► Talking about inspiration: You are also a minister now – would you say that it is ironic that some of the lyrics on 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of… have helped me lose my faith and become an atheist?
(laughs) That’s definitely ironic. Explain. How did that happen?
► Well, Fishin’ 4 Religion, for example, talks about your own struggle with your faith and religion. Of course being brought up in a religion is a type of brainwashing, an almost Pavlovian conditioning, with a threat of punishment. Hearing your songs was the first time I heard a grown-up question faith, which showed me it was okay to do that. Obviously, the answers I found were then quite different than the ones you found.
I actually appreciate that. Obviously I do believe in God and Jesus, but I would never want anyone to believe in a) something they are just afraid not be believe in, and b) that they don’t have the conviction that it’s true. I wouldn’t want someone going through life just fearing they will get punished for not believing in something. So I am glad that I, or we, helped you find a certain amount of freedom.
► That was an AD song. Another one that helped me was your cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Since you have both options, how do you decide which songs are AD which are Speech solo material?
Funny you should mention Redemption Song before asking that, because lately that has become a lot easier for me, in part because I have been looking at Bob Marley’s career – about the songs he recorded early on, what ended up on Wailers records and what on Bob Marley records. Lately, I’ve been able to morph them a lot more. Another reason could be that now I’m the only original member of AD, which makes it a lot easier to morph the band and the solo material. But you also have to remember that I started the solo career almost by accident. In 1995 AD decided that we didn’t want to go back to the studio together. We had a hard time being positive around each other. But I was in the studio still, because I am a creative person by nature and didn’t want to stop creating. So I wrote these songs that would end up being for a Speech solo album. Initially they weren’t meant for that, though. They were just songs, ideas and expressions. Only when AD got back together was I faced with the situation that there is this thing called Arrested Development, for which I write and produce a lot of the stuff, and yet there is a solo career also, with about three albums at the time. Around that time, I really was careful about what to put on which record. Now, however, it’s just all expression, whether I wrote it alone or with Tasha or One Love.
► Do you think you could do a double-header concert – sort of Speech versus AD? And if you did it, what would be best – you doing all the singing parts or someone else doing your parts on the AD songs?
I have thought about the concept, but not about that particular question. It’s a good one. I mean, I’ve never seen an AD show without me. It probably would be like an artist seeing a tribute to his music at an award show. I can only imagine it would be a sort of out-of-body experience. It would be interesting for sure.
► How often do you listen to your older material anyway? Earlier this year, you released three compilations. For that you had to go back. Were there any of the non-concert songs you maybe hadn’t listened to in ten or more years?
It’s never that long, no. About every two years I go back, for one reason or another. It’s never the same reason. It could just be that I see the CD hanging around the house and I throw it in. But whatever the reason, each time I do, I get invigorated about giving fans the chance to hear the old songs who haven’t heard them yet. My music has been distributed in so many interesting ways – one album might only have been distributed in Japan, another in Japan and Europe, another in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia – so there are a lot of different amalgamations of how fans have been introduced to my music. Which is why I always feel that a lot of people might have never had the chance to listen to a particular song. Here is actually a heads up: We are about to do a ton of music videos to older stuff for which we never did a video but I always wanted to. Especially in respect to the new platform, I wanted to put together an amazing package of all the material. AD and Speech, videos and artwork. And when I say ‘artwork’ I don’t just mean the album artwork but also single artwork, because I miss the days of music having the full components to it – the liner notes, the credits of who played bass and who played drums, pictures or footage of the sessions. To me, the magic of music has been belittled to a tiny square in the corner of your iTunes or your Spotify experience. I want it to be a lot more magical again.
► That opens up the interesting question whether or not losing the visceral feel of the days of vinyl and tapes and CDs is worth the sacrifice if on the other hand you gain all the benefits of the digital world?
No. It’s a bad deal. To me, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. But that is exactly what I want to change. I want to bring back the full 360 experience. Probably one of the favourite things about my childhood was getting a new record, opening it up and smelling the cardboard and the vinyl, putting it on my turntable and, while it’s playing, looking at the art, trying to get into the headspace of the artist, reading the credits – just immersing myself in the experience of music. That, to me, is something we didn’t need to lose. Unfortunately we did, but with You42 we can get it back. And I believe music fans will love it. I don’t think it’s an old school concept for older listeners only.
► Let’s try and bring this one full circle: 22 years after the first record, the Grammys and that MTV Unplugged, are you happy with the way your career has gone so far?
I get happier and happier with my career the older I get. There were times when I hated the direction my career had gone. And I was mad at god. I was mad at fans. I was mad at the American music industry. Mad at myself, above all those. The older I get, the more I see the cycles of life that teach me these experiences weren’t unique to me and that some of the things could have happened to anybody and, in fact, happen to a lot of people. Also, I am proud about the integrity I have kept. What I mean by that is that I could have gone many ways. I could have made a video with women booty shaking. I could have cussed a lot more. I get mad the same as anybody and I could have tapped into that a lot more in my songs than I did. I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m not saying I’m the smartest guy in any room, but I know I could have done a lot of different things and different records that would have been well received with certain groups of people and made it easier, but I decided not to do it. I didn’t want to make any music that stole something from people. I wanted to make music that gave to people. That doesn’t mean it all had to be positive. Sometimes a song can be negative and still give something to the listener, rather than take away.
► In hip hop, it’s always been easier to have the video with the big booties, the bling, the expensive car. In today’s environment, do you think it is easier to break that mould or has it become even more difficult to be different and yet successful?
For most artists it has become more difficult. I’d say 90 per cent of rap artists out there are scared to death to a) do conscious music at all, and b) be themselves. I don’t think most artists want to do a strip club record. They don’t care about parties as much as they make it appear on their records. They have a lot of other things they want to talk about in their lives, but they won’t do it on their records because they are trying to be ‘smart’.
► What’s your advice, then, to someone who is standing where you were standing in 1992 or before that?
My advice is to do the exact opposite of being afraid. Be bold. The truth is – or at least I believe – that every one of us is born with a unique purpose, and you don’t want to die a carbon copy of someone else. You don’t want to be the next so-and-so, you want to be what you were meant to be. :x:
This interview first appeared in issue no.1 of XCENTS.
photo credit featured image: Harold Daniels
Interview by Ewan McGee.