“I had so much racism and ill feelings toward whites that I had to back up a lot to gain perspective once I decided to follow Jesus.
“Anyway, now I’m able to see what and where the true issues are at,” writes Speech, front man and mastermind of the recently reunited hip-hop group Arrested Development, on his Web site (www.speechmusic.com).
It’s hard to imagine the lyricist known for such mind-opening tunes as “People Everyday” (a Sly & The Family Stone remake) and “Fishin’ 4 Religion” could have harbored such hate, but he openly talked about his former ideas in a recent interview.
“A lot of my feelings about black and white were driven by an Afrocentric viewpoint,” he explains. “Now I have an African consciousness: the spiritual centeredness [without] the politics that go along with the continent.
“Gandhi,” he continues, “said that anger can be used for good purposes. Anger can be a catalyst for change.
“I want to write songs that offer reality and offer a solution,” he explains. “I use my songs to help me, to help elevate my own life. They’re not always about who I am, but who I want to be.
“People get better with time,” Speech adds. “People in general, but [bands] definitely do, if you’re given time to make mistakes.”
Arrested Development has paid its own share of dues. The collective first burst onto the scene with the album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of … (Capitol, 1992), the title referring to the length of time between the group’s inception and their first record deal. They quickly made up for lost time, enlightening the charts with “Mr. Wendal,” a song that humanized the plight of the homeless. By ’93 they’d brought home two Grammys, including Best New Artist.
But AD strove to pay more than lip service to social issues.
Between ’92 and ’95, the group donated half of the royalties from “Mr. Wendal” to the National Coalition for the Homeless. They were the first American band to give money to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in support of South Africans, and they worked with Spike Lee on X, his film biography of Malcolm X, recording the single “Revolution” for the soundtrack.
But by the end of ’95, Arrested Development, torn apart by inner conflict, suddenly seemed to drop off the planet. As Speech explains now, “We’re like family. We’ve seen each other through relationships, babies, marriages and divorces. We’ve seen each other grow up.”
A lyricist, turntablist and self-proclaimed avid listener of hip-hop, Speech spent the hiatus working on his solo career. He found an enthusiastic audience in Japan, and focused on touring there. But though AD was on the back burner, the group could not be turned off.
“We’d always wanted to do more music,” their front man insists. “In 2000, I released a solo album, Hoopla [TVT], that did well overseas, and that set the stage for more opportunities.”
Like a reunion. The family kind.
In case you’ve never seen Arrested Development, they’re more like a tribe than a band, a constantly changing collective of artists anchored by a few central figures, like Speech, turntablist Machete X and bassist Za’. Then there’s Baba Oje, the group’s 72-year-old spiritual advisor, who sometimes appears on stage laced into roller skates; Eshe the dancer; Rasa Don the Rastafarian drummer; and back-up singer Nicha; plus any number of others.
Getting the group back together, muses Speech, is “a lot like dating an ex — you already know where the volatile places are. It’s good, but there’s a lot of eggshell-walking. We’ve been together [off and on] for 17 years. We’ve known each other longer than we haven’t.”
So far, the reunited band is working out. Back on the scene for about four years, they’ve released Da Feelin’ (EMI International, 2000) and Heroes of the Harvest (EMI International, ’01), plus, more recently, Raw & Live (Vagabond, ’04), a two-disc recording culled from dates on their 2003 tour. Among the Trees is expected this fall.
This time out, fan support alone will determine how long the band stays together, claims Speech.
“The biggest reason we came back,” he admits, “was because the people wanted it so much.”
Arrested Development plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) at 9 p.m. on Friday, June 4, with Spookie Daly Pride. Tickets cost $18.