Arrested Development, which performs on Saturday, December 19, at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, was one of the earliest incarnations of alternative hip-hop, as it would come to be called by critics. That designation is, of course, problematic when part of the reason the group wasn't immediately embraced by hip-hop culture was its roots in the American South, specifically Atlanta. When singer, rapper and musician Speech, born Todd Thomas, formed the outfit in 1987 with his then-friend and collaborator Timothy “DJ Headliner” Barnwell, they had to create the opportunity to make the music that eventually lead to two 1993 Grammy Awards.
“We called it the 'chitlin' circuit,'” recalls Thomas about the early performances. “When we started off we played a particular club first that gave us a chance to come in as part of a talent show. How we used to do our shows it was me doing rhymes and Headliner on the turntables. We were influenced by Soul II Soul and we would invite anybody on stage and people would play cowbell or the djembe. Maybe they would sing or dance or do artwork. After a while it became this mishmash of talent and we would jam, almost like a jam band. The club gained more patrons because of us doing this so then they asked us to keep coming back. It was Club Celebs in Atlanta, Georgia. That was our first house gig. It was sort of like The Beatles and we got up our ten thousand hours in a sense, forming our energy in that club every week. Then we would do any club we could, basically. To be honest ,we got a lot of boos. People weren't ready for us. We were influenced a lot by Fishbone and Sun Ra and a lot of outskirts stuff we really liked. At that time, blacks doing that wasn't really accepted, especially in a hip-hop realm.”
The combination of live instruments and turntables informed by jazz evolved into a hip-hop band, the kind that wasn't too common at the time. There had been Funky Four Plus One and the records of Kurtis Blow as clear predecessors, but in the live-music world of the late '80s and early '90s, groups like Black Eyed Peas and the Fugees did not exist, and The Roots were just getting off the ground.
Arrested Development sent out demos, but were rejected by most record labels until Chrysalis signed the band to do one single. But signing a band not from a city known for hip-hop was, from a business standpoint, a bit of a gamble.
“When we started there was no one that had blown up from the South,” explains Thomas. “I'm not including Luke Skywalker and 2 Live Crew. Outside of them there was no Outkast, no Goodie Mob, no T.I., no Dirty South movement. We had a lot of things about us that made labels think, 'They're not from New York, they're not from L.A.. How are we going to make these guys do well?' It was a tough sell.”
That first single was going to be “Mr. Wendal”/“Natural” but the death of Thomas' grandmother inspired him to write a song about the last place he had seen her. He called it “Tennessee,” and it became the single and video that ended up launching the group's career and the release of its first album, 1993's 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In the Life Of..., a reference to the amount of time between the band's start and its signing to a label.
The album was a benchmark not just in hip-hop but in American popular music generally. Coming out in the wake of the alternative rock phenomenon of the early '90s, Arrested Development seemed to fit in with a broad, if not directly connected, movement when doing something extraordinary, even if you're from a place like Atlanta or Seattle, could be accepted and embraced. A.D. also helped to popularize hip-hop outside the usual circles precisely because its music had a crossover appeal in a way that perhaps the genre hadn't had before, compounding the injection of hip-hop into the realm of mainstream music.
“It was a weird dichotomy of us coming from such an organic place and now we're superstars and there was no machine that built us,” says Thomas. “A lot of boy bands and Milli Vanilli were constructed. And bands like A.D., Nirvana and Peal Jam weren't constructed so it was an interesting way to get famous. I think it took a toll on a lot of bands including us.”
That toll came, in part, with popular tastes becoming more conservative by the mid-'90s, and the subsequent dip in popularity of music that pushed beyond accepted edges. A.D.'s 1994 sophomore album Zingalamaduni sold far less despite having a few charting singles, and within two years the band split.
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In 2000 Thomas reconvened the group without some of his former collaborators, including Barnwell. However, A.D. hasn't exactly been playing large venues on its tours, curious for a group that enjoyed such wide popularity early in its career. What is noteworthy is that Arrested Development had a large following in Japan, even for its second record. Thomas, too, found a significant audience for his solo efforts.If you listened to Top 40 Radio in 1993 you would have heard Arrested Development regularly, but that rarely translated into massive ticket sales outside the context of a music festival like Lollapalooza. In that way A.D. has enjoyed the same kind of cachet as Sonic Youth for being important to the development of music as innovators. Perhaps it is that quality that will guarantee the band greater longevity and relevance long term.
Like many music veterans, Thomas has received offers to perform an album in its entirety, but he feels as though that sort of thing would only make sense if he'd already made his definitive mark and was in a place of life when celebrating a legacy is something to do for fun. But as a still-prolific songwriter, Thomas sees himself as an artist living very much in the current moment and not as someone that can rest on his laurels and perform some kind of nostalgia circuit.
“My spirit is the type that as long as I'm living I need to experience something new to some extent,” offers Thomas. “I don't need to discard anything. I've been married to my wife for 25 years. But I need to try new things or it gets boring. You hold on to stuff that's valuable or holds principles you adhere too. But musically I find things I want to explore. It's been a gift and curse to me personally because I find myself, most of the time, being five to ten years ahead of my fans. The material right now that I like the most isn't accepted by certain publicity people or they don't find it the strongest. But it's a little frustrating to me because I like to be in the now but I find myself performing stuff that I'm past now.”
Arrested Development will perform on Saturday, December 19, at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox with Digg Haze. Doors are at 8 p.m. with the show at 8:30 p.m.. Tickets range in price from $30-$150 based on seating packages, and it is 21+ event. For more information, please visit the Ophelia's website.