Arrested Development took the light, funky sound of the Native Tongues school of hip-hop (De La Soul, Queen Latifah), blended in the folk-blues instrumentation of their native South (harmonica, acoustic guitars), added uplifting, gospel-tinged lyrics, and became one of the most successful crossover acts in rap. On the strength of its first single, "Tennessee" (#6 pop, #1 R&B), the group's 1992 debut album shot to #13 (#3 R&B).
Born in Milwaukee and raised part-time in Ripley, Tennessee, Todd Thomas grew up listening to a wide range of artists, from Kiss to Parliament/Funkadelic. His father owned a disco, but by high school he was a budding DJ who listened exclusively to hip-hop. In 1987 he moved to Georgia to study at the Art Institute of Atlanta. There he met Tim Barnwell, a New Jersey native raised in the coastal Georgia city of Savannah. After an initial, unsuccessful attempt at gangsta rap under the name Disciples of a Lyrical Rebellion, Thomas and Barnwell, who started going by the names Speech and DJ Headliner, reexamined their motives for wanting to make music. In 1988 they discovered the political fire-and-brimstone sound of Public Enemy and decided to change direction. Rejecting gangsta-rap expressions like "nigga," "bitch," and "ho," the two incorporated their Christian values into politically and philosophically charged songs that celebrated African-American culture and history. Inspired by Speech's belief that the black community needed spiritual rebirth, they renamed the group Arrested Development.
With the addition of drummer Rasa Don, the group's music became softer and funkier. By the time of its 1992 signing to Chrysalis, Arrested Development had expanded into a coed and multigenerational group, including "extended family" members Aerle Taree, Speech's cousin and designer of the group's clothing; dancer/choreographer Montsho Eshe; and elder spiritual advisor Baba Oje.
The group's platinum-selling debut was a critical as well as commercial success. The album produced two other hits: "People Everyday" (#8 pop, #2 R&B, 1992) and "Mr. Wendal" (#6, 1992). "Tennessee" featured the singer Dionne Farris, another "extended member" who ultimately left the group and had her own Top 10 single, "I Know," in 1995. The non-LP single "Revolution," recorded for Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, reached #90 (#49 R&B, 1992). In 1993 Arrested Development's performance on MTV's Unplugged (#38 R&B) was issued on CD, and the group participated in the third annual Lollapalooza Tour. Taree departed and three new members joined for the summer 1994 release, Zingalamaduni, which means "beehive of culture" in Swahili. That album was met mostly by ambivalence from critics and disappointing sales. Zingalamaduni eventually went gold, but by 1996 the band had officially split up.
The solo career of Speech has at least earned the attention of critics, if not fans. His 1996 self-titled solo debut album failed to chart at all, and the single "Like Marvin Gaye Said (What's Going On)" peaked at #59 R&B. He continued to write a column for the Milwaukee Community Journal, his mother's newspaper, and lectured on college campuses. In 1999 Speech released Hoopla on TVT, using strings for the first time and focusing on lyrics that were less political and more personal (though it included a version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"). That same year, Arrested Development reunited in Atlanta for its first concert in five years and recorded The Heroes of the Harvest(2002). They then began touring extensively and enjoyed some subsequent success internationally, releasing Among the Trees in 2004 and Since The Last Time in 2006.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).