ATLANTA—Before Ludacris and Jermaine Dupri welcomed you to Atlanta and Iggy Azalea became T.I.'s protégé, at the top of Atlanta's hip-hop scene was a group Rolling Stone named band of the year in 1993. Now buried in Google searches by the hit television show, the members of Arrested Development were hip-hop stars before their city was a leader in the game.
More than 20 years later, Atlanta is the capital of trap and the home of artists like OutKast, Killer Mike, and 2 Chainz. The city is also going through rapid urban development that threatens to push out poorer residents and gentrify what has been proudly known as "Black Mecca." I caught up with Speech, Arrested Development's front man, to talk about how Atlanta has changed since hits "Tennessee" and "Mr. Wendal" were radio mainstays in the early 1990s (the group is releasing a free album in September) and what he thinks of the hip-hop industry today. The interview has been edited for length.
If you were a young, black artist looking to break out today, is Atlanta still that city?
It depends what type of music you're doing. If you're doing trap music [a form of hip-hop defined by its grim, aggressive style], then yes. This is still a very big city for trap music and the prominent style of hip-hop that's out now. It's still releasing some of the biggest hits in the nation. There's not a huge band scene here, though.
You have talked in the past about qualms you had with the kind of gangster rap that became big when Arrested Development was breaking out. Do you still have some issues with what's going on in the industry?
I think the fundamental problem is pretty much the same. Gangster hip-hop served a purpose at the very beginning. Songs like 'F--- the Police' by NWA or '6 'N The Mornin' by Ice-T helped to shed light on a problem that is still facing us today. Take Ferguson and New York, where people are being brutalized by the police and killed by the police. You see songs like these and you applaud the fact that they talked about it years ago.
But then, after a while, unfortunately the music started to morph into glorifying that very same violence. Once, they were speaking out to say, 'Hey, take a look over here. We need help over here.' Then it began to be, 'Hey, I'm credible because I kill people. I'm credible because I got a bigger Glock than you.' Life started being cheapened, not only by the system, but by the very people who were oppressed. That's when it became a problem for me, and gangster hip-hop became a caricature of itself. Our music was a juxtaposition to that. It was life music. And we purposefully called it 'life music' for that reason.
Who today has that message that you guys had, someone you admire in the industry?
Some of the people I think are clever with how they speak their lyrics in today's hip-hop game are J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar. A little bit older are people like Talib Kweli, Common, the Roots, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu. They said some things and they brought some things to the music industry that's been very clever.
How has Atlanta changed in the last 20 years? There's still a really strong black community, but a lot of historically black neighborhoods seem to be gentrifying a lot.
Exactly what you just described. I see a great side to it—there are a lot more lofts and independently owned stores and a lot more villages popping up in different sections of Atlanta. That's exciting from a consumer standpoint and just from an aesthetic standpoint. The sad part about it is the gentrification and the fact that a lot of the poor families are being moved out to areas where it's hard for them to even get to work because the bus system does not reach them. It makes it very tough to find work, very tough for people to rise and get to another level in their lives.
Do you think the history of race lingers in the city?
Without a doubt—but not only in the city of Atlanta. I'm a spiritual guy, so I look at things from a spiritual standpoint. Sins don't go away. They are physical. They are real. You can put them under the rug, you can do various things with them, but they are still there, and they have to be legitimately redeemed and healed.
It takes time. There was a race riot here in 1906. You think about it and it was years ago. But at the same time, this city, those pains, and that blood still cries out in the reality of this country and how it was built, on the backs of who it was built upon. It's expected when the pain of racism rears its ugly head over and over again. Until we start to deal with it wholeheartedly and find true redemption, that's the only time you can heal.
You were with Hillary Clinton on the trail in 1996. What are your thoughts on her right now?
You know, I like Hillary. I got to meet her personally, and she was extremely nice. She was not only nice, she seemed real to me. Now, whether that relates to her politics, I have no clue. If she runs for president, I would likely vote for her. It would excite me to see a woman president in general. But, yeah, because I've had that personal relationship with her for a little while in '96, I feel some type of affinity toward her.