This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.
It was at a—*groan*—crossroads in their career when Bone Thugs-n-Harmony released their most famous song.
But let’s rewind a bit. My initial recollection of Bone is from the summer of 1994, when “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” first landed on the Box, the long-gone video channel that allowed people to call a 1-900 number to request songs. And those dedicated Box viewers, from all over the country, requested Bone Thugs—a lot.
But who the eff were these guys, anyway? Trapped in an East Coast bubble, my friends and I viewed the group as a total curiosity—a weird joke, even, with their braids and blowouts and that strange sing-songy style that nobody had ever heard before (sorry, Freestyle Fellowship fans). On the Box, the “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” video would pop up in between “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “I Got Cha Opin,” and we’d all groan and cringe and crack jokes at the TV. Remember, this is months after Illmatic dropped, when singing was considered antithetical to “real hip-hop” and the battle lines between rap and non-rap were fully drawn.
The following year, as those lines began to blur, a new division consumed hip-hop. With East-West tensions heating up, the Cleveland boys occupied, literally and figuratively, the hazy middle. (It’s no mistake that Bone was one of the very few to record with both Biggie and 2Pac while they were still alive.) In July of 1995, Bone dropped their full-length debut, E. 1999 Eternal, which sold an impressive 300,000 copies in its first week. In fact it was “1st of tha Month,” the ode to welfare checks that was the album’s first single, that turned me into a fan. It was trademark Bone: joy and pathos and celebration and melancholy all wrapped up in a melodic stew that, while pleasing to the ear, had a dash of menace.
With East-West tensions heating up, the Cleveland boys occupied, literally and figuratively, the hazy middle.
But even if Bone now had commercial success, to the general Hip-Hop Caucus (read: New York), they remained a novelty act. (Let’s not forget the group’s early obsession with ouija boards, backwards vocals, and vaguely Satanic iconography.) I still remember the crowd reaction (or lack thereof) when Bone took the stage at Madison Square Garden during the infamous 1995 Source Awards, one month after E. 1999’s release. The MSG audience was frozen like my friends and I watching the Box: Who the eff are these guys?
If our story ended here, then Bone’s enduring legacy would likely play out the same as any regional act that had a taste of national fame—something akin to an 8Ball & MJG. In other words, a perfectly acceptable, solid rap career.
But now we reach “Tha Crossroads.” As Bone devotees know, the version of the song that went worldwide didn’t appear on the original LP—instead, it is technically a remix (and, to hear hardcore fans tell it, an inferior version) of the album cut “Crossroad,” for which DJ U-Neek memorably samples the theme of a Sega Genesis game. “Crossroad” was a dedication to a fallen friend named Wally, the group’s neighborhood muscle who was killed before they rose to fame. It’s a good song but hardly one you’d pick to transcend the genre.
As with Bone’s initial origin story, Eazy-E’s shadow looms large on the remix. It was E who famously discovered Bone in 1993; it was his death, two years later, that spurred them on to make the song that turned them into global stars. Toward the end of recording E. 1999, Bone dealt with the crushing losses of not only their mentor but also close family members—Wish’s uncle and Krayzie’s cousin among them. Thus inspired, Bone returned to the studio to record an updated version of their in-memoriam song, profanity-free and over a catchier U-Neek beat (this time sampling the Isley Brothers).
“Tha Crossroads” was released on April 23, 1996 (and later added to reissues of E. 1999 Eternal). It was an immediate hit, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 100, then a record for a rap single. At the time, MTV News labeled the song “a major departure for Bone Thugs”; with the benefit of history, I’d call it less a “departure” and more a crystallization of the elements (you know, thugs and harmony) that made them great in the first place. “Tha Crossroads” is the perfect marriage of content and form; in subject and tone, it was the ideal vehicle to introduce Bone’s style of rapping to the world. Movie fans talk about certain roles that an actor was “born to play.” In that sense, Bone Thugs was born to make “Tha Crossroads.”
If the bulk of the lyrics, in typical Bone fashion, was largely unintelligible (save, of course: “I miss my Uncle Charles, y’all”), the sentiment within was easily relatable —as Layzie later noted, succinctly: “Everybody go through death.” The video, capturing that universality, played an integral role in the song’s commercial rise. It starts, as in Bone’s first video, with female vocals, in this case a rendition of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” by Tre’ (who were later prominent in Bone’s underrated Mo Thugs projects).
From there, each verse is accompanied by vignettes featuring an ominous Grim Reaper figure who claims his victims by turning their eyeballs black. By the end, the Reaper has sprouted wings to lead his new angels (and a digitized Eazy) to salvation. Emotional stuff, and enough to earn Bone Thugs five VMA nominations (though no awards) and a spot on the VMA stage, just over a year after their Source Awards performance. Suffice to say, the Radio City crowd was much more hospitable. It has always been Wish Bone’s simple, plaintive line at the end of “Tha Crossroads” that stuck with me: “I don’t wanna die,” he sings, an about-face from the era’s usual nihilism. The song certainly didn’t die, holding down the No. 1 Billboard spot for eight weeks, the eighth rap song to ever reach the top spot—and definitely the first to actually deserve it. It went on to go platinum twice over, win the group a Grammy, and, in the long run, carve out a new lane for Bone: radio-friendly, inspirational hip-hop, as evidenced by the likes of subsequent collaborations with Phil Collins and Akon.
Eventually—since comedy is tragedy plus time—“Tha Crossroads” become fodder for standup routines and sketch bits. Sad but not sappy, it’s still the best hip-hop R.I.P. song ever (edging out “T.R.O.Y.” and crushing Puff’s maudlin, ghostwritten Biggie tribute), and if you read the dedications in the video’s YouTube comments, it’s as relevant now as it was 20 years ago.
So, then, who the eff are these guys? Legends.
Want more from The 1996 Project? Visit the links below.
“Talkin’ ’Bout Houston: Bun B and ESG Remember the Year the City Broke Out”
“Back Issues: The Real Story Behind ‘VIBE’’s East vs. West Cover”
“The Best Rap Songs of 1996”