The Number Ones

May 18, 1996

The Number Ones: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads”

Stayed at #1:

8 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

***

There is simply no way to adequately convey just how weird they sounded. Decades after their emergence, the heady, melodic tongue-flipping speed-rap that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony pioneered has simply become a part of rap’s musical vocabulary. Nobody quite sounds like Bone, and nobody really could, but I hear echoes of their music everywhere. In the early ’90s, though, Bone’s dizzy and hypnotic style had no equivalent, no precedent. Here was this group from Cleveland, a place that had never produced another rapper of any national repute, and all five members sounded like Nate Dogg doing the Das EFX flow. It was a strange, beautiful, compelling sound, and it made no sense at all.

Upon their arrival, Bone were an instant sensation. The group’s internal dynamic was right there in the name: They were hard, and they rapped about death and desperation and criminal enterprises. But Bone did that while singing, or while doing something that blurred all known lines between singing and rapping. They were a rap group and an R&B group at the same time. That made them a novelty, and it also made them vastly influential stylists. As Bone developed, they leaned into that approach, and they found ways to cram more emotional punch into what they did. But it took a real-life tragedy for Bone to land their biggest hit, which also became one of the biggest rap hits of the ’90s. Bone’s legacy runs deep, but that one song sometimes threatens to overwhelm the rest of it. Sometimes, emotional catharsis can do that.

All five members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony grew up as a tight unit in Cleveland. Layzie Bone and Flesh-N-Bone are brothers. Bizzy Bone is their stepbrother. Wish Bone is their cousin. Krayzie Bone was a close enough friend that he felt like part of the family. All of them had desperate, traumatic childhoods. Bizzy Bone has a story so terrible that it barely seems real. As a kid, Bizzy was abducted by his mother’s boyfriend and lived homeless for a couple of years on Native American reservations in Oklahoma, enduring physical and sexual abuse, before being discovered and returned to his family. The members of Bone had to rely on each other; they couldn’t count on anyone else.

As kids, the members of Bone all loved rap music, and they also loved their parents’ soul records. They practiced together, pushing and learning from each other, and they developed a fluttering, darting fast-rap style in near isolation. (When Bone broke out nationally, they briefly feuded with Memphis cult heroes Three 6 Mafia, since Three 6 thought that Bone were biting their style. As it turned out, they just arrived at these vaguely similar underground rap aesthetics independently of one another.) The future Bone Thugs-N-Harmony members started out under the name Band Aid Boys, then changed their name to B.O.N.E. Enterprise and finally just Bone. In 1993, they released their debut album Faces Of Death on a local Cleveland indie label. It sold locally, but it didn’t get them out of Cleveland. Bone knew that they’d have to leave Cleveland to find any real success, and they had a particular destination in mind.

You could make a decent case that Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is the single most important figure in all of rap history. Eazy, a small-time crook from Compton, founded a label called Ruthless Records in his parents’ garage in 1986. He didn’t have any interest in becoming a rapper, but he wanted to use his street money to break into rap music. Eazy assembled some local rappers and producers to write a song called “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” and when the obscure New York rap group HBO turned the song down, Eazy was persuaded to record it himself. “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” released in 1987, became an underground smash and a foundational document in West Coast reality rap. (“Boyz-N-The-Hood” eventually peaked at #50, but that didn’t happen until 2015.)

While “Boyz-N-The-Hood” was bubbling, Eazy put together a group that included the song’s producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, as well as Ice Cube, the guy who’d actually written the song. Eazy called the group N.W.A, and their 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton set a new standard in stark, vengeful street-rap. People had rapped about crime before, and they’d cussed on record, but nobody had ever done either with the vivid technicolor glee of N.W.A. (N.W.A’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Straight Outta Compton,” peaked at #38 — but again, that didn’t happen until 2015, when the biopic of the same name came out.) N.W.A’s style soon came to affect all rap music. The genre became what it is today, in large part, because of that group.

N.W.A’s records came out on Ruthless, and Eazy ran the label with Jerry Heller, the former arena-rock booking agent who’d become Eazy’s manager. When Billboard started using SoundScan to calculate album sales in 1991, N.W.A’s second album Efil4zaggin shocked the world by debuting at #2 and then going all the way to #1 the next week, proving that this kind of unflinching and profane rap music was a whole lot more popular than anyone in the music business wanted to admit.

By the time they released Efil4zaggin, Ice Cube was already gone from N.W.A, and he was bashing his old group on record for shady business practices. Soon afterward, N.W.A fell apart completely. Dr. Dre’s 1992 solo debut The Chronic became even bigger and more momentous than Straight Outta Compton. On that album, Dre followed Cube’s lead, lashing out brutally at Eazy and Jerry Heller. Dre’s 1993 single “Dre Day” is pretty much one long snarl in Eazy’s direction, and the video featured an Eazy lookalike being beaten and humiliated. (“Dre Day” peaked at #8. It’s a 10. Dre will eventually appear in this column.)

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre both became huge stars after leaving the N.W.A fold. Eazy himself never ascended to those heights, but he remained successful. (Eazy’s highest-charting single, “Just Tah Let U Know,” peaked at #45 in 1996, and his beef-heavy 1993 EP It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa went double platinum.) But beyond Eazy and the solidly popular G-funk duo Above The Law, Ruthless struggled in the early ’90s. The label’s roster was flush with acts like the all-female group H.W.A and the Jewish crew Blood Of Abraham. Eazy also signed the Pharcyde-esque Los Angeles group Atban Klann, and that group’s members Will 1X and Apl.De.Ap later went on to form the Black Eyed Peas after Will 1X changed his name to Will.I.Am. They’ll eventually appear in this column. But in the early ’90s, most of those Ruthless acts simply weren’t moving the needle.

It’s a testament to Eazy’s mythology that the young members of Bone were all absolutely determined to sign with Ruthless, even though they didn’t have a remotely workable plan to make that happen. Flesh-N-Bone worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he saved up enough money at his job to buy all five members one-way bus tickets to California. (Imagine going from Cleveland to California by bus. You have to be really dedicated to your dream to go through something like that.) Bone stayed with friends in Visalia, and they called the Ruthless offices every single day, begging the receptionist to let them speak to Eazy. Finally, Eazy called back, and the members of Bone rapped to him over the phone. Eazy was impressed, but he didn’t have time to go out to Visalia to meet with the group because he was about to head out on tour. So Bone scraped up enough money to buy tickets back to Cleveland, and they finally got a chance to audition for Eazy before he played a show in their hometown.

Eazy, impressed, agreed to sign Bone, and he told Jerry Heller to buy them bus tickets back to Los Angeles. (For those keeping score, that’s three cross-country Greyhound trips. I’ve spent a lot of time on Greyhound buses, and even typing that sentence fills me with dread.) For whatever reason, Flesh-N-Bone never signed with Ruthless, and he didn’t appear on many of the group’s records, but he’s still considered a full Bone member. Eazy wanted to change the group’s name to Thugs-N-Harmony, putting the group’s gimmick front-and-center, but Bone wanted to keep the “Bone” name. The compromise was to call them Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, a nonsensical moniker that has its own weird musical logic.

Eazy paired Bone up with DJ U-Neek, a California producer who was relatively new on the scene and who hadn’t really done much yet. U-Neek became Bone’s longtime producer, and he figured out the right sound to accompany their swirling rat-tat-tat vocals. U-Neek’s sound was an eerie, minor-key take on Dre’s G-funk, full of slow-rolling basslines and ghostly synth-whines and empty space. It fit Bone beautifully. Their voices seemed to cascade over one another, landing on melodies and cadences that nobody had ever even imagined. Even if you couldn’t understand a word, and I often couldn’t, those voices just washed over you.

Bone made their national-stage debut with the 1994 EP Creepin On Ah Come Up, and it stood out right away. Bone’s debut single “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” crossed over, peaking at #22 on the Hot 100. (Great song.) The EP’s second single “Foe Tha Love Of $” featured Eazy himself, and it got to #41. Creepin’ On Ah Come Up eventually went quadruple platinum, finally giving Eazy the ultimate validation of a record that could compete commercially with what Dre and Cube were doing.

Eazy didn’t have much time to enjoy that triumph. In March of 1995, Eazy announced to the world that he’d contracted AIDS. A couple of weeks later, Eazy was dead at the age of 30. (Cube and Dre both reconciled with Eazy when Eazy was on his deathbed.) When Eazy died, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were at work on their first proper album. That album, the full-on masterpiece E. 1999 Eternal, came out four months after Eazy’s death. U-Neek produced the full album, and it deepened and expanded the Bone sound. There’s plenty of flickering menace on E. 1999 Eternal; armies of horrorcore rappers are still trying to recapture the sense of unease that a song like “Mo’ Murda” evokes. But the album also brings a new warmth and pathos. First single “1st Of Tha Month” is a dreamy, blissed-out ode to the day that government-assistance checks go out. (Chris Rock famously called it a “welfare carol.”) “1st Of Tha Month” peaked at #14, becoming Bone’s biggest hit to that point.

E. 1999 Eternal has a song called “Crossroad.” It’s a mournful ode to Wally Laird III, a friend of Bone who was shot dead in Cleveland. The song layers the rappers’ voices over each other, creating a kind of blanket of grief, but it still fits with the album’s icy G-funk style. After Eazy’s death, Bone worked on a “Crossroad” remix with DJ U-Neek. That remix included a bunch of references to Bone’s fallen mentor, as well as to Wally Laird and to other loved ones — to Little Boo, another Bone associate who was murdered in Cleveland, and to Wish Bone’s uncle Charles. That remix became “Tha Crossroads,” the version of the song that we know today.

In the Bone discography, “Tha Crossroads” stands out. U-Neek built the new beat from a sample of “Make Me Say It Again Girl,” a slow and luxurious 1975 jam from the Isley Brothers. (The Isley’s highest-charting single, 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.) Because of that sample, “Tha Crossroads” has 12 credited songwriters, the most of any song to that point. Five different Isleys get credit on the track.

“Tha Crossroads” has none of the menace that Bone brought to so many of their tracks. Instead, that Isleys sample gives the track a queasy sort of grace. U-Neek and co-producer Tony-C build on the soft groove and the wobbling keyboards from the Isleys record, turning them into a slow, spacious lope. The four rappers from Bone — Flesh-N-Bone isn’t on the song — fill all that space with their voices. The world received “Tha Crossroads” as an elegy to Eazy-E, and Eazy’s death did inspire them to release that remix, but “Tha Crossroads” isn’t really about Eazy. It’s about the simple, unifying reality that we’re all going to die and that we’re all going to lose people who we love.

On the verses from “Tha Crossroads,” the members of Bone share their own quiet lamentations. Bizzy: “I done rolled with blows like AIDS/ Looked at him while he laid and prayed.” Krayzie: “Exactly how many days we got lastin’?/ While you laughin’, we’re passin’, passin’ away/ God rest our souls.” Wish: “Gotta hold on, gotta stay strong/ When the day comes, better believe Bone got a shoulder you can lean on.” That shoulder is important. Ultimately, “Tha Crossroads” isn’t a song about sadness. It’s about supporting each other through grief and about hoping that death will prove to be a transitional state, not an ending.

There’s definitely deep sadness in “Tha Crossroads.” Again and again, Bone repeat that they’re gonna miss everybody. But the song is ultimately consumed with the idea that the people we’ve lost won’t be lost to us forever. The main line from the chorus — “see you at the crossroads” — is a powerful way to visualize meeting up with our people again after we die. In the Black American tradition, the crossroads are a landmark, a place where you might meet God or the devil. On “Tha Crossroads,” Krayzie Bone invites us to follow him, roll stroll, whether it’s hell or heaven. Either way, you won’t be lonely. The ultimate destination matters less than the camaraderie, the sense of togetherness. In that context, the skittering blur of all those voices takes on a certain power. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony might face the abyss, but they’ll face it together.

The video for “Tha Crossroads” visualizes that concept with mythic, mordant flair. Director Michael Martin envisions the Grim Reaper as a towering Black man with wings tucked up under his long leather trenchcoat. Sometimes, he’s a face coming out of a brick wall, rendered in the finest CGI that 1996 had to offer. We see Eazy-E’s ghost, and death also takes away representations of Bone’s friends and family. In one chilling moment, death walks into a maternity ward and leaves with a newborn baby. But these souls aren’t lost. Instead, they all march together, clad in glowing white, to the peak of a golden-hour plateau. Then they all soar up into the sky, leaving a hateful world behind.

Upon its release in April of 1996, “Tha Crossroads” debuted at #2 before ascending to the top spot and staying there for longer than any rap song since Kris Kross’ “Jump.” At the VMAs later that year, Bone gave “Tha Crossroads” one of the all-time great theatrical performances — dry ice, gospel choir, skeletons in cages, dancing reapers, white suits, a horse-drawn carriage, dead souls making their way out of the audience. I feel like Eazy-E would’ve appreciated that level of transcendently tawdry spectacle.

Long story, but around the time “Tha Crossroads” reached #1, my little brother spent some time locked up in a psych ward in Baltimore. He was going through a very intense goth phase, and he was furious that my parents wouldn’t let him have his Nine Inch Nails tape. (My dad listened as far as the “Head Like A Hole” pre-chorus and decided that NIN were a Satan-worshipper band.) The other kids in the psych ward all listened to “Tha Crossroads” over and over, and my brother, the only white kid on the ward, couldn’t stand the song. After he got out, my brother eventually came to realize that Bone were way more goth than most of the groups that he liked, and he got into them in a big way. I can’t shake the image of all those kids in that Baltimore psych ward taking whatever solace that they could from “Tha Crossroads.” I’m personally more into the chattering ominousness of Bone’s more violent music, but “Tha Crossroads” is a song that matters to a whole lot of people. That, by itself, is a fine legacy.

E. 1999 Eternal went platinum four times over, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony went on to sell millions more records, but they never approached the impact of “Tha Crossroads” again. How could they? But Bone went on to have more big moments. In short order, Bone became one of the few groups to work with Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, two future Number Ones artists, when both were still alive. “Notorious Thugs,” Bone’s 1997 track with Biggie, never became a single, but it’s a perfect glittering jewel of a song, and I still hear it all the time.

Bone returned to the top 10 twice more after “Tha Crossroads.” In 1997, they got to #4 with “Look Into My Eyes,” which was the lead single from their double album The Art Of War and which also appeared on the Batman And Robin soundtrack. (It’s an 8.) The Art Of War went quadruple platinum, and Bone probably kept the lights on at Ruthless in the years after Eazy’s death. But the members of the group had problems. Bizzy Bone had issues with mental health and substance abuse. Flesh-N-Bone was arrested in 1999 for pointing an assault rifle at someone, and he spent eight years in prison.

For years, Bone remained in flux, with members of the group departing or returning. They kept working, and they made a lot of good music. I’ve always felt great affection for “Home,” the group’s 2003 Phil Collins collab, but the sight of Phil and Bone in the video together wasn’t enough to propel the song into the Hot 100. Krayzie Bone went on a big guest-verse tear in the ’00s, and he’ll appear in this column again as a guest rapper. Bone had a brief commercial renaissance in 2007, when their Akon collab “I Tried” peaked at #6. (It’s a 5. Akon will eventually appear in this column.)

These days, Bone are rightly regarded as Midwestern rap legends. They’re still making music and playing shows, and their twisty, bendy melodic style has quietly left a huge impact on rap at large. A few months ago, Bone went into a Verzuz battle against Three 6 Mafia, their old foes. (Three 6’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13. Three 6 member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column as a guest rapper.) The battle was gloriously chaotic, and it almost went completely sideways when Bizzy Bone threw something at Three 6 and instigated a stage-clearing brawl that threatened to end the show early. But after a technical-difficulties break, the battle resumed, and Bizzy eventually returned to the stage to apologize. The whole thing made for a beautifully life-affirming viewing experience; I wrote a whole column about it when it happened. I don’t think Bone won that battle, but they did end the night with “Tha Crossroads.” That’s really the only way the night could’ve ended.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In the UK, “Tha Crossroads” peaked at #8. But in 2002, the London rap group Blazin’ Squad scored a #1 UK hit with their own vastly inferior version of “Tha Crossroads.” Here’s the video for their version:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from David Gordon Green’s 2008 movie Pineapple Express where Seth Rogen and Danny McBride have a post-gunfight heart-to-heart while listening to “Tha Crossroads”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sean Garrett using the melody from “Tha Crossroads” on his 2010 Drake collaboration “Feel Love”:

(Sean Garrett doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist, but as a guest singer, his highest-charting single is the 2009 Mario/Gucci Mane collab “Break Up,” which peaked at #14. As a songwriter, Garrett will eventually appear in this column. And god knows we’ll see plenty of Drake in here.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chicago drill great G Herbo rapping over a sample of “Tha Crossroads” on his 2018 track “Hood Legends”:

(As lead artist, G Herbo’s highest-charting single is the 2020 Chance The Rapper/Juice WRLD/Lil Uzi Vert collab “PTSD,” which peaked at #38. As a guest, Herbo’s biggest hit is Nardo Wick’s “Who Want Smoke??,” a 2021 track that also features Lil Durk and 21 Savage; that one peaked at #17.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Durk, another star that came out of the Chicago drill world, interpolating “Tha Crossroads” on his 2018 track “Cross Roads”:

(As lead artist, Lil Durk’s highest-charting single is the 2022 Morgan Wallen collab “Broadway Girls,” which peaked at #14. As a guest, his biggest hit is Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later,” which peaked at #2 in 2020. It’s a 6.)

THE ASTERISK: The Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s 1973 chart-topper “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was never released commercially as a single, so it never charted on the Hot 100. But “Killing Me Softly” did peak at #2 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart while “Tha Crossroads” sat at #1 on the Hot 100. If “Killing Me Softly” had been able to compete on the Hot 100, it seems very likely that it could’ve gone to #1. (It’s a 9.)

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