Arrested Development: rap with reason

March 31, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Are you rap-phobic? Do you avoid rap shows on television because you're afraid they'll show nothing but crotch-grabbing gangstas and rump-shaking hotties? Do you believe that all rap is based around boasting, violence and misogyny?

If so, then you should make an appointment with MTV. Because if Arrested Development's hour-long performance on "MTV Unplugged" (at 10 on the cable channel tonight, and again at 10 p.m. Sunday) doesn't change your mind about rap music, nothing will.

Although pop fans are probably familiar with the Grammy-winning group through such singles as "Tennessee," "People Everyday" and "Mr. Wendal," hearing Arrested Development on the radio or watching its videos only hints at its distinctive nature.

For one thing, this 17-member ensemble looks nothing like a typicalrap group. There are no gold chains and glowering machismo, and the onstage dancing has more to do with traditional African movement than with the usual commercialized bump-and-grind. Moreover, the group has used its "Unplugged" appearance to replace its usual sample-based sound with acoustic guitar, bass guitar, flute, grand piano and a small army of drummers and percussionists -- as well as its DJ. (Some things, it seems, simply can't be unplugged).

Frontman Speech explains, during the intro to "Mr. Wendal," that bringing in these extra instruments helped broaden the group's sound, bringing in a wider range of African elements instead of relying on the "eensiest slice" of African music that shows up in rap and contemporary R&B. And Arrested Development makes good use of the opportunity, particularly when "Natural" is followed by a stirring kalimba-and-drum interlude featuring the group's dancer.

But what about the other aspects of rap video? What about its sexism? Its violence? Its rampant materialism?

Arrested Development isn't down with any of that. In fact, the group makes an active effort to wean its audience away from such videogenic palliatives, stressing instead the positive values community, cultural awareness and personal pride. "The Getting" goes so far as to suggest that gents will have better luck with the ladies if they put less effort into fancy clothes, and more into being themselves, while the intro to "U" includes the suggestion that "the most revolutionary thing black people can do is stay together and make more black families." Word.

Arrested Development doesn't mind preaching and teaching, no doubt about it. But that hardly keeps this crew from rocking the house, and if the amount of energy they uncork during "U" or "Fishin' 4 Religion" is any indication, they'd do well to unplug more often.

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