I’ve always found Speech to be a really interesting character. He’s smart, savvy and socially-conscious. Even as an elder figurehead of hip-hop, he’s still out there creating, producing and touring quite a bit. Even knowing all of this, I really couldn’t have anticipated what a fantastic interviewee he would be – I honestly got a lot out of this, and it helped me to have a greater appreciation of the group as a whole and what they’ve done for their side of hip-hop. I’d love to chat to Speech again someday, but for now here’s what happened when we spoke about legacy, downloading and a life on the road.
– DJY, December 2014
With the fickle nature of the music business constantly shifting and distorting itself, it’s often quite surprising to see a band maintain any interest beyond a noted debut. Some never live up to it, let alone celebrate its 20th anniversary with world touring – and, yet, this is where we find Arrested Development. Long before the name was associated with Jason Bateman and his ensemble cast of maniacs, the politically-active hip-hop collective had humble beginnings in Atlanta in the late eighties, slowly building a reputation to the point of impatience. A lot of heart and soul went into their debut album, fittingly (and specifically) titled Three Years, Five Months and Two Days in the Life Of… which spawned hit singles that have fuelled the group to this very day.
“They are what they are, y’know?” muses Todd “Speech” Thomas, the band’s frontman, spokesperson and founding member, when asked about his relationship with the band’s best-known material. “The way that I see it, our hits are our pillar. At the same time, this happens to us a lot: when we get to certain crowds, they’re calling out hits right at the top of the show. I don’t like that crowd. We’re doing an hour-and-a-half show. If you just want to hear the hits, turn on the freakin’ radio! We’re proud of those songs, but just give us a chance to show you who we are. We’re not a cover band. As much as we like playing our hits and giving the audience what they need, we want people to get some of the energy of what we’re doing lately. We’ve got a lot of eras, and we like to take our crowds on a ride as opposed to just giving them a specific moment that they’re after.”
Speech notes that many audiences are casual fans, surprised to see that the band have achieved a substantial amount in the two decades following Three Years. Despite a hiatus which saw inactivity between 1996 and 2000, Arrested Development are still a working, touring machine with plenty of new material to substantiate the aforementioned ninety-minute set. Their latest effort was their seventh album, Standing at the Crossroads. Dropping back in August on Speech’s own label, Vagabond Productions, the album was unlike anything the band had attempted before – recorded entirely on a Mac laptop, the album was released completely for free. In justification of this, Speech spoke somewhat conflictingly but fluently.
“We’re doing it for the fans,” he says. “They’ve been responding well to it, and we just hope that everybody who knows the band can get their hands on it because we want people to listen to it and enjoy it. Think of it as a gift.” In spite of this perceptively liberating move on behalf of Arrested Development, Speech isn’t as on board with the digital revolution as you may think. “I feel like music has been cheapened somewhat over the years,” he comments. “The industry is in a weird space, and I don’t think anyone understands it thoroughly right now. With that being said, I don’t feel as though music is being respected by most people the way that it used to be. I used to go to the record store, and I was excited to smell the vinyl, buy something, pull out the record, look at the artwork, read the liner notes, see which guy played bass. Today, I feel like people are more in the mode of saying that they really like Track Six, or Track Ten. They don’t even know the titles of the songs!”
Herein lies the paradox that leaves Arrested Development in such a curious position: If music is being “cheapened,” so to speak, is releasing a digital album for free only adding to the madness of it all? “What’s great about this album,” Speech responds, “is that we do have liner notes and artwork, so people can really get into why we wrote and made this album. That’s something that we grew up with, and something that we really believe in.” So it goes that the band enter into the future of the music revolution on their terms – although, it would be difficult to point out an instance in the band’s entire career where it wasn’t directed on their own terms.
It would be amiss to discuss the twentieth anniversary of Three Years without discussing the band’s relationship with Australia in that time. Although a decade separated their first and second Australian tours, Speech feels that the sunburnt country is one that truly understands where Arrested Development is coming from. “I feel like Australia has always been a place that get the group,” he says. “You guys, to me, have a laid-back attitude and an open mind. From a hip-hop perspective, Australia has never, from what I can tell, really bought into the materialistic, “let’s go to the strip club and be a pimp tonight” type of music style. I feel like everybody that I’ve met in Australia has a true appreciation for the deeper elements of hip-hop. Australia gets Arrested Development.”