It’s quite fitting that hip-hop group Arrested Development will be one of the headlining acts at this year’s African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, happening this weekend in downtown Raleigh. After all, this Atlanta-based, alternative hip-hop collective rose to fame and notoriety in the early ’90s for their funky, socially conscious music and bohemian, Afro-centric attitude – two things the festival has been spotlighting for going on six years now.
If some of you reading this are surprised that the group is still out there kicking it, this isn’t new for the band itself. According to Milwaukee-born frontman Todd “Speech” Thomas, the group is often greeted by fans asking, “Hey, where y’all been?”
“Yeah, that happens all the time, especially in the States,” says Thomas, 46, on the phone from his Atlanta home base. “I understand why that is. I mean, we obviously haven’t had new songs out on the radio in America for quite a while, and there’s a reason for that. I mean, we have been making new music, and it’s really compelling and great music. We’re excited, and the crowds love it. But the truth is that the radio stations have sort of been bought up by all these major corporations to where, really, there’s only about two or three companies that own most of the radio stations throughout the United States, and it’s the same difference with the television and (music) video stations. So, I mean, it’s very tough to sort of crack through that wall of what they’re willing to play.”
A lot has happened since the group’s early ’90s heyday, when their 1992 debut album, “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…,” won critical acclaim and two Grammys (including Best New Artist). Their 1994 follow-up, “Zingalamaduni,” met with dismal record sales, and the group disbanded two years later. Thomas went on to a solo career, releasing several albums he says did very well in Japan. “Japan, for some reason, just was attracted to what I was doing,” he says.
It was dancing member Montsho Eshe who set the wheels in motion for the band’s eventual reunion in 2000 (albeit without such members as founding DJ Headliner and vocalist Dionne Farris, who had that ’90s hit “I Know”).
“She was really wanting the band back together, and I agreed with her,” Thomas remembers. “Like, she was hearing a lot of talk from fans just saying we really missed what you guys offer and we really feel like the issues that you guys address have, to some extent or another, become even more prevalent now, and there needs to be a group like you guys that address issues in life or talk about more than just women and clubs and buying the new chain or whatever.”
As they continued to record music and perform live, they also found themselves going to court when a little sitcom called “Arrested Development” began airing on Fox in 2003. “We went into a court battle initially with (executive producer) Ron Howard and with Fox when that show first came, because our name was trademarked early on,” says Thomas, who notes the case was settled out of court. “So, we knew who owned the rights to that name in the entertainment realm. So, it was just a gross sort of disrespect of what we had already established when they came out with that show without talking to us.”
After everything they’ve been through, Arrested Development still gets love whenever they perform, even in faraway places like Singapore, where they recently did a tour.
“Honestly, it’s been amazing,” says Thomas. “Like, the response we get in general, not just outside of the country but even here in the country, has been the same. It’s just been a deep gratification for the group and what we represent and how long we’ve been doing this. It’s just a real appreciation for our music and who we are. So, it’s been a lot of love.”
What: African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County, with Arrested Development
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: City Plaza, 400 Fayetteville St., Raleigh
Info: 919-833-0140 or aacfestival.org