THE PROPS: wooden trunks and barrels. Suspiciously trim sacks marked “Beans”, “Wheat”, “Coffee”. An olde-style Western Pacific railway board and a steamboat placard. A clothesline hung with homely garments. Down-home, knotted-pine Technics decks are, presumably, a little hard to come by. Still, the point’s been made — we’re waiting on the world’s first rural rap band. Folk-hop, if you will. A novelty, an oddity, unknown to all but a few cognoscenti and anyone who happened to catch tonight’s Top Of The Pops.
Back to the land, to nature, to one’s roots, to Africa: “We do celebrations of life, death and the struggles of our ancestors.” Plus weddings? Parties? Bar Mitzvahs? Nope, Arrested Development are engaged in a Theatre of Afrocentrism. The suppressed histories uncovered therein may be as dubious and mythic as the histories that smothered them, but they are, at least, the Afrocentrists’ own myths. Before anybody dismisses AD’s stance as half-baked hippyshit, they should understand its grounding. At worst, this is fully-baked hippyshit, not some rag-bag of ideas ripped off piecemeal from other cultures by clueless, condescending airheads. AD’s philosophy has structure and coherence. And it’s bloody ludicrous, but no more so than any of the drivel it aims to displace. You want rap with its head in the stratosphere and its feet in reality? Go see Hiphoprisy. Do yourself a favour. Arrested Development are headed into the mystic. With a map.
They don’t take the stage so much as turn up, in ones and twos, dancing, singing, chatting, miming, decked out in bright, baggy African togs, more like a clutch of street entertainers than a rap posse. They draw their gangling, gleeful funk from The Family Stone — ‘People Everyday’ is an acknowledgement and an update, sketching in the details onto Sly’s goodtime idealism. A curious task for a band on a quest for the simple, the elemental. Earth and water and wind feature heavily — ‘It’s Raining Revolution’, gorgeous and utterly pretentious, finds the stagefront crowd reaching ecstatically skyward and the balcony crew cackling like hyaenas. ‘Tennessee’ blooms with genuine resonance, a flavour of the American South untainted by the hands of Colonel Sanders. The homespun philosophy of ‘Give A Man A Fish’, and the beautiful yearning of ‘Natural’, are as convincing as you allow them to be. You can fight it, but it’s way more pleasurable to succumb. It’s too late in the millennium for authenticity, too far gone for simplicity, so let’s argue that suspension of disbelief is at the core of good theatre. Brecht would disagree, but Brecht can f*** right off. He’s long dead, and this is my 600 words.
I don’t want to suggest that Arrested Development are naive, or overly solemn. Try keeping a straight face through Rasa Don’s brief, hilarious parody of a bequiffed soul shrieker, prior to her symbolic de-wigging. Leader Speech, named perhaps for his own articulacy, perhaps for the notion of claiming a voice and a language, has the air of a good-humoured miniature spaniel; quite literally, he speaks for the little guy: “Seeing now I’m a bit shorter than the average man, I patiently wait for someone I can reach.”
AD provoke scepticism, true. Their eyes are just that tiny bit too bright, their tails a mite too bushy, their lyrics a shade too disingenuously wholesome, the eager beavers. All the same, it’s well-nigh impossible to resist their loose-limbed abandon, or the obvious pleasure they take in performing their glorious, melody-borne hip hop. For all their contradictions, Arrested Development are an affirmative, stereotype-busting experience, refreshing as a rainstorm in high summer. A sweet delight.
© David Bennun, Melody Maker, 11 July 1992