Arrested Development's latest album just might be their best. My conversation with Speech about this and much more.
“When the hard stuff comes will I rise up, can I handle it? Yes is always my answer!” raps legendary hip hop artist and leader of the acclaimed Arrested Development, on the band’s lead track from their latest release, For The FKN Love (Vagabond Productions).
Arrested Development exploded onto the scene with their debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life of…in 1992, just as the entire musical landscape was shifting from Top 40 Pop songs to introspective and diverse Alternative music.
The time was right for some new perspectives, sounds, and messages, and Arrested Development delivered. 3 Years…sold over 4 million copies in the U.S. alone and the band was part of the daily culture with hits such as “People Everyday”, “Mr. Wendal”, and the song the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll, “Tennessee”.
Arrested Development has been prolific when it comes to releasing albums. The two-time Grammy award-winning (Best New Artist and Best Rap Single -"Tennessee") band has released numerous albums, toured the world many times over, and supports several noteworthy causes such as The National Coalition of the Homeless and the African National Congress to name a just a couple.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Speech, Arrested Development’s leader and visionary, to discuss the band’s latest release, For The FKN Love, AD’s legacy, the importance of messaging and lyrics in music, and so much more.
I heard rumors that this was the last Arrested Development record and if that’s true, you’re going out on such a high note with For The FKN Love.
“Thank you, I really appreciate that, we all do. We decided not to stop. It was really me that was trying to retire and it is something that I still want to do, but I don’t think it’s time yet. We just got off a 35-city tour in Europe, it was very successful, the fans were just hungry for the music and the energy was just, you know, you could slice it with a knife, it was incredible. It’s really helped us to reevaluate everything as a group but also just me as an MC and as an artist.”
We started discussing our love for the art form that is the album, as opposed to singles, and that if you’re telling a story, and have a message, the album is the best way to convey that. With that in mind, I asked Speech about the lead track, “Yes Always" and how that song has a positive Arrested Development vibe. The track is about facing tough times and overcoming them, and how that courage and positivity can be found throughout the course of the album. So I asked Speech if he went into the writing process wanting to make such a positive record?
“You know what, honestly no. It’s how I view writing in general. You’ll see that in any of the stuff I’ve written, I’m going to talk about hardship. But at the same time, there’s going to be some type of hope or some type of message of overcoming. That’s the way I think of life and that’s the way I like music to be, personally. Music has to be real.”
I’ve noticed throughout your career that in all of your music and now your documentary films, which we will get to, you are positive but you’re also very blunt. You never seemed to care about what was cool at the time or what people would say and that’s not easy. Did you think that when you first came out and weren’t following the current trends in hip hop that that could hurt your career at some point?
“Ya know for me, I was in some rap groups before Arrested Development and I was doing some Run-DMC sounding stuff and trying to be like Public Enemy, I was trying to be other things because I’m from Milwaukee and we didn’t have any successful hip hop artists there. And if you remember back during that time period, hip hop was primarily East Coast/West Coast. We didn’t even have a worldwide scene in the South yet. So I looked at being different as a plus to help me stand out, not to mention I had finally found myself. So I didn’t want to sound like anyone else and I didn’t want to follow the trends per se."
This got us talking about the infancy of rap in the early and mid-80s and I mentioned that I really liked what I was hearing back then. I was a hard rock and punk rock fan for the most part but I did like bands like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, etc. It wasn’t until I heard the music of KRS-One and Public Enemy though that I saw what rap could truly become. It was like punk rock in a way because of how direct and vicious it was. It also contained eye-opening lyrical themes about the harsh realities of culture and society, especially for African American people in the United States.
“I come from a lot of those same traditions. I was listening to a lot of Fishbone, Public Enemy, of course, KRS-One, Tracy Chapman, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz, so there was a lot of that discipline and viewpoint that I was already influenced by. Then when we came out, we did hip-hop shows all around. We also did shows like Lollapalooza, Blues festivals, and Folk festivals, and we still do to this day. We have a Folk festival coming up in Philly in about a week or so. But I also loved Kraftwerk and Planet Patrol, so there were a lot of different textures that were being created at the start of hip-hop that made it wonderfully diverse.”
I wanted to get into some of the songs on For The FKN Love so I picked a few of my favorites and asked Speech to talk a bit about them. I started with “Never Had Your Back” which is a powerful song about his daughter and black women in general focusing on the uphill battle they face in society and the hypocrisy they deal with in this country. I told Speech that I thought the song could also be inspirational for all women because so many have been held down and disrespected throughout history and that this song should resonate wildly with women across the board.
“For me, it’s about a lot of things. It was about my daughter, but it’s also about my nieces, it’s about my cousins, and the people I see in my daily life. I see this narrative painted about these young girls and women that deeply affect their own self-image and their own worldview of where they belong and what they can offer. So it’s not just about my daughter but I wanted to write about it from a personal space because people tend to identify with that kind of writing."
I mentioned Speech’s documentaries earlier and during this conversation about “Never Had Your Back” I brought up the correlation between this song and one of his documentaries called 16 Bars. 16 bars is about Speech’s time visiting inmates in a Virginia jail to hear their stories of why they’re there but also make music with them. Hearing some of the devastating circumstances surrounding these men and what they witnessed in childhood, (which undoubtedly played a role in why they followed the paths they did to land them in jail), isn’t unlike the way young girls of color are treated which can lead to a variety of problems in adulthood which is one of the themes in “Never Had Your Back”.
I asked Speech how he came up with the idea for 16 Bars and why he wanted to do it.
“I had always been concerned with the Prison Industrial Complex for decades now, and then learned about Sheriff C.T. Woody in Richmond, Virginia. He’s somebody that really gets it as far as how to change the narrative of who these men and women are. So we called them to see if we could come into that jail and do some music. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do but we just knew that someone there got it and had a bigger vision of what we tend to see in some of these bigger jails and prisons. It took about 2 ½ years to get permission but we got it and went in with a film crew and stayed for 10 days. This film humanized these people behind bars.”
I have to say, our conversation was less like an interview and more like two music lovers geeking out over all things music, so we sort of ebbed and flowed back and forth between topics, but there was always some connective language that brought us back to something specific. This is why I’m writing this piece as more of a story than a traditional interview. It just feels more authentic this way and better represents how it all went down.
We soon went right back to the songs on For The FKN Love and I brought up an odd track called “Where Lions Roam” because it’s so different from anything else on the record but so good and unique, I had to ask Speech about it.
“It’s the oddball track on this album and Configa (Executive Producer of the album along with Speech) and I talk about what should be on the album and what shouldn’t be on the album. I insisted on it being on, (Configa not so much). To me, it’s important in the arc of an album, to have a complete story with different textures, and different colors, on an entire album, and “Where Lions Roam” does that. It adds a certain texture that’s not anywhere else on the record and therefore, makes it a special little jewel in an otherwise sort of consistent piece of work. I really was excited to make sure that that song was on there. Musically, it was a weird approach to a song because it has some Reggae influence and some technological and futuristic energies to it. It’s just a very weird mix of sounds which is exactly why I love that record”.
Let me add that what Configa added to this album must not be understated. Not only was he the Executive Producer with Speech, but musically he produced about 70% of the album. To my ears, it is one of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard in a long time and the sonic tapestry that weaves its way throughout all 17 tracks is something that needs to be heard to fully grasp.
Since we were on the topic of why we like albums that have a message built in, how to distinguish sounds and even the art of track-listing, it naturally led us to a discussion about vinyl which For The FKN Love is now available on.
“It took longer than we expected, there’s a pretty significant backlog in the vinyl pressing industry, but we finally got vinyl and it looks beautiful. People that collect vinyl should definitely get this album, it’s a gorgeous piece of work.”
I mentioned earlier that Arrested Development has been prolific throughout their career, as has Speech with solo material, films, etc., but the band has had several breaks and lapses in output over the years. They didn’t release albums every two years like some artists and that tends to make bands flow in and out of favor with commercial music and its fanbase.
Bands cannot predict where their careers will go, how long they’ll stay around, or what type of impact they will have on the music industry and culture in general. Arrested Development exploded out of the gate and deservedly took their place among the best bands of the early 90s. Don’t let the fact that they didn’t release albums on the same conveyor belt like time frame that other million record-selling artists did. Arrested Development is one of the best hip-hop bands of all time, full stop.
If you need proof of this, listen to For The FKN Love, an album written and released 29 years after its debut album, and tell me they’re not still releasing music at the highest level possible. Don’t take my word for it, just look at the guest appearances on the record itself. They’ve got some of rap’s originators right through to today’s best up-and-coming artists ready to take the baton.
Mega-guest artists who appear on For The FKN Love include, Big Daddy Kane, The Sugarhill Gang, Masta Ace, Freddie Foxxx, Monie Love, Kxng Crooked, G. Love, Tony Momrelle (Incognito), Dee-1, and Fatman Scoop. Newer artists include Twan Mack, Dell-P, Lish, Ke'Andra, 4ize, Twisted Royalty, Cleveland P. Jones, MRK SX, and Jahah.
As our conversation was winding down, I wanted to talk to Speech about one of the most powerful lyrics I’ve ever heard and it comes from the AD song, “Tennessee”.
“Walk the roads my forefathers walked, climb the trees my forefathers hung from, ask those trees for all their wisdom”.
Words carry weight and music delivers the emotion. “Tennessee” is as classic a track as you’ll find in hip-hop, period. I needed to tell Speech that and ask him to discuss the song.
“I’ve always written in that direct style because I see so many problems in this world which are a result of a lack of communication and a lack of people just talking to each other and saying the things that need to be said. Tennessee was a gift. It was a gift from my grandmother who passed away and she was from Tennessee and my brother who passed away a week after her. The last place I saw both of them was in Tennessee. I believe that when people you love pass, they pass onto you certain attributes, certain things that you start to develop or gain interest in. It’s a weird phenomenon but I’ve seen it more times than I can tell you. I think they passed on something that made that song come out of me so easily. I was deeply hurt and yes, the song has made me cry, but it’s still a celebratory song and we have a great time performing it but it does come from the loss of two incredible people. I know a lot of people who have been through deep loss also feel that song in a special way”.
Speech and I discussed the past and the present so what's up for the future as far as Arrested Development is concerned? A lot...
They're releasing a video for "Yes Always" featuring Dee-1, going to celebrate 30 years of 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of..., and continue the promotion for Speech's 2021 solo release, Expansion.
In addition to the music, and in keeping with the positive vibe of AD's and Speech's career, Speech, along with his mother, started a scholarship fund in the name of his brother (the one he raps about in "Tennessee") to help kids from their hometown of Milwaukee attend college. It's called the Dr. Terence Thomas Memorial Scholarship which has raised over a million dollars and counting.
If you're a fan of Arrested Development and conscious and positive hip-hop, do not sleep on For The FKN Love. It just might be their best album to date and it's exactly what the world could use more of right now.