In the early 1990s, a time when West Coast gangsta rap ruled the hip-hop world, what emerged from the Deep South was something rather more positive and progressive. Though the works produced by the likes of Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg were adroit and devastating in their own way, Atlanta’s Arrested Development were a sunny, Afrocentric antidote to the dark, pervasive themes of rife misogyny, criminal lifestyles, gun worship and violent confrontations with the law.
And what they prove this evening is that hip-hop, as a socially conscious celebration of life, is something far more appealing when in the context of live performance. The group are currently amidst a European and UK tour to celebrate 30 years since the release of their career defining single ‘People Everyday’. Granted, it seems a bit odd to base an entire tour on the anniversary of a single – the album anniversary is much more the current trend. However, Arrested Development’s expert hosting of a joyous Friday night is clear evidence that it’s highly reductive to view them as a one single act.
The chanting and African drum rhythms that presage opener ‘Give a Man a Fish’ are typical of the band’s Afrocentric predilections. It’s somewhat of a quirky choice to base a song around a commonplace maxim (“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day/Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever”) but lead man Speech is already presiding over call and response vocals and all audience hands are up. There’s no mistaking that we’re already in the grip of a huge Friday night gig.
Now in his mid-fifties, Speech sports a red bandana and appears to be wearing well. He’s an effortless master of ceremonies in his constantly engaging the lively audience; ‘Dawn of the Dreads’ – featuring a tastily funky bassline – has him dictating the sway of the crowd with his non-miked hand, before he delivers an early shout out to his bandmates (two keyboard players, a guitarist, bass, drums and two backing singers).
‘Fishin’ For Religion’ (a guest to find spiritual meaning) and ‘United Front’ (people coming together to create change in a failing world) are a one-two punch that most emphasise the gaping thematic chasm in comparison to their Dre-like contemporaries; released in 1992 and 1994, respectively, they are world’s apart from “It’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop”.
Such is the socially conscious bent of Speech’s songwriting, there’s always the danger that it might spill out into his on stage badinage. However, after a cursory mention of “wars, famine…so many things” we’re launched back into the party with a riveting mid-set mashup. ‘Ease My Mind’ is a shape-shifting beast that morphs into a hint of A Tribe Called Quest, Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’, and a teasing excerpt of ‘People Everyday’ before reverting back to its chorus. We’re then launched into a second mashup of Kriss Kross’ ‘Jump’ and House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around.’ With Speech an energetic cheerleader, the crowd are oh so into it; we’ve been delivered into a nostalgic party-paradise.
‘Mr Wendell’ – a Billboard number 6 in the USA in 1993 – is an enticingly mellow groove floating beneath the weighty lyrical theme of homelessness. It’s also a fine example of the group’s flair for utilising backing vocals as ersatz instrumental hooks. Before the impressively catchy ‘Tennessee’ – “a No.1 in the USA in 1992” we’re later informed – Speech gives an emotional recounting of family members lost and the titular state’s connection to them.
The night ends, of course, with the song whose thirtieth birthday brought us all here. It’s been teased once or twice through the evening and, after teeing it up with a lengthy call and response interlude with the audience, ‘People Everyday’ finally arrives. It lands with the expected adoration and it’s a resounding way to close off a joyous evening of music. The elite gangsta rappers – for all their financial rewards and cultural acclaim – just wouldn’t be capable of such a feel-good night of live performance.