Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Greatest Rap Group of All Time: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony

I know "greatest" is subjective & a lot of y'all will disagree, that's fine.  But follow me here.  I have REASONS.  Their style may not be for everyone but the Bone boys have been around for so long in a fickle industry where tastes change every other year which is a testament to their talent.  Despite their unique style, nothing about Bone Thugs is a gimmick or trend; each member is like one of the 4 elements, bringing something unique & irreplaceable to the table.  But despite their individual strengths they're undoubtedly stronger as a unit.  This is why they're the greatest rap GROUP of all time.  

Bone has influenced everyone from A$AP Rocky to Machine Gun Kelly to Kid Cudi and other currently hot rappers as well as spawning a whooooole bunch of clones & haters back in their heyday (see:  Crucial Conflict, Do Or Die, early Three Six Mafia).  At the time of their debut, nobody had heard anything like their rapid-fire staccato rhymes and smooth harmonies.  Everybody from Mariah Carey to Biggie, 2Pac & Big Pun lined up to collaborate with them before the '90s were even over.  

But what's truly amazing is that all 5 original members are still living and performing music.  Together much of the time.  From their first underground tape in 1992 until the time of this writing in 2020, that's a long time.  So many other rap & R&B groups have broken up permanently, lost members to prison or death or met other untimely ends.  Bone's mentor Eazy-E died himself at age 31.  

Today it's common for bands to be assembled via auditions like Lou Pearlman did with N*Sync or Puffy did with Da Band, meaning they're not authentic & only exist for the purpose of creating a "Super Group".  Bone came together organically in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio way back in 1991 (probably earlier than that) when they recorded their first locally-distributed album Faces of Death.  They were actual friends who struggled together before making it, which only adds to their appeal.  They're not the only rap group to form this way; others include Wu-Tang Clan, The Pharcyde, Fugees & Public Enemy.  But they're among a vanishingly small handful of groups to remain successful over the decades & stay together as a band (more or less) through it all.  

Thug Soldier Profiles (Individual)

Layzie Bone ("L-Burna")
Born September 23, 1974.  Sign: Libra

We'll start with Layzie Bone, aka Steve Howse.  Layzie is often considered the "nucleus" of the group as he acts as the go-between during conflicts & serves as the de facto spokesman in the media.  I didn't realize what a peacemaker he was until I watched the "Flesh-n-Bone Is Home" documentary on Youtube.  Wow.  Here's the clip in question.  Layzie has what I call a "middle-high" voice as well as a medium-light skin tone.  He's the 2nd youngest member after Bizzy.  (This is how I distinguished the guys from each other when I was a kid without MTV and only an album cover to look at while listening to the music.  Combined with fan sites like Angelfire & Tripod which gave little snippets of info on them, I learned to tell who was who.  More on that later).  Layzie was a founding member of Mo Thug Records, which spawned a lot of good music in the late '90s.  He is married to Mo' Thug artist Felecia and runs Harmony Howse Entertainment.  Layzie is also a member of duo Bone Brothers with fellow Thug Bizzy.  They've put out 4 studio albums under that name.  

Bizzy Bone ("Lil' Ripsta")
Born September 12, 1976.  Sign: Virgo

Next is Bizzy Bone, aka Bryon McCane.  Bizzy has the highest voice and lightest skin tone.  He's also the youngest.  (See where this is going?).  Bizzy was the first to release a solo album & has been pegged as the "wild card" due to his manic energy & unpredictable nature but is often considered a fan favorite for this very reason.  He's been kicked out of the group several times for substance abuse & conflict but has managed to remain friends with his bandmates, more or less.  His life has been marked by incredible tragedies & triumphs including being kidnapped, the death of most of the artists on his now-defunct 7th Sign record label & some very public meltdowns while presumably under the influence.  Here's an interesting article from one of his lowest points shortly after the infamous speaking-in-tongues radio show appearance in 2005.  He's now happily married & working on a vlog called Jam TV as well as other projects.  He has upwards of 10 children, some of whom are rappers themselves.  Like most addicts, Bizzy seems to do best when not on the road or working in high-pressure situations with the group.  His last two solo albums Carbon Monoxide & The Mantra achieved great success through independent promotion by Bizzy & his team, primarily online.  We'll continue rooting for him.  

Wish Bone ("Straight Jacket")
Born February 21, 1974.  Sign: Pisces

Then we have Wish Bone, aka Charles Scruggs.  Wish has a middle-low voice & medium-dark skin tone (and a noticeable Southern drawl).  Wish is perhaps the most mysterious of all the members, as he's the only one to not release a solo project in all these years.  In fact his only solo song is "Get 'Cha Thug On" from The Art of War.  Wish adds more to the "harmony" side of the group as his raps tend to be repetitive & slower than the other members.  While he came out just as strong as the other 3 members on the first 2 albums, his contributions seemed to wane over time, though he was integral in holding the band together during their 'Strength & Loyalty' era when Bizzy & Flesh were not present.  Wish seems to have the strongest creative bond with Krayzie, as the two have collaborated on several Mo Thug projects & Krayzie's solo albums.  He is the cousin of Layzie & Flesh. Wish got married in 2018 with his Bone brothers at his side.  It's safe to say fans would like to hear more from this Thugsta.  

Krayzie Bone ("Leathaface")
Born June 17, 1973.  Sign: Gemini

Rounding out the Core Four is Krayzie Bone, aka Anthony Henderson.  Krayzie has the lowest voice & darkest skin tone.  He's the oldest member of the group and a genius hook writer with arguably the most commercial success.  His first solo album Thug Mentality 1999 is considered a classic by hip hop heads.  Kray is the owner of The Life Apparel and former head of ThugLine Records.  Krayzie is a Jehovah's Witness & has very strong devotion to his faith which forbids celebrating "pagan" holidays or accepting blood donations.  Like Bizzy, he has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 children.  He now battles sarcoidosis, the same lung disease that killed Bernie Mac.  Krayzie has collaborated with artists including the Marley Brothers, E-40, Big Pun, Naughty By Nature, Chamillionaire & Snoop Dogg among others on his solo projects.  He signed a deal with a digital media company in 2018 & hosts a conspiracy theory podcast called #TruthTalks as of 2019.  Krayzie's deep, smoky singing voice & rap skills are considered criminally underrated in the rap game by fans.  

Flesh-n-Bone ("5th Dawg")
Born June 10, 1973.  Sign: Gemini

Last but not least we have Flesh-n-Bone, aka Stanley Howse.  Flesh is not an "official" member of the group, as Eazy-E didn't sign him to Ruthless from the beginning, hence his nickname "5th Dawg".  But he makes frequent appearances on albums & often stands in for other members who are MIA for various reasons.  For this reason I don't include him in my "voice/skin tone" association as he wasn't on most of E. 1999 or Creepin' on ah Come Up.  But he's Layzie's older brother and is considered by both the group & fans to be integral to the Bone family.  In 2000, Flesh was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon & probation violation.  He attributes this to his PCP use at the time.  He's said to be the most mentally unstable of the group despite Bizzy's public image as the crazy one, which makes one wonder what's going on with him in psychological terms.  Flesh has appeared on multiple Mo Thug records & released 4 solo albums, most recently Do You in 2020.  

Thug Stories (Tha Group)

Collectively, Bone's story is even more interesting than their individual stories.  Krayzie tells many previously unheard tales from their formative years in the vid below.  They were discovered by basically promoting themselves aggressively, stalking Eazy-E via phone calls & finally tracking him down in Cali & meeting up back in Cleveland where he was performing a concert.  They took a one-way Greyhound ticket to Cali & the rest is history.  It was Flesh-n-Bone who financed the trip so a great debt is owed to him.  

But everyone knows that story already.  What would be more interesting is a book or movie covering the years leading up that period during their high school/drug dealing years in Cleveland.  What were their home lives like?  At sentencing, Flesh's judge said his childhood was "the worst she'd ever heard of," which makes me even more curious what he went through that perhaps Layzie didn't (or did he?).  I suspect a lot of bad memories have been blotted out with weed, booze & other substances which might be for the best in some cases.  Bizzy does a great job recounting short stories from the band's past in his Youtube videos but you're left with the feeling they could fill a novel with the details.  

Thug Stories by Krayzie Bone (2020)

Bone's first 4 proper albums--Creepin' on ah Come Up, E. 1999 Eternal, The Art of War & BTNH Resurrection--are absolute classics in which the whole group functions as a cohesive unit & benefits from production that's fitting to their sound.  After that, it's obvious that cracks were starting to show.  Styles in the music industry started to change for the worse, with early-2000's hip hop taking over & dragging down every artist that attempted to remain relevant.  (Remember when Ja Rule and Ashanti were on the radio every 5 minutes?  The "Shake Your Laffy Taffy" song?  Soulja Boy?).  Plus, the guys were growing up & growing apart, focusing more on their own families as people are wont to do.  Totally normal.  

I lost interest in Bone around 2006 when they dropped their Akon collab "I Tried" as this was a bridge too far into pop territory.  No disrespect to them:  it was a successful record & considered a comeback for the group whose members were now into their 30s & 40s (elderly by hip hop standards).  Just not my style.  But they've put out some interesting solo projects since then, thankfully.  Most hardcore fans prefer their E. 1999 Eternal sound, as this is when they were considered to be at their peak of creativity & uniqueness.  But it was a moment in time that can't be duplicated as it's impossible to go back.  Luckily for us they perform all their greatest hits in concert frequently.  Still hoping to catch them live one day.  


Aside from the tired "fast rap, harmonizing" editorial that's been repeated ad nauseam, there's so much to be said about this group.  They were ahead of their time in countless ways.  Go back & watch the "Change The World" video--it's eerily relevant to today's situation as our nation teeters on the brink of civil war.  (As are the lyrics to the unreleased Michael Jackson sampler "Look What We've Done" from 2011 talking about the need for green energy & our plundering of other nations for natural resources).  The things they predicted would happen at the onset of the millennium have happened about 20 years later, but their predictions were spot-on nonetheless.  Bizzy was on some #MeToo shit way back in 1998, opening up about his molestation in an industry that was NOT cool having those conversations with women, let alone (Black) men.  Hostile even.  But he was a lone voice in the dark for kids & abuse victims everywhere.

Bone did as much to put weed on the map as Cypress Hill or Snoop but get 1/2 the credit.  Their weed songs are classic.  The only time they slowed it down enough for fans to really sing along on E. 1999 Eternal was on the weed song "Buddah Lovaz".  This intrigued me.  What could put these high-strung guys in a euphoric headspace like that?  I credit this song with sparking my interest in trying marijuana as a teen.  I'm sure every fan has their own personal story like that.  But I digress.  Bone did the country-rap thing with "Ghetto Cowboy" way back in '98 long before Lil' Nas X, and they put out a white rapper on Mo Thug Records (Powder P) that same year before Eminem blew up in '99.  

And as for putting the Midwest on the map?  Yeah, there may have been others to do it (Twista, Kanye) but Bone reached more people before anyone else.  Their concerts are still a hodgepodge of ages & races from all over the globe.  They came with a whole other style, sporting army fatigues and elaborate hairdos, talking about spiritual warfare in an era of gangster rap dominated by the East and West Coast where outsiders had a very hard time breaking in (see:  the crowd's reaction to OutKast at the 1995 Source Awards for reference).  This is why it's so noteworthy that both Biggie & 2Pac--mortal enemies at the time--were beating down the door to work with them.  And Bone did so without getting drawn into the beef.  Just a testament to their maturity as human beings and artists.  

Bone's music paints vivid visual images of angels, demons, chariots, bombed out wastelands, dark alleyways, machetes dipped in rum & other intricate scenes that go way beyond the standard fare of guns, girls and cars that make up most rappers' subject matter.  (That's another thing I always appreciated in their early music--the lack of misogyny & graphic sex songs).  There's no racism or homophobia present either, at least not to the degree of other artists of the '90s & early 2000's.  Yet they somehow managed to keep it "real".  Take note, rappers.  You can be grimy and hardcore without being a dick and punching down.  

Another thing they brought to the table was the the spooky factor.  Bone took elements from horror movies (Faces of Death, Leatherface) and incorporated them with their real life experiences to create a whole mood on their first 2 albums before moving in a different direction on The Art of War.  Combined with their Ouija board chants & demonic intros, this made for a creepy atmosphere that was totally fresh to the rap game.  Today this sound is labeled "Horrorcore" and of course, Bone is considered one of its pioneers.  Just one more way they're trailblazers in an often stagnant industry.  

Mentor Eazy-E was envious of the group's tight bond which he said he wished NWA had.  It's hard not to get choked up when thinking of Eazy's premature death, as he missed the group's peak & long career.  Would they have eventually soured on his management like they did Tomica's, or would they have gone even further had Ruthless remained under E's control?  Impossible to know.  The best we can do is appreciate them while they're still here.  While not perfect as individuals, Bone Thugs have given so much through their music that they deserve to live like rockstars at this stage in their careers.  There's no question that their work ethic is second to none even after all this time.  

Got a Bone Thugs story or memory to share?  An argument against them as 'best rap group of all time?'  Sound off in the comments below!  

~Editor's Picks~

Top Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Albums of All Time:  E. 1999 Eternal, Creepin' on ah Come Up, The Art of War, BTNH Resurrection, The Collection Vol. 1

Top Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Songs of All Time:  Crossroad (Original Mix); Days of Our Livez; Notorious Thugs; Crept & We Came; Body Rott, No Surrender

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