Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: The Spiritualists

Photographer Jason Nocito
July 22, 2011

April Love met Bone Thugs-N-Harmony out in LA in ’94 and started doing their hair shortly thereafter. Her first gig was a music video whose name she can’t remember, but based on the vague details she gives, it was probably “East 1999” from their first full-length E 1999 Eternal. The shoot went late, of course, and Bone Thugs had to get to New York for an awards show. With paper maché or some shit still in their hair, they convinced Love to come with them across the country in a private plane. The morning after the ceremony, Love woke up and all the management folks she had been dealing with were gone and had been replaced with a new crew for their tour that was about to start. When she tried to get a ticket back to California they told her she couldn’t leave them and gave her $1000 to go shopping for clothes. She ended up on the road for eight weeks. “Every time I wanted to go home they started throwing money at me,” she says. Since then Love has been in charge of braiding, fro-ing, combing out, blow drying and ponytailing the members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s hair, even though private planes and endless cashflow are no longer their reality.

In the mid-’90s the Cleveland-born quartet of Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Bizzy Bone and Wish Bone were one of the biggest and weirdest acts in hip-hop, if not in all of popular music. They were four skinny boys who made their corner of E 99 & St Clair sound like the gateway to hell and brought a horse drawn carriage on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards. Rap was just beginning to realize that all its stars might not come from the coasts and some shots had already been fired from Chicago and Flint, but no one expected that the Midwest would claim its place through the gloom of Cleveland. With their long hair and ill-fitting Indians gear, Bone Thugs looked like more countrified versions of Compton and East Oakland’s street reporters, yet in their lyrics they added an element of morbid spirituality that mixed the traditions of black Christianity with the occult. “Mr Ouija” from their 1994 debut EP Creepin on Ah Come Up is darkside doo-wop where the harmonized plea to their version of Mr Sandman is not for some lollipop dream, but to tell them how they’ll meet their maker. Then they blast the old “Name Game Song” full of holes: Murder-murder-mo-murder, mo-murder-murder-mo-murder, mo-murder-murder-mo-murder, mo-murder-murder-mo-murder, mo-murder, mo-murder, mo-murder….

A decade later, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is down to the trio of Krayzie and the cousins Layzie and Wish. Flesh-N-Bone, the unofficial fifth member and Layzie’s brother, has been serving a ten year prison sentence for armed assault since 2000, with the possibility of parole in 2008. The troubled Bizzy has other issues he’s dealing with and is estranged from the group. This spring brings their seventh album Strength in Loyalty, the first release on producer Swizz Beatz’s Full Surface imprint, a new venture backed by Interscope.

Second chances for rappers don’t come often, especially not with the support of one of the music industry’s most successful labels. Former Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo recently caught another break with Gnarls Barkley, but he was aided by luck, Danger Mouse’s quirky understanding of the modern pop landscape and the fact that most of Gnarls’s fans hadn’t heard of him the first time around. As for Flavor Flav’s resurgence…it’s best not to think about it too much unless you want to bum yourself out.

During the making of Strength in Loyalty, Bone Thugs were party to how hip-hop albums are now put together on major labels. In the past the group mainly stuck to a single producer for the duration and kept features to a minimum, but for these sessions big name beatmakers and guest vocalists were piled on: Akon, Will.I.Am, Cool & Dre, former rivals Three 6 Mafia, Twista (who they also once beefed with), the Game, Jermaine Dupri, frequent collaborator and style disciple Mariah Carey, Big Boi, Kelly Rowland and others. They’ve also worked with unproven producers like the Platinum Brother and Swizz Beatz protégé Neo da Matrix, as well as indulged some of their stranger tendencies—like recording a song based around a sample of Fleetwood Mac’s soft rock triumph “The Chain” and another that features Tupac Shakur’s furious rantings played continuously in the background. For Strength in Loyalty, they finished close to 100 songs and at press time it was unclear which ones would make the final tracklist.

Under these circumstances, the recording process seems impersonal, but recognizing the opportunity they had, the members of Bone Thugs say this album made them tighter than they’d been in years. “We became close family again,” says Layzie Bone, the most forthcoming member of the group. “We lived together. Everyone had different condos in the same apartment complex, so you know, we’d go down the hall, cook eggs at a nigga’s house. Everyone would come up with a chorus line at night, wake up and go to the studio together.”

When they were coming up, Cleveland was an R&B city dominated by Gerald LeVert. All the members of Bone Thugs started off as singers, but converted to hip-hop at a young age. Cleveland was also a city still struggling with the fallout of the crack epidemic. “All that religion that was going on in the family and the strength and the black unity, it really broke down,” says Layzie. “My mom and damn near all my aunts and uncles, all them motherfuckers was pimps, and right after Big Ma and Pop Pop and Gram Gram died, shit just went to Hades. Motherfuckers ran down the house everyone grew up in. Average hood shit, average life.” Like many, Bone Thugs identified with NWA’s inner city misery tales about life in Los Angeles, but they took the devotion even deeper by using a single verse as the jump-off point for their idiosyncratic style. “We heard MC Ren flipping over the beat really hard one time and it just stuck with us,” says Wish Bone. “We started speeding up and before we knew it we was doing something new and we didn’t even recognize it no more. We didn’t even know it was that different because we was so secluded with each other.”

The signature Bone Thugs flow is a highly articulated fast rap that they unexpectedly accelerate or downshift at will. Syllables pop, ping, internally combust and sometimes float off into a full on croon. On “Body Rott” from The Art of War, Krayzie nimbly click clacks their outlook on life: We paper chase and smoke blunts/ You’ll never find a thuggish bunch of niggas like us/ Don’t be so quick to test us/ I’ll be annoyed and might bust/ I’ma have to talk to Eaz-eeeeee/ Through the ouij-eeeeee/ So I can see if maybe he can tell me why you hatin’ on meeeeee/ Bitin’ on meeeeee/ Why you want meeeeee/ To show a nigga Leatherface in meeeeee.

The group caught its first break when, following the splintering of NWA, Eazy-E saw the possibilities in Bone Thugs—after they had taken two cross-country Greyhound bus rides seeking his attention—and signed them to his label Ruthless Records. He then bought them one more set of Greyhound tickets to come out and record in Los Angeles. “We stayed in so many damn hotels, we stayed in every hotel in LA. We got kicked out of every last one of them,” says Krayzie Bone of those early days. “E finally said, ‘I gotta get y’all a house. Y’all need your own space.’ We got kicked out of that motherfucker too. Back then we was wild, we was like straight off the streets and we wasn’t understanding nothing about the game.”

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony became rap stars off the success of songs “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” “For the Love of Money” and “1st of tha Month,” but they didn’t become pop stars until the summer of ’96, when they scored what was possibly the most unexpected hit since the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” Eazy-E died of AIDS shortly before the release of E 1999 Eternal and, almost a year later, Bone Thugs redid “Tha Crossroads”—a song from E 1999 that had previously been dedicated to their friend Big Wally—in tribute to Eazy and everyone else they knew who had passed. Their outlook had always been obsessed with coffins and who was filling them, but with the remix of “Tha Crossroads” they became pallbearers, shepherding the dead to the other side. While other rappers started wearing suits to play mafia, Bone Thugs wore them because they were in mourning. Their ties to the afterlife persisted through their collaborations with 2pac for “Thug Luv” and the Notorious BIG on “Notorious Thugs,” which made them the only artists to collaborate with rap’s two slain gods when they were both still living.

Though Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s profile declined after 1997’s double album follow-up The Art of War, Strength in Loyalty is not a reunion album. Bone Thugs have consistently put out music since Creepin on Ah Come Up, even if the music itself hasn’t always been consistent. The present trio even spit out the album Thug Stories on Koch in June of 2006 and Krayzie Bone has had cameos on high-profile problem starters including Lil Jon’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.” “We still here, handsome, healthy. The thing was we had to grow up,” says Layzie. “We been together since we was 12. We basically raised each other. So when niggas started having children and different business aspirations, we had to grow our own ways. It wasn’t losing our way, it was finding our way.”

In finding their own ways, the three members of Bone Thugs now primarily live in three different cities—Layzie in Atlanta, Wish in Cleveland and Krayzie in Los Angeles—though they still regularly tour with each other. While this lifestyle pays the bills, it doesn’t sit well with everyone. “Our families be like, ‘Why y’all get to be together so much?’” says Layzie. “Our kids are like, ‘What’s up nigga? Can I go on the road?’”

The group had been searching for a new label in 2005, but without Bizzy Bone’s high-pitched whisp haunting their songs, they weren’t finding the right takers. Then they heard that Swizz Beatz had expressed interest in them. In the late ’90s Swizz made his name with slabs of avant digital menace for the Ruff Ryders camp that somehow managed to find mainstream appeal. In the following years, he has continued to produce panicky East Coast bangers for hip-hop and pop artists including TI, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and JoJo. Although it is dark and hellish in its own way, his music is far from Bone Thugs’ usual stalking, gothic style. Still, Swizz considers himself a longtime fan of the group and recognized the following they still have. “Bone is damn near a cult,” he says. “You should see how these people come out to shows without them having new hits. When you ain’t got no hits, you see who your real fans are. They have people supporting them with Bone tattoos and everything and no hits out.”

Bizzy has left and returned to the group numerous times during their long history. Over the years there have been reports of religious awakenings, him being too drunk to perform at shows and a childhood history that involved kidnapping and possible molestation. In April of 2005 the realities of Bizzy’s emotional state became more widely known after his brief, downloadable appearance on the Damage Control radio show on KPFT in Houston hit the rap gossip links network. In the difficult to follow segment, Bizzy raved like a street preacher and finished off thoughts by dropping his voice into a conflated impression of a demon and a professional wrestler. He alluded to currently being homeless and spending time in the bus station. Asked about what happened to the money he should have made from his past success, Bizzy replied, “When you look at blowing up and you look at the different things, once you get to the physical realm of it, and once you start looking at that like that, that’s why you stay in the streets, that’s why you stay in the hood, that’s why you stay around the people that ain’t got nothing, because they ain’t got nothing to say but loooooooooooove.”

Layzie and Bizzy had reconciled previous problems long enough for the duo to make 2005’s Bone Brothers album, but when Bizzy missed a series of tourdates to promote the project, the static returned. Layzie said he was willing to reconcile again with Bizzy for the sake of the Full Surface deal and the group’s management even brought in DMC of Run DMC to help mediate the process of him coming back, but Bizzy wouldn’t commit. “Bizzy basically made that decision himself,” says Krayzie. “We went down to the wire. We tried to have him involved, he said he was involved, but at the last minute he chose not to.” Requests to get Bizzy to comment for this article weren’t answered, but the group maintains that a full reunion is still not out of the question. “People be mad at us like, ‘Why the hell did we kick [Bizzy] out the group?’ when it ain’t like that,” says Layzie. “He chose not to, saying at the time that he had another purpose in life, so we respected that. This dude could come back home any time he wants to.”

To convince Swizz they were still worth signing, the three remaining members came to New York to work with him for a week, banging out almost 20 songs. In the end it was their work ethic that most impressed him. “They didn’t want to fly in first class, they didn’t want no hotel like that, they didn’t want no car service to the studio,” says Swizz. “They was just the epitome of what a group should be, and they sold millions and millions of records.
I had to respect that.”

For all the bleakness that exists in the music of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the possibility for redemption has always existed inside of it. On the intro to Creepin on Ah Come Up, the first sound is vocals played backwards, the persisting musical shorthand for satanic messages. But flipping the clip in reverse reveals that the message is actually the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father who art in heaven…. Sitting with Wish Bone, a man who has the grim reaper tattooed on one arm and a skull on the other, I asked him what he thought the main themes that defined their work were. “Basically, love and truthfulness through our music,” he replied. The interview was soon over and Wish had April Love braid his hair before his redeye flight back to Cleveland. Nursing Miller Genuine Drafts, Layzie played a video game of Family Feud on his laptop while Krayzie read the script for the movie they plan to star in and release with Strength in Loyalty. The only time they needed to talk to each other was when they asked to borrow a lighter.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: The Spiritualists