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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: How Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Made the Mournful Sound Joyous With “Tha Crossroads”

One the biggest songs of the decade was also one of its saddest—and one of its brightest-sounding

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 48, which explores Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” with help from writer Israel Daramola.

This week we’re talking about “Tha Crossroads,” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, from their 1995 album E. 1999 Eternal. No. 1 song in America for eight straight weeks. This song is pretty much entirely about mourning the dead; it’s about mourning the dead until you join them. It’s a song about how you’re not alone when you die, and you’re not alone when you mourn those who’ve died already. Death is inevitable, and grief, too, but that means everyone shares in it. Everyone bears the weight. These guys are the best-case scenario for who you could get to reminisce over you. All of which to say, the most important part of this chorus is the line, So you won’t be lonely.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, by 1995, consist of five dudes. Five rappers-slash-singers. We got Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, and, coming later and in a somewhat less official capacity, Layzie’s brother Flesh-N-Bone. These stage names do not necessarily correspond to any of the guys’ offstage personalities. Bizzy Bone is not busier than Layzie Bone, et cetera; as Wish Bone once put it, “We all consider ourselves the Michael Jackson of our group. Nobody’s bigger than nobody.”

So, I need a vivid, overwrought description of the office setup for a woman named Keisha Anderson. Wish Bone, doing an interview in 2017, so roughly 25 years later, still remembers her name. Calls her by name. Keisha Anderson. Keisha was the secretary at Ruthless Records, out in Los Angeles, in the early ’90s. Ruthless Records, of course, started by the rapper Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy-E, formerly of gangsta rap icons N.W.A; Eazy E started Ruthless with one Jerry Heller, former semi-nefarious manager of N.W.A The slow-motion breakup of N.W.A.—Ice Cube left in ’89, Dr. Dre et cetera left in ’91—was quite acrimonious. They made a movie about it, if I recall correctly.

But I do not recall Keisha Anderson appearing in the movie. Keisha is the woman, the secretary the dudes in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony called, every day, for weeks, trying to get a meeting with Eazy-E, in the hopes that he’d give them a record deal with Ruthless Records. I need a full accounting of Keisha’s office situation. The furniture. Her desk, her cubicle or lack thereof, any plants, the dust, her proximity to any vending machines, we got Doritos in there or what, the peanut-butter crackers, her proximity, I suppose, to Eazy-E’s office slash desk slash whatever. I want to see what Keisha sees, as she twirls her phone cord and rolls her eyes and muddles through these daily cold calls from these unknown knuckleheads from Cleveland who bought one-way bus tickets from Cleveland all the way to California, just to call her on the phone from California to try to get her to hook them up with Eazy-E. This is one of my favorite origin stories in rap history because I find this story so chaotic and inept and therefore relatable. This is how I would’ve done it if I’d have done it.

So. We got longtime friends and family members (Layzie and Flesh are actually Wish’s cousins) in their late teens, early 20s. In Cleveland, in the Glenville neighborhood, at or around the corner of East 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue. First they call themselves the Band Aid Boys (which is not very tough), then B.O.N.E. Enterprise (which is tougher). Their first underground album comes out in 1993, called Faces of Death. (That’s super tough. Faces of Death is that notorious bootleg movie from the late ’70s with footage of real people really dying, allegedly. Lotta chatter about that movie in my junior high. There’s a monkey brain involved, also? Keep that shit away from me. I got enough problems.) Let’s meet the fellas on a song called “Flow Motion.”

As you may have observed, B.O.N.E. Enterprise are into speed and melody. Primarily speed at this point. That was Layzie Bone of course. Let’s see if Wish Bone raps any slower.

Nope. Most of Faces of Death is musically murkier than this and qualifies, I guess, as “horrorcore.” It’s bleak, it’s menacing, it’s violent—there is drug-dealing-type violence and hellish, supernatural, Faces of Death-the-movie-type violence. A brief feud will later erupt between Bone and Three 6 Mafia, down in Memphis, who get pissed when they suspect that Bone are biting their style, the pentagrams, the backwards-masking Satan talk, what DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia calls the “tongue-twisting over slow beats,” the Halloween malevolence and so forth. But after a parking-lot scuffle or two that gets resolved pretty quickly—this is, of course, pre-internet—regional rap scenes are developing with relatively little knowledge of each other, it’s understandable, it’s harmless, and the world will get some Three 6–Bone Thugs collaborations later. And really, on this record, B.O.N.E. are desperate to make any contact with the outside world. They are desperate to join the outside world. A phrase you can hear just a couple times on Faces of Death, but it sticks out to me, somebody will say bus tickets. “I’m bus tickets, mothafucka, praise the 12-gauge.” These guys want out. These guys want bus tickets out. Anyway, here’s Bizzie Bone. I tried to find a relatively calm part.

So these guys decide they want to work with Eazy-E, with Ruthless Records. Bone are all huge N.W.A. fans, of course, and Ruthless Records is somewhat adrift after N.W.A.’s breakup. Eazy-E is feuding with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, he’s getting clowned on Dr. Dre’s blockbuster hit The Chronic, Ice Cube’s a huge solo star as well, Eazy’s looking for his own success on that scale, and Ruthless is signing everybody. Just a profoundly chaotic record-label roster. They’ve got the great Above the Law of course, but they’ve also got a Jewish rap group called Blood of Abraham, they got a Mexican rapper named Kid Frost, they got two different all-female rap groups, one called Hoez With Attitude, one called Menajahtwa. Very intense alternate spelling of Menajahtwa., a decidedly pre-fame is skulking around somewhere in there. That kinda vibe. Ruthless is throwing a lotta stuff at the wall. And B.O.N.E. Enterprise would like to be thrown at the wall as well. And so Flesh-N-Bone saves up his money from working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he buys five one-way bus tickets, and they take the bus out to California—2,000-plus miles, this bus trip.

And so now the guys start off staying with a friend in Visalia, California, about 200 miles north of Ruthless headquarters in the San Fernando Valley, and Bone start calling the Ruthless office every day, trying to get Eazy-E on the phone. They get the secretary instead. They get Keisha Anderson instead. They call Keisha Anderson every day. Sitting there in her cubicle, or not, eating her Doritos, or not, and getting exasperated but being patient, also. She takes the calls. She indulges them to some extent. And after a few weeks they finally get Eazy-E on the phone, and depending on who’s telling the story either Krayzie Bone raps over the phone, or Krayzie and Bizzie rap over the phone, or everybody raps over the phone. I do not, ordinarily, buy these I rapped for him over the phone, we sang for her over the phone, I played our big hit song for them over the phone, I held the phone up to the radio—like that genre of music-biz origin story. That doesn’t happen. Even Back to the Future. Everything and everybody sounds like shit over the phone, man. Especially in 1993. But this story, or the gist of it, I do buy, I think. I’m willing to believe that whatever and whoever Eazy-E heard over the phone, he got it. He got close to it. Here’s Krayzie Bone, by the way. Look out.

Did you get all that? Do you think Eazy-E, hypothetically, got all that? He got enough. But the punchline is, Bone of course want to meet up with Eazy-E in person, but he can’t meet up with them in person, because he’s very busy. For example, he’s got a show coming up soon … in Cleveland. And so the B.O.N.E. guys, still camped out in Visalia, California, scrounge up the money for five one-way bus tickets back home, back to Cleveland, and they get backstage at Eazy’s Cleveland show, and that’s where they get signed. That’s the relatable part to me. This is a level of terrible planning and logistics that I respect—that I, personally, understand. That I seek to emulate in my own life. Take a bus from Cleveland to California, talk to a guy in California on the phone from California, then take the bus back to Cleveland to meet the guy visiting from California in person. Fantastic. No notes.

B.O.N.E. sign to Ruthless. Eazy-E suggests the name Thugs-N-Harmony. B.O.N.E. want to keep the Bone in there somehow. Ergo, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. They get bus tickets back to California, but at least now it’s on Jerry Heller’s dime. They hit the studio. They record a handful of songs. Not enough for a full album yet but Eazy-E won’t wait. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put out their Ruthless Records debut, an eight-song EP called Creepin on ah Come Up, in 1994. Not even eight songs. Two separate intros, five songs, and a bitchin’ guitar solo. But you understand, immediately, Eazy-E’s sense of urgency.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.