A Different Rap: Arrested Development

Article excerpt

HOLDING hands backstage in a circle, the dreadlocked, African-garbed members of Arrested Development bow their heads and pour a libation for the African ancestors. After the five men and three women embrace, they quickly reassemble on stage amid chicken coops and the facade of an old barn, raise their fists in a Black Power salute and blast off with a rollicking, pulsating performance that sends the sold-out, hometown Atlanta audience into a sweaty dance frenzy in 98-degree weather.

Since 1992, when Arrested Development went platinum with their debut album 3 Years, 5 Months And 2 Days in the Life of..., this scene has been repeated in arenas from Atlanta to Australia. And the talented, hip-hop, rap crew, which glorifies Southern rural life and respect for Black women and family-oriented values, has captivated old and young fans alike with high-energy, festive performance that feature live drummers, dancers, rappers, singers and, yes, chickens.

What distinguishes Arrested Development from other rap groups is their positive, family-oriented themes, a welcome departure from the misogynistic and violent lyrics of controversial hard-core rap acts. "We call ourselves a conscious hip-hop group. Conscious basically meaning trying to be aware of what we can change," says Speech, Arrested Development's charismatic lead singer, rapper and producers,who smiles frequently and gives friendly hugs to everybody, males and females.

But don't let the peace and love trappings fool you. Speech and his Arrested Development colleagues are musician-activists who oppose offensive rap lyrics and sexist videos. Speech, in fact, has been criticized by some of his peers for supporting the Rev. Calvin Butts' campaign against demeaning rap music. "I'm probably one of the few hip-hop artist who agree with him," says Speech, born Todd Thomas in Milwaukee 25 years ago. "I'm an avid fan of hip-hop music, but at the same time, I'm an avid fan of the history and struggles that my people have been through in the past. My history as an African dates back farther than my history as a hip-hop artist. I'm not going to allow my brothers and sisters to mentally or economically or spiritually enslave my other brothers and sisters."

In Arrested Development's roller-coaster ride to stardom as a trendsetting rap group, there have been several peaks: two Grammys and Soul Train Music, MTV and NAACP Image awards, plus a million-selling Unplugged album (a live, acoustic version of their debut (album) featuring 17 musicians from Brazil and the Caribbean. But there also have been valleys that include living in an Atlanta home for months without heat or electricity while they shopped around their demo tape for a record deal.

Arrested Development was started in 1988 by Speech and Headliner (born Tim Barnwell), the band's self-described "turntable instrumentalist," while they were both students at Atlanta's Art Institute. As a rap duo, they performed boastful, profanity-filled, music in small clubs in Gainesville and Douglasville, Ga. After hearing Public Enemy's militant song, "Rebel Without a Pause," Speech and Headliner changed their musical focus and dropped the negative lyrics for more politically tinged songs.

Next, "father figure" Baba Oje, a 60-year-old devotee of ancient Egyptian studies, met the duo on campus and was asked to join the group as a performer and spiritual adviser. Singer Aerle Taree, Speech',s cousin from Milwaukee, dancer Montsho Eshe, Jamaican drummer Rasa Don, and female singer Dionne Farris, the standout soloist on the band's breakthrough single, "Tennessee," completed the new sound and direction.

The mournful song, "Tennessee," and its emotional video catapulted Arrested Development from obscurity to constant air play nationally on MTV, BET and radio stations across the country. …