Tha Crossroads: how Bone Thugs-n-Harmony imagined today’s rap

03.05.12 Words by: Anthony Walker

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are a true rap institution. Emerging from inner-city Cleveland, Ohio in the early 90s the group were spotted by Eazy-E, who signed the five-piece to his Ruthless Records imprint. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony have released eight albums in a 20-year career, the first four on Ruthless, and have plans to release more material in the future. Often imitated and hugely influential, the group carved out a sound like no-one else and forged a style that stands out to this day. With their melodic but intensely aggressive music, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony contorted the rap template in their singular recordings. Once a diverting, if incredibly respected, side-current to the rap’s mainstream and underground, their youthful street romanticism and foggy beauty have inspired the current generation of rappers more than any other group.

The oldest members of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were only 22 at the release of the 1995 debut album ‘E.1999 Eternal’ and the video for their first single Thuggish Ruggish Bone released two years earlier shows them slumping and stunting on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in their home town. Throughout their career, the five-piece have kept ten toes on the ground in Cleveland and particularly at the intersection of East 99th and St. Clair in the east of the city. The constant references to East 99th street is typical rap territoriality but there is also something special about the way Bone Thugs extend space, placing it at the centre of their millenarian mythology. The block, also referenced as “E.1999” or “tha double glock”, is short-hand for the group’s street credibility and the foundation to stretch ideas and insights into something that transcends the everyday.

Providing a setting for their idiosyncratic outlook, the geographic point is carried over directly into the sonics and the panoramic production that characterises Bone Thugs’ work. Favoured collaborator DJ U-Neek provided the creeping G-Funk that marked their most successful period and his approach, often marked by deep percussive piano, is strong enough to stand alone but has a lot of empty space and provides a canvas for the group’s wistful but unabashed raps. Bone Thugs’ songs are packed with rapid double, sometimes triple, timed delivery and impromptu harmonising that floats and intertwines to find alternate rhythms atop the primary beat. Their sound is made of multiple layers and demands real immersion from the listener – a willingness to suspend disbelief and briefly enter a new world – and this sense of a self-contained universe dramatically expands their scope of expression.

This is one of the most enduring part of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s legacy and the group’s candour and tendency to imbue their music with deep spiritual undertones can be traced in a lot of contemporary rap. Much of Main Attrakionz’ work depends on Mondre M.A.N and Squadda B’s weaving vocals, for instance, and the cloud rap tag embraces the resplendent. Fellow Bay Area rapper Lil B also combines harrowing street experience with an all-out liberatory spirit and the dynamic between the real and the ethereal is the crux of his based ideology. His overall project is an attempt to create a sprawling and purposefully overwhelming rap cosmology. Harlem’s A$AP crew have been the most vocal about the debt they owe to the group and the influence is particularly strong in A$AP Ferg, whose appropriation of baritone Wish Bone’s stuttering sing-song flow is full of the of fatalist romanticism that Bone Thugs encapsulated.

A crowning example of this is the track 1st of Tha Month, a single on the group’s first album that perfectly conveys the mix of joy and futility on the day welfare cheques are issued. It breezes on a whining synthesiser that might initially belie the fact that the group plan to spend the day either dealing or using drugs. The stark content overflows with detail (Bizzy Bone’s sister asks him to guard her cheque from the untrustworthy mailman whilst she collects food stamps at the start of his verse) but this only heightens the feeling. The song’s descriptions are so vivid they avoid stock responses and the whole of the shared narrative operates at a halfway point that re-imagines the real as a gleeful near-fantasy and wraps it all in gauze. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony don’t really do love songs but there is a tenderness and sincerity in everything they record that can make gangsta rap soar.

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