Speech, co-founder and lead vocalist of veteran hip-hop group, Arrested Development (provided photo).
Richmond magazine: Your full name is Todd Thomas, correct?
Speech: Yes. I’m originally from Milwaukee.
RM: It’s been almost 20 years since the world was introduced to Arrested Development, which you co-founded in 1987. What has changed about your music since then? What are your goals now for your music?
Speech: My mom is a newspaper journalist in Milwaukee. When I was growing up, we would sit around and talk about issues facing the black community in Milwaukee and in the nation. So that’s where the social consciousness came from.
Of course, our music has changed, as far as the textures and instruments and members, but the mission has always been the same.
RM: What does the name Arrested Development mean?
Speech: We saw the black community as in a state of halted growth, or arrested development. I focus on the black community because that’s the community that I’m in. But the truth is, you could say that about every community, or about America. America has stunted growth.
RM: On your new album, “Changing the Narrative,” a song that stuck with me is “I Don’t See You At the Club.” It’s starts with, I presume, a hypothetical conversation between you and a fan, in which he asks, “Is anybody even feeling ya’ll?” And your response is “Well, I think so, if they’re smart.” Talk to me about this conversation and this song, and why you felt the need to create it.
Speech: Well basically, as we go around places and tour and live life, there are fans that ask, “Where are ya’ll at? I don’t hear ya’ll in the clubs anymore.” My whole thing is, the whole music industry has changed, so what we offer may not be what they’re playing in the club right now. In the first verse, I talk about the various places that I travel, and the meaningful things that I do when traveling, talking with kids, going to the 50th Anniversary of the Selma march in Alabama, etc. So a lot of the things I rhyme about are things that are important to adults and what we should do as responsible adults. The second verse is about children, the third verse is about being a human being, and the things we face as we move from one stage of life to the next. The most valuable things in life are not found in the club.
RM: I, and I think many fans of my generation, have always viewed Arrested Development as a positive-minded rap group, not like most of the mainstream hip hop that’s been flooding the radio for years. How do you think of yourselves, classify yourselves?
Speech: A lot of the music in the 80s, the gangsta rap, it started [by] talking about and bringing awareness to the violence in America, the shooting in Los Angeles, etc. But then it morphed into this medium that was different; it went from having a message of “look at the things that are happening to the black community, look at the violence,” and then it started to actually glorify death and violence, and “look at me, the mega-thug rapper.” So, we always wanted to be part of the larger conversation, to contribute something positive. We weren’t the first. KRS One started this discussion, by being a philosopher … he was looking at uber-popular group Run DMC, who were talking about being kings. So, this didn’t start with AD, but we tried to continue to try and change the narrative.
RM: Arguably one of your most recognizable songs, “Tennessee,” is still a banger, in my opinion. You’re talking directly to God in this song…what influenced it? Was it autobiographical? I notice that God is referenced in many of your songs – following God, looking for spiritual guidance, etc. Would you consider your music spiritual?
Speech: Yes, I do consider our music spiritual. But I think all music is spiritual. I think rap music is spiritual, it just focuses on the lower plane of spirituality. “Tennessee” was a personal song … my favorite grandmother died; I used to spend all my summers with her in Tennessee. I wrote that when my family was down there to celebrate her life. That same week, about 7 days after her funeral, my brother Terry died as well, of an asthma attack. I felt like my life was crashing around me; so it was definitely a prayer. So the whole song is really a prayer, but as it continues to journey on, I thought about our journey as a people, and how deeply affected we are by our family that are living, and our ancestors who have passed on. It’s all about our journey. I was forced to go into that realm because of my grandmother and my brother.
Arrested Development poses for their latest albums' covers (provided photo).
RM: I remember hearing “People Everyday” from your first album on Richmond’s Power 93 when I was a kid, like 6 or 7 years old, and just grooving to it in the car with my mom, we would both sing along to the chorus. I also remember “Mr. Wendell,” but was he a real person? The song has been labeled as one of the first “socially conscious” rap songs, how do you feel about that classification?
Speech: He was, but his name wasn’t Mr. Wendell. Before we blew up as a group, we used to record on Edgewood St. in Atlanta. A lot of homeless people tend to hang out on that street, and they would come by the studio. So we would welcome them in. So many times, homeless people sort of blend in to the city’s landscape, like a tree or furniture. [“Mr. Wendell”] was an ode to a number of homeless people we ran into and became friends with. It was a mixture of all those exchanges.
RM: Arrested Development has garnered a huge following in Japan; why do you think you’re so popular there? What resonates about your music with your Japanese fans?
Speech: Initially, I didn’t know why. But one of the things is, the Japanese love soul music, they love Black music. They resonate with how we express ourselves. Number two, they love melody. So they might not understand the words, but they love the melody. And lastly, they like certain energies from our songs that correlate with their culture – love, respect for elders, praise. It’s pretty interesting but I’m really glad that they love us. There was a time if it wasn’t for the Japanese, we wouldn’t be talking now, because Arrested Development wasn’t selling well in the states. In Japan, my six solo albums all became Top 10s, but didn’t sell well in the states.
RM: Who are your favorite artists? What artists have influenced you and your work? What artist would you like to work with in the future?
Speech: My favorite artist of all time is Prince. So when he passed in April, it just killed me. I think he’s possibly the best artist of all time. I’ve been influenced by Public Enemy, Sly and the Family Stone, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Run DMC. Now, I listen to Drake, Akala, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. All really talented people; I would be honored to work with any of them, I love the challenge of working with people.
RM: Other than the two new albums [“Changing The Narrative” and "This Was Never Home"], any other developments happening in the near future?
Speech: We’re about to start a tour; the first show is Atlanta, then Nashville, Australia, New Zealand, and we hit the UK in September.