With a focus on the positive and political in the early '90s, Arrested Development was often brought up in defense of hip-hop whenever the mainstream media demonized rap as the soundtrack of so-called gangsters. With hits like
Todd Thomas, the founder and frontman of Arrested Development who's better known by his stage name Speech, is glad his music lives on today. "The late '80s and early '90s was not only a golden era of hip-hop; it was a renaissance for blacks in all art forms," he says. "Bill Cosby changed the narrative of black reality on TV. There were Spike Lee movies. You had Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest on the radio. On every front, there was a movement of consciousness and diversity." But that golden era didn't last long enough for Speech. "In 1995, things changed. Labels promoted street culture over consciousness. Wu-tang, Biggie, and Nas were promoted with their stories of street thugs and hustlers."
Speech grew up in Milwaukee, where his dad owned a nightclub, and the kid would often stop by after school to watch the DJs do their thing. He eventually took up DJing himself, and after moving south to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta in 1988, Speech put up a flyer looking to form a rap group. One day, he noticed someone looking at the flyer, so he approached. That man would turn out to be Headliner, the cofounding member of Arrested Development. "That was the beginnings. We'd invite African drummers and dancers onstage with us, and that became Arrested Development."
It didn't take long for the group to find success both critically and commercially, selling 4 million albums. Not only soulful, Arrested Development was also political in ways popular music rarely attempts to be anymore. But Speech isn't done yet. This year, he released two very different records the same day with Arrested Development: Changing the Narrative and This Was Never Home.
"Changing the Narrative is very sampled and poetic," he says. "We sample music we're listening to like Chicago, James Brown, and the Gorillaz. This Was Never Home is drum-machine-and-technology-oriented and influenced by Kendrick Lamar and Drake."
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The current seven-member lineup of Arrested Development will take some of those new songs — and some old ones — to the stage at Miami New Times' Brew at the Zoo this Saturday.