From Tennessee to Home (AJC Article)

By Ryon Horne
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photos by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne, except where indicated

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.

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Mike Mullis