In a profile of Arrested Development for Musican magazine, Jon Young mused, “Rarely have morality and killer beats been paired more effectively.” Just when hip-hop seemed inextricably bound up in the “gangsta” aesthetic, the group appeared with its hopeful message, Afrocentric politics, and distinctive, earthy sound. First capturing listeners with their reflective single “Tennessee,” they racked up sales and awards, endured the inevitable backlash, and prepared to weather the storms of the music industry. “We try to make people aware of issues they may not be aware of,” the group’s leader, Speech, told Billboard. “Also, we attempt to make fly music that might expand what hip-hop is all about.”
Though the band originated in the southern United States—and gained considerable attention for its rural southern style—Speech did not. He was born Todd Thomas in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1968, the very year that civil rights trailblazer Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Thomas’s parents divorced, and he ended up in the custody of his mother, who ran a newspaper,
Members include Ajile (joined group 1994), dancer; Kwesi Asuo (joined group 1994), DJ; Rasa Don (born Donald Jones), percussionist; Montsho Eshe, dancer; Dionne Farris (left group 1993), singer; Foley (joined group 1994), bassist; Headliner (born Timothy Barnwell, c. 1968, in Savannah, GA), DJ and rapper; Nadirah (joined group 1994), singer; Baba Oje (born c. 1930), spiritual adviser and performer; Speech (born Todd Thomas in 1968 in Milwaukee, WI), singer, rapper, and songwriter; Aerie Tarée (born Tarée Jones, c. 1974), dancer.
Performing and recording group formed by Speech and Headliner, 1988—. With other members, group signed with Chrysalis Records, 1991, and released debut album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…, 1992; contributed song “Revolution” to Malcolm X film soundtrack, 1993; appeared on Lollapalooza Tour, 1993; guests at U.S. presidential inaugural festivities, Washington, DC, 1993; appeared on MTV Unplugged and released recording of performance, 1993; toured with En Vogue, 1993; performed in South Africa, 1994.
Awards: Quadruple-platinum award for debut album, 1993; Grammy awards for best new artist and best rap album, 1993; Soul Train Music Award, 1993; Best Rap Video of the Year, MTV, 1993; named Band of the Year by Rolling Stone, 1993; Album of the Year honors from Musician and the Village Voice, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Chrysalis Records/ERG, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104. Management —Bart Phillips, Entertainment Resources International, 9380 SW 72nd St. Suite B-220, Miami, FL 33173. Life Music Foundation —c/o Milwaukee Community Journal, 3612 Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr., Milwaukee, WI 53212.
the Milwaukee Community Journal; years later he would write a column for the paper titled “20th Century African.”
Thomas’s mother took him and his brother Terry on trips to Africa, though at the time this ancestral journey had little impact on him. During the summers of his youth, however, he visited his paternal grandmother in Ripley, Tennessee. His experiences there—picking crops, exploring—proved deeply resonant. “Up North I was playing with video games,” Speech was quoted as saying in Vibe. “Down South I had the grass and the fields.” As he explained to Touré of the Source, “The rural South is a place where a lot of the African traditions are still here in their rawest form from when our ancestors were here as slaves.”
Thomas headed South in 1987, chasing his vision. “I wasn’t too good a student in high school, so regular college wasn’t really an option,” he told Young. “But my mother wanted me to have some kind of higher education, and you have to respect your parents! I studied music at the Art Institute of Atlanta because it didn’t have strict academic criteria and I became a great student.” It was there that he met Timothy Barnwell, a Georgia native who would later call himself Headliner and serve as Arrested Development’s DJ. Danyel Smith of Vibe cited Barnwell’s recollection of their acquaintance: “Once I met Speech, my outlook on life totally changed in an instant.” Todd Thomas explained the derivation of his own stage name to the Source: “I was a DJ back in Milwaukee and they used to call me Peach’ because I’m light-skinned,” and added, “When I started rhyming more, I put an ‘S’ to it so it had more sense than ’Peach. ’”
Speech and Headliner formed a rap group heavily influenced by the prevailing “gangsta” style. “We knew we wanted to be in rap and that was the stuff that was really catching on,” Speech recounted in the Musician interview with Young. “But after a while it didn’t feel right. We realized it wasn’t just about making money, it was about expressing inner feelings, and we had a lot more to say than ’bitch’ and ’ho.’” Part of this realization came from hearing “Rebel Without a Pause” and other politically charged rap songs by the innovative group Public Enemy, which galvanized the two aspiring rap artists to pursue something deeper. “My parents had been involved in the civil-rights struggle,” Speech told Keith Moerer of Request, “but ’Rebel Without a Pause’ put it in more youthful terms, put it with a bass sound and screeching noise and a hard rap, and it sort of got through my thick skull. It opened a new world to me in a five-minute period.”
Speech and Headliner began to put their vision of “Life Music” together, predicated on spirituality and the regeneration of the black community. They received counsel from Baba Oje, an elder statesman of Afrocentrism whom they met on the Art Institute campus and who became the group’s “spiritual adviser.” They were then joined by Speech’s cousin Montsho Eshe, a teenaged dancer who lent a striking visual component to their live appearances. They next met drummer Rasa Don and his fiancée, singer Dionne Farris, both of whom went backstage after an early performance and ended up joining the fledgling band. Arrested Development takes its name from the historic plight of black people: “We saw the state of the black community as being in a state of arrested development,” Speech informed Touré. “So we wanted to constantly remind ourselves of what we wanted to get beyond”.
It took a long time for Arrested Development to negotiate a record deal. Originally set to release a single, the group recorded an album’s worth of material before signing with Chrysalis Records. Indeed, the amount of time consumed by the process—from formation to contract—is reflected in the record’s title. 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of … hit the stores in 1992. With its exuberant grooves, blues and upbeat funk samples, and overall celebratory vibe, the record fulfilled its claim of being “Life Music.” Yet it took two deaths within a few days of each other in 1991—of Speech’s grandmother and his brother Terry—to provoke the spiritual and emotional voyage that resulted in the release’s hit single “Tennessee.”
Ancestral landscapes serve as the basis for the impassioned exploration of identity and purpose in “Tennessee.” The song uses a sample from funk-rock pioneer Prince’s “Alphabet St.” as a point of departure, incorporating a loping groove, Farris’s athletic, soulful wailing, and mournful group chanting—along with Speech’s pained but ever-hopeful narrative. In the words of a Spin writer, the rapper “let something larger than him speak through him, and, like all true visions of the divine mystery, the style of its arrival was … inexplicably strange.”
MTV picked up the starkly beautiful black-and-white video for “Tennessee,” and soon the group had a strong following. The singles “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal” followed; the former features the chorus of Sly & the Family Stone’s late-1960s anthem “Everyday People” and tells of Speech’s confrontation with a rude self-proclaimed “nigga,” while the latter praises the wisdom of a homeless man he’d met. Soon the album went platinum; the band scored two Grammy awards—including the first-ever best new artist trophy awarded a rap group—as well as a Soul Train Music Award, an MTV nod for best rap video, honors from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Band of the Year kudos from Rolling Stone.
Arrested Development joined the alternative-rock festival Lollapalooza in 1993: “We want the brothers and the sisters from the ’hood to come out and see us,” proclaimed Speech in Us. The group also put out an Unplugged album from a live MTV appearance and contributed the song “Revolution” to the soundtrack of maverick filmmaker Spike Lee’s Malcolm X; Lee had offered to direct one of their videos, but they turned him down. “Arrested Development is the total package—the look, the roots, the music, the live drummer,” Lee remarked in Vibe. “And I think it’s the further evolution of rap.”
Indeed, Arrested Development’s celebration in the mainstream press as “anti-gangsta” led to something of a backlash from hardcore rappers and their supporters, who seemed to suspect the group of exploiting the white establishment’s fantasies of happy, peace-loving blacks. What often got lost in such claims was Arrested Development’s espousal of revolution. “We’re not trying to be an opposite voice [to hardcore], just another voice,” Speech insisted in the Musician interview. “Instead of being seen as part of the pie—one perspective on black reality—some people in the media tried to use Arrested Development as their voice and say, This is the way hip-hop needs to be. ’ We never took the stance that our form of hip-hop was the only form of hip-hop.”
Perhaps the greatest honor awarded the group was the chance to play at the celebration marking black South African hero Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as the first president in the nation’s post-apartheid era. Their appearance there—and at U.S. President Bill Clinton’s inaugural festivities in January of 1993—suggested that in the minds of many, Arrested Development represented hope for the future and had become a musical symbol for positive, peaceful change.
But the tremendous success and visibility brought dis-sention and difficulties. Speech had acquired a reputation for being domineering; after an alleged altercation during the group’s tour with soul-pop divas En Vogue, Farris departed, though she’d always been touted as a guest artist and was busily pursuing a solo career. Other personnel changes ensued, and Headliner was moved from DJ to co-rapper, his place at the turntables taken by new member Kwesi Asuo. Stalwart jazz and funk bassist Foley also joined the lineup, as did singer Nadirah and dancer Ajile.
Despite Speech’s claims to the contrary, some industry observers feel that Headliner was pushed aside in the shuffle. “It’s very sad,” the latter lamented in Vibe. “This business has no avenue for feelings. It’s money, money, money, money. Let’s make money. If you’re not making money, let’s move on. It’s a band, but it’s really a business at this point.”
And business called. Arrested Development’s sophomore album Zingalamaduni —named after a Swahili word meaning “a beehive of culture”—appeared in mid-1994. As Speech explained in Billboard, the title was chosen to celebrate the group’s philosophy about its increased use of samples. “Every time you sample notes,” he claimed, “you’re also sampling the spirit of whomever you’re sampling.” The album failed to take off as its predecessor had, due in part to the even greater stranglehold of gangsta rap and Arrested Development’s lack of novelty.
Reviews of Zingalamaduni were mixed:Rolling Stone declared that the band “ecstatically combine group dynamics and solo rebel spirit” and awarded the album four stars, and Entertainment Weekly’s Greg Sandow called the record “as appealing—and artistically deep—as any pop album you’re likely to hear. “Spin, meanwhile, was more ambivalent, and Entertainment Weekly writer Michael Walker, endeavoring a few weeks after the magazine’s favorable review to explain the album’s lack of immediate success, lamented Arrested Development’s tendency to “shove peace, love, and understanding (and a nearly unpronounceable album title) [down their] audience’s throat.”
But even in the face of a possible sophomore slump, Arrested Development appeared ready for the long haul. Speech bought a house in Georgia (satisfying the need for land he had sung about in songs like “Ache’n for Acres”), looked forward to the birth of his child, and continued to write his column for his mother’s paper, which also serves as the base for the group’s Life Music Foundation. He was emphatic in a Musician interview: “We’re gonna be around for 10 or 12 years, at least,” he declared. “In that time I feel confident that we’ll be able to do all the things we want to do. Someday we’d like people to be able to look back at 12 different albums and say ’Dang, they did some fly stuff.’”
3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of...(includes “Tennessee,” “People Everyday,” and “Mr. Wendal”), 1992. Unplugged, 1993.
(Contributors) Malcolm X (soundtrack; appear on “Revolution”), Qwest, 1993.
Zingalamaduni (includes “Ache’n for Acres”), 1994.
Billboard, April 23, 1994.
Black Beat, June 1994.
Ebony, November 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992; December 25, 1992; June 17, 1994; July 29, 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 20, 1994.
Musician, November 1992; June 1994.
People, August 17, 1992.
Request, December 1992.
Rolling Stone, January 7, 1993; June 30, 1994.
Source, September 1992.
Spin, July 1992; December 1992; January 1993; July 1994.
Time, August 17, 1992; August 8, 1994.
us, August 1993.
Wòe, August 1994.
Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1992.
Members: Timothy "Headliner" Barnwell, vocals (born New Jersey, 26 July 1967); Rasa Don, drums (Donald Jones; born New Jersey, 22 November 1968); Montsho Eshe, dancer, choreographer (Temelca Garther; born Georgia, 23 December 1974); Dionne Farris, vocals (born Bordentown, New Jersey, 1969); Baba Oje, spiritual advisor (born Laurie, Mississippi, 15 May 1932); Aerle Taree, vocals (Taree Jones; born Wisconsin, 10 January 1973); Todd "Speech" Thomas, vocals (born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 25 October 1968).
Best-selling album since 1990: 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life of . . . (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Tennessee," "People Everyday," "Mr. Wendel"
Southern hip-hop collective Arrested Development burst onto the popular music scene in 1992 with a quadruple platinum debut album, three Top 10 singles, and two Grammy Awards. Although they failed to build upon their phenomenal early success, in their short career Arrested Development was influential in expanding the geographic, demographic, and thematic scope of hip-hop. Their many references to life in the rural South prefigured such later southern "alt-rap" groups as Goodie Mob and Nappy Roots, while their introspective lyrics and eclectic inclusion of gospel, blues, and soul elements helped paved the way for artists such as the Fugees and Lauryn Hill.
The founders of Arrested Development, Todd "Speech" Thomas and Timothy "DJ Headliner" Barnwell, met in the late 1980s while students at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Although they initially formed a "gangsta" rap group called Disciples of Lyrical Rebellion, the music of Public Enemy inspired them to reinvent themselves as a more socially conscious, politically minded group. Renaming themselves Arrested Development, Speech and DJ Headliner gradually added new members to their growing collective, including dancers Montsho Eshe and Aerle Taree, percussionist Rasa Don, singer Dionne Farris, and eventually "spiritual advisor" Baba Oje, whom Speech had known from his childhood. The group moved into the same house and began recording music together. In March 1992 they released their debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . ., reportedly named after the amount of time it took the group to secure a record deal.
3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . was an instant critical and commercial sensation, thanks in large part to the album's first single, "Tennessee." An unabashedly spiritual and personal song inspired by the deaths of Speech's brother and grandmother, "Tennessee" finds the narrator addressing God, who directs him to seek the self-knowledge and peace of mind he craves by returning to his old family home in Ripley, Tennessee. Bolstered by the refrain's upbeat, heartfelt chorus asking God to "Let me understand your plan," Speech connects his own personal grief and confusion to the larger historical grief of African Americans: "Now I see the importance of history / Why people be in the mess that they be / Many journeys to freedom made in vain / By brothers on the corner playin ghetto games." "Tennessee"'s combination of vulnerability and gentle wisdom was a marked departure from the more confrontational political rap of artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One, and critics and listeners quickly embraced Arrested Development as a group whose "positive" message sought to unify a troubled and racially divided culture.
3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . tackles a variety of high-profile issues, from feminism ("Mama's Always on the Stage") and the environment ("Children Play with Earth") to homelessness ("Mr. Wendel"). On the album's second single, "People Everyday," Arrested Development explicitly distance themselves from the "gangsta" posturing then popular in mainstream hip-hop. Taking its tune and chorus from the old Sly and the Family Stone hit "Everyday People" (1968), the track depicts the narrator reluctantly yet successfully defending himself and a female companion from a group of thuggish "brothers" drinking "the 40 ounce" and "holdin' their crotches and bein' obscene." The album further distinguishes itself from the hip-hop of the day by departing from its traditional grounding in inner-city culture. Instead, it draws from the black folk traditions of the rural South, adding bluesy vocals and gospel-tinged call-and-response singing to its raps.
3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . ended up being one of the most successful albums of 1992. It scored three major hits, and went on to sell some 4 million copies, and the group was named Band of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine. In late 1992 the band contributed the song "Revolution" to the soundtrack of the highly anticipated movie Malcolm X. In February 1993 Arrested Development won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for "Tennessee" and became the first hip-hop act to win a Grammy for Best New Artist. A month later, Arrested Development released Unplugged, a live recording of all the tracks from their debut (with the exception of "Tennessee"), along with a few remixes and three new tracks. Although the album failed to sell as well as its predecessor, it sold well enough to keep the group in the public eye, and the group spent the summer of 1993 headlining the popular Lollapalooza alternative music tour.
By the time Arrested Development released their second studio album, Zingalamaduni, in the summer of 1994, the original group was beginning to fall apart. Emboldened by the attention her vocals on "Tennessee" had won her, singer Farris had left to pursue a solo career. Meanwhile, Speech had rearranged the group's lineup, making Headliner a co-rapper and adding a few new members.
In keeping with its Swahili title (meaning "beehive of culture"), Zingalamaduni both lyrically and musically expanded upon the Afrocentric philosophy hinted at in Arrested Development's debut. Unlike 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . ., however, Zingalamaduni failed to make much of an impact with critics, who found it unfocused, shrilly political, and lacking any song on par with "Tennessee." Commercially, the album was also a bit of a letdown, selling half a million copies. Arrested Development broke up in 1996.
That same year Speech went solo with a self-titled album, which, although it resulted in the minor hit "Like Marvin Gaye Said (What's Going On)," sold poorly. Speech followed up with Hoopla in 1999. Although his solo career never brought him the same level of success as Arrested Development did, Speech continued to perform and record, releasing the critically acclaimed Spiritual People in late 2002.
Despite having one of the biggest breakthrough albums of 1992, Arrested Development never parlayed their initial success into a long-term career. Nonetheless, their rootsy, southern-influenced instrumentation and spiritual, positive raps proved influential on the popular music of the decade.
3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of . . . (Chrysalis, 1992); Unplugged (Chrysalis, 1993); Zingalamaduni (Chrysalis, 1994); Classic Masters (Capitol, 2002). Soundtrack: Malcolm X (Warner Bros., 1992).