Q&A: Arrested Development hits City Winery with Grammy-winning hip-hop

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Arrested Development at City Winery (Jason Fraley)

They shook up the hip-hop game in the early ’90s with a fresh sound and powerful lyrics.

This Friday, Arrested Development comes to City Winery for two shows at 7 and 10:30 p.m.

“We’re going to do a celebration,” frontman Speech told WTOP. “Celebrating the first album, celebrating the music of Arrested Development, but also the diversity and brilliance of hip-hop. … Come on out, it’s going to be an amazing two shows. … We have a new album called ‘Craft & Optics,’ we’re going to be doing three songs from that, so it’s going to be a fun show.”

The show is uniquely suited for all ages, mixing throwback samples with original perspectives.

“It’s funny, our show for some reason really responds well to all ages throughout,” Speech said. “From the beginning, it’s high energy, it’s very fun, it’s not very introspective. It’s a more light, fun show. People bring their friends out, they bring their family members, and a lot of mothers and fathers bring their young teens and young adults there, which is great. It’s like anywhere from 18-year-olds all the way to 60. It’s just a really great celebration of hip-hop.”

Born in Milwaukee in 1968, Todd “Speech” Thomas traveled back and forth to Tennessee visiting family before ultimately moving to Atlanta in 1987. A year later, he joined Timothy Barnwell, also known as DJ Headliner, to form the new hip-hop group Arrested Development.

The group titled its first album “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…” (1992) as a reference to how long it took to get a record deal. It went multiplatinum selling over 400 million copies off the strength of multiple singles, including the catchy hit “Tennessee.”

“I wrote the song ‘Tennessee’ because my favorite grandmother lived in Tennessee and she passed away,” Speech said. “We all went to Tennessee for her funeral and, in that same week, my brother passed away. So, the last place I saw both of them was in Tennessee.”

Not only did the song feature such personal meanings, its lyrics of “take me to another place, take me to another land” doubled as a “Strange Fruit” ode to tragic African-American history.

“It’s both,” Speech said. “That song is so special to me. … I feel like it was a gift from our ancestors. That song was one of the easiest records I’ve ever written. Literally as the lyrics were pouring out of me, my thought process matched exactly what the lyrics were. … It was a very natural progression similar to what the lyrics say, ‘Lord, I’ve really been real stressed, down and out, losing ground, although I’m black and proud, problems got be pessimistic.’ Then it goes on to say, ‘My grandma’s passed, my brother’s gone, I never felt so alone.'”

The album also featured a remix of Sly & The Family Stone’s classic “Everyday People” (1969).

“I actually just got into Sly & The Family Stone really close to when I wrote that song,” Speech said. “It was just a beautiful chorus. We really didn’t sample it, but instead we re-sang it. It was a different energy, but we wanted to pull that same sentiment of ‘I am everyday people.'”

The album sampled another Sly tune, “Sing a Simple Song,” for a third hit single “Mr. Wendal.”

“That was a sample from Sly & The Family Stone and I made it go backwards,” Speech said. “I just loved it. I actually fell in love with that era of music, the early ’70s, late ’60s. For me, it was just another opportunity to bring that energy to the present day, which was the early ’90s.”

The lyrics were also a social commentary on homelessness before Everlast’s “What It’s Like.”

“Before we blew up, we used to hang around a lot of homeless people,” Speech said. “They used to come to our studio, we would just sit and talk with them and just hang with them. Their knowledge, their freeness of mind and thought was so inspiring. They didn’t have the confines a lot of us have that are on the grid. … We work a job, we go home, we’re working for the white picket fence. … They didn’t have those constraints, so they saw humanity in a different way, they saw the world in a different way, and it wasn’t so systematically sterile.”

The industry rewarded the group for their efforts as the album won two Grammys: Best Rap Performance By a Group for “Tennessee” and the first rappers ever to win Best New Artist.

“It was surreal,” Speech said. “It was a dream come true. As a little kid, I always look at the Grammys hoping and praying I could be on there, and to be honest, still I’m like it would never happen — and it did! So being there in the flesh was absolutely surreal and amazing. Even being nominated was amazing, so the fact that we won the first time was just incredible, but then the second time was just a whole other level. … It was a beautiful experience.”

In doing so, Arrested Development beat Dr. Dre’s gangster rap landmark “The Chronic” (1992).

“What I personally loved about our contribution … is that it was such a statement that black music is diverse, it’s colorful, it’s ancestral, it’s present-day, it’s future,” Speech said. “‘The Chronic’ was a wonderful sonic record but at the same time it conceptually talked about a lot of things that were pretty stereotypical about black people. We wanted to expand and push way past those horrible stereotypes — being violent, gang members, thugs — this is about the country, family, marriage, sentimentality, all of those types of things. So, it was a lot of different themes and different vibes on that record, and I think that’s what made it stand out.”

Over the years, they’ve remained active, becoming the first African American artists to donate to Nelson Mandela and writing the song “Revolution” for Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” (1992). Thirteen albums later, how has the group survived the various shifts in the hip-hop genre?

“It’s my natural point of reference, it’s my natural world view,” Speech said. “I get so much fan mail [and] we get so many people who come up to us at every show across the world. We tour Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Africa — everywhere we go, people are so appreciative. It seems to be even more intense now because there’s less of what we offer.”

Find more details on the City Winery website. Listen to our full conversation with Speech below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Speech (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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