In 1992, Atlanta-based Hip-Hop group Arrested Development was riding high on their multiplatinum-selling debut album 3 YEARS, 5 MONTHS AND 2 DAYS IN THE LIFE OF... The group's frontman, Todd "Speech" Thomas, was approached by acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee to compose a track for an upcoming Lee film.
Incidentally, that movie wasn't the hotly-anticipated biopic about slain civil rights icon Malcolm X. No—initially, Lee wanted Arrested Development to contribute to a soundtrack for a never-produced movie about legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. It was only after Public Enemy declined an offer to record a song for the soon-to-be-released Malcolm X movie that Lee went back to Arrested Development, a group he'd admired even before they'd become household names. Now, Lee was slated to direct X, a biopic starring Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. And Arrested Development offered "Revolution," an anthem for what was already a very heady year.
But for Speech, composing a song like "Revolution" was more about the heart than the head. He wanted words to cut directly to the soul and the spirit, and he wanted to urge people into action. The song became a rallying cry.
"It goes 'lets talk about a revolution,' but not just talking about the issue. Let's talk about the change," Speech tells ROCK THE BELLS, before launching into the song's famous bridge: "'Harriett Tubman told me to get on up.' 'Marcus Garvey told me to get on up.'"
The 1991 beating of Rodney King and the April 1992 unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers filmed pummeling him were still fresh wounds in the public consciousness, on top of a presidential election and an ongoing conversation about anti-police songs in rap music. The timing was ideal for a movie about Malcolm, and Spike Lee was determined to deliver. So was Arrested Development.
It was a perfect marriage.
"It was mind-blowing working with Spike," Speech remembers. "Spike Lee is a consummate professional. This dude is very, very driven. He's focused. You can tell he's focused. You can tell with any of his productions, he's always been focused. Whenever he did any speaking engagements, he always had the swag on of his new movie or upcoming movie. He always thought about marketing, how to maximize whatever he was striving to do. Getting on set with him was no exception."
Montsho-Eshe was the youngest member of the group, and the classically-trained dancer was allowed to bring all of her skills and spirituality to the performance she gave in the music video for "Revolution." Lee let the then-17 year old do what she's always does best.
"I loved working with him. It was just awesome," shares Montsho-Eshe, A.D.'s original dancer. "His professionalism—and he was very direct and on it. It was just an amazing experience for me. I remember everything I had on: a mustard yellow long-sleeve shirt, and I had on some African fabric. And I led the charge with all the dancers behind me and I was in front. I had so much fun!"
Lee was even in the studio when the group was recording the song. He contributed the crowd chants in the song's anthemic "Revolution!" chorus.
"He gave us all 'X' swag and stuff to wear and all the promotional shoots," Speech shares. "He had his brother taking pictures of all backgrounds. Everything we were doing, for the entire video shoot and pre-video shoot. Another thing I'm always amazed at Spike about: usually doing video shoots, it would take one to two days. Because the first day, you're usually shooting something, then you change locations [and] you shoot another day. With Spike, to my knowledge we had three different locations: we had a high school, we had a city block, and we had an entire street in the middle of Brooklyn with about 500 extras. All of these locations had about at least 100 people to 'em. We shot that entire video—all three locations—in seven hours! That is professionalism."
It goes 'lets talk about a revolution,' but not just TALKING about the issue. Let's talk about the change. 'Harriet Tubman told me to get on up.' 'Marcus Garvey told me to get on up...'"
- Speech on developing the themes for "Revolution"
Former Arrested Development member Rasa Don remembers the whirlwind of 1992 as the year Arrested Development was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. The group was in Europe when they first met Spike Lee, and by the time everyone was prepped to shoot the video and release the song, their plate was beyond full.
"When we were doing the thing with Spike, we were actually building up to do SNL and MTV: Unplugged. We got Caron Wheeler, the [future] musical director for India.Arie; bass player Meshell Ndegeocello—all of these people are hanging out with us as we're preparing to do this thing for Spike! It was overwhelming! The whole thing was a big, overwhelming time. Because we're shooting a video and after we shoot the video, we're planning on going back to the rehearsal spot in New York."
"I'm a visual artist, besides just being a performer," says Rasa Don. "And I just looked at it like 'right place, right time,' and our development had reached a stage where we could actually write a song for the movie without thinking about it. Not like it was easy, but there was so much going on, and that's who we were. I think if we had to think about writing that song, it probably would've been harder. But since that was the movement and what was going on, that was Arrested Development."
We had three different locations: we had a high school, we had a city block, and we had an entire street in the middle of Brooklyn with about 500 extras. All of these locations had about at least 100 people to 'em. We shot that ENTIRE video—all three locations—in SEVEN HOURS!"
- Speech on shooting "Revolution" with Spike Lee
"One of the main things I wanted to do was put this chant from South Africa into this very American story-oriented song," he explains. "That to me, just brought that spirit of that African struggle that was also happening simultaneously to what we were struggling with in America and what Malcolm X was always about. That was part of the anthemic part; and just the chant—making sure the chorus wasn't deep. It wasn't complex. It needed to be able to be easily grasped on to so that people could chant along with, rock along with it. This chorus we just wanted to go straight for the jugular. And that was, to me, one of the things I wanted to make sure we took from the success of what 'Fight the Power' was for Do The Right Thing. To me, there was nothing better than to just say that over and over again. 'Fight the Power!' I wanted that same thing. And it was a continuation."
"I know for a fact that I cried that day!" Eshe shares with a laugh. "I look back at all those moments now, because you can reflect, and I can't believe that actually happened. I'm so grateful to be part of history."
Lee famously had to independently fund parts of the film after Warner Brothers and the film's primary lender balked at the budget and studio funding was cut. He recruited notables like Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to raise the money to shoot the movie's pivotal scenes in Mecca and Cairo. For Speech, the emphasis on Malcolm's spirituality echoed Arrested Development's song and pushed the slain freedom fighter's image into a broader space than Malcolm's detractors typically allowed for.
"This man was a thief and a pickpocket that turned into something," Speech says. "Why did he turn into something? Because of his spirituality. Because of his belief in something bigger."
X was released on November 18, 1992. Spike Lee's film would become one of the year's most acclaimed films, and Malcolm X's image and message would soon be more mainstream than ever. "X" baseball caps and jerseys became a fixture in pop culture, and Denzel Washington's performance was nominated for an Academy Award.
"I think now, over time, Malcolm has only gotten more endearing to the world. But at the time, he wasn't so endearing to the world; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was much more endearing, especially to Black folks—even Black folks had issues with Malcolm X at the time. He was not endeared to all Black folks; a lot of Black folks thought he was a troublemaker startin' a riot, in a sense. So when you see that spiritual aspect of who he was, and that worldly aspect and how he saw the world--Malcolm X met with world leaders to strive for a pan-African approach and a worldwide approach to helping our problems at home. It was incredible. And that scope was desperately needed for the film."
"To me, this movement has been moving on for quite a long time. I think one of the differences we have is a lot of the youth aren't reaching back to the ancestors and even to the older generations for a lot of their inspirations. Whereas we were; we were reaching back to The Last Poets, we were, by nature, sampling stuff from the South African apartheid movements that were [from] decades earlier. By nature of sampling we were constantly reaching back to the ancestral powers and bringing them forward with us, while we were doing our own thing at the same time. I think a lot of the generation is not doing that. That's what I think the difference is; and also, we were very much on a 'we can do it ourselves' and 'we need to do this ourselves' movement. And now, it feels like a little bit less of that, and more of 'we need the system to do XYZ for us.'"
"I'm really proud of the fact that I gave my energy and my time to something that my kids can look at and my family and friends can look at and say 'you were a part of building something, instead of destroying,'" says Ras. "Because you're either building or destroying, and I was a part of the building process. I can look now and say I didn't make any music that somebody lost their life to, know what I'm sayin.'"
For Speech, who has remained the frontman of Arrested Development for these 30 years, it's complicated watching themes he addressed decades ago still so pervasive in our culture.
"It's interesting. And it does frustrate me as a man that's 54 years old, I do look at how long this journey has been. It's frustrating to see how a record like 'Revolution' can still have so much relevance in 2022! When we were thinking about the 2000s in 1992, we were thinking about floating cars and spaceships! We're talking about the exact same issues—literally, you could pull it from headline to headline—and some of the exact same issues that were happening in the 60s and the 90s are still happening in the 2020s. It's the same. And that's frustrating as hell when you put your life and blood and tears into this. But I will say this: it's good that we're still fighting. Because it's worth the fight."