ATL UNTRAPPED: Three Decades of Speech
The GRAMMY® award-winning frontman of Arrested Development is thriving as an elder statesmen of hip-hop; it’s not surprising that he still has a lot to say
Thirty years, 10 months, and two days after the release of Arrested Development’s timeless debut studio album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of…, Speech welcomes me into the Victory Spot. A January chill has a strong hold over the freshly opened studio, and although the space is warming up at an imperceptible pace, the 54-year-old hip-hop trailblazer has a warm and inviting aura that overpowers the cold in the air.
Our meeting occurs at a special moment in time. A month prior to our interview, Speech and Arrested Development celebrated the one-year anniversary of their latest body of work — the soulful and uplifting 17-track album, For the FKN Love. On the opposite end of their discography, their quadruple-platinum-certified debut is also set to celebrate its 31st anniversary March 24, 2023.
Caught in the middle of these two major achievements, Speech is in a position that few rappers have ever been in. For reference, the pioneering Atlanta rap duo OutKast is still a full year away from celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and even so, André 3000 and Big Boi haven’t been active as a duo since 2006’s Idelwild. When considering the history of hip-hop in Atlanta, Speech and Arrested Development are in a different realm altogether, alongside all-time non-local greats such as Too Short, Doug E. Fresh, Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Ultramagnetic MCs, among others. A living legend in every sense, Speech is in incredibly rare company, yet as we speak about 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of… and For the FKN Love, he, above all, appears humble and appreciative of all the support he has received over the last several decades.
For the FKN Love serves as Arrested Development’s fifteenth official full-length release, and according to Speech, it also represents the solidification of a new era for the world-renowned band.
“This album (is) a declaration for Arrested Development to reclaim to the public what we already knew — which is that we love hip-hop,” Speech explains. “We’ve been called alternative hip-hop. We’ve been called neo soul. We’ve been called soul. We’ve been called sort-of hip-hop. But we started off as a hip hop group. We have journeyed numerous places musically, similar to André 3000 on The Love Below album, but the basis of who we are is a hip-hop group. This album is saying, ‘This is for the effing love of that.’ We’re not doing it for the money. We lose money, most of the time, with records nowadays, so we record for the love.”
“We show that love to a lot of our peers in hip-hop,” Speech continues. “Monie Love is on this album. Masta Ace is on this album. Fatman Scoop. Big Daddy Kane, Bumpy Knuckles or Freddy Fox — there’s so many artists that love the craft. Dell-P, who’s a MC coming up out of Philly now. Twan Mac out of Milwaukee. The Sugar Hill Gang, which is the reason I fell in love with hip-hop. They’re all on this album. So I mean, For the FKN Love has been a very encouraging journey for for me, and I’m just very excited about where the career of Arrested Development is starting to go again.”
Despite the critical acclaim of For The FKN Love from hip-hop outlets and listeners’ warm reception to the record, Speech has still toyed with the idea of what a life post-music and post-Arrested Development would look like for him. That being said, the 30-year-deep rap veteran is not thinking about stepping away from the mic merely due to his age.
“I will say I’ve wanted to retire for probably two years,” Speech admits. “I want to be done with music, but I do it because I really need to still make money. That’s my number one reason I’m doing music right now. Reason number two is I’m still passionate about it, so I feel like I should be doing it. But I never had this idea that at age 50, I shouldn’t rap anymore. I never had that idea. I’ve always felt like rap music is just like and just as authentic or legitimate as any other genre, including classical for instance. There is no age limit on classical music, and any artist that is good at what they do, should be getting better with time as opposed to worse with time. And I feel like I’m in that boat.”
“Even artists like Drake, who had once said he’d be done by like 35 — I think he’s past that, and he’s now wanting to keep going,” Speech continues. “I think most artists in the 19 to 30 age range feel like there’s no way they be doing this 20 years from now, but when they start getting into those late 30s or 40, they realize, ‘Oh, maybe I will be.’ It makes total sense. Your skill level is getting better, and your fan base still exists. There’s people that grew up with Arrested Development — they’re not dead. They want to hear more stuff that resonates with their hip-hop sensibility, and thank God there’s young kids in the 18-19 age range who have what they have but are also starting to become curious. Like, ‘What is this? I never heard of any of this. I didn’t even know that the ‘90s existed!’ People who weren’t born in the’ 90s knew it existed historically, but they never were interested in anything of that time period. I see that at our shows. I’m seeing the young people coming up like ‘Man, y’all are dope! I never heard of you guys before.’ That’s encouraging to me as an older guy.”
Even with all the love and support that he has received from faithful Arrested Development fans and new generations of hip-hop lovers alike, it’s only natural for an artist as tenured as him to feel at least a little jaded, and thanks to the ever-evolving nature of hip-hop, he most certainly is. Throughout our conversation, he laughs off all of the changes in rap and the music industry altogether that make him tick and shudder, from the false impression of individuality in mainstream hip-hop to new artists deciding to take up the stage names of already established rappers. As a victim of the latter phenomenon, Speech tells me how he has had to handle two situations within the last few years in which rising rappers chose Speech as their rap name.
“I’m flabbergasted by it because anyone that knows the tradition of the culture of hip-hop knows that the worst thing you could do is to bite somebody,” Speech says. “To take somebody’s rhymes is one thing — that’s bad. Then to take somebody’s style is another thing — that’s bad too. But to take their whole name and persona was unheard of until recently. I’ve been in this industry now, known by people, for 30 years, and in all of my 30 years, it’s probably been in the last three years that I’ve had two artists now literally just call themselves Speech. And they’re in the rap world. I’m not talking about some folk singer somewhere in Ottawa, Canada. I’m talking about Black dudes rapping, calling themselves Speech. Like how in the hell do you do that?”
Naturally, our conversation yields plenty of laughs and head-shaking about younger artists and rap quasi-authorities like DJ Akademiks who either scoff at hip-hop history or ignore it altogether. Thus, when I ask him about this thoughts on the current state of hip-hop, I can’t help but smile when he replies, “That’s a complicated answer because hip-hop is complicated.”
Embracing his long-held roles of healer and teacher within the sphere of rap, Speech offers a historical and constructively critical perspective that only an artist in his position can give.
“I do feel like hip-hop has been hijacked primarily from doing what it was intentionally designed to do, which was to promote peace, unity, love and having fun, right?” Speech preaches. “This is what Afrika Bambaataa said hip-hop was for. It was always started by the poorest Blacks in America in the heart of the Bronx, which at that time was decimated and looked like a war zone. Gang members started hip-hop, and yet they said that instead of killing one another, they decided to battle one another — breakdancing, beatboxing, graffitiing, writing, rhyming, and DJ-ing. So that’s what the point of hip-hop was and is still to me.”
“It has become a hustle to make money,” Speech argues, “and that is what has been hijacked from hip-hop. There are still many groups and artists that are doing that on the underground, but 95% of mainstream of hip hop artists aren’t about that at all. That’s robbing hip-hop’s soul in a sense, so that’s what I feel about it. It’s complex though, because thank God that the over-saturation of violence, misogyny, consumerism, and you know, whatever, makes some fans yearn to hear an Arrested Development even more. I’m not saying it’s balanced, because it’s not, but it’s ironic and it’s interesting. It’s very nuanced, what’s going on in hip-hop.”
“So what I’m picking up from you,” I respond, attempting to synthesize Speech’s colorful and incredibly detailed response, “is they’re doing it for the hustle rather than for the fkn love.”
One of the most notable voices in hip-hop history listens and looks back at me intently, and he agrees with me while nodding his head. “Facts,” he replies. “Facts.” —CL—
Follow Speech and Arrested Development on Instagram at @speech and @arresteddevelopment, respectively, and stay tuned over the next several months for a new Arrested Development album titled Bullets in the Chamber, a compilation album of unreleased tracks titled On the Cutting Room Floor, an Arrested Development documentary, and Speech’s forthcoming Track Change podcast about making music with prison inmates.
From dope local showcases to critical early-career tours from promising rising acts, here are a handful of concerts that you should add to your calendar.
Yeat, Coca-Cola Roxy — The late and great Ol’ Dirty Bastard once informed a confused audience at the 1998 Grammy Awards that “Wu-Tang is for the children.” Although the Wu-Tang Clan was embraced by the youth of the 1990s, a new force has risen within rap decades later. So now, allow me to inform you — who I hope won’t be too confused — that Yeat is for the children. The sensational young rapper has been on the rise since 2021 with his breakout string of mixtapes, Alivë, 4L, and Up 2 Me. Now, fresh off the release of his third studio album AftërLyfe, Yeat is taking his youthful brand of rap on a headlining North American Tour. Tap in with rap’s latest obsession when he hits the Battery this month.
$69-$89+. 8:00 p.m. Coca-Cola Roxy. 800 Battery Ave SE #500, Atlanta, GA 30339. www.cocacolaroxy.com @cocacolaroxy
DavidTheTragic, Kapwanii, S.U.R.F., Lil Blue Room, Culture Lab — Last fall, CL highlighted prolific creative and entrepreneur Jacques “Big Joc” Traylor and his indie film Love Letters You’ll Never Read, but this month, it’s his work with Creatives After Dark (CAD) that’s grabbing everyone’s attention. On Thursday, March 17, CAD will welcome local hip-hop and R&B fanatics back to the Lil Blue Room, a carefully curated concert series featuring a varying assortment of incredible rising acts. For this latest installment, there will be performances from DavidTheTragic, Kapwanii, S.U.R.F., Elijah LeFlore, Steffany Moneque, Dashean Porter, Akai Marje, and RIPXL. If you’re interested in discovering your next favorite artist, grab your tickets from Eventbrite in advance because prices will go up to $20 at the door.
$15-$20. 9:00 p.m. Culture Lab, 101 Walker Street Atlanta, GA 30318. www.theculturelab.co @culturelabatl
DJ Magic, Heaven — You will be hard-pressed to come across someone who hasn’t loved — or at the least, appreciated — Renaissance. Without a doubt, Beyoncé’s lauded departure records has gotten plenty of bodies moving since its release last summer, and now the only question that remains for fans is whether they will shell out the cash to attend her forthcoming Renaissance World Tour. If you’ve got enough bills to even think about signing up for the added financial stress of securing Beyoncé tickets, don’t worry. The Masquerade has the perfect show for you — RENAISSANCE \ RENAIDDANCE. And on the off chance that you have already gotten your hands on some Bey tickets, congratulations for starters, and also, you’re more than welcome to pull up to the DJ Magic’s epic celebration of Beyoncé, Renaissance, old school disco, and techno, too. Come with good energy and be prepared to move your body.
$18. 9:00 p.m. Heaven at The Masquerade, Kenny’s Alley at Underground Atlanta. Parking & Entrance at 75 MLK Jr Drive SW, Atlanta, 30303. Uber/LYFT Drop Off: 92 Pryor Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30303. 404-577-8178. masqueradeatlanta.com
Raury, Smith’s Olde Bar — Months after its inception in January, Raury’s weekly jam session at Smith’s Olde Bar is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Regardless of whether you’re an instrumentalist, singer, rapper, or just a fan of great live music, pull up to SOB on a Tuesday for a four-hour block of immaculate vibes.
Free. 7:00 p.m. Smith’s Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30324. www.sobatl.com @smithsoldebar
Young Mono, OG Mijo & BOREGARD., Smith’s Olde Bar — Before March comes to a close, Young Mono, OG Mijo, and BOREGARD. will take over Smith’s Olde Bar for a must-attend local showcase. From OG Mijo’s recent album No Service In The Mountains to BOREGARD.’s prolific stream of EPs throughout 2022, there’s a lot of impressive music amongst the three acts; attendees will definitely be in for a treat. Ticket prices jump on the day of show, so make sure you secure your tickets as soon as possible
$10-$15. 7:00 p.m. Smith’s Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30324. www.sobatl.com @smithsoldebar
Aáyanna: “Kill For Me” — In movies, tv shows, songs, and beyond, countless lovers have asked one another, “Would you die for me?” It’s a romantic cliché that some would argue isn’t even a worthwhile signifier of true love, especially when countered with the question of “Would you live for me?” However, Aáyanna isn’t interested in either of those questions. On her latest single — which serves as her third in three months, following 2022’s “Risky” and January’s “Can You Take It” — she questions the lengths her partner would go to in order to protect her. Laced with an infectiously glitchy beat, “Kill For Me” is fun sub-two-minute earworm and a sign that Aáyanna is continuing in the right direction.
Single. Avant Garden. Available on all platforms. @aayanna
Bear1boss: BLOW UP! — Similar to some of the most eclectic figures that Atlanta’s hip-hop scene has ever witnessed, Bear1boss is a bonafide character. A walking green-haired embodiment of unconventionality, the rising artist is a diamond in the rough with a knack for skating over hyperactive production, rattling off joyously bizarre lyrics, and releasing a steady stream of music. In fact, only three months have passed since his understatedly impressive Integrity mixtape, and he’s already gearing up to drop another album. Bear’s latest release is titled BLOW UP, and the energized seven-track project is just as captivating and absurd as its fiery cover art.
Album. Popstar FM. On all platforms. @bear1boss
Bktherula: LVL5 P1 — Since breaking out of Atlanta with her viral Love Santana single “Tweakin’ Together” in 2020, Bktherula has been on an experimental sonic pilgrimage that’s not for the faint of heart. The Warner Records signee has never been an artist who’s afraid of pushing the limits of rhythm and meter, and as a result, the albums that she has released over the last few years — including 2020’s Nirvana to 2021’s LOVE BLACK — have likely either immediately pulled listeners in or alienated them completely. Despite her major label deal, Bktherula still carries the energy of an unbridled underground act, and on her latest project, titled LVL5 P1, she offers a more elevated and refined take on her sound while retaining the magic that’ll undoubtedly blow listener’s minds.
Album. Warner Records. Available on all platforms @bktherula
Cousin: “Friends” — Singer-songwriter extraordinaire Rob Milton may have just officially relocated to Los Angeles, but with everything that he has accomplished here, he’ll always have Atlanta’s love and support. His most recent single, titled “Friends,” is the byproduct of Cousin, the three-part R&B and soul outfit consisting of Rob, Kreion, and Dana Johnson. Cousin’s latest offering arrived on Valentine’s Day, but staunch R&B fans will immediately recognize the track as an alternative take on Monica and Ty Dolla $ign’s popular 2022 duet of the same name. The members of cousin actually served as co-writers for Monica’s Billboard-charting single, and although they have not yet garnered the star power of Atlanta’s R&B queen, their newly revealed version is arguably just as good. Listen to “Friends” and then get familiar with all things Cousin- and Rob Milton-related.
Single. Self-Released. Available on all platforms. @urfavecuz
Kapwani: “lit freestyle” — Kapwani (pronounced kapani, with a silent w) is back with “lit freestyle,” her first single of the year and her first release since the arrival of her album last August. Despite its title, it’s actually a smooth, soulful, and understatedly groovy effort from the rising singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, Kapwani’s new track is criminally brief, so if you’re feeling it, make sure you check out her 2022 album NAKÚPENDA as well.
Single. Kapwani/Double Nothing. Available on all platforms. @kapwanii
Raury: “Wax” — Since the Indigo Child and All We Need days, Raury has long been a multifaceted artist who’s just as likely to knock out a 16 as he is to pull out his guitar and sing a sweet melody. After releasing two singles over the last couple of months, Raury is back with “Wax,” and in sharp contrast to “Fire & Desire” and “Down,” his latest release brings bars back to the forefront. Over a pulsing instrumental that’s co-produced by Raury and MrDJ, the Strawberry Moon artist delivers tight rhymes in a way that feels reminiscent of Kanye West’s infamous “Lift Yourself” verse. However, rather than disjointedly rattling off gibberish, Raury flows with a fluidity so relaxing and soothing that his lyrics just start to blend together.
Single. The Woods. Available on all platforms. @raury
S.U.R.F.: “Shrooms” — S.U.R.F. has kept things pretty low-key since being crowned our inaugural Untrapper of the Year at the top of 2023, but he recently returned with a SoundCloud exclusive single right in time for Valentine’s Day. While the new track is far from a romantic ballad from the rising artist, it is loaded with passion — albeit a scornful one — directed at a past lover. “Shrooms” is brief and emotional, yet surprisingly cogent considering that it opens up with S.U.R.F.’s admission that he “feels faded off these shrooms.” Stream it for the feels.
Single. Self-Released. Available exclusively on SoundCloud. @oksurf
The Letter M: “Fell Down” — Without a doubt, The Letter M has one of Atlanta’s most anticipated singles locked and loaded in the chamber, but rather than releasing that gem — which appears to be a Ben Reilly collaboration over some incredible Honorable C-Note production — he has opted to drop another single in its stead. The dotmáestro- and Coop The Truth-produced track tackles themes of resilience and consistency, and with a short runtime of roughly two-and-a-half-minutes, “Fell Down” can provide a quick dose of motivation for listeners who may be feeling down on their luck. It’s also worth noting that in the description of the song’s official music video, M left the following message: “new chapter.. pray y’all love it more than I do..” If “Fell Down” is the official start of The Letter M’s new chapter, then we’re all in for a treat.
Single. Concrete Rose. Available on all platforms. @iamtheletterm