No year in hip-hop history sticks out quite like 1996: It marked the height of the East Coast–West Coast feud, the debut of several artists who would rule the next few decades, and the last moment before battle lines between “mainstream” and “underground” were fully drawn. The 1996 Rap Yearbook, a recurring series from The Ringer, will explore the landmark releases and moments from a quarter-century ago that redefined how we think of the genre. Today, we’re celebrating this history of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the biggest rap song of that year or virtually any other: “Tha Crossroads,” released in early 1996.
By 1993, Eazy-E had achieved things most rappers only dream of. N.W.A, the group he cofounded and masterminded in the late 1980s, had redefined hip-hop and brought gangsta rap mainstream. He’d put out several successful solo projects on Ruthless Records, the label he founded alongside Jerry Heller just a few years earlier. He’d dined with the president—perhaps as an unwelcome guest—and he’d started a film production company. He appeared happy: He was wealthy, he loved skateboarding, he had girlfriends. But one thing gnawed at Eric Wright: He had yet to find a way to match the heights N.W.A reached, commercially or culturally.
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had no such problems. The former, who had left N.W.A by 1990 after alleging financial impropriety by Heller, had established himself not only as a superstar solo rapper, but as a burgeoning Hollywood talent after his breakout role in Boyz n the Hood (which coincidentally shared a name with Eazy’s biggest solo hit). Dre, meanwhile, would redefine hip-hop again in 1992 when he released The Chronic. Eazy’s former partners were lapping him, and laughing in his face while doing it—The Chronic single “Fuck Wit Dre Day” took several thinly veiled shots at Eazy and Heller, while its music video left no room for confusion. Eazy fired back with a scathing diss song of his own and called Dre a “studio gangster” during a visit to The Arsenio Hall Show, but no matter how cool he seemed while wearing his trademark Compton hat and sunglasses, he was clearly rattled by the feud. Eazy, who had famously avoided alcohol and drugs to remain sharp during his early days as a hustler, began getting high and drinking Jack Daniel’s. Some closest to him thought his newfound habits were a direct result of his inability to keep pace with his former cohorts. “I’m thinking he was trying to mask how he was feeling deserted and embarrassed,” his onetime assistant, Charis Henry, told Ben Westhoff in the 2016 book Original Gangstas.
In his memoir, Ruthless, Jerry Heller said Eazy had become consumed with the idea of besting Dre and Cube. In the early days of Heller and Eazy’s partnership, they had instituted a policy of working on only one release at a time. After Dre’s solo career blew up—and after he proved it was no fluke by producing Snoop Dogg’s four-times-platinum Doggystyle in 1993—Eazy abandoned that rule. At one point, Heller recalled, Ruthless worked on 29 different albums at the same time. Some were from Ruthless mainstays Above the Law and MC Ren. Others were from upstarts that Eazy latched on to: two raunchy all-female acts, H.W.A. (short for “Hoez With Attitude”) and Menajahtwa (pronounced ménage à trois, of course); the unapologetically Jewish group Blood of Abraham; another group named Atban Klann, led by rapper-producer Will 1X, who would later rise to fame as will.i.am.
But Atban Klann never released an album, and none of the other new groups sold more than 40,000 units on their first go-round. Eazy’s plans to build a Ruthless empire to rival Death Row looked like a long shot at best. Then he decided to call back some kids from Cleveland who had been hounding his assistant.
Desperation brought Eazy-E to Bone. It also brought the inseparable Ohioan quintet to California, where they sought out the man who would become their early mentor. The group had been through several names—first the Band Aid Boys, then B.O.N.E. Enterprise, then by 1993, just Bone—and lineups, but by the early ’90s, they had settled on five members: Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, and Layzie’s older brother, Flesh-n-Bone. They essentially lived together and spent most of their time hanging on the corner of E. 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, dreaming of their way out.
Flesh-n-Bone bankrolled the trip to California. He saved money from his job working at Kentucky Fried Chicken and bought five one-way tickets to the Golden State. They arrived at a friend’s place in Visalia, a small city about 190 miles north of the Ruthless headquarters in the San Fernando Valley. The plan was not exactly foolproof. But Bone had one thing working in their favor: perseverance that bordered on obsession. As the group told The Source two years later, by day they’d call Eazy’s office repeatedly; at night, they’d write rhymes along to their hero’s new song, “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s,” and watch the video-request channel the Box. When funds began to run low, the boys started robbing pizza delivery people. It seemed hopeless—until it didn’t. “One day he called us back,” Krayzie Bone recalled to Hip-Hop DX in 2013. “I rapped for him on the phone, and it was just crazy. He was just trippin’.”
Eazy was about to embark on a tour, so he couldn’t invite them to Los Angeles, but he had a date in their hometown coming soon. Bone scrounged up whatever money they could to get back to Cleveland to meet him. There, they auditioned as a group, and as legend has it, Eazy offered them a deal on a spot. “Jerry, you aren’t going to believe these motherfuckers I found out here,” Heller recalled Eazy shouting during an excited call back to Ruthless. “They practically homeless, man, when I met them they were all hanging around a motherfucking barrel with a fire in it, trying to stay warm. You got to hear them, Jerry! Send them bus tickets and get them the fuck out there.”
Even today, it’s plain to hear what captivated Eazy about Bone. Acts like Das EFX and the Fu-Schnickens had popularized tongue-twisting raps in the early ’90s, but Bone doubled down on the style and added melodic elements, decades before Drake and Post Malone made sing-rapping the dominant commercial sound. They also learned how to build off one another, finishing each other’s lines and layering their voices in a way no street rappers ever had. The “Thugs-n-Harmony” part of the name—which they would adopt at Eazy’s urging—could just as easily apply to their vocal style as their connection. As Krayzie told Thrasher magazine in 2017, both evolved naturally from all the time they spent together. “We did it all the time—in my mama’s basement—anytime we’d have smoke or drink sessions, it was a flow session,” he said. “We started to learn each other’s verses and the other four would just ad-lib and it would sound like we were harmonizing.”
Eazy was also captivated by Bone’s subject matter, which bordered on “horrorcore,” a hip-hop subgenre that felt more influenced by slasher flicks than N.W.A. Their music dealt with ouija boards and spirits best not conjured. Their early independent tape was named Faces of Death and featured a crudely drawn Grim Reaper. Taken as a whole, Bone sounded like a demonic doo-wop group. That their rapid-fire lyrics were often indecipherable only added to their cryptic appeal. Heller bought into Eazy’s hype. He sent the tickets immediately, and the next day, the group departed for L.A.
Bone immediately brought a different energy to Ruthless—which Eazy enjoyed, but which stressed his business partner out. Heller had experience managing young, excitable rappers in N.W.A, but the only one of them who could reasonably be considered a street dude was Eazy, and once the group started, he abandoned that life in favor of business. Not so with Bone, as Heller recalled it. He said he once talked Flesh-n-Bone out of plot to rob elderly walkers in the suburban L.A. neighborhood of Chatsworth. “I told him that 80-year-olds in jogging outfits probably weren’t carrying too much money on them,” Heller wrote. “Reluctantly, he gave up his plan.”
But while Bone gave the Ruthless brass headaches, they also recorded a ton of music, and the early results were undeniable. Their debut EP for the label, 1994’s Creepin on ah Come Up, produced two colossal singles: the Eazy-E-assisted “Foe tha Love of $” and “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” The latter—produced by the man who would become their most important collaborator, DJ U-Neek—is G-funk at its most sinister. The “Funky Worm”–style Moog pioneered by Dre (or Above the Law, depending on whom you ask) typically sounds joyous and infectious; on “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” it’s partly hypnotizing, partly horrifying. It’s a miracle the song made it to mainstream radio, but once it did, it thrived, hitting no. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 2 on the rap charts while helping Creepin hit four times platinum. That equaled the certifications for The Chronic and Doggystyle. “In Eazy’s eyes, his success was an enormous ‘fuck you!’ to Dre and Cube,” Heller wrote in his memoir.
Ruthless quickly inked Bone to a long-term deal, and they began work on their follow-up: E. 1999 Eternal, a classic that refined the group’s sound, built on their mythos, and made Midwestern rap a viable commercial proposition. Topically, the songs on it don’t stray far from death, weed, and the occult. But working exclusively with U-Neek now, Bone crafted something completely new. The five-song stretch that opens the album is as haunting as anything the Geto Boys or Three 6 Mafia (the latter of whom had a longer-simmering, ultimately futile feud with Bone) had ever attempted. Backward voices, sinister pianos, harmonies that take on a séance-like quality—E. 1999 at times felt like its own self-contained world that began and ended at the cemetery gates. Even the brightest moments on the album (most notably the lead single, “1st of Tha Month,” and the Isley Brothers homage “Buddah Lovaz”) basically amount to smoke breaks.
Death seemed to permeate nearly every song, but especially E. 1999’s centerpiece: “Crossroad,” a song dedicated to a friend of the group named Wally who was gunned down in Cleveland. (“Wally was like the first security guard that I ever had, but he was really my best friend,” Layzie told Hip-Hop DX in 2014.) “Crossroad” is at once a tribute to a fallen friend and a meditation on mortality, a sober moment on an album full of nightmare sequences. It’s haunting, but also beautiful.
Heller said he knew what Ruthless had on its hands as E. 1999 neared completion—he thought the project could do Thriller-like numbers if the label played its hand right. And while the album would fall short of that megalithic goal, it would spend two weeks at no. 1 and eventually sell more than 4 million copies, becoming the biggest release in Ruthless history after it arrived in July 1995. Eazy had been vindicated in his quest for the next great rap group. And while he wouldn’t be there to celebrate that success with his protégés, his absence would help fuel their biggest moment.
Among the cartoonishly macabre imagery of the E. 1999 cover—the computer-generated skull and bones, the hidden pentagram—sits a very earnest depiction of the real-life loss Bone had experienced in 1995: a picture of Eazy-E, who died at age 30 of complications from AIDS four months before the album’s release. The implication was clear: While E. 1999 had largely been completed beforehand, his passing loomed large over the project—and quite possibly, Bone’s future. “When we found him, we found our way out,” Wish Bone told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “Then he died right before [the success] happened, and it seemed like we were gonna be left in the streets right back where we came from.”
Wish’s fears wouldn’t come to pass; Ruthless—which had parted ways with Heller around the time of Eazy’s passing and was now under the stewardship of the rapper’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright—made Bone the marquee act of its next phase. But Eazy’s death weighed heavily on all five members. So they turned it into a song. In the spring of 1996, they reworked “Crossroad” into a tribute to the man who discovered them.
“Tha Crossroads,” released early in 1996, was unlike anything else in the Bone catalog to that point, even the plaintive original. Built around an Isley Brothers interpolation, DJ U-Neek’s slick production, and a massive chorus, it taps into their pain without embracing the darkness that shrouded so many of their tracks. It’s vulnerable and spiritual—a point accentuated by the song’s bridge of pray and we pray every day. Here, they weren’t the kids fixated on graveyard imagery. They were concerned with what lies beyond it. Bone weren’t the first streetwise rappers to pen a dedication to their fallen comrades, but few had done so as tenderly, and with such gravity. (Practically every line is an earworm, including—especially—Wish Bone’s I miss my Uncle Charles, y’all, which has inspired its share of Quora questions, explainer vids, and knockoff merch in the past 25 years.)
Buoyed by a CGI’d video that looks primitive in 2021 but felt blockbuster at the time—the Grim Reaper figures heavily again, but here he has angel wings—“Tha Crossroads” quickly became a hit. It would spend eight weeks at no. 1, go double platinum, and dominate MTV and radio airwaves. In Billboard’s decade-end list, it ranked as the no. 25 song of the 1990s, making it the third-highest rap entrant behind only Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and another dedication to a late rapper, Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Eventually, “Tha Crossroads” would win a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Bone had taken overwhelming tragedy and turned it into something positive—something that transcended its genre.
Twenty-five years later, “Tha Crossroads” towers over Bone’s legacy—how could it not?—but the group had plenty of success in the years following its release. The follow-up to E. 1999, the double-disc The Art of War, would also sell 4 million units, and the five other albums the collective would release on Ruthless, either as a group or individually, all went gold or platinum. They did more than make good on Eazy’s dream of finding an act to match N.W.A’s success—they single-handedly kept the label in business. When Bone left Ruthless after 2002’s Thug World Order, the company sputtered, putting out only a handful more releases before effectively closing its doors in 2010.
Bone, meanwhile, have persisted as a group despite members cycling in and out, side projects that happen in a silo, Flesh-n-Bone’s time in prison, and all the issues that come with being middle-aged legends in a genre that favors youth above all else. Even after nearly three decades together in the music business, the bond that propelled them to move to California in a pack—that had them memorizing each other’s every word and harmonizing at a time when no other rappers dreamed of it—continues on. “It’s a deep bond,” Bizzy told XXL in 2014. “We work on other things and we work with each other personally and spiritually, but our legacy to the people is the music and what they remember. But to us, it’s each other.”
And perhaps that’s what really drew Eazy-E to Bone. In a 2015 interview with Vibe, Krayzie hypothesized as much. When they first arrived at Ruthless, Eazy would watch how close they were, how if one member got up to go the bathroom, the others would follow. One day, Krayzie recalls Eazy saying how he admired that closeness: “Man,” he told them, “If N.W.A would have been as tight as y’all nobody would have never came between us.”
The piece has been updated to reflect the release date of “Tha Crossroads.”