This week in 1993, Arrested Development's "Mr. Wendal," an ode to a homeless man, occupied a top 10 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. One in a string of hits from the band's debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of ..., the song established the group as a mouthpiece for social issues and made rapper Todd "Speech" Thomas a key player in Atlanta's burgeoning hip hop music scene.
Now a handful albums, a couple of Grammy awards and two decades later, Speech is pondering it all over a cup of hot tea outside Octane Coffee in the ATL's trendy Westside district. He's peddling a new project -- an arts and networking ministry called Mixtape Mixer (Speech became a Christian in 1996, we'll get to that in a minute) -- but we're mainly here to talk about 20 years of music.
Arrested Development sold four million copies of its debut album; played for Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton; faltered commercially; disbanded; reunited; had its band name swiped by a TV sitcom; toured relentlessly, and accepted the new world order where everything happens digitally (for perspective, the aforementioned "Mr. Wendal" video has nearly two million YouTube views). In spite of a roller coaster career with its share of industry snubs and a revolving door of band members, Arrested Development's sound has never lost its mojo. Even those earliest grooves and poetry -- the band's own brand of beatnik black consciousness -- still feel fresh.
"It's true. 'Tennessee' doesn't sound like a '90s track," Speech says of AD's first single. "I never wanted to do that 'Wild Thing' like Ton-Loc and just have a hit. I wanted the music to hold up really well, and it has."
Speech reckons the combination of tough questions, positive spin, and simple beats have kept AD palatable to the mainstream and relevant to fans over the years. Although songs such as "People Everyday" (which borrowed the pleasant, hummable chorus from Sly Stone's "Everyday People" and fused it with sharp commentary about the ways a "brotha" should act) might be too thoughtful to pierce the pop charts in 2013, AD is still making its opinions about race known in smart refrains such as "Soul Sister," from its 2012 album, Standing at the Crossroads.
"That song definitely reveals some of the love that I have for black women and the anger I feel toward their degradation, even by black men," Speech says. "And my anger about how some of the principles that were laid down during slavery still hold true this day."
He started as a self-proclaimed "angry young black man" in Milwaukee who found a kindred spirit in collaborator DJ Headliner (with whom he founded AD while in college in Atlanta), but Speech says his conversion to Christianity in 1996 softened his outlook.
"I had to really leave the whole black consciousness scene alone for a minute and just understand who Jesus was," he says. "That was great for me, because it helped me understand the world in a whole different way."
His newfound faith ("never blind," he assures) also informed his group and solo work -- adding a patina of optimism to already upbeat lyrics. The 2006 AD album Since the Last Time explores spirituality, faith and family, and Speech has been very outspoken about fighting to keep his marriage (to Yolanda Thomas) strong.
Right now, Arrested Development is working on a new recording, and Speech is holding court two Thursday nights a month at a Buckhead lounge, where he brings together young professionals for a little networking mixed with turntables and Bible verses. As for churning out beats and rhymes with AD's current and former members, Speech says he'll keep on keeping on, even if topping the charts is no longer a primary motivator.
"Every year I decide I don't want to do this. I want to retire, plant gardens, go hiking with my wife and kids. But then something happens and I get re-energized and I do what I think I'm meant to do, which is to do music and to write. That's my duty. Whether it finds an audience in this generation, or whether I become like one of those painters and when I die, maybe someone says, 'That was brilliant,' I don't know. My job is to just do the art."