Nothing against children of the '80s, but I believe the 1990s were the true golden age of hip-hop. The teenaged genre had finally hit its commercial and creative stride, giving us well-developed, eclectic voices from the Afrocentrism of Arrested Development and the gangsta swagger of West Coast g-funk to the urban vignettes of the Wu-Tang Clan and the trailer-park psychodrama of Eminem.
But few acts were as original or tuneful as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Long before Twista was hip-hop's resident rapid tongue-wagger, the Cleveland group astounded with an infectious, speedy lyrical flow that never sacrificed melody or the gritty realism lying beneath the dizzying form. They appear at the Phoenix Theater on June 28.
After releasing their independent debut, Faces of Death, in 1993, the quintet chased fame the old-fashioned way: heading to L.A. in search of a big break, specifically through an audience with gangsta-rap pioneer and N.W.A. mastermind Eazy-E. After an audition over the phone, Eazy never contacted them like he'd promised. Undeterred, the group chartered a bus to Cleveland where Eazy was performing, got backstage and auditioned for him on the spot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Suddenly, Eazy had his own innovative protégés to counter then-rival Dr. Dre, complete with Ramones-style names: Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone and Flesh-n-Bone. Their Ruthless Records release, Creepin' on Ah Come Up, would soon be heard blaring out of every other car, especially their signature single "Thuggish Ruggish Bone." Over thumping bass and distinctively Cali-style synthesizers, they stormed the major league. "Get ready for the bone and the mo thug, bustas, you know me as a hustla," spit Wish Bone with an effortless internal rhyme scheme. "Try to creep and get beat, make me succeed, peep, gotta put them under."
Getting a jump on millennium apprehension was the following year's E 1999 Eternal, the group's apocalyptic commercial breakthrough. The Grammy-nominated "1st of tha Month" was famously called an ignorant "welfare carol" by comedian Chris Rock, but the track's uneasy world of short-term, hedonistic pleasures juxtaposed with territorial drug-deal murders conveys a regretful path born of violence and poverty. "Wake up, and I see that my sister was already dressed / She said, 'I'm gonna run and go get my stamps / Watch and make sure no one snatches my check,'" raps Bizzy Bone.
Soon Bone was everywhere, on records for Mariah Carey and the Notorious B.I.G. ("Notorious Thugs" remains one of the few highlights on Life After Death). Their greatest success was "Tha Crossroads," a tender, frustrated tribute to friends (including Eazy-E) and relatives who'd met their demise, naturally or unnaturally. Exhibiting substance to complement the speedy delivery, the song gave the thug life a compelling, empathetic sense of tragedy that became prescient of the murders of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls, both former Bone Thugs collaborators.
After the overly ambitious The Art of War in 1997, Bone's star seemed to fade during what the All Music Guide calls "an age where weed-smoking gangsters have been replaced by champagne-sipping players." High-pitched Bizzy Bone's increasingly unreliable behavior led to his departure, and Flesh-n-Bone went to prison. But the remaining members persevered, releasing albums that culminated in last year's Interscope debut Strength and Loyalty, which brought Bone gold status once again.
Armed with a slew of white-hot producers like will.i.am and Swizz Beatz, the new three-legged Bone Thugs sound grownup but not tired, even on the mature yet potent Jermaine Dupri-produced single "Lil' Love" featuring old pal Mariah Carey. Most riveting is the spiritual "Order My Steps" with Yolanda Adams, which features a brash, synthesized grinding beat, perfect behind their best lyrical dilemma in years. "[I] simply know that the world gon' tempt me, Satan is the enemy," says a distressed Layzie Bone, "God please help us, I don't want to be selfish / I don't want to live my life tryin' to be rebellious."
Thankfully, there have been reliable rumblings about a full reunion, with Flesh-n-Bone eligible for parole next month. But the current lineup is enjoying their current creative spurt. "We recorded a ridiculous amount of songs for this album," Layzie Bone excitedly said last year. "If it was smart to do, we'd put out about five albums at once, and blow they wig off."
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony perform on Saturday, June 28, at the Phoenix Theater, 201 E. Washington St., Petaluma. 8pm. $30. 707.762.3565.