Headliner’s revival

Arrested Development co-founder speaks his peace after 20 years

A few days before Christmas, Timothy Barnwell opened a present he’d been keeping under wraps for years. In the midst of cleaning out his storage unit, he stumbled upon an old touring crate full of vinyl records. These weren’t just any records. They were the actual ones he’d used more than two decades ago to construct samples for Arrested Development’s wildly successful debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of....

As he flipped through the wax, a powerful sense of nostalgia overcame him.

The smell, the look, the sound, even the feel of the grooves had always been intoxicating. He recalled his grandmother playing old 45s back in Savannah and his family dancing in the yard during low-country boils when he was a kid growing up in Hilton Head, S.C. For a spell, it was as if nothing had changed.

But reminiscing also reignited the pain. Like the records, he’d been trying to put the past behind him for years. “I kept saying I was going to just get rid of the records. I didn’t want anything to do with them.”

WHEN ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’S DEBUT dropped in 1992, it opened up a new lane in hip-hop. The band combined Afrocentricity and Southern-fried pride into a stew of sound, rhythm, and movement, featuring singing (Dionne Farris), dancing (Montsho Eshe), spoken word (Aerle Taree), drumming/visual art (Rasa Don), live turntablism (Barnwell, aka Headliner), and even an elder (Baba Oje). Rapper/vocalist Speech fronted the band, sans the genre’s hypermasculine motif. Seemingly overnight, they became a success, as AD amassed three crossover pop hits (“Tennessee,” “People Everyday,” “Mr. Wendal”), five million in worldwide sales, and two Grammy awards.

But behind the scenes, things weren’t as harmonic as they seemed. From the beginning, there were troubles. Farris, whose scorching solo at the end of “Tennessee” became the song’s signature, split from the group over financial disputes before AD even made it to the 1993 Grammy Awards.

After following up the debut with a major contribution to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X soundtrack (“Revolution”), the group’s sophomore album, Zingalamaduni, scored significantly less record sales than its predecessor. They’d made history together, becoming the first Southern hip-hop group to score crossover success while rocking locs and dashikis. Then, as quickly as they climaxed, they were gone.

But was it a fickle fan base or something deeper that sent them asunder?

It’s been 20 years, 11 months, and 21 days since the DJ formerly known as Headliner walked away from Arrested Development, the group he co-founded with Todd “Speech” Thomas. He was so tormented by the experience that he stopped listening to music altogether for years. Wanted nothing to do with it. The thing that had brought him so much joy, even before Arrested Development, became unbearable to his ears.

A friendship that once wrought hip-hop’s last conscious gasp before gangsta rap’s takeover ended with feuds over money, power, and ego. In the band’s wake, Headliner went through a period so dark that drugs became his only light.

He shunned media for years, refusing to read press about Arrested Development, while the story of his contributions to the band’s founding success were mostly lost to history. When most of the band’s original lineup participated in TV One’s popular “Behind the Music”-style documentary “Unsung” in 2012, Headliner declined to be interviewed, too busy dealing with his mother who was deathly ill at the time.

His long silence only validated many of the misconceptions regarding his role in the groundbreaking group. To this day, Speech is viewed as both front person and sole architect of the group’s sound and vision. Headliner’s contributions to the band, meanwhile, have gone largely unacknowledged or unknown by the public and the band’s fans.

After years of silence, Headliner is ready to address the past. He wants to tell his side of the story, about how a group that represented spiritual uplift succumbed to earthly trappings. Most importantly, Headliner’s version includes something seemingly missing from Speech’s official record — the role Headliner played in helping to spearhead a movement that would spark a soulful resurgence in black music over the next two decades. But he’s not bitter. He views the past as bittersweet — just like that record collection he came close to discarding after keeping it buried for years.

“When I opened the case, it started to bring back all these wonderful memories of what we had created for the world,” he says. “And I’ve always said we did something fantastic, something phenomenal, that no one else will be able to do. This is nothing but the blessings of the Most High.”

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TO SAY HEADLINER LOOKS GOOD for his age is a severe understatement. It’s usually the first thing people notice about him, especially once they learn he’s almost a year shy of 50.

“I thought you were around my age,” a stunned 28-year-old woman says after meeting him on an elevator one day in Downtown Atlanta’s M. Rich Center. It’s not feigned flattery either; turns out she’s never heard of Headliner or Arrested Development.

He gets that kind of reaction all the time, he tells me, probably owing to his youthful spirit as much as his distinctive style. He keeps his mustache pencil thin and his salt-and-pepper goatee long and straight. Up top, he wears a black fez reminiscent of the legendary Thelonious Monk. The fuchsia scarf wrapped around his neck is in honor of his mother, he says. It was her favorite color and working it into his wardrobe today is his way of keeping her close since her death in 2012.

He’s reserved the afternoon for his Creative Loafing cover shoot. But it quickly turns into an impromptu interview. At times, our talks for this story feel more like therapy sessions than conversations. Split over two separate meetings, each ends up lasting five hours for a total of 10 hours. Headliner has plenty to say, especially after keeping it bottled up for so long.

To get a sense of the intangibles Headliner contributed to the band, one only has to hang around him for a while. The pacing of his speech, his sense of style, and his creative aesthetic all evoke a Southern, spiritual aura. His Gullah roots run deep, descended from the cultural traditions of West Africans enslaved for centuries in the low country coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. Though born in New Jersey, he grew up surrounded by family in Beaufort and Hilton Head, where his mother and stepfather lived, and in Savannah, where his grandmother primarily raised him along with his brother and uncle.

He wasn’t allowed to buy secular records until around age 13 due to his grandmother’s strict Baptist upbringing. Still, music was everywhere. His older brother played the drums. His Sunday school teacher, who lived directly above them, played piano all day. And when his grandmother would give him food stamps to run to the nearby store, he couldn’t pass up the church without sticking his face against the stained-glass window to get a head-full of the revival music pulsing past the pews.

Before he’d purchased his first 12-inch, Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” he was already certain of his future as a great entertainer. But it took his aunt and uncle to convince him after high school graduation that he was wasting his talent DJing and working odd jobs in Savannah. So he followed them back to Atlanta.

Headliner still recalls the first time he met a Milwaukee native by the name of Peechy. That’s how Speech introduced himself in the cafeteria of the Art Institute of Atlanta one day in 1987. Both were attending as students when Speech noticed Headliner checking out his flier in search of a DJ.

They got together after class and headed to Speech’s apartment on Buford Highway. Headliner stayed till the wee hours that first night spinning on Speech’s fancy Technic 1200 turntables.

They would evolve in name and philosophy over the next couple of years from pseudo gangstas (Disciples of a Lyrical Rebellion) to Public Enemy sound-alikes (Secret Society). Meanwhile, extended group members came and went. (One known as DJ Nabs eventually became Kris Kross’s tour DJ.) Typically considered outsiders to Atlanta hip-hop, Arrested Development was very much a part of the local music scene in its infancy. Headliner’s girlfriend at the time was another industry hopeful named Crystal Jones, then in the midst of starting her girl group Second Nature. Atlanta industry vet Ian Burke managed both groups. L.A. Reid’s wife and burgeoning industry tastemaker Perri “Pebbles” Reid would eventually replace Jones with Rozonda “Chilli” Watkins after becoming the trio’s manager and changing the name to TLC. But Jones had the hookup with Jermaine Dupri’s father, Michael Mauldin, who took the reins of Arrested Development and eventually scored the group its record deal.

Ultimately, chasing Public Enemy’s coattails was just a formative step in discovering their own sound.

Public Enemy helped me overstand musically what we were trying to convey living in the South,” Headliner says, recalling the philosophical “fireside chats” he and Speech would engage in that helped inform the music. Headliner encouraged him to find his own voice.

“You’ll never be Chuck D,” he eventually told Peechy. “You’ve got to define who you are as an artist.”

For Headliner, that meant embracing his Southern roots. “It was already in me — how I grew up in Savannah and all the history that was instilled in us as children,” he says.

If Malcolm X was the patron saint of New York’s militant strain of conscious rap, Headliner saw Martin Luther King Jr. as the Southern firebrand they should model themselves after. Peechy eventually dropped the “y” and added an “s,” renaming himself Speech and digging deeper into his own Southern roots after the death of his grandmother, who lived in Tennessee.

They cycled through band members before settling on the extended lineup of musicians for hire that would be introduced to the world as Arrested Development. But the nucleus of the band always boiled down to the two co-founders.

“I didn’t know who was doing what,” Rasa Don says regarding the creative contributions of Headliner and Speech. His own contribution exemplifies the band’s collaborative spirit. Initially hired as a dancer, his role increased to drummer and graphic designer as they became aware of the scope of his talent. He eventually designed the official Arrested Development logo.

Over time Rasa Don began to distinguish their roles as well. “The roots and the blues, the down-home feel, that’s all Headliner,” Rasa Don says. “If you hang around him long enough, you’ll see what he brought to Arrested Development. It was a formula that he and Speech came up with together, but then when you put something together it’s hard to say what one person did or didn’t do. After he wasn’t in the band, I could really see what his element and what his role was. It was kind of like that of a quiet conductor.”

When it came to making music, Headliner was responsible for crate digging through old records to identify the samples that would become Arrested Development’s rhythm section. As Speech commands on the intro to “Children Play with Earth,” just before the beat drops: “Headliner, lay the foundation!” The break beats Headliner chose had been reverberating in his head since childhood, when he’d heard them playing on the pool hall jukebox — or the “piccolo” as they’d called it in his hometown.

Among the stacks and stacks of boxes in his storage unit sit old records and photos, contracts and legal documents, even his two Grammys and the Moon Man from the 1993 MTV Awards. He also has the original list of all the cleared samples that became DNA for the debut album. It reads like a roll call of 20th-century masters in black music: From Minnie Riperton to Prince, Ramsey Lewis to Rick James, John Lee Hooker to Quincy Jones, Sly & the Family Stone to Fishbone. Approximately 20 samples are listed.

“We both shared the vision for what was supplied musically,” Headliner says. But when Speech would use those elements to finish conceptualizing and composing songs, Headliner claims the contributions he made weren’t immediately acknowledged.

His first real inkling that things were seriously amiss occurred when he got his first look at the test pressing of the debut album. In a hotel in Tennessee, during Arrested Development’s first promotional tour, Headliner says road manager Bart Phillips handed the record to him and asked why Speech was taking all the credits for the songs if the two of them were a unit. When Headliner asked Speech about the discrepancy, he says he was told it would be corrected before the album came out.

“My brother, supposedly being my keeper, said we would change it later,” Headliner says. “That one particular lie became the journey in what Arrested Development was to become — already floating in a state of arrested development.”

HEADLINER STANDS IN FRONT of the spot where it all began more than 25 years ago. His photo shoot complete, we’ve worked our way downstairs inside the interconnected M. Rich Center. Portions of this maze of buildings in South Downtown — where Creative Loafing shares office space with a host of creative and tech organizations — date back to the late 1800s. The main building on Peachtree Street is all but abandoned now, but when it opened as the new home of the former Rich’s department store in 1907 it was heralded by press as the “handsomest store in Atlanta.” Headliner’s history here runs deep, too. It’s where he signed his first recording contract — the same one that inspired the title of Arrested Development’s debut album, 3 Years 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of..., because that was how long it took for the group to score a major-label deal. Headliner was a barber at the time, working in a salon booth called Hair Cellar on the building’s bottom floor. The Mall at 82 Peachtree St. was a typical urban flea market back then, a place to cop a mix of brand name and bootleg fashions between MLK Jr. Drive and the Five Points MARTA Station.

It was also a temporary place of refuge for Headliner during a short stint of homelessness he experienced before AD blew up. Today clutter fills the space where Timothy Barnwell once earned his double entendre of a stage name. When asked what it’s like to revisit the space where he officially launched his professional music career, he gets a gauzy look in his eyes.

“It’s painful,” he says, recalling his decision to sign the contract that day without having it independently reviewed by a lawyer first. “I’ll never forget it.”

It seems like an odd way to frame the moment that launched his career and took him around the world, performing for hundreds of thousands of fans and spreading a message of consciousness. But for Headliner, it also signifies the beginning of a period in which he would be dogged by growing resentment while attempting to overcome a steep music industry learning curve, the spoils of massive success, and the kind of mistrust that eventually turned best friends into frenemies.

The last time Headliner and Speech were together publicly wasn’t on stage but in a Flying Biscuit. The two met at the restaurant in Midtown last year, the day after Memorial Day, to see if they could hash things out. Speech was concerned about a song titled “Pension Plan” that Headliner had recently released under the name Arrested Development. Headliner maintains that he had every right to do so.

But their long-standing disagreement is much more comprehensive in scope. It includes ownership of the band and brand, profit sharing (or the lack thereof) based on contractual obligation, and disputes over song and album credits.

According to Speech’s version of events, recently retold in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution profile, Headliner challenged him for ownership of the band in 1992 by threatening not to tour unless finances were split between them 50-50. Headliner, however, asserts that they were 50-50 partners from the outset and that it was Speech who challenged that arrangement by threatening to end the group if he wasn’t granted increased ownership.

“We were 50-50 partners, and then once he realized what we had signed together as cohesive co-founders that’s when he wanted to make changes,” Headliner says. He describes the next three years as a long process of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling in which he was constantly asked to make more contractual concessions in Speech’s favor or risk seeing their bandmates — who had no ownership rights as hired musicians — kicked out.

“The threat was everybody was going to be put out of the band and there was going to be no more original members,” Headliner says. “So I sacrificed myself to give everyone a shot.”

The root of the issue was control, according to Headliner, and Speech’s vocal insistence on being seen as the leader — which contrasted with Headliner’s unspoken role as the glue of the group.

Rasa Don describes their dynamic in yin-and-yang terms: “Speech was like Malcolm and Headliner was like Martin,” he says, referring to the differing styles of the iconic Civil Rights leaders. “They come from the same place but there’s two different perspectives.”

The fundamental differences between them may run even deeper than that. While Speech maintains that he will always love Headliner and believes he deserves to be recognized as a daring person who tried revolutionary things in the name of hip-hop, “I wouldn’t consider him a co-founder,” he said via email. “Headliner was instrumental to AD because he was the first person that agreed to be in the band and he believed in my vision.”

But Speech also doesn’t deny that friction existed. “There was some real discord and problems within the group,” he told me in a 2010 interview, referring to the eventual legal battles over money he wound up fighting with former members following Zingalamaduni’s release in ‘94. “I think it came from immaturity, so on and so forth, amongst all of us.”

Long “rumored to be the source of many of the Atlanta-based group’s problems,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Sonia Murray described Speech in a 1996 article, he’s always worked to maintain a positive attitude in spite of everything.

But how did a group that embodied higher consciousness and communalism fall victim to ego trips and capitalistic greed? To this day, it contradicts the very message Arrested Development stood for. It’s also a reminder that artists, despite their best intentions, are saddled with human flaws that their artwork often transcends.

Headliner eventually received shared writing credits on six songs from the first album, though he says it’s still not reflective of his total contribution. The second album was completed without his direct input, aside from songs leftover from the 3 Years sessions.

Torn between the music he loved and the business he’d grown to hate, Headliner decided to step away from the group. “It wasn’t worth it for me anymore because the joy of doing it died,” he says. He distinctly remembers the night he decided enough was enough. It was February 14, 1995, and the group was ending its biggest Lollapalooza tour on a high note. After the show, the band met some new friends, college students who had attended the show and wanted Arrested Development to know how huge of an inspiration their music had been for them. “I still remember one of them saying, ‘I’m so happy we met you all.’ And I recall telling her, ‘I’m so happy I met you all, too, cause this is my last night.’”

He walked out of the meet-and-greet area and that was it. “I never gave it a second thought,” he says, remembering how he looked forward to finally getting some rest. Instead, he was greeted with “more contractual stuff,” he says, laughing in hindsight.

Even though the band’s lineup has continued to evolve over the last two decades, Headliner says he maintains a 40 percent stake in all publishing and record royalties for all music recorded under the name Arrested Development and a 50-50 split of touring and merchandising. Yet he says he hasn’t received any money owed outside of royalty payments in the last 20 years. But he hasn’t put up much of a fight for it, either.

The battle for his life, on the other hand, became an all consuming one in the years following Arrested Development.

(“Headliner’s in consistent contact with me and the present AD staff about moneys earned and spent,” Speech said via email. “We, of course, hope to keep discussions like this between the people involved, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the press and public.”)

ON THE NIGHT Arrested Development’s “Unsung” episode aired on TV One, Headliner didn’t bother to watch. He’d declined interview requests from producers of the popular docuseries. His mother was nearing death at the time and he was too involved with that reality to entertain his past drama. But other former members who interviewed for the show — including Farris and Taree — echoed similar versions of his story regarding financial disputes with Speech. He knew the episode had aired once he began hearing from longtime friends who called to express shock after discovering how tumultuous things had been behind the scenes.

By 2012, he’d put Arrested Development in his rearview. He’d even declined to take part in a band reunion a decade earlier. He’d also faced new battles in the industry. Through his own company, CoatTail Productions, he helped cultivate other talent including former choreographer turned current music industry heavyweight Devyne Stephens. But the people handling his business affairs were mismanaging his funds. He eventually learned that he’d naively signed over power of attorney. The resulting financial turmoil only added to the dark descent he was experiencing as a result of drugs. He’d started dabbling during his stressful years on the road with Arrested Development, but his usage grew in subsequent years.

He knew he’d bottomed out when an old friend of his saw a picture of him one day and told him he looked like he was smoking crack, he says. That was the kind of thing people said all the time in the ’90s when someone looked unusually skinny. It was typically meant as a joke. But in this case, Headliner knew it was no laughing matter.

“There’s that old cliché about success: ‘It’s lonely at the top.’ Well, I wasn’t at the top, I was at the bottom. I was at my lowest,” he says. “I just felt the walls closing in on me, so when I had the chance to do cocaine I did it. But I never did it to a point where I intentionally wanted to hurt anybody. I was just hurting me.”

The hurt was compounded by his personal disappointment over failed friendships and sabotaged business deals. His recovery began while living in Miami with his then-girlfriend. She popped in a Bob Marley & the Wailers CD one day despite his objections. “I told you I don’t wanna hear no music,” he told her. She ignored him and proceeded to play “Three Little Birds.” He’d been a huge reggae fan growing up and when the song started, it spoke to him: “Don’t worry about a thing/’cause every little thing gonna be alright.” Listening to that song each morning became a daily ritual.

“I challenged myself to be better,” he says. Therapy helped him come to terms with his own inability to say no — to himself and others — and the damage that had done. “It took many, many years to see the light. I didn’t begin to fully enjoy my life again until about five years ago.”

Since his mother passed in 2012, he’s been undergoing his own rebirth. It started when the Broadway hit Fela! came to Atlanta around that time. Rasa Don was selected as a local ambassador for the tour, so he called his old friend up and invited him to take part in the red carpet celebration and panel discussion. Unbeknownst to Headliner, it was scheduled to take place on his old stomping grounds in the renovated M. Rich Center. He began to forge a relationship with the building’s new owners and management and soon became a constant presence in the building. It brought him full circle from his time there two decades ago as a barber and struggling musician to the music industry vet and accomplished artist he is today.

Meanwhile, he and Rasa Don began new endeavors, combining their years of experience into a full production house called Creative Royalty. One of their productions, “The Traveling Tim Dandy Show,” is a mix of live performance and animation in which Headliner is depicted as a military drill sergeant who uses music and games to ease kids into the learning process. They’re in the process of starting a new band and filming a docuseries telling Headliner’s story. Headliner also runs his own children’s edutainment brand, the Sandtown All-Stars.

But it’s Headliner’s visual art that bears the closest resemblance to his legacy with Arrested Development. Using elements reflective of his coastal upbringing (mussel shells, bird feathers, dried rose and hydrangea petals) he produces mixed-media works that bear the stamp of his Southern identity. “I’ve always had that kaleidoscope of spiritual energy in me,” he says.

Despite the unresolved business between him and Speech, he says he hasn’t allowed that to taint their legacy. They were all young artists at the time. And when success came, it came without a rulebook on how to navigate the business.

“My love for Todd as a human being is A-100, because all of us are made up differently,” he says. “It was a great point in our life where we traveled together and did some awesome things. It is my utmost hope that others who experienced us have a greater outlook on life. That’s what the band was supposed to do, help to uplift and not destroy or leave a person in a state of stagnation.”

For Headliner, the best redemption is being able to live his life in a space of wellness again. The roller coaster ride long behind him, he says he’s never been in a better place. “I’m at peace,” he says. “Sharing the story is very therapeutic. It’s helping me to realize a lot of great times and a lot of treacherous times.”

He also hopes fans will benefit from him telling his truth without thinking less of the band’s legacy.

“It’s not negative, it’s the truth,” he says. “It’s 2016 and I’ve got to tell my story. I just hope people won’t see me as a villain. And when they see me, perhaps they won’t see me as the person that didn’t contribute anything to the band. Because I contributed my all. It’s like a bittersweet release. It’s hard to hear great music and know the story behind it is so crushing. I hope it doesn’t change people’s perspective on what they loved.”