“Lyrics are sort of my niche. That’s what I do,” says Speech, the founder, producer and lead singer of Atlanta’s hip-hop group,  Arrested Development. The group headlines the 10th annual Alzheimer’s Music Fest on Saturday, Feb. 4, at Buckhead Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Hise)

Atlanta hip-hop group Arrested Development burst onto the scene in 1992 with its debut album “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… ” The album’s songs with socially conscious rap lyrics about spirituality and love coupled with an Afrocentric sound soared to the top of the charts and earned the band two Grammy Awards. The new group’s lyrics of hope were a sharp contrast to the violence depicted in gangsta rap.

Over the past three decades, Arrested Development shuffled through numerous lineups and labels and released more than a dozen albums, none as successful as the first. But the group’s message of hope continues today through the words, voice and hard work of its co-founder, Todd Thomas — or better known as Speech.

Speech is the frontman of Arrested Development, the groundbreaking Southern hip hop group credited with influencing some of Atlanta’s biggest hip-hop names including OutKast and Goodie Mob. The band’s slot in music history goes back 30 years, but Speech believes in the present and future of Arrested Development.

“I’m just writing new music,” Speech said in a recent interview at the Victory Spot, an arts school in Fayetteville he and his wife opened in 2016. The school closed recently due to the Covid pandemic.

“I’m thinking about new songs. I’m thinking about the new, more recent stuff we’re doing. That’s where my mindset is. That’s where I get my jollies,” he said.

Speech started Vagabond Productions and built a studio at his Fayetteville, Ga., home where Arrested Development now rehearses and records, including its latest album “For the Fkn Love.” When not fronting Arrested Development, Speech records his own music.

On Saturday, Feb. 4, Arrested Development headlines the 10th annual Alzheimer’s Music Festival presented by Friends of Disabled Adults and Children at the Buckhead Theatre.

The Buckhead concert is personal for Speech. His father, 87, and stepfather, 89, both are struggling with early signs of dementia. Black people, especially the elderly, are twice as likely to struggle with signs of Alzheimer’s than other populations, he said.

Alzheimer’s disease is one of those “silent issues” that doesn’t get enough discussion in the Black community, Speech said.

“We talk about diabetes. We talk about high blood pressure. We talk about changing our diets,” he said. “But we’re not talking about this issue as much but yet, it’s affecting a great deal of our population.”

During the interview, Speech talked about Atlanta’s rap scene; being an activist with his words; reaching younger and wider audiences; and the pressure and pride in writing “Revolution,” for Spike Lee’s 1992 movie, “Malcolm X.”

On the decision that Arrested Development would be a socially conscious hip hop band:
I was born in Milwaukee and my mom and dad are both activists. My mother owns the largest Black newspaper in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Community Journal. So all or most of my life I’ve been around this atmosphere of trying to find solutions for the problems that plague the Black community. I saw this in the publishing of ideas and concepts and stories. The whole publishing thing is something that I grew up believing. I believe in this idea of publishing truth, what I consider truth, what we consider truth, and putting it out there and making sure that people see other sides of things. I believe in doing this so people are able to critically think about the things that they’re doing and the things that the world is telling us. I saw the extreme disparity between how Blacks and whites lived in Milwaukee. So when I started loving hip hop, I wanted to have that energy with what I did. Growing up I saw there was a desperate need for media that addresses different subject matters instead of exasperating some of the same issues, which I think a lot of the music can do in hip hop, unfortunately. Lyrics are sort of my niche. That’s what I do.

On his views of Atlanta’s current hip hop scene:
I think that the scene has a very narrow focus. We have the trap music movement that has taken over not only Atlanta, but really the worldwide rap scene. Rap music is pretty much synonymous with trap music nowadays. I’m specifically talking about mainstream hip hop, not underground hip hop. So the Atlanta music scene is really the king of hip hop. It is thoroughly different than our era. I call our era the golden era, and I’m not alone. Most people call the late ’80s to the early ’90s the golden era of hip hop. I think the reason is because it was so much more diverse, so much more subject matter being spoken about, so much more colors and textures coming from different coasts of the United States. Arrested Development was one of the first to really bring in popular music from the hip hop music from Atlanta. I think, from a musicality standpoint, [trap music] taps into a very tribal, base instinct for human beings. I think that’s attractive. At the same time, lyrically, I think that it is dangerously simplistic and lacking imagination and the freedom to go as far as possible. There are some artists that I think to an excellent job, but most of them I think, lack originality and lack innovation. What I mean by that is generally [rappers] are talking about drugs, materialism, misogyny, violence. Then that becomes more than a message or entertainment; that becomes propaganda, that becomes a worldview that becomes what a whole generation of people are primarily listening to and digesting. That’s dangerous because it’s disruptive. We know that not just by theory, but artists are dying to be shot murdered in the streets. That’s a very real consequence of the lifestyles that they’re magnifying and glorifying to some extent. As a Black population, we’re about so many other things. [The current scene is] very dangerous from the perception of our own self perception, by people to ourselves, and then the perception of us to everywhere else in the world, not just to the United States, not just to white people, but everybody who listens.

On getting a call from Spike Lee to write a song for his 1992 film “Malcolm X:”
When he called me for this particular project, I just thought it was a match made in heaven because Malcolm X is one of my biggest heroes, a man that I deeply respected because of his level of character and dignity. It was directed by my favorite director, Spike Lee, and Malcolm X was played by Denzel Washington, a gifted actor. This was at a time when we were still very much rising. The last Spike Lee film that really captivated the world was “Do the Right Thing” and the soundtrack had Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which was literally one of the most pivotal hip hop records ever. So Arrested Development was next. For me as a producer plus as a writer, you know, it’s a heavy, heavy load to carry when you got Public Enemy right before you. We were very busy at the time. We were touring. We were going from award show to award show, on a very tight schedule. We recorded it in the studio in New York and Spike Lee came down and he was on the chorus screaming, “Revolution!”

And it was very just beautiful, memorable. To me, what I felt Malcolm X was about at the end of the day was fundamental change, and that is the definition of revolution. I wanted to show not only the militant side of Malcolm X, because he was that he was as militant as anyone. But he was also a family man and he was a father. And he was a transformed man. He wasn’t in it for military power or anything like this. He was a transformed man that wanted to see other people in the collective of people transform. So he was a humble man who submitted to the Nation of Islam … so he was he was very complex. He was a faithful man to his wife and to his family. I wanted to write lyrics that had a militancy but also a deeper humanity. Speech then quotes these lyric from Revolution: As I look out my window/ I see the little ones / Playing amongst each other / With their waterguns / In pure poverty / Generations of good people / In cycles of poverty / It bothers me, so I ask myself / I say, “Are you doing as much as you can for the struggle?” To me, that was Malcolm X’s spirit. He saw where the people were and he wanted to lift people up by educating, by informing and motivating. I wanted that song to be all those things.

On reaching young people through music and where he finds beauty:

If I could be ever so blessed to reach a younger audience again, I want to be a wisdom elder. I want to teach wisdom. Lyrics are sort of my nice. That’s what I do. To me, the world is genuine. Absolutely. Things are absolutely incredible. Nature itself, meaning the fact that we get to see the sunrise, sunset and moonlight, the breeze of the wind and the birds. The surroundings we have and this amazing opportunity to just exist with it is to me startling and powerful. That’s why I care so much about the things that are ‘bad’ because I know that during the short amount of time we have to live, there’s so much opportunity for great to happen. The things that are bad in life don’t have to be that way. So whether it’s racism, for instance, which steals people’s humanity, steals people’s complexity and steals people’s ability to thrive as much as they possibly could. The truth is, the beauty of it is they can thrive. The sad part is that something is thwarting this possibility, gotten in the of that. The world is amazing. The world is not against us. That’s what I feel. Activism, helping people see the difference, gets me through these [obstacles]. To me, activism is a bunch of little things that collectively make a big difference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.