its like so few and far between that it’s almost not worth mentioning when you look at the whole scope of what’s happening in mainstream hip hop.
What inspired some of the lyrical content on 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of?
When Public Enemy dropped in the mid 80’s that was like something totally unique to me; I’d never heard rhymes be so advertently political and he started mentioning names like Farrakhan and Black Panthers and I was like who are these people, so I felt like there was this world that was being kept from me and once I realized it was being kept from me, it was the only thing that I wanted to know about because I knew that people were trying to keep it from me, so that oppression drove a deeper curiosity.
Rapper Lupe Fiasco is reminiscent of your group, he has some of those elements your group represents, what are your thoughts on his latest music video ‘Bitch Bad?’
I never met Lupe…I will say this though I respect the fact that this young man in the prime of his game, would stand up and say something like that. I really respect it, it’s brave, it’s mega hard to go against the grain in the first place. To come out with those messages in this time, I give him a lot of support. I literally bought that record just to support him. I had to put my money where my mouth is.
Why did you feel it was important to offer the Afro-centric alterative to gangsta’ rap?
My mother and father were both civil rights activists, my mom owns a 36 year old black newspaper, called the Milwaukee Community Journal and we use to sit around the breakfast table there and discuss the problems happening in the black community as well as the solutions. So just seeing all the things happening in my community it implanted a need to address stuff. So once I got into music it was the ultimate direction to go in.
TV One recently aired an Unsung episode chronicling the rise and fall of Arrested Development, was that an accurate depiction of the group?
I break it down into six segments, the first segment was awesome then during the second and third segment it started getting negative towards me, and then they started talking about the Grammy and it was portrayed as if I didn’t give Dionne Farris her Grammy but that stuff wasn’t true, I didn’t even know she didn’t get her Grammy, I had no clue, when I found out she didn’t—it was like five or six years later, how I found out was through Eshe who gave her, her Grammy. I was like wow I didn’t know. Another thing was, one of the group members Aerle Tarae mentioned that I offered her a 30,000 check and she said no, I never offered her none of those things. At the time of the group’s first record, we were all young, we didn’t know what we were doing.
@Lathleen is a New York City-based freelance writer.