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‘I Strive to Move Forward Out of Darkness

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Arrested Development’s 1992 debut album, “Three Years, Five Months and Two Days in the Life of . . . ,” opened a new dimension in rap, introducing a down-home strain to the music and a spiritual element to the lyrics. Sparked by the evocative hit “Tennessee,” the album sold 3.6 million copies and earned the Atlanta-based group two Grammys, including one for best new artist. But after a 1993 “Unplugged” release, 1994’s “Zingalamaduni” sold just a fraction of that amount, and the group (which included rising pop-soul singer Dionne Farris) dissolved.

Now Arrested Development’s leader Speech (born Todd Thomas), has surfaced with a self-titled solo album in which he resumes his sociopolitical observations while branching into other thematic territory (see review on F6). Speech, 27, who also heads a concert promotion company in Atlanta, looked back in a recent interview on Arrested Development’s precipitous end, and on the state of rap and the nation.

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Question: What happened with Arrested Development? Why did the second album do so poorly?

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Answer: Well, I felt that the second one did very well. It sold 300,000 copies. We were very thankful to sell 300,000. We felt that it could have been exposed better, that more people could have found out about the record. . . . At the same time I can’t say there was no disappointment. I wish more people could have heard it.

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Q: Was that the reason Arrested Development broke up?

A: No. . . . More than anything the members just started to go their own separate ways. They were feeling the need to express themselves in different ways, and they were feeling the group was not the vehicle to do that. So that was fine.

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Q: Were you disappointed that this was happening?

A: At first I was. At first I strived to fight it and fight it and fight it. And then I had to let go, because I can’t control that. . . . And I wouldn’t want the group to keep going if the energies and the spirits of the people in the group weren’t right. It wouldn’t make sense.

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Q: You’re characterized as a “positive rap” artist. What are your feelings about gangsta rap?

A: There’s a difference between negative rap and rap that’s talking reality. There are certain records that are speaking about people being killed in their neighborhood. If that’s their case as an artist then I think it’s their duty to speak about it. At the same time, what starts to happen is commercialism sets in, to where other artists then start to speak about it--even though that never was their reality--just because it’s the hip thing to do. I think that’s really a disservice, to yourself, to the black music legacy that’s been so powerful, and to rap music in general.

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Q: How do you feel about high-profile rap critics such as C. Dolores Tucker?

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A: My opinion is that this woman has a right as an elder in the black community to speak about what she doesn’t like in the black community. But where she made a mistake in my opinion is that she did not speak to the young brothers themselves. She went to the media. . . . She deserves respect from those artists and those youths. But she also has to give that same respect.

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Q: Do you feel generally positive or negative about the sociopolitical situation in the U.S.?

A: I feel negative sometimes because I see the spirit of America in such decadence. And I see the spirit of many, many black people decaying. There’s a desperate need for an awakening in the spirit for America. And so I do still get a little down when I see that reality. But what I strive to do continuously is to move forward out of darkness and into light.

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Q: What gives you hope that we can make things better?

A: What makes me feel very good is that everyone has an inner side that is very clean. As dirty as it may be in New York, for instance, or as dirty as it may be outside in your neighborhood, your insides are clean, and many people haven’t visited their insides. And if you go inside you’ll find a very clean space that you can work out of.

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Q: The rift between white and black America seems to have been widened in recent years. Do you think it can be bridged?

A: I think so. I see examples of when it is bridged. I feel like, No. 1, white America has to really identify with the brutality that it has put on different people. That has to be recognized and it has to be said by these people who have either gained from that brutality or have committed the brutality.

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Q: Your new album is very eclectic musically. What do you see as its unifying force?

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A: The unifying force I believe is music. . . . I put on concerts in Georgia with my company, and what we do is we bring in artists like D’Angelo, but we’ll have Fishbone [open]. And the point is that it exposes people to Fishbone. . . . This album does the same thing. Those people that love hip-hop, they’re gonna be exposed to another side of who I am as an artist. . . . I wanted to break down all those divisions.

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Q: You’re assuming a lot of tolerance on the part of the audience.

A: I think it’s better for me or society to assume tolerance than to assume ignorance, and I think that’s what the music industry is doing too much. I think the music industry puts people in too many categories, to where, “Well if he likes Biggie Smalls then there’s no way on the planet he’s gonna like Fishbone.” What I’m finding with my company is that its just not true. People have been spoon-fed things, but if they’re allowed to be who they really are . . . no one lives and breathes any one style of music.

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