Arrested Development

Speech, b. Todd Thomas, 25 October 1968, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; DJ Headliner, b. Timothy Barnwell, 26 July 1967, New Jersey; Montsho Eshe, b. Temelca Gaither, 23 December 1973, Georgia; Aerle Taree, b. Taree Jones, 10 January 1972, Milwaukee; Rasa Don, b. Donald Jones, 22 November 1968, New Jersey; Baba Oje, b. 15 May 1932, Mississippi; Nadriah, b. 1959

ONE OF THE MOST ORIGINAL of US rap and hip-hop groups, the Atlanta-based Arrested Development emphasized the African and rural Southern roots of their music. They have even called themselves ‘agrarian rappers’ as distinct from most rap performers and their urban concerns.

While studying at the Atlanta Art Institute, singer and rapper Todd Thomas and DJ Timothy Barnwell formed a gangsta rap group in 1987. They soon rejected the gangsta themes of violence and nihilism in favour of lyrics and a visual style highlighting African-American cultural heritage. Formerly known as DJ Peech, Thomas became known as Speech and he named the new band Arrested Development.

The group’s distinctive clothing of bib overalls and dashikis was devised by Speech’s cousin Aerle Taree, who also sang with the group. Other members included vocalist Nadriah, Rasa Don on drums and dancer Montsho Eshe. Baba Oje was listed as the band’s ‘spiritual advisor’.

Arrested Development’s approach to rap evolved over three years, a period recalled in the title of their first album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . (Chrysalis, 1993). The band’s first single, ‘Tennessee’, which included samples of country fiddle music and bieol song was a Top Ten hit in 1992. It confirmed just how big a step forward Arrested Development represented for rap. This was followed by ‘People Everyday’ (a funky rewrite of Sly Stone’s ‘Everyday People’) and an appearance on MTV Unplugged. In 1993 Arrested Development became the first rap group to issue an album of their Unplugged performance. During that year the group had a further hit single with ‘Mr Wendell’. They also took part in the Lollapalooza ’93 tour of North America and played concerts in Europe. Speech produced the début album of Milwaukee rap group Gumbo in 1994, the year the group released Zingalamundi, which like 3 Years put traditional rap concerns in a wider context, as on ‘That’s Mister Landlord’ in which African gods are evoked to chase away a demanding landlord. Similarly, in nearly all the songs speech is always on the verge of becoming singing and the hard urban rhythms slip towards a more relaxed, jazzier feel.

In 1996 Speech contributed to the tribute album Inner City Blues – The Music of Marvin Gaye and released his first solo album, Speech. In 1998, by which time most of the group members had embarked upon a variety of solo products, Chrysalis issued The Best of Arrested Development.

© Phil Hardy, Dave LaingThe Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music, 2001

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