Everyone who has a passion or job in a creative field understands the amount of work it takes to begin seeing recognition in their art. It often takes years, if not decades of effort, of networking, and of struggling in order to gain an audience for their work.
Arrested Development, a rap group from Georgia fronted by lead DJ Speech and turntablist Headliner, was fortunate enough to experience the lightning-strike odds of their debut record, 1992’s “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…”
The title is a reference to the length of time the group was grinding it out before being signed to a record deal. Arrested Development then hit the mainstream, becoming household name behind the push of a major record label.
“I was talking to Michael Stipe from R.E.M. once, and he was telling me, ‘You know, R.E.M. had three or four records to get better as a band, as friends, and as songwriters before our fans’ eyes’,” Speech recalls, describing the impact that Arrested Development’s first record had in getting so much exposure.
“His point was, (Arrested Development) didn’t have a chance to do those things, to gel as a group. Our fans didn’t have a chance to grow with us. We had to do it backwards. Every band should have the ability to just write and see how it goes and find themselves and find their way. I think us having a record that’s successful the first time out, it’s tougher to have that journey.”
That first record included songs such as “Tennessee” and “People Everyday,” ultimately winning the group numerous awards and critical acclaim. What continues to stand out about the album was that — at a time when rap was transitioning from the pioneers of wordsmith rhymes and funk-laden flow of New York City artists like The Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC to a more mainstream presence shaped in part by Los Angeles’ burgeoning swampy g-funk beats and gangsta outlooks — Arrested Development was outspokenly positive.
A commune of musicians
The artists carried themselves more like a commune of musicians than a traditional band, incorporating a nonmusical spiritual adviser into their collective and taking the stage with an anti-materialistic appearance. Their album’s third single, “Mr. Wendal,” recalls the plight of a homeless man who members encountered.
“Our first record sold 4 million copies, close to 5 million worldwide,” Speech said. “We rapped about materialism not being something that benefits the world. Now having said that, I love hip-hop. I love brag rap. I just think there needs to be a balance so that people like Public Enemy who did less of that, or people like Arrested Development who did none of that also have a space.
“The same philosophy was what justified slavery. Slavery initially was not a racial issue, it was a financial issue. And when finances are the biggest priority to a person or their art, to me it lessens the art and it also allows for huge catastrophes to happen when someone has that worldview.”
Faith, racism, critically looking at the structure of the society that we all share as humans — these were some of the themes taken on in the group’s raps. Arrested Development addressed subject matter that wasn’t necessarily glamorous, or simple, but was able to try to see things in a positive light. Behind the scenes, group membership kept a balance in gender.
The sudden rise to the top of the charts left some imbalance in the group’s direction. Speech, being in his early 20’s during this time, was presented with opportunities of being in a popular mainstream musical act. He remembers the time following the album’s explosion in popularity.
“I did have a very old soul, even at 21, the things that I was thinking about, that I was wanting to do was different than a lot of my friends. But at the same time, having money, having access, man did I make some stupid decisions.
“It’s much harder than you would think to sorta keep your mind straight. I dare say most of us wouldn’t know what we would do until we’re put into that situation. I’m grateful to not have seen it as attractive like some of my friends.”
‘A huge pressure’
But pressure mounted for a successful followup, and when Arrested Development’s record label didn’t see the sales it wanted, the group was dropped. On writing music after having released a multi-platinum record, Speech describes, “The reality was that people have such high expectations of the music. If something doesn’t sell as well, like sells 500,000 copies (the number of copies sold of the band’s next record, “Zingalamaduni”) people say it was a flop. You know there’s a huge pressure that goes with that.
“To be honest, a lot of times when you’re exposed to certain heights, lower heights seem more depressing or seem more low than what they actually are, so you have to get readjusted. Like walking into a really dark room after being in the pure sunshine of outside and at first it’s pure darkness, and then once your eyes get acclimated you could actually start to see.”
Following lessened reception of their second record, Arrested Development broke up, giving Speech time to focus on releasing solo musical work. Early solo albums “Speech” and “Hoopla” allowed him to thoroughly explore creating music focused on art and experimentation rather than trying to appease an audience of mainstream listeners or record executives.
“For Arrested Development, it was much easier to fall prey to that type of temptation, because when we got back together we had such a huge rep that we had this feeling of ‘OK, we gotta write hits, we gotta write something big!’ ” Speech recalls.
“I regret having that feeling. I’m the opposite of that now, I wanna write great music and I wanna do stuff that I think is a contribution to the world.” The result can be seen in Arrested Development’s nine records that the group has released since getting back together in 2000. While none has received the radio play that its first album did, what’s clear is a relaxed approach heard in the ensuing songwriting.
New music: A freer flow
Funk, soul, a looseness and freer flow, these albums represent the sound of a group given the freedom to go outside the lines and create music the doesn’t need to stick to a single confined genre. Arrested Development also works with its own independent record label, Vagabond Records & Tapes.
“When we were with a label, they had all the connections. They had all the networking. And you just sorta went down their pipeline,” Speech notes on the opportunities present in working independently.
“If you’re no longer with a label, you no longer have those connections. So we do it totally differently. Everyone has a relationship with the people who we work with. We’ve known each other for years. We continue to do stuff together because it benefits everybody.”
Speech has gone on to work proactively outside of music. He is an author, a public speaker, and most recently, a film producer. His cinematic documentary work on “16 Bars” has been selected to screen at numerous film festivals and has won awards.
“It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve done as an artist,” Speech says. “I saw a special on CNN about a daddy-daughter dance at a particular jail in Richmond, Virginia, and I was struck by the humanity in the sheriff who was leading this jail. His name was C.T.Woody. My manager happened to see the same special and we talked about it and we reached out to see if I could go into the same jail and do music with the inmates. We took about two years of conversation trying to figure out how to do it, and eventually I went in.
“I spent 10 days in the jail, and worked with the inmates.I spent the night in the jail and wrote some incredible music with these four men that ended up being part of the documentary that I did on this whole experience. That documentary ended up being called ’16 bars.’ ”
After the completion of the film, with some time to reflect on the experience, Speech is able to talk about what he took from the experience.
“One of the things that I learned from it are that the incarceration rates in this the country — and the number of people who are incarcerated for unfair reasons — is astronomical. It’s a huge issue. The system is broken, and the incentives for privatized prisons are just totally backwards. This film helps showcase the complexities of the people who are locked up, especially for nonviolent crimes, as well as some of the things that they’re going through and the complexities of their home lives. We’ve gotta find better ways to help people than throw them in jail.”
Finding a balance
Today, 28 years after the release of the group’s first record, Arrested Development’s music still finds balance on the fine line between joy and positivity and the shadows of a complex and often destructive humanity. Speech brings up a point that Chuck D of Public Enemy made in a film the two worked on called “The Nigga Factory.”
“He (Chuck D) said something that’s amazing. He said so many youths are being lulled to sleep by the pop culture of music, of entertainment. As they get older, pop culture’s message is to continue acting like this perpetual teenager, where you keep going to the mall to look for the new sneakers like you used to. It’s just this culture that never allows people to grow up and care about others and helping others the way they need to.”
But through the conversation, Speech is smiling, he’s excited. Arrested Development is coming close to releasing a new record, and is currently touring across the country. When asked about a recent social media he posted, a simple image of a quote that says “Almost everyone wants to get even with those who have harmed them. Hardly anyone wants to get even with those who have helped them,” he describes that it’s simply an attitude or outlook that people can consciously choose to adopt.
“I think it’s important to have deep gratitude and humility about your journey and how many people have helped you get there. I think just having that at the forefront of your mind is so important.”
As for his work with Arrested Development, he calls its output “Life Music,” a mix of complexity, of joyousness — and when the group performs live — of energy and movement that all contribute to this human experience.
“I want people to just enjoy the music,” he says. “I think the music does all the heavy lifting. To me it’s called ‘Life Music’ for a reason. But at the end of the day, enjoy the music. I want it to support living a great life.”