Rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony offer a preview of their musicintheirname: hardcore rap and rhythm—the “thug” element—combined with the smooth harmonies of contemporary R&B. With that sound the group has crossed genres, logging hit releases on rap, pop, and R&B charts. Hip hop fans nationwide have embraced the group with such passion that, according to Heidi Sigmund Cuda of the Los Angeles Times, they “put Cleveland on the rap map.” The five young men who make up the band keep their birth names and dates secret, instead presenting themselves to the world with the common surname Bone, which they adopted in 1992 to express their fraternity. Layzie Bone and Flesh-N-Bone—the crew’s one part-time member—are birth brothers, while Wish Bone is their cousin, Bizzy Bone a stepbrother, and Krayzie a friend from early childhood. In the Bone standard of family, however, they are all brothers. Journalists speculate that they are now in their mid-twenties.
The five grew up together in the St. Clair-East 99th Street block of Cleveland’s Northeast Side, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. All five experienced poverty first-hand in their own homes and, in their teen years, set about making a living through the most lucrative route available to them: selling crack cocaine. In an interview with USA Today’s Edna Gundersen, Layzie explained the necessity driving that choice: “We sold dope to get us through the young years. We didn’t have clothes to go to school. We had to hustle. The dope game is easy to get into.” Even Wish’s mother concurred, telling Sacha Jenkins in a 1996 Vibe interview that they “weren’t out there stickin’ nobody up, but they was doin’ what they had to do.” Even in this early incarnation, the five already functioned as a tight-knit group, referring to themselves collectively as the Band-Aid Boys. They lived together, sharing all of their resources, as early as their mid-teens.
The group’s move from drug sales to music was motivated, according to Layzie, by his and Flesh’s encounter with the primary hazard of the drug trade—violence. “I was shot in the head,” he told Peter Castro in an article for People. After that, he concluded: “I realized I had to do something with my life, and that’s when I pursued rap. It’s a miracle that I’m alive.” The group already had some experience rapping together, as Wish told Jenkins: “We’d be sellin’ drugs under the streetlights and doin’ our little raps.” But now they decided to turn the hobby into a vocation, which meant finding a producer. Like so many aspiring rappers around the country, they put in calls to executives at record companies, hoping to find someone who would listen. They focused most of their energy, however, on Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, veteran of the legendary rap group N.W.A. and founder of Ruthless Records. N.W.A.’s landmark 1989 release Straight Outta Compton had left its mark on the young men, impressing them with the “truth” of its songs. “We knew he was the man,” Wish told Cuda. “The music of N.W.A. was the first time we heard anybody rapping about how we were living. He was telling our stories, and we trusted him.”
Determined to reach Eazy-E, the quintet scrounged together the money for one-way bus tickets to Los Angeles. They left on November 23, 1993 for a three-day Greyhound trek and spent four months on the city streets, putting in frequent calls to Ruthless Records. When finally they had Eazy-E himself on the phone, the group pulled together an impromptu “audition,” each Bone rapping his piece and passing the phone to the next. Nothing came of the call except the news that Eazy-E was, in fact, on his way to Cleveland for a show. So the group rustled up the money for the return ticket and found their way backstage at the theater. The audition in a dressing room convinced Eazy-E, who quickly signed the group to Ruthless. Wholly taken up with the new act, Eazy-E put aside his own projects long enough to serve as executive producer for their first recordings.
Having finally landed their mentor, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony arrived on the rap scene. For over a year, Eazy-E
For the Record…
Members (birth names and dates guarded from public knowledge) include vocalists Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, Wish Bone, Bizzy Bone, and Flesh-N-Bone (part-time member), all born in Cleveland OH.
After growing up together on Cleveland’s Northeast side and selling crack cocaine for income, group decided to pursue musical career; met Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, former member of rap group N.W.A. and founder of Ruthless Records, after taking a bus to Los Angeles, November 23, 1993; auditioned for Wright in Cleveland, 1993, and were immediately signed to Ruthless; recording career began with hit single, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and album Creepin on ah Come Up, 1994, and continued with E. 1999 Eternal, 1995.
Awards: Double-platinum award for “Tha Crossroads,” triple-platinum award for £. 1999 Eternal, and quadruple-platinum award for Creepin on ah Come Up, all 1996.
Addresses: Record company —c/o Kerry Cooley Stroum or Grace Heck, Relativity Recordings, Inc., 79 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003.
nurtured their career, continuing to serve as their executive producer and teaching them the business skills he had taught himself over the years. The growing relationship was cut short, however, when Eazy-E died on March 26, 1995, from complications from AIDS. Briefly, the young rappers thought they had lost everything with the loss of their friend. “When we found him,” Wish told Cuda, “we found our way out. Then he died right before [our success] happened, and it seemed like we were gonna be left in the streets right back where we came from.” However, the group’s potential was already apparent, and Ruthless Records continued to support them.
A year after they bought the bus ticket to Los Angeles, the Bone Thugs were riding a luxury tour bus around the country to promote their first album. The EP Creepin on ah Come Up, released in June 1994, reached the top of the charts in pop, R&B, and rap. It remained on the Billboard R&B chart for over two years, by which time it had become a triple-platinum album. The EP’s debut single, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” sold over 500,000 copies on its own. Music industry honors followed in the shape of nominations, including three for the Gram-mies, one for the American Music Awards, and one for the Soul Train Awards. The city of Cleveland declared October 30 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Day.
The chart-topping precedent of Bone Thugs’ releases continued unabated through their second album, E. 1999 Eternal, released in the spring of 1995. Sales of 307,000 in the first week debuted the album in the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart. Within a year, sales had reached two million copies. One single from the album, “Tha Crossroads,” moved so quickly up the charts after its release in May 1996 that it ranked with the legendary success of the Beatles’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
The sound responsible for that success blended R&B harmony with the lyrics and rhythm of hardcore rap, bringing together two of the most current trends in popular music. “Basically,” wrote a reviewer for the Source in March, 1995, “they kick more smooth rhymes, in their complex flow, while delivering hard ‘reality’ lyrics that hit with force.” Although other groups were doing similar things, many commentators credited Bone Thugs-N-Harmony with a skill that set them apart. Jenkins, for example, asserted that “When the Bones’ quick-tongued, Pig Latin-ish rhymes merge with their crooning patterns and the slow, keyboard-heavy beats that crawl along underneath, the result is a hybrid that seems to have fallen to Earth like an asteroid—or Skylab. And because of their uniqueness, there’s no middle ground fanwise: You either think Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are space junk, or you think they shine brighter than the sun.”
One detractor was David Bennun, writing for Melody Maker. Finding E. 1999 Eternal “tedious beyond description,” Bennun nonetheless described his reaction at length. “E 1999 represents the fullest flowering yet of mainstream rap’s trend towards ever smoother music and bloodier content…. Bone Thugs offer the worst of both worlds—R’n’B vapidity with witless shoot-em-up lyrics. They’ve reached the formulaic, play-dead depths of heavy metal’s dweebiest hours.” Few reviewers agreed with Bennun, however, tending instead to heap the group with praise. Russell Simmons, the rap mogul who created Def Jam records, declared to Jenkins that “They’re the most original thing that has come to hip hop in a long time.” J-Mill, interviewing the rappers for the Sourcein 1994, similarly contended: “Their style bristles with originality: each beat is enhanced with a syncopated flow. In addition, they bring harmony into their rhymes, with certain portions stated in unison, resulting in an elaborate, complicated style that will be hard to duplicate.”
Like most rappers, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony use their lyrics to describe the mainstays of their day-to-day lives: community, loss, violence, marijuana, and the Ouija. This last is less common in the world of rap music and has, consequently, invited the assumption that the group’s members must be devil worshippers. While they acknowledge the role the Ouija played in their past—they claim that it predicted the date of their first album release—they insist on their present distance from it. Wish told Jenkins that “Ouija is a devil’s game,” and Krayzie added that it will “have you addicted. You’re supposed to play it with two people, but it’ll have you to where you want to play by yourself. And that’s where you slip.” Explaining their new direction, Layzie told Jenkins “We been growin’ up, and gettin’ into the Bible. We want to go to heaven, and we knew that shit wasn’t right.”
Central to their music are the images from their Cleveland neighborhood, which they feel a certain responsibility to capture in words. Less confrontational than some hardcore rappers, as Cuda noted, their music “is designed not to push hot buttons but simply to reflect their upbringing.” Layzie explained that distinction as the difference between “gangsta” and “thug” in the interview with Gundersen. “Gangsta rap is a killin’ way,” he told her. “We talk about the struggle. We don’t say we gonna flat out kill you. Our music is education on where we come from.”
The rappers haven’t relaxed since the release of E. 1999 Eternal but have instead been busy consolidating that success. “The media try to say they’re all about smokin’ weed,” D.J. U-Neek, who has mixed for the rappers, told Jenkins, “but Bone’s making business moves. They got groups signed, they got films comin’. The shit is amazing to see.” The film is underway with Russell Simmons, and their label—Mo Thugs—is cutting records with several new talents. They also devote energy and money to an array of charities, including Urban AID, which raises money for AIDS foundations. Much of their charity work is designed to bring money back into the neighborhood they come from, such as Cleveland’s Midnight Basketball League, and the many “donations” they make to help people out in their community. As Jenkins noted, “they take care of their people—when one of their extended crew is trying to get on his feet, the Bones are right there with money, shelter, or whatever’s needed.”
Creepin on ah Come Up (includes “Thuggish Ruggish Bone”), Ruthless, 1994.
E. 1999 Eternal (includes “Tha Crossroads”), Ruthless, 1995.
Faces Of Death, Ruthless, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1996.
Melody Maker, October 21, 1993.
People Weekly, July 8, 1996.
Source, December 1994; March 1995.
USA Today August 15, 1995.
Vibe, February 1995; May 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Relativity Records.
—Ondine Le Blanc
Members: Anthony "Krayzie Bone" Henderson, vocals (born Cleveland, Ohio, 3 June 1974); Byron "Bizzy Bone" McCane, vocals (born Columbus, Ohio, 12 September 1976); Steve "Layzie Bone" Howse, vocals (born Cleveland, Ohio, 23 September 1977); Charles "Wish Bone" Scruggs, vocals (born Cleveland, Ohio, August 1977); Stan "Flesh-N-Bone" Howse, vocals (born Cleveland, Ohio).
Best-selling album since 1990: E 1999 Eternal (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Thuggish Ruggish Bone," "1st of tha Month," "Tha Crossroads"
In the mid-1990s, Cleveland rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony became the first major hip-hop artists to emerge from the Midwest, achieving near-instant success with a fresh variation of the then-dominant G-funk sound. Alternating reggae-inflected, rapid-fire emceeing, and interwoven vocal harmonies over G-funk's typical funk-based, synth-laden melodic grooves, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony quickly scored a pair of hits, a cult favorite EP, and a blockbuster debut album that is one of the milestones of the 1990s. Following their impressive debut, however, they managed to do little more than repeat their signature sound. Underperforming solo projects and the disappointing commercial and critical reception of their ambitious second album weakened Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's cohesion as a group. Nonetheless, they remained together, releasing their fourth album in 2002.
The five founding members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Krayze Bone, Layzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, and Flesh-N-Bone) began rapping together in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1990s, a time when hip-hop was dominated by artists based either in New York or Los Angeles. Realizing the improbability of getting noticed from their hometown, in 1993 the group traveled to Los Angeles and auditioned for Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, founder of the influential "gangsta" rap group N.W.A. Impressed, Eazy-E signed them to his label, Ruthless Records, which released Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's debut EP, Creepin' On Ah Come Up, in the summer of 1994. The album's first single, "Thuggish Ruggish Bone," showcased the group's novel combination of high-speed, reggae-influenced rapping and sung vocal harmonies over a typically synthesizer-heavy, funk-based "G-funk" groove. "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" quickly became a huge rap hit, particularly in the Midwest, and crossed over to the pop charts. A second single, "Foe Tha Love of $," also did well, driving sales of Creepin' On Ah Come Up to 2 million. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony promptly returned to the studio with their executive producer, Eazy-E, to record a full-length album.
Released in the summer of 1995, E 1999 Eternal skillfully expands the sound established in Creepin' On Ah Come Up to album length. E 1999 Eternal is not ground-breaking; it competently follows the then-successful G-funk template, combining slow grooves and heavy bass with whiny synthesized melodies. Moreover, much of its lyrics cover the standard "gangsta" rap themes of pot-smoking, drinking, and crime. The album is notable chiefly for the unique rapping style and the consistently masterful interweaving of Bone Thug-N-Harmony's five voices. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony further distinguished themselves with the album's first single, "1st of Tha Month," which slyly comments on urban poverty by celebrating the day welfare checks come. The song helped to drive the album to the top of the R&B and Pop charts, but it was the album's second single that turned Bone Thugs-N-Harmony into superstars. Released in May 1996, "Tha Crossroads" is at once a somber meditation on mortality and a heartfelt pledge never to forget dead loved ones, including the band's mentor, Eazy-E, who died suddenly from AIDS-related complications a few months before the album's release. "Tha Crossroads" connected with listeners, topping the pop charts and winning a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by Duo or Group in early 1997. Its massive success helped drive sales of E 1999 Eternal to 4 million.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony—minus Flesh-N-Bone, who was off pursuing a solo career—followed up their debut with the double album The Art of War in July 1997. Although the album yielded the hit singles "Look My Eyes" and "If I Could Teach the World" and eventually sold 4 million copies, many regarded it as a disappointing and overlong retread of E 1999 Eternal. The members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony spent the remainder of the 1990s releasing solo albums and launching the spin-off group Mo Thugs Family, which consisted of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and various artists signed to the group's Mo Thugs label.
None of these projects attracted lasting attention, however, and in early 2000 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony released their third album, BTNHResurrection. Although touted as a "comeback" album, BTNHResurrection neither
matched the sales of its predecessors nor generated any significant hits. In October 2002 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony released Thug World Order, which featured a collaboration with pop singer Phil Collins. In early 2003 Bone Thugs-N-Harmony announced that Bizzy Bone was no longer with the group, citing personal differences.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's fresh vocal style made them the first Midwestern rap act to achieve widespread success, further loosening the grip of New York and Los Angeles on hip-hop culture. Although their career never again achieved the heights at which it began, their debut album and its breakout single, "Tha Crossroads," are major works of 1990s pop music.
Creepin' On Ah Come Up (Ruthless, 1994); E 1999 Eternal (Ruthless, 1995); The Art of War (Ruthless, 1997); BTNHResurrection (Ruthless, 2000); Thug World Order (Ruthless, 2002).