Speech of Arrested Development talks new music and embraces lessons learned from past mistakes
(Originally released on Short and Sweet LA)
One of several conscious rap crews in the early 90’s, which included A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Jungle Brothers, Todd “Speech” Thomas co-founded hip-hop group Arrested Development alongside former member and DJ Timothy “Headliner” Barnwell. AD crafted music and lyrics that not only resonated in black communities, but in countries worldwide with their messages of hope, change and the celebration of life.
This year marks the 24th anniversary of its groundbreaking debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… — the title hailing from the length of time it took them to get a recording deal. An album that spoke a lot on spirituality, equality and being a peaceful society; a project that also garnered them two Grammy Awards in 1993 for Best New Artist (the first and only hip-hop group to do it) as well as Best Rap Single for “Tennessee” — a song Speech penned out of pain, from the passing of his grandmother and brother, within a week of each other.
We recently caught up with the Atlanta-based rapper to talk about the group’s recent show at B.B. King’s Blues Club, the new Arrested Development lineup; the band’s new record, Changing The Narrative, as well as some of the lessons he learned on how to protect the integrity of the band, this time around. In its new incarnation, AD includes Speech, 1 Love and Tasha LaRae on vocals, guitarist JJ Boogie, bassist Za’ and dancer Fareedah Aleem.
I saw that you guys played BB King’s in Times Square last week [Feb. 3]. I love that venue, I’ve seen a handful of shows there, but what was the energy like? How was the reception? I know that venue can be kind of fluid.
The crowd was really great. The numbers were not as well as we wanted them to be, you know. Because we’ve had sold out shows there, so this one wasn’t sold out, but the people that were there were really big Arrested Development fans. Just high energy; we had a lot of celebrities that came through. [actor] Malik Yoba [from New York Undercover] came through. Kangol from [hip-hop group] UTFO came through. Some major comedians came through, so it was a good vibe.
The new record, Changing the Narrative. The music is fire. The beats are on point. The message is very relevant.
But one of my absolute favorite ones is “I Knew It.” I’m assuming that one’s about your wife?
It is actually yes. Me and another great soul singer named Jahah wrote that song together about both of our wives.
I feel like “It’s Star Time,” “Unstoppable” and even “I Don’t See You At The Club” is sort of like a reintroduction of Arrested Development. Is that a good analysis?
Yeah I think so. We just dropped a video for “I Don’t See You At The Club.” Have you seen it yet?
No I haven’t seen it yet.
So I’ll send you a link to it but we’re getting a lot of love for the video; that’s our first official single. But yeah those songs are like good introductory songs. They help reestablish who we are and what we’re about.
So what was the creative process behind this album? How long did it take you guys to make it?
Well it’s interesting because this album is part one of two albums. Each album is totally different than the other. So this particular album I would say was about three years in the making because some of the songs are literally three years old or even four years old. So the creative process was sort of slow and intentional. We do a lot of overseas touring; a lot of touring in the states but mostly overseas.
So we would come home from tours and want to write. A lot times we we were so inspired by the crowds and the atmosphere and just the exotic locations. And we wanted to write … songs like “Devoted To The People” and “Better Days,” those songs were literally written three or four years ago. But we just sort of sat on them and we decided to make sure that they got out now.
The album is offered as a free download on AD’s website, why did you decide to go that route?
Well we did a lot of sampling, which for me is my first love. Like as far as how I like to create music. Sampling is how I got into the hip-hop industry in general. I was a DJ at first, so I was spinning samples and breaks in music. And when I started sampling, that was just the next stage for me, the next part of the evolution. I think my creativity really explodes when I’m able to sample.
But because we had so many samples, it was too expensive to go and get everything cleared in time, so we decided to just release it for free and give it as a gift. And just keep the creativity going.
The group has always been conscious; that’s one of the many things a lot of people love about you guys. So I feel like Changing the Narrative sort of picks up where 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days left off in ’92. It’s still relevant topics but fresh. Did that just happen or was it intentional?
It is sort of intentional. We had to make a decision; are we gonna try to change with the times or are we going to be one of those groups that says, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” type of thing. We have an energy of how we create and what we think is hot, and we just sort of stick to that energy instead of trying to fit in.
Like I talk about it on the song “I Don’t See You At The Club,” where I just say should I blend in or should I live life. The thing was, we didn’t want to blend in; we wanted to be who we really are. We feel like there’s enough blending in this day and age, where everybody is sort of trying to fit in the mold. And there’s a song on our next record that’s coming out next week — the album This Was Never Home, and there’s a song called “In Line” and we’re talking about that; how everybody seems to want to fit in line and we’re trying to make sure we stay out of the box. Be different.
Can you believe it’s been like 22, 24 years since your debut dropped? Does it even feel like it’s been that long?
Look, let me tell you something; it’s crazy, it does not feel like that sometimes that it’s been that long. It’s amazing to look at how long it’s been. I was just praying today, I tend to go on prayer walks. And so I was on a prayer walk today and was just thanking God today for the journey. It’s been an amazing journey. Twenty four years we’ve been making music. And that’s just a beautiful thing.
What do you remember most from that time? What’s one of your fondest memories?
One of my most fondest memories, we were doing a tour called Lollapoolooza. It’s a huge tour, 20,000 people come per show. And we had booked two shows on the same day but in two different states. So we had one show in Denver where we went on at three in the afternoon; 20,000 people in the crowd; it was an incredible hot summer day. Then as soon as we got off stage, we had private escorts, with police escorts taking us from the venue straight to the airport. We had a private jet waiting for us; we got on our private jet, we were having fun with the stewardess and the people flying our jet.
And then we got to my hometown, which is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And we had police escorts take us from the airport straight to the biggest venues in Wisconsin; it’s called the Marcus Amphitheater. It’s where I grew up watching all of my legends perform and we were the headliner, sold out. There were people waiting outside hoping to get in. And we got there just in time to rock our second show that day. And it was a huge success. The crowd went wild; it was our hometown; all my friends and family were there. That’s like one of those memories that’s like truly rock star. Just you know, cloud nine.
So for everybody who didn’t know, you never stopped doing your thing. I actually saw some of the TED Talk you did last year?
Yeah, yeah last year, the middle of last year. And it was in Portland. I talked about our sacred serial number [numerology], and the whole talk was about our spirit. How we have inside of us our spirit and it doesn’t really matter what religion somebody chooses, the spirit is still inside of us. And it can guide us through some of he toughest times in our lives, if we are aware of it. So it’s a talk to uplift us about what we can become to overcome our limits.
That’s great. I love it. So you’ve been in the music business for over two decades now. And we’ve all seen that Unsung episode — which we’re not gonna go into — but you guys were young and there were a lot of trials and tribulations that you and the band went through in the 90’s. Now, you have the new lineup of Arrested Development, so what lessons have you learned over the years, what are you doing differently now to create a really solid group.
Honestly I’ve learned so much that it’s hard to even say in one conversation. But everything that I’ve learned I’ve been putting into practice; whether it’s making sure that everybody knows how much they’re appreciated, making sure that I’m really aware of protecting the rest of the band members from the media, from industry insiders that are trying to sort of split us apart. Just making sure I’m trying to protect the group. Also making sure I’m living out what I believe in my heart is what’s good for everybody.
You know with the early 90’s situation, everything was so new. And I had a partner Headliner, we would disagree on how to pay people and I had to follow whatever we both agreed; I couldn’t just do things on my own. And so now I’m in a better situation where I have the ability to do what I really want to do. That allows me to be able to pay people in a way that is really encouraging and be generous. So it’s cool. I think we have a really great camaraderie right now and it’s been like that for awhile; cause this new lineup has been with me for probably around 10 years pretty much.
That being said, what do you want fans to take away from the new lineup of Arrested Development and the new project as well?
Well as far as the lineup, I think it’s very authentic. At the end of the day we don’t believe in trying to replace anybody. There’s members that are playing some of the same roles, but they are, by no stretch, trying to replace anybody. Also, anyone that has ever been in Arrested Development, they are like family to me; they will always be family. When I see them at a venue, more than likely they’re gonna get called on stage and have fun with it, it doesn’t matter who they are.
Even Headliner — who me and him have had, by far, the most beef in the past. To this day if he was in front of me and we were performing, I’d ask him to come up and do something; that’s just how I am. I feel like we’re all family. This is a new lineup but it’s still the same philosophy; we still have the same purpose.
And as far as this music is concerned, to me it’s very needed, very fresh. I would love for it to reach the masses in a big way so that we can become apart of a discussion for the things we’re bringing up, like in a song about self-determination like “U2” — the second to the last song on the album. Or “I Don’t See You At The Club,” which is basically about taking care of your business and not always going for the flash, but making sure that your foundational base is taken care of.
These things are not really talked about in today’s hip-hop landscape, so I feel like we have a role to play without it overtaking whatever’s there now but just being apart of it and therefore, changing the narrative. That’s what I’m hoping for, I’m hoping for the record to do really well and get out there as much as possible.