Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It's been more than 20 years since Bone Thugs-N-Harmony broke into the mainstream with songs like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "For tha Love of $." The Cleveland quintet's melodic, rapid-fire delivery sounded like nothing else in rap, and it kept the group high on the charts for two more albums. But infighting and an assault and firearm conviction that sent member Flesh-n-Bone to prison threatened to permanently derail Bone throughout much of the 2000s. Still, the group persists, recently performing all of its classic "E. 1999 Eternal" on tour and talking about yet another comeback album.
In advance of Bone's appearance at Riverfest, I chatted with arguably the most popular member of the group, Krayzie Bone, about the development of the group's sound, working with Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., fan appreciation in the South and potentially being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the group's hometown of Cleveland.
Growing up in Cleveland, for you and the rest and the guys, who were some of your musical influences?
Well, you know, growing up Cleveland, which was neutral at the time, we had the East Coast and the West Coast hip-hop scene. We had the best of both worlds. We started out with all the old school greats like Run-DMC, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One. You know, all those people who really paved the way, DJ Kool Herc and all that. It goes back and runs deep for us. And then when the West Coast burst on the scene with Ice T, King Tee, Tone Loc, Easy-E and N.W.A., we actually felt more drawn to them because of the way we were living and came up in our city. So, it's like I said, we kind of had the best of both worlds, which was good in a sense because it shaped us to be who we are as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, with a different sound, a different flow and everything that comes with it.
I remember being younger and hearing you all and thinking "I've never heard anything like this. These guys are rapping and singing at the same time!" How exactly did you guys develop your sound?
What I tell everybody is that it basically came about gradually as we spent more time together and hung out with each other. That's where the harmony comes from. We knew each other so well, then we would rap. You know, we would add to each other's verses and we knew exactly where to come in at. And then it started sounding like we were harmonizing while one person was rapping. Actually, people that would listen to us rap, they actually heard it before we even heard it. They were telling us, "That shit sound different! Y'all sound like y'all singin' but y'all rappin'!" Back when we first started doing it, rapping and singing, it wasn't cool to mix the two just yet. Also, Flesh and Layzie are brothers. Wish Bone is their cousin and me and Bizzy have been knowing each other since junior high and elementary school. So, you know, that chemistry over the years just gradually kept maturing.
You guys are from Cleveland, and what I've noticed about certain rappers from the Midwest, like Twista, Do or Die, or Da Brat, is that you're all pretty fast rappers. Do you think there's something about the culture of the Midwest that lends to that?
Honestly, I really couldn't pinpoint it. When me and my dudes came up, we never looked at it like that. There was no such thing as a Midwest style. It wasn't even a Cleveland style for us. It was a Bone Thugs style. We had never heard anybody do it the way we did it. Of course, we heard of people like Twista with the speed-rapping a little bit, but they never took it to the level we took it to. And then I started to hear things about Twista and started to do research and heard he was out for a while. To me, it was kind of a coincidence that he was doing it in Chicago and we were doing it in Cleveland around the same time. So, I guess it is something that's bred from the Midwest. I really can't pinpoint what it is. It's like a lot of Midwest artists that come out, their sound is universal. It's not assigned to a specific coast, East Coast, West Coast. It basically gave hip hop a facelift when we came in and picked up the pace, and everybody has been doing it ever since then.
I know at the beginning of your careers Easy-E was a mentor to you all. What was that like?
Man, it was crazy. It took us a while to come to the reality that we're riding around with Easy-E — a dude that we looked up to, a dude that we used to listen to. It's really unexplainable. It's crazy because that's everyone's dream come true. When it happened for us, we didn't expect it. We knew once somebody heard us and had the power to put us on, they would love what we were doing. When Easy heard us he was like, "That was insane! Yo, where y'all from?" From there, he paid for us to come back to California and from that, the rest is history.
I know you guys had collaborations with both Tupac and Biggie. In working with them, what were some key differences in how they approached their art that you all noticed?
Well, Tupac was a workaholic. Tupac would come right in the studio, put on a beat, knock that one out, take it off and put the next one on. Tupac would probably knock out five or six songs a night. To whereas Biggie comes in, he's more relaxed, he's more laid back. He's listening to the track, he's vibing to it. He's sitting around getting his mind right and goes in and perfects it. Pac was more like "Rush, rush, let's get it" and Biggie was more like, "I'm gonna take my time with this one." But it both worked out perfect because those were their styles, those were their personalities.
There's particularly one song, the song you guys did with Biggie, "Notorious Thugs," that I really like. And that was the first time I'd ever heard Biggie rap like that. It's almost like he changed his style up to match you guys. What'd you think about that when you all heard it?
We didn't look at it as being flattered that people tried to rap like us, so we used to take offense to it unless you paid homage. Now, when Tupac came and he did his thing we were like, "It's dope that he came in and did his thing and didn't try to sound like us." He did his thing and still held his own. We liked that. But when Big came in, because he's from New York, Brooklyn, we weren't even expecting Big to even try to attempt to step in the arena with us. And the way he did was so cold and authentic, we were like "This nigga killed it!" So it worked out perfect.
I know you've done some collaborations with Southern rappers like Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia and Chamillionaire. Do you think the South has shown Bone Thugs-N-Harmony respect over the years?
Most definitely, man. We've always had love in the South. You may not hear it as much as you hear it in the Midwest and the West Coast. I say the region we're shown the least respect in is the East Coast. But they show us respect in the streets. To me, the radio and all that mainstream shit doesn't even matter. As long as people are hearing us and vibing and respecting us in the streets, that's all that counts. So, it's like the South has been down with us from day one. And even to this day, I talk to Gangsta Boo. We're still cool. From everything that Three 6 Mafia has done, the Geto Boys. Man, everybody from the South every time we see them they show us love. It's definitely love in the South.
Who are some artists you're listening to nowadays?
I'm always checking out what's out there, to what the youngsters are listening to, to see if it's worth listening to. A lot of it, I feel like it ain't. Some of it is cool. I feel like there's a lot of mixed-up concepts as to what hip hop really is, what it should be and what it was. I understand that times change, but people have to understand what hip hop has done for generations. Hip hop has brought people out of poverty. The culture has been adopted by so many people, not just in America, but other countries, too. We have done a lot in hip hop, and I think it should be respected as such. It should never be looked at as cheap or as just a quick way to make money. People gotta understand that we were given this blessing for a reason, and it's not just to brag and talk about ourselves all day.
What qualities do you think Bone Thugs-N-Harmony have that have allowed the group to withstand the test of time, especially in a genre like rap where careers dissolve so fast?
I would say being genuine, being who we are. A lot of artists come in today already trying to sound like somebody because that's what their record labels want them to do. Record labels these days don't push individuality, they don't push being original. When that runs its course, you're that same dude on the corner that was wanting for a deal before you had those two or three hits and now you're looking serious because you see the record label misused you. So, we were always able to realize that and be like, y'all aren't going to tell us what we're going to rap about. Y'all aren't going to tell us who we are because we already know that. We came in and connected emotionally with people because we were talking about real subject matters. We were talking stuff people were dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and we still do. That's what artists don't understand. They come out with these songs and follow the trends, but they don't understand that the trend is exactly what it is, a fad, and fads die out.
You all have been in the rap game for over 20 years now. What would it mean for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in your hometown of Cleveland?
That would be a wonderful goal to achieve. I'm not saying that I'm super excited and that my whole main goal and purpose is to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All those accolades that you receive for doing what you do is good, it's great and some people like it. To me, I really don't need trophies and my name in prominent places to understand what we have done for the world, our fans and the genre of hip hop because I understand fully what we've brought to the table even if people don't give us our just dues. I'm going to the grave knowing what I've done and no one can ever take that away, and I'm happy in my own scheme.
What can someone expect at a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony concert?
They can expect nothing but pure energy, the hits that they grew up loving. They can expect to see a show and see us perform like we're 21 or 19 years old. We feed off the energy from our fans and they feed off of us. We're going to go hard. We come in and go ham, for real.
Can we expect all five members at Riverfest?
We're scheduled to go like that, so hopefully everything works out and everybody is in the building.
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