Headed back to town for an Arrested Development concert Wednesday night at House of Blues, I spoke with rapper Speech about the role of socially conscious music in divisive times, the need for structure in the wild west world of hip hop sampling and much more...
In 1992, Todd Thomas traveled to meet his brother in Tennessee to attend their grandmother's funeral. Shortly after returning from that trip, his brother passed away unexpectedly.
That story ultimately took the form of the song "Tennessee," from Arrested Development's first album 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... in 1992. It's a song which sees Thomas (as rapper Speech) attempt to process the grief of losing two close family members within the structure of a song centered around what turned out to be a life changing trip south.
Arrested Development's debut as an alternative hip hop group put them alongside acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul as an Afrocentric alternative to the gangsta rap that was beginning to dominate the charts as it crossed over to mainstream success in the early 90s.
In the rich tradition of sampling - an art form which re-imagines sounds from other songs in a new one - that long defined the evolution of hip hop, and marked some of the genre's finest recorded moments, "Tennessee" was based on a brief vocal sample from Prince's "Alphabet Street."
The group ultimately settled with Prince after failing to clear the "Alphabet Street" sample prior to the release of "Tennessee." And it reportedly cost them about $100,000. Today, Speech is an outspoken advocate for not just stricter sampling laws but sampling legislation period.
"I would like to see some type of literal structure to the sampling rules. There is none," said the rapper. "So, what ends up happening, and has happened, is they've killed hip hop. If you look at the present day, mainstream hip hop, most of the artists aren't using samples. The reason is because you never know how much you're going to get charged for it," Speech continued.
As he shines a light on the need for clarity in the ongoing music quandary that is sampling, Speech also continues to try and push music forward by helping artists self distribute their material. In 2016, Arrested Development released a pair of albums, one of which, Changing the Narrative, is available for free download as a mixtape at the group's website, a concerted effort to skirt the lack of sampling legislation by sampling without profiting directly off of it.
Changing the Narrative continues the group's long socially aware history of crafting music with a message. In divisive times where music no longer drives the culture, Speech hopes for better.
"I want to try and change that reality... I feel it's utterly important for music to drive the narrative of culture... I think we've got to get back to changing the narrative instead of just accepting the narrative that's already out there or exasperating it," Speech said. "That's one of the reasons we continue to do new music is to try and change the narrative."
Long outspoken about prison reform, Speech's most recent artistic venture is a documentary film, with an accompanying soundtrack, called 16 Bars which debuted earlier this month in California at the Doclands Film Festival. The film documents process as the rapper creates new music with inmates during a stay at a jail in Richmond, Virginia.
"I don't even remember the last time I rocked Chicago," said the Milwaukee native of Wednesday night's Arrested Development show at House of Blues. "I'm really looking forward to this show. It's a big deal."
I spoke with Speech about the music with a message that inspired him early on, the importance of music in the classroom on display at his Georgia music school The Victory Spot and whether or not music has the ability to effect change. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. Your music over the years has sort of played the role that I think folk music kind of did in the 60s in terms of being socially aware and delivering a message. Who were some of the first artists you were exposed to growing up who were socially conscious and using music as a vehicle for change? Who inspired you early on in that way?
Speech: Ironically, it took me a long time. I was exposed to a little bit of a message from people like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five with “The Message.” And “New York New York.” Or stuff like that.
Maybe Run-D.M.C. With “Hard Times” or “It's Like That.”
But really where it connected with me was Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush The Show album or the It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album.
Or like Jungle Brothers for instance.
And KRS-One's "You Must Learn" and "Stop the Violence.” All this type of stuff. [His] By All Means Necessary album [with Boogie Down Productions]. These type of records really started to play the biggest role for me.
Then, later, I would discover Bob Marley. Which is very ironic to fans of ours. Because they would think I've been on Bob Marley forever.
Same with Sly Stone. The first time I really got into Sly Stone was when I was sampling stuff for the “People Everyday” album. That was the first time I was really getting deep into Sly Stone.
Q. What's interesting about that is that whether it's the folk music of the 60s or the hip hop of the 80s that you mentioned, music really drove culture then. Today, I think culture is so divided that I think it's a lot harder for new music with a message to resonate. How do you try and deal with that reality as an artist writing new music?
Speech: I want to try and change that reality. So, for me, I feel it's utterly important for music to drive the narrative of culture.
I think artists in general – not just music but visual arts, television shows, so on and so forth – I think we've got to get back to changing the narrative instead of just accepting the narrative that's already out there or exasperating it. So I think that art is very important.
That's one of the reasons we continue to do new music is to try and change the narrative. In fact, we released an album called Changing the Narrative because of that fact.
Q. You grew up in the church. And there's little catchier musically than church hymns, choruses and refrains. How did those experiences impact you musically down the line?
Speech: Honestly, I used to dislike church as a kid. And I really thought church was powerless. And hypocritical. And then, as I got to be an adult, the messages of church – or really more so the messages of the bible itself – resonated with me.
From a musical standpoint, I think being from Milwaukee – so right near Chicago – but when I used to spend my summers in Tennessee, their church experiences were so much more vibrant than a lot of the stuff I experienced in Milwaukee. And because of that vibrant musical experience in the south, I think it had a lot to do with opening my mind up to how broad hip hop could become.
Our first single ["Tennessee"] did things that had never been done before in hip hop. First of all, rhyming with a melodic rock style had never been done throughout a whole song in a hip hop song to my knowledge. I've never heard it. Then, having - on a hip hop song with samples and scratching and hip hop music – having a sister do a solo, an entire singing solo, had never been done to my knowledge either in hip hop. Not just on the chorus but doing an entire solo and just really blowing and going all in.
So, I feel like we brought a lot of things to the table because of our exposure to the, southern especially, religious experience.
Q. You started releasing music independently and still do via Vagabond. And you were kind of ahead of the curve on that. I would imagine the most difficult hurdle there is distribution but even that's kind of become a more level playing field now with the internet. While I'm sure it's more challenging, what have the benefits of working independently for you, vs being beholden to a label, been?
Speech: The main benefit is just having control.
You have the opportunity to release stuff that you really feel passionate about. You don't have to wait. You don't have to wait for someone to get your vision. And you don't have to rely on the sometimes patsy promotional efforts that labels do on your music. Sometimes they hit it on the nail and other times – in fact, a lot of times – they miss the mark. So you're sort of stuck to their whims. We don't have to stick to those. We could do our best.
And how I look at our music now is, we release an album and it's like an essay or a term paper or something. We want it to last for years. We don't look at it like, “What's our numbers in the first month?” or something. We look at it like, “What's the impact this is gonna make for the next year or two?” with every song and album we release.
Q. You were forced to pay up when "Tennessee," hit - working out an agreement with Prince for the "Alphabet St." sample. And with recent rulings like the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye case, it still kind of feels like the wild west a bit with no real clear sampling path for artists to follow. You've been pretty involved in the tech end of moving music forward - helping artists self distribute and advocating for updated sampling laws. What are some specific changes to sampling law that you'd like to see?
Speech: Well, exactly what you said: I would like to see some type of literal structure to the sampling rules. There is none. So, what ends up happening, and has happened, is they've killed hip hop.
Hip hop doesn't use a lot of samples. If you look at the present day, mainstream hip hop, most of the artists aren't using samples. The reason is because you never know how much you're going to get charged for it. One sample could be from, I don't know, George Clinton, and the lawyers and publishing companies may charge you forty or fifty thousand dollars for that sample. And then you can get another sample from a jazz artist and it might be two hundred dollars. There's no structure. There's no format.
So, I wish that it was more like when people cover a song. When people cover a song, there's a very strict format to how that works and it doesn't fluctuate. Everyone is under the same playing rules.
And I think that would be beneficial to artists, by the way, who we tend to sample – they could start making more money. Because sampling used to be a very big discovery tool and financial tool for a lot of artists – unfortunately more so for the publishing companies because of the deals that artists have with the publishing companies.
But artists themselves can stand, and have stood, to make a lot of money, and even resurge their career, because of artists loving their music and sampling it.
Q. I think back to all of the stuff I discovered listening to Public Enemy or [the Beastie Boys album] Paul's Boutique that I might not have otherwise stumbled onto if it weren't for the samples on those albums. When you put an album like Changing the Narrative out now, and you put it out for free, the idea there is almost to skirt the lack of sampling laws entirely, right?
Speech: Yes. That's exactly why we do it.
Well, there's two reasons: we do it for free because we want to be as creative as we want to without thinking about all the samples. And then, at the same time, we know it's a gift to our fans.
So, there's two reasons we do it.
Q. So, when you do something like that, as an artist who does need to try and make some money somewhere, how do you use something like that to monetize in other ways, be it touring or merchandise, etc.?
Speech: For us, we just want to show people that we're still relevant and have something to say. And, to me, that's the benefit. It's almost just like a promotional ad as opposed to anything else.
We don't sell the record in any form or fashion. We don't sell our videos to those records or anything. So, at the end of the day, it is just letting people know that we're making music, that we're a band we want you to be aware of and when we come to town we want you to have fun. We're going to perform some of those songs too and we want you to have fun and be aware of what we're doing.
So, it's all of those things.
Q. You and your wife kind of overhauled the Vagabond production office, turning it into a school called The Victory Spot. Music and arts in the classroom are disappearing quickly in America. What are the benefits of music and arts in the classroom for kids?
Speech: Well, it's imperative. Arts really should be part of the whole and, yes, in some places is becoming part of the whole scene situation with the sciences and all of that. We've got to get arts back in the forefront of our whole school curriculum. It's what expands your mind. It's what helps people to express better in every other area of academics.
And so, with our school Victory Spot, we see it as a benefit in a few ways. One is, it helps to change the narrative of new artists that are coming out. We actually help to give them guidance. We help them to feel free to express themselves in more ways than just what they're hearing on the radio, which is great. We help to equip them to be excellent. Because we know that excellence is going to bypass somebody sort of doing something unique and eclectic. If they're excellent, people are still going to love it. They're going to accept it. So we want to teach excellence.
And so that's what we're doing. And it's really been a great, great way to empower this new generation with the arts.
Q. You were very much on the record there for a while as saying that rap and hip hop kind of started to lose their way as the music began to glorify some of the issues and behavior it was instrumental in shining a light upon initially. With a socially aware artist like Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer - the first non classical or jazz artist to do that - do you think we're turning a corner or is that strictly an anomaly?
Speech: I think it's an anomaly. We do need to turn the corner in that way.
Listen... to me, hip hop – well, music in general and entertainment in general – is literally black America's biggest export on the planet. In my opinion it is our most powerful and most influential resource.
And for quite a while, probably since the mid 90s, it has been hijacked by a corporate and correctional facility agenda that literally glorifies killing each other and gross materialism. And, of course, if gross materialism is promoted heavily, it creates the need for people to find ways to make money that are sometimes not legal – which then contributes to the whole pipeline of people going into prison for petty and for serious crimes.
It emphasizes drug use. It emphasizes the demeaning of our women. It's just really corrosive – culturally and spiritually and socially corrosive messages that are going out in large proportion. It's not very small. It's not underground stuff. It's not freedom of voice. In fact, I would say freedom of voice is being hampered. This is the primary message that is going out in our music right now and it's extremely dangerous.
And it's showing; in the amount of families that are being destroyed by drugs, imprisonment and violence. It's very much real and it's a very catastrophic reality for us right now.
Q. I think this is a simple question but I feel like we're seeing it less and less. Does music still have the power to change the world?
Speech: Music is the soundtrack for those that are going to change the world. So, yes. It gives the inspiration!
People will always have to change the world. It's up to us. Each individual has to get in the fight to help change the course of our reality. Music is supposed to be that vessel that inspires us and keeps us going.
And it used to be in past eras. And it needs to be again.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Wednesday's Arrested Development concert at House of Blues below)
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
House of Blues
Doors open at 6:30PM
Show starts at 8PM
17 and older
Click HERE to purchase tickets