Arrested Development have come a long way since winning two Grammys for their first album, which included the hit songs People Everyday and Mr Wendal. This year the hip-hop collective, who have stayed true to their unique brand of message rap since their beginnings, mark 20 years in the music industry. Celebrating with a free album release Standing at the Crossroads, and a tour to Australia later this month, we chat to front man Speech about the new album, how the American music industry has changed, and his views on gangsta rap.
So, Arrested Development are coming to Australia at the end of this month for the 20th Anniversary Tour. What does this milestone mean to you guys personally?
It means a great deal. Hip-hop artists are very disposable, and I’m very grateful that we’re celebrating 20 years and we can honestly say that we still have an impact on the hip-hop culture today.
You have a new album out, Standing at the Crossroads. Much of it was recorded on a Mac computer, lo fi, and released for free. Why did you guys decide to do it this way?
One is because it’s the landmark of 20 years. We’ve had so much great support over our career, to some extent beyond our expectations, so we wanted to give back. And then the other reason was that we wanted to celebrate being able to dig into the crates and find some really cool samples.
You’re currently touring the US. What is the vibe out there after 20 years? How has it changed?
It’s been amazing. First of all as a group, we’re so much more seasoned, and so much more of a better performing act. And then at the same time the crowd has so much history with us that it makes it like a spiritual reunion in for the audience and us. And I think even the fact that a lot of the music industry doesn’t release music like ours anymore makes it even more special.
You release albums on your own label Vagabond Productions. Why is that?
The most important reason is that we want more control over the music. We’ve had the experience of being on major labels and it was really fun during the first 4 years of our career. It was like, “We’re all working together, got some hit music out, we’re touring.” But then after that it gets a little tougher when you realise that they still own this material even after 20 years of it being out, and you’re not able to capitalise on it the way you would love to. Then it starts to get like “I’d rather do this independently.”
Some people pit you against gangsta rap, whereas I’ve read that you would easily collaborate with Rick Ross or 2 Chainz for example! Where do you stand on this?
I would easily collaborate. My thing is that whatever we do with somebody it would just need to make sense. And if we collaborated with 2 Chainz it would be a record that he would want us on because he feels like we’re gonna bring that certain special element, and we’d feel like it would be exciting for our fans that we’re doing something with 2 Chainz or with whoever.
One of our writers argues that ‘ignorant rap’ (as opposed to message rap) has it’s own artistry. Do you think ignorant rap has a role to play in hip-hop too?
Ever since hip-hop came out, there’s always been a side to it that’s been totally about having fun, sleeping with women, getting drunk and I think that that is part of the hip-hop aesthetic, in so as far as escapism. What’s made it more dangerous in the last 15 years or so is it’s become the only thing that’s being played on so many stations.
And then not only is it about escapism, but it’s got to be about ignorance and violence and degradation of women and what’s even worse about all of that is that it tends to be totally one black against another, while so many other races are able to enjoy the music within the total safety that people within the black community are the ones that are feeling the brunt of this ignorance in real life.
You said in an interview that “As you get older you have to grow with the field. It’s rare to talk about family life, but it’s real now.” What are you drawn to rap about these days? Has it changed over time?
On this album in particular I think we really shine a light on what we see as the most dangerous trends that are happening within the world, dumbing down everybody and going unchallenged.
For instance on our song My Reflection on our new album I talk about this whole idea of the rich rapper. Many of them have started off their careers by selling drugs, and they brag about the fact that they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars before they even signed a record deal by selling crack cocaine or selling heroine or what have you.
All of this stuff has become so widely popular, at least in American hip hop, and it goes unchallenged as a means for people to get by in life.
This reminds me of the Jim Morrison quote you use in your award winning video clip for Living: “Whoever controls the media controls the mind.” What role is the American media playing in this?
I think the American media is playing probably the largest role, because they are not only affirming these things but promoting these things in a way that without mass media it’s just impossible to compete.
Case in point – we have a number one hit song on the college circuit here in the U.S, Living, our first single of Standing at the Crossroads, but our video has gotten about 50 thousand views or so on YouTube, whereas a Nicki Minaj or something will release a record on a Wednesday and by Thursday it can have 50 million views [laughs] or something like that.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I try to stay in tune with new music as much as possible. Lately I’ve been listening to Rick Ross’ album, and I’ve also been listening to Nas’ new album. I also listen to Public Enemy’s new record.
So you’re loving those three?
Well, loving them is a hard thing to just say. As a hip-hop lover you have to do some separating – you separate what you like about the beats or the music and the production, and then you separate what you feel about the content from a personal or moral perspective.
What I would say is that I think Nas’ record is masterfully done as far as musically, and then lyrically I think that he just did a great job at painting pictures. Even if I disagree with some of the pictures that he’s painted.
And then with Rick Ross I think that the record is musically really compelling to listen to, and from a brand perspective he’s done a great job.
Public Enemy’s record I’m more intrigued by the content of what they’re talking about and a little less intrigued by the delivery, but still intrigued by the overall continuity of their music over the years.
Can I throw a few things at you?
Oh ok cool.
Not very familiar with his music. I’ve only heard maybe one or two songs so I’m intrigued by people’s love for him but I don’t really understand his music yet.
Favorite woman in hip-hop at the moment.
I would still say Lauryn Hill even though she’s not necessarily new.
What about Obama? Looking good for a second term.
Yeah. A great deal of respect. There was a candidate who didn’t make the ballot called Ron Paul. If he would have made the ballot I would have voted Ron Paul, but because he didn’t I’m voting for Obama.
Anything else you would like to tell your fans?
Please give everyone the link to get the free download of the album. Thanks everyone so much for supporting us. We can’t wait to get there, we’re really looking forward to it. We love you.