It’s practically a rap superhero origin story. Five guys from a decrepit Midwestern city stay out in the streets, trying to get money however they can. While they’re out on those corners, during quiet moments, they fill time by singing old songs together, harmonizing on Temptations tracks the same way the actual Temptations once did. But they aren’t living in the early ’60s. It’s the early ’90s, so they start rapping, too, and they find ways to do that while staying completely in key. They get into that friendly-competition thing that’s always great for rap, cramming in as many words as they can. They get so good at it that, sooner or later, all five guys sound like Twista trying to sing like Nate Dogg while still rapping absurdly quickly and somehow succeeding. Cleveland, hometown to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, was and is a total rap backwater, so they develop this whole sound in complete isolation. Nobody’s ever heard anything like it, and by the time they break out of their town, nobody knows what the fuck they’re hearing. It’s a completely alien take on rap, one that seems like it shouldn’t work but that absolutely does. Maybe that story is disingenuous. Three-6 Mafia accused Bone of biting as soon as they came along, though the two groups never really sounded that similar. But maybe that was just what Cleveland rap sounded like in the early ’90s, and we don’t know because barely anyone knows any Cleveland rap other than Bone. Hearing Bone for the first time was like watching seven-foot Dirk Nowitzki shoot a three-pointer for the first time. It was like: “I didn’t know you could do it like that.”
If Bone had been just a new approach to rap vocals, they would’ve been a fun novelty, but they might not have been more than that. But they had a whole lot else going on. Eazy-E, the group’s mentor, had paired them with the West Coast producer DJ U-Neek, who went onto produce everything on their first three albums. He have them a hazy, tingly take on the West Coast G-funk sound. It was full and heady, but it still gave their vocals plenty of room to work. And in its darker moments, it could be as eerie and singular as what RZA was doing with Wu-Tang at the time. All five members of the group rapped in the same style, but they all had different personalities, and different vocal registers. Even if you never learned to tell whose voice was whose, you could hear the variance in the tones, and it kept things interesting. They had a strong ambient sensibility, too, wrapping up their street-talk in creepy minor-key melodies and flickering occult imagery. The effect was intense; these lovely lilting voices, completely stripped of emotion, singing nagging playground melodies about killing you. Nobody really called them horrorcore at the time; that term was reserved for conceptual rap ghouls like Gravediggaz. But their music left a way bigger imprint on everything that we’ve come to call horrorcore; if you ever fall down a Juggalo YouTube k-hole, you’ll notice a whole lot of people trying to copy their vocal approach. And maybe more important than anything else, they were songwriters.
1995’s E. 1999 Eternal, which came out 20 years ago tomorrow, is both Bone’s most popular album and their absolute masterpiece. It came a year after Creepin On Ah Come Up, the record that pulled them out of local obscurity, and four month after Eazy-E died of AIDS. Creepin was a fully-formed debut, and it had one very big hit in “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” But on E. 1999, they deepened and expanded their sound. Their street-life talk could be hard and unforgiving, but sometimes it now had an emotional component, too. “1st Of Tha Month,” the album’s first single, is ostensibly a pretty and laid-back summer-afternoon anthem. But like Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” which also qualifies as a total barbecue song, it leaves a whole lot of sadness implicit. The people celebrating on “1st Of Da Month” only get to live like that 12 times a year, since that’s the time their government assistance checks come. When they get done grilling and smoking whatever, they’re going to have to go right back to scraping for whatever they can find. Chris Rock famously called the song a “welfare carol,” and he was making fun of it, but that’s exactly what makes it a classic song.
And then there was “Tha Crossroads,” the biggest song that Bone will ever have and one of the biggest songs of 1996. “Tha Crossroads” was an airy, beautiful, only lightly sentimental elegy for Eazy-E, the man who’d helped Bone escape Cleveland. But like Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” or Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” it pretty quickly shook off any associations with a particular famous person and became a sort of mass-cathartic song about death, about missing the people who aren’t in your life anymore. The song topped the Billboard chart for eight weeks in the spring and summer of 1996, and it was absolutely inescapable for that entire time. You could make a strong case for the group’s 1996 performance of the song at the 1996 VMAs, with its horse-drawn carriage and its CGI skeleton and its gospel choir and its dancing reapers and its billowing clouds of dry ice, as the single greatest performance in the history of that awards show. Right around that time, my little brother spent some time in a Baltimore psych ward where he was the only white kid. He used to get pissed off that the other kids on the ward only ever wanted to listen to “Tha Crossroads” over and over, that he never got a chance to listen to his Nine Inch Nails tapes. But for those kids, Bone offered the same thing that Trent Reznor offered my brother. They made music that helped people deal with the sort of sadness and anger that might lead you to spend time in a fucking psych ward as a teenager. (My brother started liking Bone not long after.)
The members of Bone had their own problems, and addiction and erratic behavior led them to slowly split apart in the years after E. 1999 Eternal. They were never that crossover-level popular again, though all four members (five if you count the sometimes-incarcerated Flesh-N-Bone) stayed busy sometimes landing on hit songs. And they left an impression, especially in the Midwest, where they will be cult heroes until the sun engulfs the earth. But there’s still never been anyone who ever sing-rapped quite like them. I’m guessing that’s because nobody else ever figured out how. So now let’s watch some videos.