Artist Spotlight: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony

When one thinks of iconic rap groups of the 90s, several names should immediately leap to mind: Wu-Tang, Tribe, De La Soul, maybe Outkast (arguably more of a 00s phenomenon), if we’re feeling ambitious, maybe Company Flow. Yet if that list does not include these quick-spitting, smooth voiced dudes from the harsh, bleak, hopeless streets of Cleveland, Ohio, it can’t help but seem incomplete. As cruel as the Key & Peele sketch is, it does have a point — these guys were HUMONGOUS in their prime, seemingly everywhere, popping up in movie soundtracks, being featured alongside some of the biggest names in rap, and earning one platinum certification after another with their own releases. And nowadays, nobody ever talks about them, except as nostalgia bait. I’m here to change that.

So who WERE these four (sometimes five) true killas from the Double Glock? Lineup, please:
Bizzy Bone (born Bryon Anthony McCane) a.k.a Lil’ R.I.P.sta: highest-pitched and most melodic voice, fastest flow. Spits the flashiest style, but also uses his astonishing vocal range and charismatic inflection to impart a genuine vulnerability and a great deal of emotion as well, as in the opening verse of “Tha Crossroads”.
Layzie Bone (born Steven Howse) a.k.a. Tha #1 Assassin: The lead-off man on many of their biggest tracks. Not the most melodic voice, nor the widest range, he occupies the perfect “middle ground” between his fellow Bones but manages to pack an insane number of syllables into his bars, while still enunciating clearly enough to be understood (unlike some of the others).
Krayzie Bone (born Anthony Henderson) a.k.a. LeatherFace: Probably the breakout star of the group, and it’s easy to see why. His is the most versatile flow they have, he sounds equally at home affecting a lovely high-pitched near-falsetto as he does rhyming in his trademark baritone growl. His R&B vocal stylings and high-speed delivery made him a no-brainer as a mainstream crossover act.
Wish Bone (born Charles C. Scruggs): The deceptively “low-key” member of the group, and something of a secret weapon. While his style may lack the speed and melodicism of the others, his gravelly voice and bass-inflected singing made him sound unique in this dynamic, and there’s no question he is capable of stealing an entire song — see his verse on “No Surrender” for proof.
Flesh-N-Bone(born Stanley Howse): The part-timer. Legal troubles and lack of business acumen (he wasn’t signed to the label at the time of the group’s commercial peak) kept him from full-fledged participation, which is a shame, because he has perhaps the smoothest voice of all of them and could easily keep up with any of the fastest rappers in the business.

At a time when R&B was taking on more and more of a rap influence, the opposite effect was also taking place — rappers were regularly recruiting talented vocalists from the worlds of soul and funk to sing the hooks, and even sampling heavily from the era of classic R&B and even disco. In this environment, BTNH came off like the best of both worlds — they didn’t need to feature anybody to carry the singing parts, as all five of them were entirely capable of crooning on key on their own (although, despite the name, they did very little actual “harmonizing” overall — theirs was more of a gospel-derived call-and-response/overlapping dual vocal parts approach to multi-man singing). On top of that, they rapped faster than anybody this side of Fu-Schnickens, regularly throwing out verses full of sixteenth-note and triplet runs in their syllables (and without relying on nonsense/filler “diggity” sounds like the Das Efx types). Combined with the bass-heavy, ultra-stoner beats of DJ U-Neek, this was a recipe for incredible multiplatinum success and chart-topping dominance for a good number of years in the middle of rap’s most storied decade.

That the potential in this group was discovered by none other than hip hop legend Eazy-E himself turned out to be a crucial component of the group’s ultimate legacy. After all, despite their impressive presentation, the lyrical concerns of Bone generally revolved around one of the very few following subjects:

1) Getting high is awesome
2) Killing people is awesome
3) I’m not broke anymore and that’s awesome
4) My homies are dead and that sucks

It was the latter sentiment which Eazy would eventually inspire when he passed away in most untimely fashion shortly after signing the group to Ruthle$$ Records for their debut (not counting the independently-released Faces Of Death, recorded under the name B.O.N.E. Enterpri$e) e.p., 1994’s Creepin On Ah Come Up — a sentiment which worked with the group’s style like a charm and ended up bringing them their biggest hit. Before succumbing to his disease, Eazy also cut the very last verse of his career on the track “Foe Tha Love Of $”, and despite sounding horribly out of place in this context, I would like to go on record as saying that no rapper in history has ever gone out on a more fitting final word, as his unforgettably amateurish voice fades away into the darkness, forever.

“Thuggish Ruggish Bone” was an unexpectedly sizeable hit, with its memorable opening and delightful hook (sung by their friend Tasha from the group Tre), and the group was primed to blow up huge with their major-label full-length debut, E. 1999 Eternal (1995). The aforementioned passing of Eazy-E inspired the first pass at their style of song which would become a signature, the tribute/life-affirming/All G’s Go To Heaven track “Crossroad”. But that remix would come later; for the time being, the single “1st Of Tha Month” (which earned the group no small amount of derision from Chris Rock in his legendary Bring The Pain standup set) would suffice as the next stage of establishing Bone as a worldwide phenomenon, the subtle Marvin Gaye-callouts of the chorus and the genuinely positive summertime party vibe earning the track regular rotation on MTV and on the airwaves.

So on the strength of “1st Of Tha Month” alone, E. 1999 Eternal was already an unprecedented success for these Cleveland thugs. But it was the remix of “Crossroad”, entitled “Tha Crossroads” (and having almost nothing in common with the original track) that REALLY kicked things to the next level, to the point where they eventually ended up reissuing the album to include the remixed version of the track. This was a #1 hit single, and I cannot emphasize enough to you how EVERYWHERE this song was at the time. My 8th grade graduation theme was even called “See you at the crossroad”. A soulful gospel banger, piling up hook after hook in between brief interludes of head-spinningly fast and tuneful rapping, this song was one big giant 40 Oz. poured out all over the nation for all those who had come and gone. It was everything that Bone Thugs would come to represent as artists and it is impossible to imagine this period of hip hop without it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime track, and there’s really nothing else like it. Not for nothing, it even won the Grammy that year.

 

Meanwhile, don’t sleep on their album tracks. “Land Of Tha Heartless” features one of their rare harmony choruses in between the hyperfast blink-and-you-miss-them verses, and the title track to Creepin On Ah Come Up is a trio of crime stories for the ages, including a verse where Krayzie Bone drops the “harmony” schtick and simply delivers a straight-up mean, nasty rap verse. The group’s approach may have limited them to an extent, but they went out of their way to add enough flavor and variation among individual tracks to avoid being pegged as one-trick ponies.

“Tha Crossroads” blew up so huge, that for a time, everything the Bone did was a big deal. During the wait time for a followup album, they contributed tracks to several soundtrack albums for films like Set It Off and The Great White Hype, which continued to show their progression as the most soulful, sensitive-yet-hardcore badass rappers around, some of which became minor hits in their own right. Bone’s fame even brought new opportunities to their entire hometown scene, and 1996 saw the release of the mixtape-before-mixtapes-were-a-thing Family Scriptures, credited to Mo Thugs and featuring an array of songs and raps from their friends and family.

 

 

If you were a rapper in the 90s, the thing to do after your biggest success was to follow it up with a double album. Tupac and Biggie (both of whom collaborated with Bone in the studio prior to their deaths) did it, and Bone were no exception here. The first single “Look Into My Eyes” was originally featured on the soundtrack to Batman & Robin, but 1997’s The Art Of War is probably better known for “If I Could Teach The World” — Bone’s attempt to move on past the mournful grievings of “Crossroads” and achieve some semblance of peace in this lifetime. The reception was mixed, critically and commercially, but these tracks helped to keep Bone relevant as the decade drew to a close.

 

A second Mo Thugs album, Family Scriptures part II netted even more hits for this crew, but as individual members began to embark on solo careers and the landscape of hip hop shifted in favor of more basic Southern hip hop and pop rap, it began it look questionable whether Bone would ever regain their stranglehold on the charts. 2000’s BTNHResurrection, despite a hot start, was released into a pop world that was just too different to accommodate voices this distinct any longer. 2002’s Thug World Order included the epic Phil Collins collaboration “Home” and y’know, as much as I like this track, it’s hard to not look at a 90s rap group as being washed-up when they start collaborating with goddamn Phil Collins.

 

Bizzy Bone was ousted from the group following this album, and attempts to revive the Bone have been erratic and ongoing every few years ever since. They have continued to record and perform to this day, as a group and as solo artists. However, the track I like to think of as being the perfect bookend for their career is not actually a Bone song at all, but a 2006 song by Chamillionaire called “Ridin'” (best known as being the “serious” version of Weird Al’s “White And Nerdy”) on which Krayzie Bone contributed a typically speedy-melodic verse which gave the novice a rapper a huge assist and helped make him a weird sort of household name. Since this track marks the last time a Bone-affiliated act was truly commercially relevant, I’m ending this overlong ramble with it. Peace to St. Claire, love to all the hustlas. Long live the Bone.