Arrested Development drops a new record today, titled “Don’t Fight Your Demons”
The Conscious Hip Hop Band’s newest record is a sorely needed record for 2020, and drops square into the center of a society ripped apart by denied justice for victims of Police violence and systemic racism
Today, September 25, 2020 is a huge day in hip hop. More than a half a dozen hiphop records drop today, including Public Enemy’s new record What you Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down. I’m sure I will listen to and enjoy many of them, especially the PE record. But one brand new, just released record which I think deserves your attention is the new one from conscious hip hop band Arrested Development, called Don’t Fight Your Demons, a title which is borrowed from a Charles Bukowski quote about learning from and embracing your past, even the bad parts. Mistakes happen, bad choices happen, but good can come from them through learning: Becoming the best one can be cannot happen except one learns from the errors and bad choices of the past.
Wait… Arrested who? Yes, I feel I must answer this question, because there is a small set of people who will recognize the name: Generation X most certainly remembers Arrested Development, and their 2x Grammy award winning debut record as well as the singles from that record. But, a HUGE generation who is older than us probably won’t know of them because they weren’t into hip hop during the early 90s, or ever really, and a HUGE generation who is younger than us probably first experienced hip hop during the 2000s. So, first, a little history…
Arrested Development was a band from the early 90s who were major musicians in a type of music known as Consciousness Hip Hop. Other bands you might know who were part of the same subgenre of hip hop were of course, Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and Boogie Down Productions, while later, the category included folks like Killer Mike and RTJ, Logic, Brother Ali, Dead Prez, and The Coup. Etc etc etc. These were people who talked about things which were socially enlightening to their listeners. A lot of the music was afrocentric, and dealt with identity of black Americans as descended from not only slaves in this country, but from Kings and Queens of Africa. The black identity was not as it was portrayed in the mainstream media, but it was also about pride in yourself, in your community, and in your heritage.
As a white kid in the late 80s, I may not have known all about Black History: I went to the same school system that every other person went to, and they told me the same stock narrative as well which perpetuated the myth of black inferiority and degeneracy, or, to put more of a fine point on things, of white supremacy. But black consciousness, especially in hip hop, appealed to me: Here were artists who were telling people that you didn’t have to be what the schools and the media and the politicians and all these supposedly well meaning but paternalistic white liberals said you are. You can be better than that, and it involves learning about yourself, about where you come from, and about the greatness in your people all around you. I heard that message too, and was impressed by it, even though I was also under constant barrage by this white supremacist message being transmitted to me via ALL cultural institutions at the time.
So I was quite well-versed, as much as a white kid from Northern Indiana could be at the time, in conscious hip hop. The first two hip hop albums I owned were Digital Underground’s Sex Packets and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and guess which one my blue collar mother objected to more? I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t the one which had a song in it about taking hallucinatory drugs to engage in virtual sex with the women of your dreams.
Of course not! It was the one which told me about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the one who called Elvis Presley a racist sucka, simple and plain, and talked about how the Devil taught people that white is good and black is bad, and black and white is still too bad. And unlike a lot of kids who were playing PE to piss off and scare old white people, I was learning from that record. I was learning all the stuff that I soon discovered would never be taught about in High School, and I was laying the groundwork for being able to hear conscious hip hop in the 90s and beyond, as well as punk and hardcore too, by the way.
A couple years later, when Arrested Development came onto the radio and more likely onto MTV, they didn’t appear strange or radical. Their message seemed to me to be current: It seemed to be how music was going. 3 Years, 5 Month and 2 Days in the Life of… was incredibly successful and as I mentioned, won two Grammy awards, including “Best New Artist” in 1992. To me, they seemed like a group of black hippies, like maybe De La Soul, singing about stuff that poor folks knew, but which didn’t get much airtime on the television. They talked about the South, which I didn’t know much about, and about human dignity, even in folks that are homeless. It was 1992, and alternative was just hitting the mainstream in rock, but had been going on strong in hip hop for years (think records like 3 Feet High and Rising, and Check Your Head.) It fit right in.
And then, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic came out a few months later, and the critical stuff, which was important for learning about heritage, was all sort of swept off the radios by songs about guns and money and materialism. As West Coast Gangsta Rap eventually gave way to East Coast Hard Core, which eventually gave way to the ultra materialism heard in “The Jiggy Era”, and so forth, conscious hip hop went underground, and bands like Arrested Development fell off the radar. Alternative and to some degree conscious hip hop made a resurgence in the early 00s, mostly centering on the Chappelle’s Show.
Of this group, you will see Kanye West emerge as the biggest name, and a lot of his music was conscious, back in the day. Arguably, the most militant of this set that was associated with that program was Dead Prez, who still make revolutionary music. As the scene — as all scenes — were obliterated by YouTube and Spotify and the Infinite Playlist, it’s really tough these days to even find folks that don’t blur the lines between the Underground and big label supported and promoted hip hop artists anymore. It all feels alternative, and yet, it most certainly is not.
And yet, Arrested Development has been keeping on the entire time, a fact that I admit I didn’t know before I began doing research for this review. Musician is a profession and as we hear on the newest record, this group of musicians are certainly professionals, with decades of experience under their belt. You can easily hear on this record how that experience pays off in a record that is both eclectic and thematic, and a tour of styles which is quite different from, and perhaps more mature than the sound of the Arrested Development you may remember from the 90s. But if you are not familiar with their earlier stuff, and are just being introduced to Arrested Development for the first time, you are in for a treat.
I had the pleasure to sit down with this record over the last few days and really listen to it. As a matter of ethical disclosure, this record was sent to me in electronic form early to begin to digest, by the album’s co-executive producer, Configa, and I agreed to review it in exchange for the early access. So, let me start off by saying, I will highly recommend it, for general audiences, but especially for people who consider themselves socially conscious — people who are not only aware of the nonsense going down in this society, but how that stuff got that way in the first place, and who have some ideas on how to resolve it, though I would say many of those ideas do not involve social revolution. Not yet, anyway. This record will speak to you!
In this light, Don’t Fight Your Demons is a perfect record for today’s young radicals, those who are just getting into the game of being against “this f-ed up society and these f-ed up police.” It is music for people who can hear it: It says “You think everything’s wrong now. Guess what, you aren’t alone and you aren’t crazy.” And I think this is a message that people definitely need to hear.
Thematically, in my opinion, this record deals with deprogramming, and is an answer to narratives that are prevalent in a racist society that often pits black Americans in a specific light that is often repeated by the bigotted racists on the Right and the paternalistic racists on the Left. The primary MC in Arrested Development, Speech, who has been the leader of the band the entire time they have made music, discusses a lot of very personal experiences on this record. From discussing internalization of negative images about black people on the TV and in the schools, which I suppose is more or less ubiquitous among many black people in this country, on a track like “Back Down” to drawing a direct and explicit connection between domestic and community violence with an overarching critique of systemic racism and rising above all that to be a better person in a song like “Becoming” to the difference in the way that African immigrants and African Descendants of Slaves are treated by people in this country in the song “Young Americans” to the expression of a legitimate desire to simply exist in a world that doesn’t automatically want to run you into the ground in the song “Sunset in Ghana”, this record gives a multi-faceted view of the experience of Black Americans which is something that is too often missing in the more materialist focused mainstream of music.
It also provides a flag to rally around for individuals who are looking for music which speaks to the struggles that are currently going on in the streets of our country, where cops and the forces of repression and white supremacy can kill black men and women with zero accountability. Listening to it now, in the context of the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor not having to face any consequences for their action, or after the well publicized murder of George Floyd, or the attempted murder of Jacob Blake by gun crazy cops, and the response by white crowds, vigilantes, and pseudo militias in support of those murderers, it is hard to hear this record outside of that context.
But as I’ve said, this band were speaking about a lot of these things for decades. It has been easy for white people to enjoy the kind of funky hippy vibe of ‘92 Arrested Development and give them two Grammys. Will it be possible to do so today when Arrested Development talks about the same things, describes the same broken homes and racist education and media structures we have in this country? Will it be a record to inform and unite the young people, of all races, who are marching in the streets for Justice for the people who have been murdered by police, and who are called traitors by the President and the members of his criminal organization known as the US Government, who have signed away their humanity to placate the racists and bigots in our society?
I don’t know. But for a person who thinks it is a good thing for music to carry a message, and lyrics to convey the need for change in our society, and that music can be powerful, this record checks those boxes. It is a sorely needed commentary for people who have forgotten that black people are not merely victims that we see getting killed by cops, or shirtless dudes who we see getting arrested on “COPS”, or outspoken radicals who we hear yelling about the cops, but also 1) the black experience in this country is as diverse and rich as the white experience, with all sorts of dreams and aspirations, and irritants and threats, and 2) the structure of this society, and all the institutions we have to support that structure, hampers black people in this nation to the extent that it can, and prevents them from achieving those dreams and aspirations, and removing those irritants and threats to their existence.
Our society is what it is, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. And learning about it, with the help of conscious albums like Arrested Development’s Don’t Fight Your Demons can help us change it.
I would be remiss, in this review of this very provocative record, if I didn’t mention the aesthetic sound of the record. Musically, the record was as diverse as the experiences the lyrics described. Speech and Configa were EPs for this record, and I think the over all vision is well represented in the sonic landscape painted on the album. Arrested Development employed some of the hardest hitting producers in the game today, including Configa, New Jersey’s Cris Acosta and Detroit’s Producer/MC MRK SX. Speech also does production duties for several of the tracks on this album. All in all, it’s a tour de force of sound, which I think fits the intensity of the lyrics rather well.
If I had to break it down, I would say this record has a little something for everyone: Producer Cris Acosta brings in a Golden Era sound, which backs up the pure fire lead track “Back Down”. It is most definitely a hard core song, which pulls no punches and is a great way to kick off the record. It’s also a fun song to listen to, and would sound great in a ride with a subwoofer in it, though I could preview the trunk rattling rather nicely in a set of headphones. Acosta also did the song “Moses” and tracks on the end of the record, including one of my favorite, “We’ll See” which may as well be the Gen X anthem as the youngest of us are now in our 40s, while the oldest of us are staring down retirement.
Speech’s own production on this record is masterful and I think shows the most variety of all the producers who were involved with making this record. His bass is always kicking as it does in the song “Amazing” which is about how blaxpoitation is not only a 70s film genre (he wisely included a sample from a 70s blaxpoitation movie) but also is all the music you will hear on the radio these days. This banger includes some excellent Jurassic 5-style flow from One Love.
But Speech can easily switch up his style, and does so across the record. You will hear in his tracks everything from Boombap to guitars and flutes to a song like “Play With Fire”, which is a full tribute to ragga, including samples from dancehall veteran Home T and toasting from equally legendary Cutty Ranks. I thought Speech’s tracks brought most of the musical diversity into the record, and I would attribute that to his long career with his band, and awareness that rap and hip hop have undergone such fundamental changes since he, in his own words, hit his “peak” in his debut.
By far the most lush production on the record belongs, however, to Configa, who brings in his own style which hearkens back to the Golden Age and the Backpack eras, and is evocative of the triphop of the Quakers album and the production of MadLib. Including two remixes of “Amazing”, Configa produced 7 tracks on this record. Configa produced the record’s lead single, “Becoming”, which contains a very catchy piano loop over a hip hop beat, and really connects jazz and soul to Configa’s signature sound, and discusses overcoming the expectations that society has for people, especially black people and poor people, in our society.
Configa shows his versatility with songs like “The Same People” which talks about the various methods that the wealthy and powerful keep poor in line, whether it be the health industry, the music industry and religion, gentrification and the failed policy responses to COVID. He also produced the excellent song called “Sunset in Ghana” which employs a West-African musical soundscape to set a scene for a story about a black American who travels to Ghana and discovers a country run by black people, where there are pictures of black leaders, where cops aren’t killing people for being black, and where black men and women have the chance to just live their lives.
Another Configa standout was “Do or Die Mantra”, which was built around the chipmunk soul aesthetic that gained popularity in the late 90s in the underground, and then burst out with the backpack rappers who attempted to reassert some purist integrity to the scene around 2000. This song, played next to the record’s second track “Moses” firmly sets the record not in the South, where Arrested Development was historically associated, but in Milwaukee, WI, which is both Speech’s hometown, and a town that is literally minutes away from Kenosha, WI, which is at the heart of the social justice fight in the US today.
This record also features MCs and singers from the last ten years of underground hip hop like Skyy High, Kuf Knotz, O’hene Savànt, Rambo, MRK SX, Let The Dirt Say Amen, and Fro Magnum Man, as well as upcoming vocalists like Christine Elise. These featured artists do a lot of service to the Underground, by exposing folks to new hip hop artists that they may not have heard of, before listening to them on the Arrested Development record, and of all of the featured artists, I’d argue that Fro Magnum Man delivered the sickest verse on “Play With Fire.” But it cannot be denied that these talented artists contributed value to their respective tracks.
In conclusion: Don’t Fight Your Demons is an essential record for this year. You should make an effort to sit down for an hour or so, and listen to it. And then listen to it again. It is sorely needed consciousness, to further enlighten those who are already awake, and maybe re-energize those whose energy is flagging, who are tired from trying to work to change things in the face of seeming futility and systemic hostility.
And at the end of the day, the music is what it is: It has a message that cannot be denied or ignored, it is well produced and it has a wide variety of stylings to it to provide audiences of all kinds something to enjoy — including a dance track called “Journey On” that has heavy electronic music and a solid four on the floor beat that would make you think Arrested Development was a veteran club act, but which I think provides a nice break that reminds people to dance too, (even during the Revolution). Don’t Fight Your Demons is all killer, and no filler.
Without further ado, here is the album on Spotify, for you to listen to now that you have the review. If you like it, you can buy it at the band’s site, www.arresteddevelopmentmusic.com, at Bandcamp or at your preferred music service. It is certainly one worth having.