Road to success and setbacks leads hip-hop
artist Speech to his calling
It’s past business hours on a Wednesday night, and the parking lot of Victory Spot, an art school in Fayetteville, is packed. Just through the front door, the faint sounds of a little voice singing can be heard to the left, laughing kids in the back and there’s a small meeting taking place in the lobby.
Sitting in the middle of the five-person circle is Todd “Speech” Thomas, hip-hop artist and leader of the music group Arrested Development. Dressed in a white, buttoned-up business shirt and overalls rolled up at the ankle, paint splattered on the legs, his fashion sense from his 1990s Grammy-winning days still remains.
Speech adjourns the meeting and prepares to close shop for the night with his wife and 20-year road manager, Yolanda Thomas. But first he strolls the halls to check on the voice coming from the “orange room.”
Eleven-year-old Orion Young is standing straight, eyes forward, singing her heart out. Her mother and voice instructor Nichelle Young, sitting behind a vintage Wurlitzer electric piano, is coaching her through the song “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pocahontas” soundtrack.
Speech walks in, offering wild applause as she finishes. It’s something about kids like Orion that takes Speech back more than 20 years when life, loss and youthful mistakes created the foundation for this very moment.
Pain begets a hit
Speech was a 21-year-old college student at The Art Institute of Atlanta when he penned the 1992 hip-hop gem “Tennessee.”
It’s a song that wasn’t supposed to be on Arrested Development’s first album. It came at the emotional expense of the grieving band leader.
Speech had just made a trip to Henning, Tenn., to bury his grandmother, Ardenia Churn, who had died of a heart attack. Her unexpected death shook the family to the core. Barely a week later, Speech’s older brother Terry Thomas, an obstetrician, died of an asthma attack. He was 29.
“My father had not gotten home from burying grandma and had to tell my mother that her son had died,” Speech recalls. “I felt like Job, like the world was closing in.”
Writing from a dark place, words of frustration and sadness poured from his pen like a waterfall.
My grandma past my brother’s gone, I never at once felt so alone.
I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel, not just my spare tire.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Speech spent summers with his grandmother learning the simple life of Southern living. Target practice in the open field. Bathing in a tub of water gathered from a 10-foot well. He was exposed to the things a young man needed to learn to be self-sufficient, soulful and connected.
The last place Speech saw his grandmother and brother together was in Tennessee. The feeling that he may be next to die was heavy on his heart. So he began to write a song as a cry to God.
But Lord, I ask you,
to be my guiding force and truth.
For some strange reason it had to be,
he guided me to Tennessee.
For three years, Speech and five college friends had been on the music chase, and now this band of hippie-soul musicians had a solid and complete LP in the bag.
Arrested Development had all the essential ingredients for a rap group: a rapper (Speech), a DJ (Timothy “Headliner” Barnwell), a hype man (Rasa Don), singers (Aerle Taree and Dionne Farris), a dancer (Montsho Eshe), and 70-year-old adviser (Baba Oje). They were visually fresh and reflective of many black communities.
“We saw the community in a state of arrested development,” Speech says. “And we chose that name as a reminder of what our music should fight against.”
“Conscience rap” wasn’t new in 1992. Artists such as Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul had already emerged as the voices of reason, purpose and black pride in music. They were forward thinking, pushing hip-hop to what it could be.
What “Tennessee” distinctly exemplified at the time was that it was the only record on radio with a rapper talking to God.
Arrested Development had a signed record deal, but their label was being bought out by EMI Records. Now EMI was starting to do a little house cleaning, and artists were being let go.
Speech’s new song “Tennessee,” went against hip-hop’s norm, yet he was adamant about the song being the first release on the album. Then the group released a bold, black and white music video packed with images of the South, African-culture dancing, dreadlocks and six musicians singing and rapping about God.
“(EMI) could have dropped us, but they saw the music video,” Speech recalls. “Those little decisions made the whole difference to hip-hop, me and the group.”
What followed was a fast track up the pop charts, world tours, awards and a ride on the road to success faster than the 20-something kids could have imagined.
‘Eve of Reality’
Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, R.E.M., Nirvana and Janet Jackson were all guests at the 1993 MTV Music Awards. Arrested Development was in their midst. Their three singles “Tennessee,” “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal” had all made Billboard’s Top 10. It was only fitting that the “Band of the Year,” a title declared by Rolling Stone magazine, would be a featured act on the show.
Arrested Development was nominated for Best Rap Video. Comedian Martin Lawrence, who had one of the hottest sitcoms on television, called the underdogs’ name as winner, besting other hip-hop powerhouses like Dr. Dre and Naughty by Nature. Group members took to the stage, excited and overwhelmed by the honor.
Despite just winning a coveted award in hip-hop, having a multi-platinum album and being the talk of the town, something was eating at Speech as he sat in the audience for the remainder of the show.
“What now,” he asked himself.
Reflecting back, he believes it was the first time God had started tugging at him to reveal his path. He was also dealing with fractures beginning to threaten the band members’ relationships.
Just a year earlier, Headliner had challenged Speech over ownership of the band. He issued an ultimatum about the finances — they would split it 50-50 or he wouldn’t tour with the group. They eventually went to court and settled on a 60-40 split, with majority ownership going to Speech.
Soon after that dispute was settled, Arrested Development was preparing for their first show of the Funky Divas tour with the R&B female group En Vogue. Speech was already a little nervous about going on stage in Atlanta at the Fox Theatre. This was home. Family and friends were in the audience.
Backstage, Speech was approached by Dionne Farris, owner of the voice that propelled “Tennessee” to a soulful height. According to Headliner, she asked for an extra $100 for her services that night. But Speech believes Farris, who did not respond to requests for comment, started the argument at the defense of Headliner and the outcome of the settlement.
A shouting match ensued between Farris and Speech. He fired her, she quit — all minutes before showtime.
Without a singer to belt out the bridge of one of their biggest songs, Speech brought on young singer and friend Nadirah Shakoor at the last minute. Everything was falling apart way too early. This was not just a music group of business people — it was family.
But before the group could grasp the next rung on the ladder to the top, they were already falling down.
Going it alone
Yolanda Middleton was in line at the post office on Briarcliff Road in DeKalb one day when she met the lead singer of one of the biggest hip-hop groups in the nation. But the strictly R&B fan had never heard of Arrested Development. Speech was literally at a loss of words when he first saw her standing in line wearing a long burgundy dress and black stiletto heels with her hair in a bun.
For a master of words, Speech couldn’t think of how to start a conversation with Yolanda. Waiting 20 minutes for her to finish up inside, Speech approached Yolanda in the parking lot with a pickup line that rappers before and after him would use.
“Yo, I’m shooting a video called “Natural” in two weeks and would love for you to be my love interest in this video,” he laughs reminiscing.
“I was not a video vixen,” Yolanda says. “So I waited to call him three weeks later knowing he would have had to find someone else.”
The two married in 1995 and have two kids, Jahi and Zoe. Yolanda would eventually become Speech’s road manager.
While Speech was starting a personal union, his group was slowly breaking up. There was no announcement, no press conference. There were no insults on social media — Twitter and Facebook were nearly a decade away. The battle, however, was over the contract.
After the first tour, the group was beckoned to release an unplugged album. They turned in a rushed sophomore record to the label. It was doomed from the start. For much of the album, Speech and Headliner recorded their parts separately.
When “Zingalamaduni” was released in the summer of 1994, the band’s fate was clear. The album peaked at No. 55 on Billboard charts, and only hit No. 20 on the Hip-Hop/R&B albums charts. It barely sold 500,000 copies, despite its critical acclaim and Grammy nomination.
Speech knew it was time to focus on a solo career, but his first effort only sold 15,000 records in the U.S.
“When people say that God closes a door and opens a window, people don’t understand that God is millions of steps ahead of us,” Speech says.
He was invited to go on tour with Hootie & the Blowfish in 1996 — a move that reintroduced him to the fans and ultimately saved his music career.
While on tour with Hootie, Speech was still trying to overcome the feelings of defeat. He was making $1,000 a show with a seven-piece band, paying $300 per band member. It was impossible for the ends to meet.
Speech was on the phone with his manager, commiserating over the music charts, as he thumbed through a copy Billboard magazine one day. That’s when he inadvertently discovered that his song “Like Marvin Said (What’s Going On)” was No. 1 in Japan for the seventh week in a row.
In a new direction
To capitalize on the success of his single in Japan, Speech dropped out of the tour with Hootie to start his own tour in Asia and Europe.
But first, he auditioned a slew of singers, including Nicha Hillard who was hired for the tour.
Hillard was a member of a non-denominational Atlanta Church of Christ, and she often invited Speech and Yolanda to join her at a service some Sunday. After six months, the two finally gave in and went.
“We hated it!” Speech recalls. “It was a primarily an all-white service and the people there were too ‘happy,’ smiling all the time, hugging. For some reason, unknown to us, we still went back the next week.”
Speech thought he knew the Bible well enough. But when he sat in a circle with church members, he was exposed to a new perspective of the Bible. He realized that fame had become his standard in life. He decided it was time to go in a new direction.
“When you think about the Bible, it will humble you, because you will realize that none of your accolades is anything compared to God.
“It was very humbling. I had a new child, a new marriage, and ultimately a new career. At the same time, I still was depressed at the lack of success from (Arrested Development). Before I became a Christian, I was cheating on my wife with girlfriends in different countries. Studying the Bible, I realized I was not everything I thought I was. I knew nothing.”
After six weeks of visiting the church and studying the Bible, Speech confessed his sins and was baptized with Yolanda. The first song he wrote after being baptized was titled “Moving On.”
The residual effect of Arrested Development’s impact overseas allowed Speech to enjoy a comfortable life touring as a solo artist. Still, Arrested Development was behind him for now. He started his own label, Vagabond Productions, and opened an office not far from his house on a lake in Fayetteville.
“I honestly wasn’t thinking of (Arrested Development),” he said. “I was so content with being a Christian, and my new life was changing.”
In 1999, original member Montsho Eshe reached out to Speech about reuniting the band. But the time wasn’t right. There was still too much hurt and feelings of betrayal among some members — specifically Headliner.
“I am sure that his pain was something that he couldn’t overcome at that time,” Speech says. “I questioned myself about what I did with Headliner — literally all the time. Over and over again. At that time, I didn’t know... I couldn’t understand what his beef was.”
Speech ran into Farris about 10 years after their fallout at the same venue, the Fox Theatre. They coincidently sat near each other at a Prince concert. Speech wrote a note to her during the show, asking for forgiveness and to make amends. The two hugged.
Speech and Headliner met around Memorial Day last year for lunch to talk about the group’s brand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to discuss a possible reunion.
Not truly knowing how the conversation would play out, they mostly talked about their families with just a little business. Headliner had released music under the Arrested Development name and Speech reminded him of the contract agreement, only Speech was able to release new music under the band’s name. The two men, once considered brothers, politely left the lunch meeting without a clear resolution.
A hub for expression
In 2001, Speech finally rounded up some new members and began making music again under the name Arrested Development. Last year, the group toured in Japan, Europe, Singapore and the Philippines.
In August, Speech spoke to a crowd of 3,400 people at a TEDx event in Portland. His topic was on tapping into your true spirit.
Currently the band is prepping the release of two new albums in February, “Changing the Narrative” and “This Was Never Home.”
While on tour last year, Speech, who’s always thinking of the next step, was reminded by Yolanda of their idea to turn their Vagabond Productions office building into an art school. After a few months of renovations, they opened Victory Spot.
The school started in October with 15 students. The couple hope it becomes a hub for kids and adults to express themselves by learning from musicians who have found success in the industry. They range from bass players, to actors, to Emmy-award winning composers.
“Our focus now and for the future of (Victory Spot) is to make sure that the training of our students is undeniable,” Yolanda says of the new venture. “We want to continue to be a school that teaches integrity, self-respect, laser focus and professionalism. We expect our students to work toward excellence in their talent.”
Before they opened the doors, Speech stood with his wife in the lobby.
He took a gander of the place as if it was his first time in the building, despite owning it for 20 years. His eyes started to swell with emotion. He realized at that moment that the prayer he had prayed to God 24 years ago in a hit song had come true.
God had directed him to this place.
“I’ve learned that the journey is the destination. I’m still on a journey... You never arrive. The journey is the destination.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Staff writer Ryon Horne was 14 when he first heard of Arrested Development, and became an instant fan of the group’s music. Four years later, Ryon met the group’s leader, Speech, at a church service in Atlanta. Having known Speech now for nearly 20 years, Horne had heard bits about his journey as an artist and a Christian. With Speech embarking a new chapter, now seemed like a good time to delve deeper into his past and explore its impact on his present and future.
Tracy L. Brown
Deputy Managing Editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Ryon Horne is an award-winning filmmaker and video journalist. He joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 15 years ago and has been the company’s video and audio producer for eight years, covering breaking news, entertainment, sports and features.