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No Bones to Pick? 

Cleveland's Thugs ain't all hugs, but they're hoping for some harmony.

And then there were three: Krayzie (right) and the Bone Thugs in 2007.
  • And then there were three: Krayzie (right) and the Bone Thugs in 2007.
If you know your hip-hop history, then last year's signing of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to Interscope Records might have triggered a double-take. Sure, the long and bitter feud between ex-N.W.A members Dr. Dre and the late Eazy-E might have died with Eazy. But there's still something a little strange about the idea of Eazy's former protégés -- Cleveland's most famous hip-hop export -- inking to Interscope, the label Dre built.

But check this: Krayzie, Layzie, and Wish Bone not only signed on with Interscope -- which is releasing Strength & Loyalty, Bone's first major label album in five years -- they also came very close to collaborating with their former adversary. And while Dr. Dre's tracks couldn't be finished in time for the album, the collaboration isn't as surprising as you might think.

"I actually ran into Dr. Dre last year. I think it was at a platinum party for the Pussycat Dolls," remembers Krayzie (born Anthony Henderson), via phone from his home in Los Angeles. "He said, 'I heard y'all supposed to be comin' over here. Would y'all mess with Dre?' And I said, 'All day long!'"

Like many hip-hop beefs, this one had more to do with label loyalties than genuine bad feelings. "We was on a certain team," Krayzie explains. "And we just had to roll with that team." Bone Thugs' team was Ruthless Records, which helped them become stars in the '90s, topping the singles charts in 1996 with "Tha Crossroads," off the No. 1 album E. 1999 Eternal. Ruthless was also N.W.A.'s original label, which became a bone of contention between Dre and Eazy; the former left Ruthless and N.W.A. for Death Row Records after a dispute over money.

When Bone Thugs' own deal with Ruthless ended acrimoniously after 2002's Thug World Order, the group spent the next half-decade in indie purgatory. But Strength & Loyalty marks more than just a return to the big leagues. The new disc also suggests the infamously volatile Bones is trying to make a few amends and show that it's outgrown its old, out-of-control image. (Heck, these days the group even has some nice things to say about Ruthless.)

In that sense, the most significant guest on Strength & Loyalty might be Twista, who joins the group on "C-Town," an homage to both Cleveland and Twista's native Chicago. He once drew Bone Thugs' ire because his fleet-tongued style bears similarities to the singsong speed raps it pioneered, but Krayzie notes, "We wanted him on there to show there's no beef."

Elsewhere, the trio enlists the likes of the Game, Akon, and Mariah Carey to embellish its sound. "We never really worked with a lot of guests," says Krayzie. "Then again, most of the people we worked with before -- except Mariah and Phil Collins -- are dead."

There's another reason for all the guests, however. Krayzie admits that the group -- which was a quintet at the height of its fame -- felt the need to make up for its slimmed-down lineup. Flesh-N-Bone remains incarcerated on gun charges, while the other missing Bone proves the Thugs haven't completely outrun the drama of the past.

Simply mentioning the name Bizzy Bone makes Krayzie sound noticeably wearier, the result of years of questions with no good answers. In their early days on Ruthless during the mid '90s, all the Bones collectively cultivated a rep as one of the wild-and-loosest ensembles around. Just out of their teens and fresh off the streets of Cleveland, the group "went from bein' homeless to stayin' in all these fancy hotels in L.A.," recalls Krayzie, who adds with a laugh, "And we got kicked outta all of 'em."

But while most of his bandmates would eventually settle down (Krayzie's five-month-old daughter cries in the background), Bizzy remained the Bone that was impossible to tame. Over the years, he has tried the group's patience with a long list of skipped shows and bizarre outbursts. And his latest offense might be the most serious, occurring last year, just as the Bone Thugs were negotiating their return to the big time.

"That's when Bizzy sprung the big thing on us," Krayzie says with a sigh. "Like he usually does." The big thing, in this case, was a refusal to go along with the deal. Wish and Layzie tracked Bizzy down in Houston for a heart-to-heart, but Krayzie decided to stay home. "I honestly felt it was a waste of time, once he played us like that at the last minute."

Krayzie stops short, however, of closing the door on Bizzy for good. "Well . . . it don't feel like it's over, over. Is this it forever? That remains to be seen. But he would have to be doin' a whole lot to earn back our trust. I'll tell you that much."

For the moment, then, Krayzie, Layzie, and Wish (the only Bone who still resides in Cleveland) will carry on the Bone Thugs tradition themselves. They return to a hip-hop industry in decline, hoping their name and reputation -- as well as their relative inactivity -- are all advantages. "Because we been gone," Krayzie explains, "we haven't played ourselves out yet."

Another thing that's changed in their absence is the long-awaited development of Cleveland as a hip-hop hot spot, with new stars like Ray Cash, Mick Boogie, and the production duo the Kickdrums becoming national names.

A&R men "would always come to Cleveland after we came out," remembers Krayzie. "But the only thing they was lookin' for was people that sounded like us. So they didn't find no one." They never would find another group like Bones, which may be older and wiser, but has left an indelible mark on the industry. Last December, appearing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to promote his autobiography, Jerry Heller -- the former head of Ruthless and an ex-Shaker Heights resident -- reflected on Bone Thugs: "They were the hardest artists I ever had to work with -- not hard to work with, but hard to control."

Krayzie doesn't seem at all distressed by this observation when it's repeated to him; in fact, he sounds almost proud. "I'd tell him he's absolutely fuckin' right," Krayzie says, adding with a laugh, "but why would he be tryin' to control us, anyway?"

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