Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were rapping about collecting government checks before it was cool. "1st Of Tha Month," off their 1995 full-length debut album, E 1999 Eternal, followed its alarm-clock chorus with an extended explanation of the blunts, yayo, and rocks they could buy with their welfare windfalls. That album's second single, "Tha Crossroads," assured listeners that the Thugs would never again qualify for government assistance, sending the Cleveland, Ohio, quintet of fast talkers to the top of the Billboard charts.
But while The Art of War in 1997 received wide acclaim, the band's 2000 release, BTNHResurrection, was a failure. Even worse, key member Flesh-n-Bone was convicted of assault with a firearm that same year and sentenced to 11 years in a California prison. Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, and Wish Bone tried to press on without Flesh or fifth member Bizzy Bone, but nothing worked. Not even bringing Phil Collins on board for a collaboration on 2002's Thug World Order was enough to put them back in the spotlight.
But today, things are much different. Flesh is free. During his time in the slammer, Flesh converted to Islam and reportedly put the criminal aspects of thug life behind him. He even married a cop — a former Chicago police officer.
The reunited five-piece visits Charleston on a 34-city tour to support their new disc, Uni-5: The World's Enemy. But at one of the tour's first stops, in their home town of Cleveland, Flesh was arrested on a charge from 1998. He's since been released and back on tour.
The band, for one, wants to put the past behind them. "We're all about cleaning up our act and doing better things in life," says Layzie Bone, Flesh's brother. "We just had a little setback, but it don't stop the show."
Playing to sold out crowds at every stop so far, Layzie says that having everyone back together has been "absolutely wonderful" and that everyone's getting along and making "magic in the music."
Bone first assembled at a junior high school in Cleveland, where the guys would freestyle in the hallways. Layzie dates their first real show to 1986, and the original vibe is still strong when they come together.
The group has released three singles off their new disc thus far, including "Rebirth" and "Meet Me in the Sky," both of which tout the group's skills and originality. Largely absent are references to slugging 40s on the corner and packing heat.
"'Meet Me in the Sky' is saying, 'We flying above the player haters,' you know?" explains Layzie. "Our elevation is so much higher than everybody else, and that's what the metaphor is, like we're on a whole 'nother level."
Layzie says their goal in reuniting is to establish Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's rightful place in music history as rappers with an original lyrical style that's been imitated since their first hits.
"We're making the point this time and letting folks know that we changed music and we made history with it," the rapper says. "We just want our contribution to be known."
For Layzie, the past 17 years of recording have merely been a way to set the stage for what's to come.
"We ain't got nothin' to run from now, because we ain't doing nothing illegal, but we got a lot of people that's locked up. Flesh-n-Bone was locked up. It's real with us."