Their breakthrough album was called “3 Years, 5 Months and Two Days in the Life Of ...,” a nod to the long struggle fledgling rappers Arrested Development faced between the day they formed and the day they signed a record deal.
Now, it’s been 13 years since their last U.S. release. And the Atlanta group that topped charts and earned a pair of Grammys with their upbeat, socially conscious brand of rap in the early ’90s is back — hoping to again find a place on a drastically changed musical landscape.
“Since the Last Time,” released Tuesday on the group’s independent Vagabond Records, carries the same funky, Southern-fried vibe of ’90s hits like “Tennessee,” and “Mr. Wendal.”
The question now becomes whether an independent rap album that tackles spirituality and inner-city gentrification can find an audience in an industry in which party anthems and sexually suggestive rhymes dominate the airwaves and sales charts.
“I believe in miracles,” said Speech, the group’s lead rapper, quoting “Miracles,” the album’s first single, which addresses the group’s comeback effort.
After “3 Years, 5 Months and Two Days ...,” which sold over 4 million copies and earned the group the Best New Artist Grammy and a Best Rap Performance award for “Tennessee,” Arrested Development released 1994’s “Zingalamaduni,” which received some critical acclaim but couldn’t match the popular appeal of their first effort.
The group — which predated the emergence of the Atlanta-based “Dirty South” rap movement by nearly a decade — split soon after, amid internal dissension and a shift in the kind of rap artists that the mainstream music industry would promote.
A battle within hip-hop
Bill Adler is a hip-hop historian who helped write and produce “And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip Hop,” a five-part documentary series for VH1. He said Arrested Development was among the “last gasp” of a wave of socially conscious rappers who also were able to achieve widespread commercial and critical success.
“At that point, conscious hip-hop and so-called gangster rap were kind of at war with each other,” he said. “I think the so-called gangster rappers emerged on top and they’ve really defined hip-hop pretty exclusively ever since.”
The group pursued solo projects until 2000, when Speech reassembled most of the original members to tour and record — almost exclusively in Europe and Asia.
“We stayed away from the United States because the atmosphere here was so anti-message,” he said. “We stayed away from the U.S. for 12 years and released music everywhere but here.”
Now, he said, the group sees a possible opening closer to home.
“With the Don Imus situation, with the Jena 6, with all the recent sort of awakening that’s happening, where people are at least starting to talk, maybe it’s time for us to start releasing music here again,” said Speech, 38.
Speech said only group co-founder Headliner, who the rapper said was once his closest friend, turned down the reunion after what Speech called bad blood over “business differences” when the group achieved international success.
“From that point on, we had some very bitter disagreements,” he said. “The good news has been, over the time that’s passed, we’ve become cordial again to where, when we see each other, we’re happy to see each other.
“We know what buttons not to push and we don’t push those buttons.”
Reality show appearance
In 2005, the group got a mild boost — albeit in the tenuous world of reality television — when they won on an episode of NBC’s short-lived “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” in which once-popular groups competed for crowd votes performing their own hits and covering versions of current ones.
The band’s reworking of “Heaven,” by fellow Grammy winners Los Lonely Boys, appears on “Since The Last Time” and was first performed on that show.
“A lot of the members had become spiritual over the years and that song made a lot more sense to us than some of the other songs we were offered,” said Speech, who in addition to solo performing has preached sermons at churches in Atlanta and New York. “The response to it was so overwhelming we decided to include it on the record.”
Adler, who briefly did publicity work for Arrested Development in the ’90s, said it’s unclear how much of a splash the album will be able to make in the current rap market.
“It’s not like the need for conscious hip-hop has ever gone away — it’s just that it’s very, very rare for a self-described conscious rapper to break through and make a pop hit,” Adler said. “I’m not so sure why that is. You can say the culture at large has become less conscious and more materialistic; it’s not like the rappers have a monopoly on low consciousness and materialism.”
While hoping for his miracle, Speech seems to embrace whatever comes on “Stand,” a track on the new record.
“It’s better to write for ourselves and have no public,” he raps, “than write for the public and have no self.”