By Matt Treon
In 1995, in the inner-city Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood crossed by E. 99th Street and St. Clair Ave., five young hip-hop musicians followed up their hit single “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” with their internationally successful LP E. 1999 Eternal. The title paid tribute to the street corner frequented by the rappers, as well as their mentor, the late Easy-E. and produced the anthemic “1st of tha Month” and the groove-heavy lament “Tha Crossroads.” E. 1999 Eternal confirmed the arrival of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony as a hip-hop group entering the game on a mission to change it.
With a sound shaped by an industrial urban landscape in the heart of the American Midwest — itself an intersection of classic hip-hop sounds from the East and G-funk creeping in from the West —Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s game-changing album mixed styles from both coasts. But the group also added in darker goth-like tones as well as gospel-styled modes. From the jump, the group’s musical signature came from blending rapid-fire rhymes with a soulful delivery style, often as melodic as it is rhythmic. Each member had a distinct delivery style, collectively covering a huge tonal range, yet the entire Bone family seemed to possess the distinctive BTNH rap-melody blend to near-equal degree.
“Rappers laying down tight verses, then mixing in a chorus with a melodic hook had already become standard when it came to arranging a great track, but we came on the scene and cut the seams out, showing everyone we could do both ourselves, and changed the sound of rap,” said Stanley Howse, better known as Flesh-N-Bone, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “In the beginning, we hit with a style that was all our own.”
Now, twenty years after the group dropped E. 1999 Eternal, the original five members are consciously pulling the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony plug with what will be their final album, E. 1999 Legends.
This year, employing a similar business model to the one hip-hop guru RZA cooked up for Wu-Tang, BTNH will press only one copy of E. 1999 Legends and sell it to the highest bidder, with an opening bid of $1,000,000. Unlike RZA’s plan, however, BTNH will hand off the master copy of their final album with the intention of its buyer obtaining distribution rights as well. “Things’ve changed since 1995,” Flesh said, laying out the group’s plans, “and there’s no reason to do things the old way just because, you feel? It’ll be an experiment, but we also want to make sure all of our fans get to hear our final cut. We don’t want it to just die in one person’s hands, or just sit on some rich dude’s shelf.”
Hip-hop is rooted in tradition, but also thrives on innovation, and according to Flesh, “innovation has always come from the use of technology and ways of doing business, as well as music.”
In addition to side-stepping the standard distribution model the group will make E. 1999 Legends a double LP with sides A/B consisting of tracks cut by the five original members, and sides B/C focusing on collaborations with a large cast of hip-hop characters including K. Lamar, A$AP Mob, and others as potential participants. Flesh even hinted at the possibility of an unreleased Easy-E track making its way out of the archives.
The album also promises to provide a culturally significant close to the group’s hip-hop tenure. In an age when so many artists seem to limp around on cultural life support, not really putting out anything new (or at least not anything of lasting value), this sort of exit is itself worth note. “We want to go out clean,” Flesh said. “But it’s also a way to expand. We’ve all got our hands in different types of entertainment, working in film, other musical outfits, business ventures, and now we’ll be able to move in new directions, but also expand the larger Bone brand. We’re musicians first, but we’ve also created a business that feeds our families. Hip-hop is great because you can try and take the stage and bring some new music to the scene, or you can work as an engineer in a studio, and so many people can put food on the table, paid for by rap music,” Flesh said, a telling sound of gratefulness and pride coming through in his voice.
This year, along with setting E. 1999 Legends in motion, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony plan to embark on a massive world tour. But first, in Denver, the group will take the stage to perform the original, legendary E. 1999 Eternal in its entirety for the first time ever as a way to light it up one more time before they shut it down. It’s one hell of an exit. “We’re going to bring it back to the beginning,” Flesh said, “and hit the tracks where the world first heard of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.”
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Fillmore Auditorium January 17
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