Growing Up Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
Their ‘thuggish ruggish’ doo-wop and rapid raps spoke to the turbulence of inner cities during the ’90s
Recalling and recording the internal machinations you had when you were younger can make for beautiful essays. But other than a few key details, I don’t remember much about the first time I witnessed a drive-by.
I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. My father walked my older brother and I from his car to my Grandma Idelle’s house, just a couple of homes away from the corner. She lived in the Ashburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
As we walked along the one-way street, an old-looking car came driving in the opposite direction. I looked into the open passenger side window of the approaching car; I saw a light-skinned dude who looked a lot like Layzie Bone from the rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
This is a drive-by, a voice in my head said.
The young men in the car shot up someone hanging around the house across the street from us. The shock I felt was less about the violence; I’m not sure I was old enough to fully comprehend the imminent danger. We were walking, and all of a sudden, my father had pushed John and me to the hard pavement and jumped on top of us.
Your brain can edit youthful memories retroactively, especially if they are traumatic. I can recall some details, but I don’t remember others, like what the murdered man looked like. Was the voice I heard that day my imagination, or is it now a false recollection? Maybe it was God whispering in my ear. I was so young; how could I have known the term “drive-by?”
As a kid taught to see in spiritual terms, not just flesh and bone, I thought the group’s music had an intrinsic resonance. You can’t listen to Bone and not hear the battle between God and the devil, good and evil, heaven and hell.
This is probably a weird way to talk about how much I love Bone and my memories of listening to their music growing up. But for me, I will always connect the group to some of my deeper feelings.
One time my mother took us over to a church friend’s house. While she chatted with her friends, my brother and I joined the kids in another room, where we all huddled around a small TV to watch The Box, a channel that played music videos. It was there I first met Bone — through the video for their song “Days of Our Lives.”
My parents didn’t find most rap appropriate for kids our age and didn’t let us watch rap videos, so I’m almost certain that it was the first rap music video I ever saw.
The song, from the Set It Off soundtrack, is a perfect encapsulation of Bone’s music. And the visuals tapped into Black music’s philosophical questions, political discourses, and religious traditions I was immersed in but too young to identify: the blues, gospel, liberation theology, and the absurdity of the Black experience in America. Bone’s music imagined impoverished communities as the sites of Armageddon, the presence of both hope and despair, and the contradictions within self-preservation.
Bone’s “thuggish ruggish” doo-wop and rapid raps spoke to the turbulence of inner cities during the ’90s. As someone with synesthesia, the twinkling notes of the Herb Alpert “Making Love In The Rain” sample were flashes of blue breaking through a black abyss:
Now come into my world and you can see that we are more than thugs.
After “Days of Our Lives,” I was hooked. Eager to listen to more of their stuff, I borrowed (translation: took) my older brother’s copy of Bone’s album The Art of War and played it on my mother’s stereo when she wasn’t home. During my adolescence, I became acquainted with more of Bone’s catalog and loved much of it. There are too many standouts to name, whether by the group or by its individual members on solo outings: “First of Da Month,” “Change the World,” “Crossroads,” “If I Could Teach The World,” “Thuggish Ruggish,” “Look Into My Eyes,” “Hatin Nation.”
I used to Google search their lyrics to better memorize them, or catch words I couldn’t understand since the raps were so fast. Though I enjoyed what each member brought to the table, my favorite eventually became Bizzy. He rapped the fastest; deciphering his bars felt like an accomplishment when his light voice ripped through tracks like “When Doves Cry” and “Way Too Strong.” I had never smoked weed and didn’t have any intention to, but the cool vibe of “Weed Man” made me feel light and buoyant as if I did.
One of the greatest reasons Bone resonated with me was their references to spiritual warfare. I grew up in religious households — my father is a cradle-to-grave Catholic, and my mother is an ordained minister. While mass with my father was a quick and formulaic 45 minutes, mom’s church services lasted almost all Sunday. Ephesians 6:12 was instilled in me at an early age.
As a kid taught to see in spiritual terms, not just flesh and bone, I thought the group’s music had an intrinsic resonance. You can’t listen to Bone and not hear the battle between God and the devil, good and evil, heaven and hell. The harmonious crew wrestled with the fate of their eternal souls, trying to reconcile the bad things they felt they had to do to survive:
What you gonna do when judgment comes for you?
If you don’t know how to tame the devil then the devil will beat you.
Every new day is a test for me, so I just pray the Lord for Him to bless me, please.
Bone connected the more literal warfare of street and gang life to spiritual warfare. Imagining your physical enemies as spiritual entities lends a sense of righteousness to the means, even if the ends aren’t always saintly.
Now that I’m older, I do think something is troubling and problematic about placing something like murder within spiritualism and, whether explicitly or implicitly, understanding yourself as the protagonist. In that way, violent sins and nihilistic instincts become spiritually justified — the gunfights against rival thugs or policemen become a fight against “the devil.” “Mo murda” becomes the thug’s way of saying “resist the devil and he’ll flee from you.” The tragedy is that in most cases, both killers and those killed in gang violence were folks that “been strugglin’, hustlin’, thuggin’ it forever.” They aren’t just spirits; they are flesh and bone.
But to be fair, my more critical insight was birthed in hindsight. That’s not a criticism I had at the height of my youthful fandom. Being from the Midwest, I had an exponentially greater attachment to them than N.W.A, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, or other seminal rap groups. Aside from local legends Do-or-Die, it really was just Bone for me. When I was growing up in Chicago in the ’90s, their music gave me the emotional language to understand what was happening around me.
I’ve been a bystander in two other drive-bus since. I’ve seen someone try to kill my cousin’s friend, and a murdered man’s body laying on the ground in front of a corner store a block away from my first encounter with gun violence. High school classmates, basketball teammates, and some of my former students have been killed. One of my best friends got hit by a drunk off-duty officer; the officer tried to report his car stolen. I struggled with the same questions my favorite rap group did.
A fair reading of Bone’s lyrics would also account for how they used metaphors to wrestle with inner turmoil and troubling life experiences; wrestling with both individual and collective mortality. This trope is everywhere in Black art. Whether in the nightmare of slavery or life in violent communities, Black people have asked, “God, why?” in their songs, poetry, and prayers.
Many Black folks see the survival of our people as the Lord’s grace on our lives, collectively and individually. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that if the man those guys killed had been on our side of the street back when I was a kid, one of us — or all of us — could have been killed. And it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that everyone in Bone believes they are blessed to have survived growing up in Ohio.
That’s why their music is “gospel gangsta rap,” fully aware of all the profound contradictions and paradoxes that it implies.