In 1992, Arrested Development was inescapable. Led by frontman Speech, the Atlanta group gave hip-hop a refreshing dose of thoughtfulness and positivity with songs like Tennessee, People Everyday and Mr. Wendal.
But after nearly overnight mainstream fame and two Grammy Awards in 1993, Arrested Development never repeated the success of its first record and disbanded in 1996. The members reunited in 2000, and this year are celebrating the 20th anniversary of that album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life.
The Observer recently caught up with Speech to talk about the groups past, present and future.
Q. Whats the difference between the environment today and when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life hit?
(In) the early 90s each market had a program director who could decide if it was good or bad and determine whats really hot. Now corporations own stations in every market. You have a small group of people making decisions for a huge amount of radio stations across the nation. Its hard to slip through the cracks. We need more decision makers.
Q. Addressing social issues in lyrics was rare at the time. What made you so enlightened?
The beginnings of it was my parents. My mom owns Milwaukee Community Journal (Wisconsins largest African-American newspaper). Growing up around the breakfast table, (activism) was ingrained in me at an early age and was reinforced by groups like Public Enemy. Even though I grew up around activists, you sort of dont pay attention to Mom and Dad. Public Enemy made it a lot more attractive to me. I started reading books.
Q. Did you foresee Atlanta becoming a hip-hop hub?
Not at all. In the past, weve had huge legends coming out of Georgia, but in our generation it was virgin territory as far as rap music was concerned. Bands like Outkast, Goodie Mob and Cee-Lo, T.I. and the whole slew of down South trap music artists that are out now there was no way to foresee the South getting the credibility we deserved.
Q. Do you think your success aided the scene?
I believe so. I know so, actually. I know how record labels work. They love to try to get prototypes. A group like Outkast and Goodie Mob were given more of a real chance because of groups like Arrested Development. Same with Black Eyed Peas or Fugees or the Roots having live instrumentation, which we brought to the table as well.
Q. Youre giving away your new album Standing at the Crossroads for free online ( www.newarresteddevelopment.com). Why?
We just wanted to give back.
Q. Do you still have to pay for samples if you arent making money on them?
No. Thats the other reason that we felt fine about this.
Q. You made much of this album on your laptop while overseas. Had you taken that approach before?
This was the first time. It gave us a chance to be with the audience, then to go back to our hotel rooms at night and put that (experience) on tape. Also, we toured a lot through Asia and Australia. A lot of the places we visited were well beyond the poverty lines we were seeing their lives being inspired by our talks with them and our music.
Q. On the single Living, you address the assumption that if you arent making hits, your best work is behind you. What do you think the key is to changing that idea?
The more people just stand up and think. Just because 2 Chainz has the No. 1 record, hes supposed to be one of the best rappers? What about Brother Ali, who may not chart, but is an extremely talented artist and is putting in quality work as well? Success doesnt equal greatness.