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Twenty-five years in the life of Arrested Development

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Few bands have had a better start than Arrested Development did in 1992, when its debut album, "3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of...," sold four million copies and earned the group two Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone named Arrested Development its band of the year, and film director Spike Lee asked the Atlanta-based hip-hop ensemble to write the theme song ("Revolution") for his Malcolm X biopic.

While the music itself was satisfying, and Arrested Development was atypical in its lineup (the group included a spiritual advisor, Baba Oje), "3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of..." was idealistic and well-intentioned — the star was the band's message. Arrested Development glorified mothers ("Mama's Always on Stage") and the Earth ("Children Play with Dirt"), and lent dignity to the homeless ("Mr. Wendal"). It caught its audience with honey compared to the vinegar of its gangsta rap contemporaries.

The band's next studio release, "Zingalamaduni" (1994), was less successful — partially because its debut album got played into the ground — and Arrested Development split in 1996 after eight years. Front man Speech embarked on a solo career.

Arrested Development reunited in 2000, and the act still tours all over the world. It has recently produced two new albums: "This Was Never Home" and "Changing the Narrative," which is available as a free download on the band's website.

Arrested Development will perform on Saturday, July 15, as part of the Rochester MusicFest at Blue Cross Arena (100 Exchange Boulevard). The festival takes place Friday, July 14, (gates open at 4 p.m.; Friday tickets are $28-$45), and Saturday, July 15, (gates open at noon; Saturday tickets are $40-$70). Advance two-day tickets are $50. For more information, check out rochestermusicfest.com.

CITY spoke with Arrested Development's leader Speech at his home in Fayetteville, Georgia, during a tour break. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

CITY: What is the core of Arrested Development?

Speech: Honestly, we're a group that loves music. We would do all of this stuff for free, that's how much we love it. At the same time, we feel this desperate need to bring some purpose to what we do. So there are messages of hope, upliftment, and solutions, hopefully, in the overall theme of what we do, as well.

Arrested Development was probably the first band to have an elder in a group. What was the idea behind that?

I went to Jamaica for a party when I was 18 years old. There were all these young people, hot women, and yet there were all these elders there. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen that, because usually in America, the elders did their thing and there was a generation gap, and the youth, we did our thing. It wasn't like that in Jamaica, and I really loved it; I loved being around the entire community. When I got back to America, I just stored in my heart that one day I would love to have somebody older in a hip-hop group.

So I asked a guy that I knew from college to be in the group. At first he said "no" — of course he was 57 years old and I was 18. But later he realized that I was a Thomas kid — my last name is Thomas — and he knew my mom and dad, in fact he was the best man at their wedding and I had no clue that he knew my parents. So it was just one of those divine connections. He was extremely wise and it was the first time, other than my parents, to be around a guy that had experienced so much more life. Once he agreed to do it, the group did quite well. We toured the world together and became literally like family.

When your debut album came out, did the band believe it would be a hit?

I don't think so, to be honest. I know I didn't ... I can speak for myself ... I produced the music and wrote most of the lyrics. I thought the record was special, don't get me wrong, I thought that we did something unique, and I thought it deserved to see the light of day. But there's no way I could have thought this record was going to do as well as it did. It was a surprise.

What has contributed to the band's success?

It's a few things: coming out as a different voice, a different feel really played to our advantage. We were one of the first groups to be as melodic as we were, and also being from the South. At that time, there weren't a lot of Southern movements in hip-hop.

How has your audience evolved?

It's evolved a number of times. When we first came out, there was this extreme curiosity. We had a super conscious black audience throughout the world — we would go to London, for example, and our audience would be primarily black. Once we got a little more popular, there would be a mixed crowd ... that same crowd we had initially with more whites, Asians, and Latinos in the audience, and that was incredible. And then, after a while, it was just mainly a white audience, and now it's coming back around. It's been really interesting to be around this long in the industry. When we started out we were just teens. Now that I'm 48 years old, I've been able to see, sort of, the cycles of music. It's been really interesting to see the different versions of our crowd over the years.

It must be great to see so many people connecting with the band.

Exactly. We see that more than most hip-hop groups, in my opinion. We have a lot of fans that are folk music fans, blues music fans, rock fans ... we've done reggae tours, rock tours, folk tours, world music tours, and of course, hip-hop tours. I love that fact about Arrested Development. The crowds that come to our shows are so diverse, and I love that.

How much touring does the band do?

We typically do around 60 dates a year, and of course, that means more travel time than 60 days. For instance, we went to Koh Tao, Thailand, a couple of weeks ago, but we were there for 10 days and we only had one show. At this stage of my life I want to enjoy everywhere I go. When we were younger, we would go into a town, stay for a day and be back on the bus going to the next city. Generally, we don't do that as much now. We tend to do shows where we are hanging in for a little bit and enjoying the scene and the people.

Where is the most remote place that Arrested Development has played?

We performed on Inishturk, which is an island in Ireland. It's extremely small and that island has around 80 or 90 families. To get to the island, we took a prop plane and the airport was a guy's house. The grocery store, the school, the church, and the bar were all at other people's houses. It was pretty remote.

Can you describe one of your personal highlights as a member of this group?

My personal highlights are a few things, but I'll say two. One was performing in Milwaukee, where I was born, at the Marcus Amphitheater. It holds about 25,000 people and we sold it out. It was at the height of our career, so that was extremely special. The other highlight was when I first saw "Tennessee" doing as well as it did on the charts, and knowing that song was about my brother who passed away and my grandmother who passed away, both on the same week. It was a highlight for me because millions of people around the world — whether they knew it or not — celebrated their lives because of that song.

Arrested Development quotes Frederick Douglass on its website, "It's easier to build strong children than it is repair broken men." He and Susan B. Anthony are both buried here in Rochester. What does that quote mean to you?

Frederick Douglass in general means the world to us. To me, he is a visionary, a bold, charismatic brave American hero. I deeply respect pretty much everything he's ever put out there for all of us to benefit from. That particular phrase, it resonates for me because as a person who really wants to put my best foot forward to help people, I realize that we have a limited time on this planet and it does matter who you try to help the most. Sometimes, if the mountain is very high and there are a lot of problems that you are facing and trying to correct, then it helps to prioritize.

That quote helps any person who has a heart to help others realize that there's a lot of children that aren't corrupted yet ... you know, life sort of gives it to you. There's a lot of children that have a great chance to live an amazing life, and we can help a whole new generation to not have the same issues that a lot of us and other generations have had to unfortunately endure and go through.

What brings you joy?

A lot of things, but mostly it's just the simple things. For instance, coming to Rochester and performing, that will bring me joy. If I get an opportunity to see where Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are buried, that would be amazing.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to the weather, MusicFest has been moved to the Blue Cross Arena. It was originally scheduled for Genesee Valley Park.

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