Speech and Arrested Development make a Strong case for consciousness 

Soul food and samurai sword aside, Atlanta's alt hip-hop heads return bearing gifts

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT 2010: Vocalist Tasha Larae (left to right), Za, Speech, Rasa Don, JJ Boogie, Eshe, and rapper 1 Love. (Not pictured: elder, Baba Oje)

BOB BUTLER FOR TWINKITTENS

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT 2010: Vocalist Tasha Larae (left to right), Za, Speech, Rasa Don, JJ Boogie, Eshe, and rapper 1 Love. (Not pictured: elder, Baba Oje)

There must be some cosmic irony at play for a guy named Speech to have a big-ass sword sitting on top of his desk.

It's just a gift he brought back from Japan, he assures me: "I don't know too much about samurai swords," says the leader of one of the biggest alternative acts of the '90s, "but I definitely consider myself a warrior."

Hopefully he won't have to unsheathe that bad boy during our interview. It's presence alone serves as a subtle reminder that the most peace-loving MC in hip-hop has grown increasingly frustrated — if not downright pissed — with the genre's stunted growth, and his muted voice within it, over the past decade and a half.

But before Arrested Development can resuscitate the culture with its new album, Strong, Speech and crew might have to remind us of what's been missing in their absence.

It smells like a family reunion inside the brick house situated on a remote stretch of Highway 54. The group's second media meet-and-greet in as many months is taking place today at the headquarters of Vagabond. Speech started the company in 1992 to help manage Arrested Development's rigorous tour schedule after, he says, "millions of dollars started flowing in." Back then, success was drawing more uninvited guests to Vagabond than Speech could handle. So in '94, he moved the office to the boonies of Fayetteville, some 30 miles south of Atlanta.

Carrying a paper plate stacked with cabbage, mac 'n' cheese, baked chicken, rice and gravy, Speech is the first to greet me when I arrive. He tells me to help myself to a plate being served buffet-style by the cook, his mother-in-law, in the next room. Montsho Eshe, the longtime dancer and one of the few original members of the group, flashes a cheeky smile and offers up her seat as she heads back for seconds. Somebody's toddler waddles around the corner, and everybody keeps raving about the cinnamon spice cake that just came out of the oven.

"This is how we record," Speech says loud enough for the room to hear. "How it is right now is like the atmosphere on every record."

While it took the group three years, five months, and two days to get its first deal — hence the title of their 1992 debut: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of — they proceeded to amass three pop hits ("Tennessee," "People Everyday," "Mr. Wendal"), five million in worldwide sales, and two Grammy awards in mere months.

It was a helluva leap for a ragtag band of Afro-bohemians. Before Biggie had a pot to piss in, Arrested Development was well-versed in "mo' money, mo' problems."

"There was some real discord and problems within the group," says Speech, referring to the disillusionment, demise and eventual legal battles over money he wound up fighting with former members following their less successful sophomore studio joint, Zingalamaduni, in '94. "I think it came from immaturity, so on and so forth, amongst all of us."

After Speech's 1996 self-titled album failed to register, he began touring Japan to support subsequent releases. While he was abroad — and enjoying the solo stardom that eluded him in the states — hip-hop back home narrowed its scope. Funded by corporate conglomerates, the West Coast went gangsta, the East Coast got grimy, and the Dirty South dirtier, burying Arrested Development's legacy of life music beneath a groundswell of fresh-to-death, dumbed-down and criminal-minded rap.

Nearly a decade before Nas toe-tagged the death of hip-hop, Speech was spitting his own eulogies. His continued aggravation with rap's sea change serves as the backdrop to AD's September release, Strong, just as it has on almost every AD project — including Since the Last Time (2006); Among the Trees (2004); and Heroes of the Harvest (2002) — since the band returned with a mix of members, both original (Eshe, Rasa Don, Baba Oje) and new (Tasha Larae and 1 Love on vocals, JJ Boogie on guitar, Za on bass), and began releasing music, primarily overseas, in 2000.

"Yeah, it's been very frustrating and it's been very tough. You know, it's just like with the death of anybody; you go through the stages of grieving," says Speech, whose latest critique finds him rhyming "everybody's a clown" with "the music's so watered down" on the single "The World is Changing." "I think this album is probably right on the heels of liberation."

After the industry and the rap mags turned a deaf ear to his career, Speech turned to Christianity — an unlikely source of solace, he admits, considering his diatribe against the churchified on "Fishin' 4 Religion" from 3 Years, 5 Days.

"A lot of people say people go to Christianity because they need something, and I would 100 percent agree. The only thing I'd probably disagree with is the assumption that everyone doesn't need something." Speech went so far as to become an ordained minister with Greater Atlanta Church of Christ since converting 13 years ago. "I was very frustrated, very depressed. And I think that definitely had a lot to do with my spirit being humbled enough to accept something coming to me, and challenging it in a healthy way, but still being willing to listen, being willing to learn."

Even when taking listeners to task for blindly following "The Trends" or when misappropriating a term as overused as "Haters" to bash the media for giving conscious rap the cold shoulder, Strong's stifled battle cry is propelled by something holistic: "Tupac was shot to death, and Biggie next, a money scheme/For the corporate entities with the rights to publishing," Speech rhymes on "Bloody," linking rap's relapse with the desperate state of international affairs. "Just blinging it blinging it, now people about dat blinging it/world massacres happen, no one rappin' or singing it."

But Speech, who turned 42 this year, still believes that people wield more power than the labels. So he's released Strong independently, as he has with most of AD's domestic catalog of late. And he hopes that a media onslaught — minus the samurai sword — will help Arrested Development reconnect with its U.S. fan base.

"I feel very empowered, I don't feel helpless," says Speech. "I've felt much frustration, don't get me wrong, and I'm not suggesting that I can change this whole tide by myself. I do believe that we can. I do believe that."

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