Atlanta City Series

Arrested Development Takes on Ferguson, Clinton, and Hip-Hop

The “Tennessee” front man says the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who listened to early gangster rap.

Speech of Arrested Development performs on stage at KOKO on Feb. 22 in London.  
C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 19, 2015, 4:11 a.m.

AT­LANTA — Be­fore Lu­dac­ris and Jer­maine Dupri wel­comed you to At­lanta and Ig­gy Aza­lea be­came T.I.’s protégé, at the top of At­lanta’s hip-hop scene was a group Rolling Stone named band of the year in 1993. Now bur­ied in Google searches by the hit tele­vi­sion show, the mem­bers of Ar­res­ted De­vel­op­ment were hip-hop stars be­fore their city was a lead­er in the game.

More than 20 years later, At­lanta is the cap­it­al of trap and the home of artists like Out­Kast, Killer Mike, and 2 Chainz. The city is also go­ing through rap­id urb­an de­vel­op­ment that threatens to push out poorer res­id­ents and gentri­fy what has been proudly known as “Black Mecca.” I caught up with Speech, Ar­res­ted De­vel­op­ment’s front man, to talk about how At­lanta has changed since hits “Ten­ness­ee” and “Mr. Wend­al” were ra­dio main­stays in the early 1990s (the group is re­leas­ing a free al­bum in Septem­ber) and what he thinks of the hip-hop in­dustry today. The in­ter­view has been ed­ited for length.

If you were a young, black artist look­ing to break out today, is At­lanta still that city?

It de­pends what type of mu­sic you’re do­ing. If you’re do­ing trap mu­sic [a form of hip-hop defined by its grim, ag­gress­ive style], then yes. This is still a very big city for trap mu­sic and the prom­in­ent style of hip-hop that’s out now. It’s still re­leas­ing some of the biggest hits in the na­tion. There’s not a huge band scene here, though.

(RE­LATED: At­lanta’s Hous­ing Re­cov­ery Is a Tale of Two Cit­ies)

You have talked in the past about qualms you had with the kind of gang­ster rap that be­came big when Ar­res­ted De­vel­op­ment was break­ing out. Do you still have some is­sues with what’s go­ing on in the in­dustry?

I think the fun­da­ment­al prob­lem is pretty much the same. Gang­ster hip-hop served a pur­pose at the very be­gin­ning. Songs like ‘F—- the Po­lice’ by NWA or ‘6 ‘N The Morn­in’ by Ice-T helped to shed light on a prob­lem that is still fa­cing us today. Take Fer­guson and New York, where people are be­ing bru­tal­ized by the po­lice and killed by the po­lice. You see songs like these and you ap­plaud the fact that they talked about it years ago.

But then, after a while, un­for­tu­nately the mu­sic star­ted to morph in­to glor­i­fy­ing that very same vi­ol­ence. Once, they were speak­ing out to say, ‘Hey, take a look over here. We need help over here.’ Then it began to be, ‘Hey, I’m cred­ible be­cause I kill people. I’m cred­ible be­cause I got a big­ger Glock than you.’ Life star­ted be­ing cheapened, not only by the sys­tem, but by the very people who were op­pressed. That’s when it be­came a prob­lem for me, and gang­ster hip-hop be­came a ca­ri­ca­ture of it­self. Our mu­sic was a jux­ta­pos­i­tion to that. It was life mu­sic. And we pur­pose­fully called it ‘life mu­sic’ for that reas­on.

Who today has that mes­sage that you guys had, someone you ad­mire in the in­dustry?

Some of the people I think are clev­er with how they speak their lyr­ics in today’s hip-hop game are J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar. A little bit older are people like Talib Kweli, Com­mon, the Roots, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu. They said some things and they brought some things to the mu­sic in­dustry that’s been very clev­er.

(RE­LATED: Po­lice Chief on Fer­guson Shoot­ing: “We Could Have Bur­ied Two Po­lice Of­ficers” Over This)

How has At­lanta changed in the last 20 years? There’s still a really strong black com­munity, but a lot of his­tor­ic­ally black neigh­bor­hoods seem to be gentri­fy­ing a lot.

Ex­actly what you just de­scribed. I see a great side to it — there are a lot more lofts and in­de­pend­ently owned stores and a lot more vil­lages pop­ping up in dif­fer­ent sec­tions of At­lanta. That’s ex­cit­ing from a con­sumer stand­point and just from an aes­thet­ic stand­point. The sad part about it is the gentri­fic­a­tion and the fact that a lot of the poor fam­il­ies are be­ing moved out to areas where it’s hard for them to even get to work be­cause the bus sys­tem does not reach them. It makes it very tough to find work, very tough for people to rise and get to an­oth­er level in their lives.

Do you think the his­tory of race lingers in the city?

Without a doubt — but not only in the city of At­lanta. I’m a spir­itu­al guy, so I look at things from a spir­itu­al stand­point. Sins don’t go away. They are phys­ic­al. They are real. You can put them un­der the rug, you can do vari­ous things with them, but they are still there, and they have to be le­git­im­ately re­deemed and healed.

It takes time. There was a race ri­ot here in 1906. You think about it and it was years ago. But at the same time, this city, those pains, and that blood still cries out in the real­ity of this coun­try and how it was built, on the backs of who it was built upon. It’s ex­pec­ted when the pain of ra­cism rears its ugly head over and over again. Un­til we start to deal with it whole­heartedly and find true re­demp­tion, that’s the only time you can heal.

You were with Hil­lary Clin­ton on the trail in 1996. What are your thoughts on her right now?

You know, I like Hil­lary. I got to meet her per­son­ally, and she was ex­tremely nice. She was not only nice, she seemed real to me. Now, wheth­er that relates to her polit­ics, I have no clue. If she runs for pres­id­ent, I would likely vote for her. It would ex­cite me to see a wo­man pres­id­ent in gen­er­al. But, yeah, be­cause I’ve had that per­son­al re­la­tion­ship with her for a little while in ‘96, I feel some type of af­fin­ity to­ward her.

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