Contrary to their name, Arrested Development advanced Hip-Hop by giant leaps. With Gangsta Rap all the rage, they released engaging songs in a melodic rap style that produced 3 Top-10 hits from their first album. Speech is their primary songwriter and lead vocalist. "Tennessee" is his masterpiece.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): The song I'm hoping to dig into is "Tennessee."
Speech: Okay. "Tennessee" is a very important song to me. There's a few reasons why. One is it was our first single ever for Arrested Development. And I wrote it because my older brother, his name is Terry Thomas, he and I met up in Tennessee for my grandmother – my favorite grandmother of all time – for her funeral. And that same week my brother left and went back to college, and I went back to college. And my brother died that same week. And that song was probably the first step of me recovering from the loss of two people that are just extremely close and dear to me. The chorus is "take me another place, take me to another land, make me forget all that hurts me and help me understand your plan." It's like a prayer to God. And just talking about sort of my journey in life, and that the last place I saw these important people in my life was in Tennessee.
SF: Can you tell me how you create a song?
Speech: Definitely. Like, for "Tennessee" for instance, after the death of my loved ones and stuff, I really felt just a deep importance to write about it and to express what I felt, what was going on. First I started to create music in general for it, and I knew I wanted it to be called "Tennessee." I sampled from Prince, from "Alphabet Street." Then I started to make beats, just the beat for the song in general, on my sampler. And then Aerle Taree, one of the members of the group, came by. At this point in my life, my studio was in my bedroom. Basically it just poured out of me lyrically, all the ideas and sort of vocal things that I wrote came right out of me very easily. Her parts were based on what she heard me do. She talked about playing a game of horseshoes, and she sang this section on the chorus with echoed "take me home." Some songs flow out of you, and other songs are more strategically made. That was one song that just literally flowed. It was very easy to make, in a sense. Once I had done the lyrics, once the beat was in general finished, once Aerle Taree laid down her part, I did want to enhance the song and in a sense polish it, although it doesn't sound polished at all. So at that point, I did some more programming, some more song arrangements. And that's when the last part of the song came about, when I ended up asking Dionne Farris, who's a fantastic singer I knew – to sing on it. And that section of the song, the ending of the song, to me is sort of like the clincher. If you didn't like the song at first, you should like it by that time. And she did an excellent job. By the time she came in and recorded the song, we were already signed to a label, and she was in a professional studio; when me and Aerle Taree started to write it we were just in my bedroom. But by the time Dionne got involved we were in a professional studio and I was able to ask her to spill her heart. I told her a few words that I would love for her to say, and she could say 'em any way she wanted and sing 'em any way she wanted, and we did about 10 takes. The first take was most of that solo that she did at the end. That was her first take. She ended it pretty early, so I asked her to sing some more, and she did. That was the second take - she heard it and didn't like the vocal. So we did about nine other takes. But I knew in my heart that the first take was the one, and she felt that it wasn't performed perfectly, but I knew that it was absolutely perfect. Even with flaws, it was a very emotional take, just a great recording. I'm very proud of that song, and I'm equally as proud of the video that we shot for that song.
SF: Tell me about the video.
Speech: The video was actually shot in Georgia, ironically. But we found a man's home that we just felt was absolutely reminiscent of my experience with my grandmother's house, and what her house looked like. And it was a perfect setting for this video. We went out on a very, very cold, I think it was a January morning, and shot basically all day. A lot of my friends from college and a lot of the group members' friends came on down, and we all sort of convoyed down to the video shoot. A lot of the extras that were in the video were people that were in the neighborhood that were curious that we asked to be involved. And it was absolutely awesome. We had slave shackles in the video that were already at that person's house from literal history. There was a back house for the slaves that used to live there in years passed that was still there. And things that just were really perfect for the type of message that the song was about, the song takes you through a spiritual journey and a life journey through history in a sense, and at the same time it talks about my family, and then it sort of leads to anyone's family roots, and the direction that people go in life. And it was just a great deal to be able to have these washboards, and this old dilapidated wood porch and these old screen doors. A lot of people thought that we had built the set in order to make it look like the past, but it was just one of the really beautiful parts of living in the rural South. And it was very recent. That was 1991, I think, when we shot that, and that house, we didn't have to touch it or do anything to it, it was the way it was. And a lot of the props that we use in the video were also there, that were just there at the time. So it was just great. We were really proud of that video. We're proud as well of Milcho Manchevski, a relatively famous independent director now, shot that video, and we really wanted to go for a really clean black-and-white look and a very documentary style of shooting. I just felt like it really captured well. And it's still one of my favorite videos in hip-hop in general, in my opinion.
SF: It's one that's definitely memorable. Was that the only song that Dionne Farris recorded with you guys?
Speech: No, she actually did three songs with us. She did a fantastic job on "Fishing For Religion" on our first album – an incredible solo on that, probably her best solo that she's ever done with us, in my opinion. And she also sang on a song on our first album called "Give A Man A Fish," and she did an excellent job on that, as well. What I love about Dionne is she's such a small girl, but her voice has a big, black woman voice to it. I just love it. It's just a very strong presence in her voice.
SF: 1991 sounds like a very interesting time to be sampling records. You said you sampled Prince. Now, the actual "Tennessee" vocal came from Alphabet Street?
Speech: That's right. Yeah, it did.
SF: How did you clear that sample? Or did you even have to back in 1991?
Speech: You know, I didn't know to in 1991, the sample laws weren't very clearly set out back then. It was our first record, we definitely weren't vets in the industry, we didn't understand all the game play and the rules. So we didn't ask for permission. I learned as a producer pretty quickly the laws of sampling: it's the wild, wild West out there. So what happened was the record obviously was getting some pretty good heat. MTV had a show called "Buzz Clips," and they added it to "Buzz Clips," and it just became this huge phenomenon. And as the song moved up the chart the album got to #3 on the pop charts. And once it went down, the very week it went to #4, we got a call from Prince's representation. They waited for that song to sell as many possible copies as they could wait for. As soon as it started to go down the charts we got a call, and the Reaper became the reaped. So we got charged for that sample pretty heavily. I paid $100,000 for that word.
SF: The $100,000, was that negotiated?
Speech: It was not. In fact, because we didn't ask for permission ahead of time, they didn't need to negotiate with us. It was either do it, or we pull the record.
SF: So they held all the cards here.
Speech: They did totally hold all the cards.
SF: The song "Mr. Wendal," can you tell me if that is based on a real person?
Speech: Sure. I wrote the song. The song is not based on a person named Mr. Wendal at all, but it is based on some experiences that I have had in Atlanta, which is where I live, and sung to the homeless people that I had become friends with here, and just their way of looking at it. Some of them were more like hobos where they purposely were wanting to be homeless, they didn't want to play to the way society was going, and they just decided to go off another beaten path. Others were hungry, had a run of bad luck, and just couldn't survive with the competition of the real world. So they were out there. One of the people that I look to the most as the real Mr. Wendal, to me, died the year that that song came out. So he never got to hear the song and the tribute to him. We gave half of the proceeds of that song to the National Coalition For the Homeless in the United States, because of how closely all of us felt to the cause of the homeless, and the fact that everybody, whether they're homeless or not, there's some times in all of our lives when we need some help, we need a boost.
SF: You were talking about how you start with the beat, you get the samples, is that how you do most of your songs?
Speech: It is. Most of the songs I do, I actually start with the melody, meaning the musical melody, first. Then I put a beat to the melody. I tend to do a lot of technology type things to create music and bring live musicians in later. So what I mean is maybe I'll sequence the music on my sequencer, and then get a drum machine and put beats behind that music, and then ask some live musicians to come in and I'll replay some of the things that I've written. Because I don't play an instrument, per se. I don't know how to play any instruments. But of course I write songs.
SF: At what point do the lyrics come in?
Speech: To me, it's usually after everything else is completed. So I will have the general idea of the song musically first. Because to me the music to a song speaks to you. It tells you what the song should be about. There's certain chords that feel either refreshing, or they feel depressing, or certain ways that the music moves that sort of determines the subject matter. And at least that's how I work. And it's proven to be pretty successful for me, so I like it.
SF: Did somebody teach you how to do this? Or did you just figure it out on your own?
Speech: I've been a fan of music ever since I was a little kid. And so the answer really is yes and no. Yes, I figured it out on my own. But yes, many people taught me how to do it through listening to their music. So there's songs that inspired me, and I would listen to music so much that I started to analyze: why do I like this song so much? I would notice that usually songs would have an 8-bar intro, and then the first verse. And I started to notice that, wow, after the first verse sometimes there would be a bridge, and then the chorus, and then after the chorus would be the second verse, and then the bridge, and then a second chorus. And then after the second chorus that might repeat. And then they might have a vamp at the end of the song. And there were certain structures that I started to notice were similar in almost every song. So in that way, yes, those songs taught me what it was about. But no one literally was in a classroom that taught me. But I was able to listen to other people's music. And to this day that still is the case. I listen to records that I like, and I listen to some of the structures of their songs, or some of the textures that they will use musically and what that texture evokes in me emotionally. And I want to recreate that in my own music in some way or another. So it's always a lesson of learning in my opinion when you're a songwriter. Because if you don't consistently learn different ways to express a song, in my opinion at least, your songwriting becomes stagnant.
Speech: "People Everyday" initially was again a musical track that I had done first. And then it was another easy song to write the lyrics to. The first version I did of "People Everyday", which is the version that's actually on our album 3 Years, 5 Months, 2 Days in the Life, the first version I did of that was not the most popular version that would end up becoming a hit for us, but it had the same lyrics and it had the same structure. I would later do a remix of the song once we decided to release it as a single. I felt a little insecure about putting out a single without me rhyming in a sing-song style, because certain people liked this sort of new way I was rapping which had more melody as opposed to just rapping without using melody. So I was really afraid, I wanted to try my hand at making "People Everyday" a more melodic type of delivery instead of the regular delivery. And so I did a remix and sampled a Bob James record for the general groove, added some beats to it, and that that was the version of that song that everybody knows about. It was actually a remix.
SF: The lyrical content of that song, can you tell me where that came from?
Speech: It came from real life experiences. At that time I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where I was born. And Milwaukee, back in those days, was a very conservative town. And a lot of the black people there really were not into cultural black… they understood they were black, but for them black was jheri-curls, it was pimping, and that's what they thought black culture was mainly about. For me having experienced more in Atlanta and having traveled a little bit more, I'd come to understand that black culture had a lot more to do with Africa, and it was different hairstyles that we could express ourselves with, like dreadlocks and braids. So I would dress like that, and a lot of the people around me in Milwaukee would sort of mock it. And so the song was really just talking about this tension between one concept of culture and another concept of culture.
SF: I notice that you guys have what's described as a spiritual guru that's a member of Arrested Development. Can you tell me about that?
Speech: Yeah. His name is Baba Oje. Baba means "father" in Swahili, and Oje is his name. And he's 75 years old. When I met him he was 57, and he went to my college, which was UWM, which is University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He was a student, and I was a student. I traveled a lot, and Jamaican culture, when I went there I'd noticed that a lot of the youths and the elders would hang together. I didn't notice that as much in America. So I was inspired by that concept, which is having older people with younger people, and not such a huge generation gap. And this whole concept that the youth have energy and the elders have wisdom was something that I'd learned about and was really intrigued by. So I wanted to have an elder in the group. It was a very radical concept at the time because I didn't know any groups that had ever done that. So I just asked him to be in a hip-hop group. And he was at first not really interested. It turned out that he knew my mom and dad and that he was a best man in their wedding. And I had no clue, I'd never met him before, I wasn't born yet. So it turned out that he really was a close member of our family and that's the reason he ended up saying yes to me, and he realized that I was a Thomas – that's my last name – and that he knew my mom and dad.
SF: Wow. You mentioned how this is related to other cultures, in Jamaica they do this. I've always been surprised that songs that seem to be very American play so well overseas. Do you have any idea why you guys are so incredibly popular in, like, Japan?
Speech: I have a feeling that there's two reasons. I think one is that the music evokes a more positive side of things, so the more gangsta hip-hop is prevalent, the more they're talking about pimps and ho's and all of that, the more we're appreciated as a group. And for Japan, they still don't necessarily get into the gangsta stuff as much as we do in the United States. So they really appreciate a more motivational, inspirational style of music.
SF: You did the song that ended up on the 1 Giant Leap project. Can you tell me about "Braided Hair"?
Speech: "Braided Hair" was, musically, a 1 Giant Leap creation. And they reached out to me. The concept of that group is pretty cool. Those guys basically travel around the world, and they reach out to artists, philosophers, spiritualists, you name it - different tribal leaders - and they just talk to them about certain issues. Well, they had reached out to me and asked if I could be involved in a project. And when I saw the scope of the project and the boldness of how big this project was, like what they were trying to accomplish, I did really think it's one giant leap. I thought it was incredible, and I was honored to do it. It wasn't for pay. I mean, I've gotten paid from it now, but when we first started it had nothing to do with money, it was just a passion, something for the passion of music and the opportunity to do something creative. So they came to Atlanta and they had the track of "Braided Hair." They asked me to pick from a few different tracks what I thought I'd be inspired to write to, and that was the one I liked. That song was very easy to write. They literally came over to my house that same night, I wrote the entire song, they filmed the video for the song that same night. And then they recorded all the guests that were on the song, like Neneh Cherry. Ulali is a group from India who sang on the song. And all of them I'd never met at the time. I've met Neneh Cherry, but at the time they weren't there, and sort of like you do cartoon animated movies, we just all did our parts in our separate places.
SF: Did they give you direction on what to write?
Speech: The lyrics "We Might survive as brothers," that was written by Jamie, who was one of the members of One Giant Leap. And I just sang that part. The rest of it – or at least all my parts that I sang – was just what I came up with at the time. It was really one of those clear cut inspiration moments, because they loved everything that I wrote. They thought, as England people say, I was brilliant. They're from the UK, and it just worked out right. I have now since done their second album, and it wasn't easy. They came back to me and was like, "Hey, we need you to write a great hit." I never do good when people tell me that, because I never really write songs to think of them as hits, although I've written some hits. It was like forcing teeth out of my mouth to try to get a great song. I think we did do a great job, though, we did some good stuff. But that "Braided Hair" song was like butter, smooth, nice and easy.
SF: Besides the tracks that we've talked about, what is your favorite Arrested Development track?
Speech: It's hard for me to say, of course I'm very close to all my stuff. I think some of my highlight moments were obviously on the first record. There's another record we did called Among The Trees, I think there's a song called "Wag Your Tail" that I think is a very highlight in my writing ability. It's really hard for me to say. I've done a lot of material. We now have five albums. So I think for me some of the things that stand out shouldn't change over the years. I would easily say "Tennessee" is still a landmark moment for me. Maybe because of the songwriting, but also because of how much it resonated and how famous the song became, it will always have a special place in my heart, of course, what the song was about.