(The two-time Grammy award winning hip-hop group Arrested Development, are true trailblazers bringing balance to hip-hop. Since 1991 they’ve championed advancement, equality and spreading unique hip-hop around the world. They brought much needed attention to the plight of the homeless through their hit song “Mr. Wendal”, and celebrated cultural diversity in the dance smash, “People Everyday". Like myself, I am sure you wondered what happened to the group all of these years. They came back on the scene this year with the album "Strong" to bring balance back to hip-hop. I went one-on-one with group members Speech and Montsho Eshe about their hiatus, the new album, the present state of hip hop and more. This is Part 1)
Brother Jesse Muhammad (BJ): First of all, I’d like to say that I am honored to do this interview. I wanted to start off with basic background information for the sake of our readers. Talk about growing up in Milwaukee and how your upbringing influenced the type of music you would eventually produce as an artist.
Speech (SP): Well, growing up in Milwaukee was very much a polar existence because Milwaukee is very segregated in a sense. Most of the black people in Milwaukee live in poverty and most of the blacks that are middle class and above live in white neighborhoods. So, for me, growing up, I saw both sides of the fence because my parents moved from out of the ghetto when I was a little kid and moved into the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee but my parents business and all of our activities as a family was right in the middle of the city, in the innercity. So, I grew up seeing a lot of polar opposites. My mom owns a newspaper called the Milwaukee Community Journal. It’s been 35 years of reporting of various things going on in the black community. So, growing up, every morning at the breakfast, or wherever, we would hear issues discussed and various solutions to the issues, talking about the community and these things would be ingrained in me as a young child. That’s basically my up bringing.
The reason that , I think , the topics that Arrested Development started talking about when we came together were still so burnt into my heart because of growing up in that environment, talking about the solutions and talking about the issues going on in the community.
BJ: Now, the group Arrested Development had its short tremendous success in the early 90’s and then took a brief hiatus, as I read on your website. Fans like myself were wondering what happened. Would you mind sharing, what happened to break the group up?
SP: Well, a number of things happened. One is, having that big success on your first album for a group like us was very overwhelming because, we obviously wanted the record to do well but we never knew that it would do that well. So, a lot of infrastructure issues were having to be dealt with while we were touring, while I was the producer of the group / lead vocalist of the group. There were a lot of business decisions, managers, lawyers, publishing, agents, booking agents, things that were very new to us. Our learning curve was extremely huge and the pace was extremely fast. If you can remember, back in those days, our group, thank God, was very much on the fast track. We were winning many different awards, many different award show performances, many different tours nationally and internationally.
Many different things were expected of us on a very rushed sequence. So, us being such an organic group and coming from a grassroots place, that was very unexpected and it did take a toll on the personalities of our group and by the time we did Zingalamaduni , which was our second album, we were tired. We were starting to have internal conflict which I honestly think could have been resolved much easier if we had just taken a little break. But, instead of us taking a break, the label wanted us to put out music immediately and I think, all of that took a toll on the group so by the time it was asked of us to do a third album, we declined. We just said we didn’t want to do it. We just took a break for about five years.
BJ: Now, I also read, in your bio, that you didn’t stop working, you really more so started to focus on your solo work. Please talk about some of things you were able to accomplish within that time period.
SP: In 1996, the group stopped recording albums and I still was creating music and I didn’t know what to do with it. So, in essence, I just played some music, some experimental music, for my record label and they liked it and they released it as a solo album called Speech. It was very experimental. I was starting to sing, a lot . Going though the various emotional roller coasters that I was explaining earlier, me singing started to feel more soothing to my conscious and to my spirit. At the same time, that type of style was, to some extent sort of the rebirth of neo soul. But, the label was sort of starting to self destruct. EMI was starting to go through a bunch of changes and, long story short, it didn’t do well in the United States. So, I was left basically with trying to determine what should I do with my newfound, in a sense, career and what should happen but God really blessed me in that the same album that didn’t do well in the States was doing extremely well in Japan. It was the number record for about seven weeks straight and I decided , of course, to go over there and start to tour, start to see what was going on. When I got there, it was just an amazing reception. That became ‘home” for me, musically, not physically for about five years that would follow and I would have Number 1 hit records or Top Ten hit records for the next four records that I produced.
BJ: Eshe, what were you doing or working on when the group was not together?
Montsho Eshe (ME): I actually got into artist management. I had an artist, Yum Yum Girl, who was on LaFace. She did a couple of records like collabs with people but she never came out due to a lot of label switching. It was crazy because a lot of artist get caught up in that, the whole corporate hustle and bustle thing. Then, I also started doing choreography for a lot of artists, teaching. I’ve always taught dance but I did a lot of teaching during that season. Also, I found out a lot of gifts which I never knew about myself. I started writing more, writing songs and singing more and just teaching myself a lot of thing; studying a lot of people. That’s what I did during that season. Just really took time to kind of.....I was still in the business but just in a different aspect and from another perspective, you see things in a whole other way. So, I got a chance to work with my artist. On LaFace she worked with Rodney Jerkins and Babyface, all these different producers and it was interesting just to see how they worked. You know, by Arrested Development being a more kind of organic type of group, it’s a whole 'nother world when you go to that R&B side. It was interesting to see the differences and the different dynamics of the work in that area. During that time, I also took time to get myself together as well , on a spiritual level and all that kind of stuff. So, yea. I stayed busy.
BJ: Was reuniting with the group always in the back of your mind as you worked as a solo artist?
SP: Honestly, I would always be fine with doing it but no, it wasn’t a huge thought. At the time, even though I was doing my solo stuff, me and some of the members were going through lawsuits with each other. It was a lot of internal drama between me and some of the members so I just wasn’t thinking of it. It wasn’t on my heart. And thank God for Eshe. About 5 years after I started my solo career, she called me and said we should do more group stuff and she presented it so that I started to have a real vision for it as well. She really helped to bring the group back together.
ME: Awwwww….You gonna make me cry.
BJ: Now, let’s get into talking about Hip Hop. If we look at groups like Arrested Development, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, taken out of the equation of hip hop over these last, let's say 15 years or so. I know this question is always put out there but I would love to hear your vantage point. What is the state or condition of Hip Hop? More people seem to focus on the bling, the exploitation of women, the content in the delivery is poor, everything is ‘shortcut culture’. Nothing empowering, a lot of people would say. So, what is the state of hip hop and what is missing, or has been missing, that Arrested Development is bringing back to the airwaves?
SP: Okay. Honestly, I feel like there’s a number of things missing. First of all, we’re missing balance. There’s always gonna be artists who want to speak on various things but right now you don’t even have any mainstream artist that’s speaking on any consciousness, any advancement, any solutions. So, what that does is make other artists who are in the hampers, who aren’t out yet, they just wanting to get on. It makes them copy the people who they see as being successful and it just continues to recreate the same type of ‘poison’ lyric content for our children and so and so forth.
But, also, I see commercialism that swept our nation. A materialism and commercialism that responded to the early 90’s and late 80’s consciousness that was sweeping the nation that to me was a new trend. It was a new trend to talk about private jets. It was a trend to talk about your money as your importance. It was a trend to talk about being a mogul or a CEO. These things weren’t talked about in the early 90’s. These things weren’t spoken of in the late 80’s. It was not fashionable to have a commercial promoting some corporate product. These things were actually unfashionable. I remember when Arrested Development got offered to promote Coca Cola. It was a seven figure contract deal. We turned it down.
MC Hammer was one of the first hip hop artist ever to promote a corporate product and he was slammed for it. He promoted, I think it was popcorn chicken or popcorn shrimp from KFC and he was slammed for it. Then, all of a sudden, in response to that, in the mid 90’s, you got P. Diddy. You got this whole movement of ‘everything’s about cash’. and we followed the trend. I feel like, and I address this in a song in our new album ”Strong”, that these trends tend to master us. And we shouldn’t let it master us. That we have to have direction as a people and we determine what trends fit our life or fit our objectives as opposed to allowing trends to determine our fate. So, that’s sort of a long but short version of what I feel.
ME: Well, I definitely agree with what Speech was saying on a lot of things. We really need balance. There’s a lack of balance right now. Just as Speech was saying, back in the early 90’s, when we came out, a lot of stuff that people are “allowed” to do now, it was taboo and they would say you were a sell out and just all those things. And, it’s just amazing how seasons change and times change, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. I think that people now see that, just like athletes do it , it’s lucrative for artists, and honestly nowadays, that’s how a lot of artists, a large amount of artists really, make their money off of sponsorship or promoting a product because the game has changed so much,. You know. with the economy and everything, so a lot of artists they have clothing lines and they’re promoting deodorants and colognes or whatever. It’s a lot of different things to make a living. It’s just interesting how times have changes because no artist, if you wanted to be considered legitimate or have street cred or all that type of stuff, you couldn’t do that in the 90’s at all. You couldn’t. They would slam you, for real. I just think we’re missing balance. There are a lot of great artists but you don’t hear about them as far as, you know, mainstream. To me, it’s just one type of music that you hear and of course, me being a female, I’m really missing people like Lyte and Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah and Moni Love; those types of female artists, I’m really missing them.
BJ: Hey, I hear you. What is this album "Strong" bringing to the table that you all would say is missing?
SP: Well, I think, that issue that I started to address about following trends, we talk about that in this album and I feel like we give a fair shake or vision of what has happened to us as a people over the last twenty years and what we should be doing to correct it. I also think that, like songs like Bloody, talk about this marriage that now has happened between corporations and hip hop artists. This marriage wasn’t always there. Like Eshe said, the whole diversifying your talents to go into, like perfumes and clothing lines and so on and so forth, it’s admirable from one perspective. If you think of it from just a business perspective, it’s admirable but when you start to think of it in a historical perspective and what we’re trying to accomplish as a people, in allowing yourself to marry with corporations that have no interest in your advancement, no interest in what we, as a people, deserve to get and have been striving to get for generations, then, you start to see it as not so admirable but as against what we are trying to accomplish. So, I feel like we’ve been addressing that on this album and I feel like we bring a refreshing viewpoint. To all the various viewpoints that are already existing, we bring a very refreshing viewpoint. I think that that is what Arrested Development always have strived to do and I believe that that’s what we’ve done , over the years. It could become like a soundtrack to the life of a person who’s striving to break from this matrix of trends and corporate lead visions for our people. I think that it could be a soundtrack.
ME: I definitely feel, like Speech was saying, it’s refreshing, we also had some fun songs on there. And of course, thought provoking and also songs that will ignite your spirit and make you want to do something with yourself, with your community, in the world. The album, to me, has a ‘world’ feel to it. We have this song called Africa in which we’re just talking about how much we thank Africa for being an influence in our lives and around the world. Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re going to be influenced by Africa. Whether it be the music, the drums, the culture, something.
Also, I want to weigh in on what Speech was saying; It’s cool to have sponsorship from corporations or do whatever but let it not taint your integrity. If you’re going to promote something, let it be something that you’re going to be proud about, that’s going ot help you and your people advance. Something that your kids-kids-kids can be proud of it and you can hold your head up high because not all of it is bad. But, it’s when that’s your motivation that it gets scary because then at that point, you’re like “I’ll do whatever to make a dollar”.
(In Part 2, we go deeper into the songs on the album "Strong", their international tour, social justice issues, and why we won't see a repeat of their break up. Until then check out two of their videos below! Visit their website @ http://www.arresteddevelopmentmusic.com/)
"The World Is Changing"