The Great Albums

Arrested Development's power of positive thought


January 25, 2004



Blame the Grammys and that dreaded adjective "alternative." Roundly dissed as "soft" by the standards of the hard-ass gangstas who dominate the hip-hop scene today, Arrested Development was one of the genre's most promising groups when it released its debut album, "3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of...," in 1992.

The band shot to the top of the Billboard charts, sold 5 million albums worldwide and claimed an armful of Grammy Awards, including best new artist and best rap group, in 1993. But it was pegged as one of the key acts in a sound dubbed "alternative hip-hop" -- rap's equivalent to the alternative explosion then dominating the rock world -- and that tag would come to haunt the outfit.

"Alternative rap" is a name that the group's founder, primary rapper and key songwriter Speech never embraced. "What that implies is that this is not rap, this is an alternative to rap, and I think that limits what rap is," he told me in 1992. "We're just an extension of hip-hop."


'3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of...' (1992)

1. "Man's Final Frontier"

2. "Mama's Always on Stage"

3. "People Everyday"

4. "Blues Happy"

5. "Mr. Wendal"

6. "Children Play With Earth"

7. "Raining Revolution"

8. "Fishin' 4 Religion"

9. "Give a Man a Fish"

10. "U"

11. "Eve of Reality"

12. "Natural"

13. "Dawn of the Dreads"

14. "Tennessee"

15. "Washed Away"

16. "People Everyday [Metamorphosis Mix]"

Born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wis., Speech formed his sense of political consciousness thanks to his parents, who owned an African-American newspaper called the Milwaukee Community Journal. For a time, he co-wrote a regular column called "20th Century African."

"But I was writing music before I ever wrote the column," Speech said. "My parents owned the paper, and I realized it could be an outlet to get things across to people who I felt really needed to hear another perspective. To me, it was just an extension of what I'm doing with music."

Speech's focus shifted when he enrolled at the Art Institute of Atlanta, and discovered the potent mix of music and politics in the sounds of Public Enemy. He formed Arrested Development in the late '80s with his friend, DJ Headliner, whose moniker came from his day job as a barber. The group would come to include drummer Rasadon, dancers Montsho Eshe and Aerle Taree and senior-citizen dancer/vocalist/spiritual adviser Baba Oje.

The lengthy name of the group's debut came from the amount of time that it took to secure a recording contract. When it was finally released, "3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of..." spawned three hit singles with "Tennessee," "People Everyday" and "Mr. Wendal."

The group's instrumental backings were fluid, grooving, absurdly catchy and grounded in a long tradition of soul, funk, R&B, gospel and rock 'n' roll. "People Everyday" was a sharp rewrite of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," and other tracks sampled Earth, Wind & Fire, Minnie Riperton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Bob Dylan (a snippet of "Mighty Quinn" appears in Arrested Development's "U").

The artful craftsmanship of the backing tracks was well suited to Speech's smooth, laid-back rapping -- a mellow style that belied the potent urgency of his lyrics, which addressed prejudice, the need for African-American unity, safe sex and the role of religion in bringing about social change. Speech advocated a revolution, but one that started not with guns, but changing the way that African-Americans think about themselves and their community.

"Tennessee," which celebrates familial roots, is based on his teenage experiences visiting his grandparents in the town of Henning, Tenn.; "Mr. Wendal" is a moving portrait of a homeless man encountered on the street, and "Give a Man a Fish" is a call for positive thinking as the road out of the ghetto, in contrast to the violent path celebrated by so many gangsta rappers.

"Got to get political, political I gotta get," Speech rapped. "Grown but can't hold my own, so this government needs to be overthrown/ Brothers with the AKs and the 9 mms need to learn how to correctly shoot 'em/Save those rounds for a revolution /Poor whites and blacks bum-rushing the system /But I tell you: Ain't no room for gangstas/'Cos gangstas do dirty work and get pimped by mobsters/Some fat Italian eating pasta 'n lobster."

"Arrested Development is really trying to make social change and economic change, and gangstas don't play a part in change because they don't control their own lives," Speech told me after the song's release. "They're being pimped by oppression, like most people are being pimped, but the gangstas are allowing it to happen. I think music motivates people -- it inspires people positively or negatively, depending on the music."

This outspoken opposition to the glorification of drug dealing and the violent gangsta pose (epitomized at the time by the likes of N.W.A, but alive and well today in the form of 50 Cent and others) earned Arrested Development the enmity and derision of many in the hip-hop community, though the issues the group was addressing had much more common in many African-Americans' lives than the tales of violence delivered by other rappers.

Though the group successfully toured as part of Lollapalooza '93, rock radio turned a deaf ear. It was branded as "too black" for the white music media, and "not black enough" for many hip-hop outlets. It followed its debut with an equally creative album in 1994 called "Zingalamaduni," but it didn't come close to matching the success of its predecessor, and the band that Speech said would be together for a decade or more split up in 1996.

Gangsta rappers continue to mock the group today, but the influence of its music and its positive lyrical message live on in artists such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, the Roots and Common, many of whom are part of the so-called neo-soul or natural R&B movement. After a period spent trying to build a career as a solo artist, Speech reunited Arrested Development in 2002 -- DJ Headliner was gone, but Eshe, Rasadon and Baba Oje returned to join several new members -- and the band is once again touring and releasing new music via its own Web site,