There was a time, circa 1991, when hip-hop wasn't all about bling and bitches.
Back in the day, the beat dropped and so did some Gil-Scott Heron-inspired wordplay, a call for justice in the inner city, and a shout-out to Malcolm X.
Founded by rapper Speech (born Todd Thomas), Atlanta collective Arrested Development belonged to that generation of the Golden Era. "Hip-hop had so many groups -- Public Enemy, X-Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Arrested Development -- with a political aspect to them," he recalls. "They were on mainstream charts and not just underground."
Twenty years later and Arrested Development is still fighting for social change, political action, and black culture, even bringing the revolution to the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival tonight.
We spoke with Speech about millennial rap's lack of substance, his disillusionment with President Barack Obama, and why he'd vote for Ron Paul in the 2012 election.
Crossfade: You've been putting out a daily news digest. What is The Hoopla? Is there a definite activist bent to it?
Speech: I think it's a mixture. It's guilty-pleasure stories mixed with stories we think everybody needs to know something about.
The goal is to introduce people to certain stuff. There are activists who're already very hip to anything we're likely to put in The Hoopla. But then there are all different types of activists ... There are black activists, animal activists, environmental activists.
Our band is a combination of it all. Not all of us have the same interests. So this newsletter is basically a mish-mash of all these diverging thoughts.
One of The Hoopla's recent featured items was financial analyst Frederick Ravid's petition to "Tell Obama to Cease FDA Ties to Monsanto." What's so bad about Obama getting in bed with an agricultural corporation like Monsanto?
It's horrible because Monsanto is one of the worst companies as far as buying up seeds, copyrighting them, genetic modification, and all of this stuff. Our government being in cahoots with anybody who has any ties with Monsanto can only be horrible for our nation's food protection.
Are food issues and agricultural policies something you're deeply interested in?
Without a question. To me, it's obvious that all of us have to be interested. Because no matter what your political views are in life, we all have to eat. So when people start owning things that our god created and are totally meant for us to survive and live off, that's scary.
Monsantos is sort of the big example. I know there are other scenarios out there that are just as bad. But I think that's when it made me realize at least that every one got to be an activist on this issue, it doesn't matter what your political stances are.
How do you think Obama did in his first term?
Honestly, I'm disillusioned with, generally, politics. And I feel disillusioned with some things that Obama has done, especially with the wars. At the same time, I like him. I've met him and I like him as a person.
Most presidents that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime have not had any type of perfect record. And I feel for any president, because the way our government works and especially with the partisan rifts that happen, it's very tough to get anything accomplished.
I've really been refreshed by Ron Paul. That's probably been my favorite candidate lately.
Where you an Obama supporter in 2008?
So is your disillusionment a matter of Obama not taking a firm enough stand when it comes to big business and other corporate influences on government?
Exactly. And don't get me wrong, to some extent I feel like any president is not really in control of what they want to do. No matter who they are and you gotta work through congress. But also this country has so many huge rich entities that are so involved and got their hands in so many areas of our government that no matter who you are it's tough to overcome these fundamental problems.
I don't totally blame him. I don't think he's been what's been said, "The Worst President," and all this stuff. I don't think that's close. I don't agree with that slightly.
But at the same time I've been disillusioned just with how much he's aligned himself with various corporate entities. And he failed on certain promises, especially with the whole war in Afghanistan. There's been a lot of death, a lot of killing, and I just wish we would have done something more radical to get out of it.
My hope for Obama when I voted for him and when I helped to promote his campaign was that he would be a much bigger-ideal person than what he ended up being so far.
It's interesting that you've been following Ron Paul's candidacy closely. Would you would vote for him if he were to win the Republican nomination?
Without a question, I would.
What exactly about his take on policy to you agree with?
What I've noticed about myself is that I'm an idealist. And so, when I voted for Obama in 2008, I loved his ideas compared to Bush. But in 2012, compared to all the other candidates, Ron Paul has some incredible concepts.
Like, the legalization of drugs. I feel that the War on Drugs has been a huge failure. And I think that's a great thing, whether Paul would ever get that passed or not.
And also releasing prisoners, which means a lot for me. There are a lot of black people who have been imprisoned because of non-violent drug crimes. It's always bothered me. I've always sort of seen the hypocrisy of these huge drug people, like the people who wear suits and ties that pretty much go free. Meanwhile, these really poor people from the projects who get thrown right in jail and then get caught up by these three-strike laws where they can't vote.
Those are just two things that I'm really in favor of. And, I guess, lastly, he's really big on the U.S. Constitution and that just makes total sense as an American.
How do you feel about the level of political engagement in hip-hop today? Is it still strong? Or is it waning?
I think there's definitely a waning. There are obviously some artists that are still politically active, like K9, Talib Kweli, and The Roots to some extent. But yeah, there's huge waning.
For people who were born in a certain year, they would find it hard to believe that there was ever a time in hip-hop when groups like Public Enemy were one of the biggest groups in their genre. They'd be amazed to know that.
Are you optimistic for the future? Do you think a group as overtly political as Arrested Development or Public Enemy could be the biggest rap group in the world again?
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Yeah, I do believe it. I do see a much tighter grip from corporate control in our music industry. But at the same time, I never underestimate the power of people.
Sometimes, you look at the odds and you think, Ah, I don't think that will ever happen again. But then I look at the power of people when they get together and they fight for things and amazing things happen.
Virginia Key Grassroots Festival. Thursday, February 9, to Sunday, February 12. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Key Biscayne. Gates open at 4 p.m. on Thursday, 9 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. on Sunday. Four-day festival passes cost $50 for youth and $90 to $100 for adults via grassrootsstore.org. Call 786-332-4630 or visit virginiakeygrassroots.com.