Q&A with Speech

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Q&A with Speech

paste01cover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

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Speech (aka Todd Thomas), the smiling, enigmatic leader of one of hip-hop’s most influential and boundary-breaking groups, Arrested Development, has had a successful yet nearly secret solo career in the wake of AD’s 1995 breakup. Like a string of major league ball players, he’s been playing before enthusiastic, appreciative and often sold-out audiences in Japan, where he’s released four solo albums over the last seven years.

In 1992 the hip-hop world turned upside down when Arrested Development, a Southern rap group from Atlanta changed the vibe of the day. Speech and fellow Art Institute of Atlanta student DJ Headliner (Timothy Barnwell) formed AD and gradually added dancers Montsho Eshe and Aerle Taree, percussionist Rasa Don, his fiancée, singer Dionne Farris, and spiritual adviser and theorist Baba Oje.

Their debut album 3 years, 5 months, and 2 days In the Life Of… spawned huge singles “Tennessee”, the sympathetic “Mr. Wendal” and the can’t-we-all-just-get-along “People Everyday” (a remake of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People). MTV was friendly to the smiling faces of AD, particularly its self-described leader, Speech, whose colorful clothing and positive, uplifting “life music” was a breath of fresh air. Stars were born, and then after the requisite Unplugged album and a disappointing response to their 1994 follow-up Zingalamaduni, the band broke up after internal squabbles became too much. Though Arrested Development occasionally regroups for shows and have released two EPs in Japan, Speech now focuses on his solo work.

Paste Magazine sat down with Speech in an Atlanta studio to find out what’s happening as he prepares to hit the U.S. scene again.

Paste: What’s been going on since AD broke up after Zingalamaduni?

Speech: There’s been a lot going on over the last six years. Arrested Dev broke up in 1995. Zingalamaduni—Swahili for “beehive of culture”—sold about 500,000 records. It was received as a flop and the group was in the middle of absolute chaos. There was a lot of jealousy. Basically we didn’t want to work with each other. There were six people in the group and it was sort of split in threes. Three people on one side, three on the other.

Me and the original guy I had in the group, Headliner, had had a lot of disagreements on money issues, on writing issues, on creative issues, basically you name it. We were best friends, and so we ultimately stopped talking to each other. We didn’t come back together for the next album. We had another obligation to our label, EMI. During that time, I was recording as [a solo] artist and EMI had heard some of the material I was doing. It was very different from AD—very singing-oriented. So in 1996, they offered me a solo deal at EMI and so I took that deal and we tried to promote this record, and there was nothing going on. The reviews were actually pretty good, but the general public just did not really feel the record. I think it was a number of things. I think the climate in general, which I think had contributed to AD’s second album not doing well. The climate had changed from people wanting to hear about knowledge or issues or solutions to Wu Tang. And it was just about hard hip-hop beats and whatever they represent. The climate had switched so much that people weren’t really ready for what I had to offer.

I went touring on that album, and it was very much a hard time for me. With AD, we would pack stadiums. We were doing 20,000-seaters. In America we were doing 10,000-seaters. I went out as a solo act at least thinking that I could pack clubs. So I went on a club tour, and it did not happen at all. And it was very embarrassing for me, to be honest, because I was just used to doing that type of status of show. And there’d be like 15 people in the house, sometimes less than that. I went through a really bad state of depression during that time period, just really depressed about what am I supposed to do as a musician. My ego was very damaged. It was embarrassing. But I really had to determine what am I doing this for? Do I love music? Do I want to be a man of character?

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Paste: What did you do at the show with the least number of people?

Speech: I actually called them up on stage. They were up on stage with me and we did the show. I gave them a cowbell and we performed. And they were part of the band. It was fun, but it was still embarrassing. And I remember a lot of nights after the show, backstage and just wanting to cry.

Paste: So how did the whole Japan thing come about? That seems pretty random…

Speech: I looked at Billboard one day with my manager, and I was hoping my song would go up the charts. I was still hoping that something would happen, and it was going lower and lower. So I went to some of the international charts, and I looked at Japan, just happenstance. I looked really down below to see where it was at, if it was even there. And it wasn’t there. So I looked up, up, and it was number one. And I had no clue. I asked my manager who was sitting next to me, “Is this my song?” It’s at number one in Japan and had been number one for four weeks at the time. It was my song called, “Like Marvin Gaye Said.” No one had told me this. I had no clue. He had no clue.

Just at that time, EMI in America folded. I was like “what am I going to do now?” But I said, “There’s this thing going on in Japan. Maybe we should go over there and tour. At least we have a number one record with this album. Why don’t we go over there and see what’s going on?”

We traveled to Japan and did a tour, and it was incredibly huge. It was very much a breathe of fresh air and an encouragement that I really needed because, five people over here and over there it was 800 people, and the clubs were packed and they were excited and we did two sold out shows in Tokyo and then on to Osaka and Nagoya and some other cities. I was very encouraged. The fans were so incredibly zealous and so incredibly into the music and into the lyrics and what it was all about. That’s how my solo career continued. I did three records there, all of which have done very well.

Paste: What is it about the Japanese that they’ve connected so well to your music?

Speech: The Japanese are very serving people,—very polite, very enthusiastic about the lyrics. Artists like Eminem haven’t done as well over there primarily because they don’t understand the anger of it like America might understand. America has the luxury of anger. I think we mistake the anger with really deep-rooted problems. I think we have the luxury of making the problems we do have seem quite deep. Everywhere I’ve traveled around the world, America by far is number one—the best place to live. We have the most luxurious lifestyle—even the poor among us—[compared to] any other country I’ve ever been to.

The Japanese people like soul music still. Stevie Wonder and the Arcades are still being played on the radio—and not as nostalgic groups. Japan only opened up to Western culture 50 years ago, so it’s been one generation ago that they’ve even allowed music to be played on the radio, period. On the radio station there, you’ll listen to India.Arie and then right next to it Marvin Gaye, and this is not the college station. They don’t look at it as eras. If it’s good, then they like it.

Paste: So now you’re putting out music in the U.S. again?

Speech: I’m back doing some music for America. Times have changed again. Lauryn Hill is doing conscious music again and the Fugees are coming back out. It’s sort of interesting, it’s like a time machine because when my first solo album came out, it was the Fugees and Lauryn Hill and now it’s all about the same. And Indie.arie is now out. And so there’s this rebirth of people wanting to hear music that has a little more to say.

Paste: About your songwriting—you really exist outside of the typical hip-hop vibe. The songs are uplifting, positive, spiritual. You even call out your own community on the carpet. In “Brought To You By,” one gets the sense that you see a lot of B.S. in the hip-hop community. Is there a cost to you for writing this way?

Speech: It is a cost. The point for me is … it’s not that I want to be on the outside, but I got to be who I am, and I got to be myself. There was a time in hip-hop where that was a plus. The most celebrated time in hip-hop was in the early ’90s and the late ’80s when you had Tribe Called Quest, De la Soul, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah, but you also had Ice T and Ice Cube and NWA. And all of those people coexisted within this field of hip-hop. There were some people calling women “bitches” and others calling them “queens.” And there were some people talking about Africa and other people talking about Compton, and it was all coexisting. All of it could be popular—not one of it underground and one of it popular. Today you got your Most Def’s and your Roots, but they’re relatively more on the underground compared to your Dre’s or your Jay-Z’s. If I end up being on the outside, I just do, but I don’t want by will to be on the outside. I feel like that was a mistake that I did in the past.

Paste: The acoustic instrumentation of much of your’s and AD’s work is unusual in the hip-hop and soul worlds. Where did that come from?

Speech: At the time, it was our individuality that we allowed to shine. My whole philosophy on artistry is that all of us could do something that’s 100 percent spectacular. And the only difference between us doing that is if we allow ourselves to be the reason we do it, meaning who we are individually. Because we all have these different upbringings and so on and so forth, and what ends up happening, shamefully, is that you have artists—even though they came from this totally unique place, and their upbringing was unique—but they conform their whole vibe in order to fit what they see going on. And so therefore you just miss out on their whole experience. Acoustic … it was what we were used to and we just allowed that to come on out, and we allowed our reality to be what we do instead of what was the reality of the times.

Paste: Do you see AD and yourself as having been influential?

Speech: I try not to say that about myself, but I feel like there’s some trails that’s been blazed there. But at the same time I have to say that we’ve blazed on trails of others as well. Jungle Brothers, De La [Soul], [A] Tribe [Called Quest], that whole native tongues thing is what opened the door for an AD to exist.

Paste: Who do you see as your contemporaries?

Speech: Cats like Eryka Badu? Roots, India, Mos Def, Tony Kwali? People in that realm all the way to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones to Victor Wooten. I can hear all of that stuff sort of fitting in the same vibe.