Snipers, impending war, and an economy that still has indigestion from eating dot-coms. But to listen to penthouse rappers like Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy telling us to "Pass the Courvoisier," you'd think everyone is safe, rich, and happy, just like Diddy himself, "P. D-I-D-D-Y" in case you couldn't spell. Genuine hip-hop hoods should let everyone in on how people live on the ground floor. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony still draw from inner-city life, the good with the bad, to tell it like it really is. They're back this week after a two-year hiatus, dropping their fourth full-length album, Thug World Order, which aims for the jugular while most rappers still binge on bling-bling.

It isn't all about rhetoric, though. For as much beef as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony get off their chest, it's their smooth, nimble emceeing that sets them apart -- a style they bred in Cleveland's Eastside projects. It has nothing to do with the stalled hooks and catch phrases hip-hop has been passing off the assembly line since sleeping with the radio.

Few, if any, can fracture a stream of lyrics into layered rhyme schemes as swift and easy as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Wish Bone, the fatherly Bone Thug, admits the group didn't develop its rapid twist to a cappella on purpose. He says, "We didn't plan it or try to be different, but we noticed we had our own style. We listened to a lot of R&B, Marvin Gaye. We had a lot of root. We were more musical and we've always wanted to be better."

It's obvious when they're onstage -- headliners of the Grey Goose Tour that stopped in Miami Beach two weeks ago, featuring Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boyz and a few other acts whose names you wouldn't remember -- how good and different they know they are. None of the Bone Thugs target the audience with in-your-face, here-we-are bravado like other rappers. Instead they captivate through synchronized slings; often rapping with eyes strenuously closed, lit to the gill on slang. That's the reason 800 Bone Thugged fans stay till three in the morning at Level on a Monday night to listen to Thug flow, although the tickets they bought for the show promised a 10:00 p.m. start. Layzie, Krayzie, and Wish get to steppin' onstage when they're good and ready. That would be after a few Dutch Master blunts and glasses of Grey Goose Vodka in the VIP. "You know how we do," Layzie says.

How the hell can Layzie party like it's Friday on a Monday and manage a tight performance nevertheless? "Cause this is how we do the damn thing, we some articulate mothafuckers," he yells, with a fat, burning dack in hand. "I'm free, dawg. I ain't got no chains on me." Layzie gives the rest of the fire away and moves through his small (by hip-hop standards) entourage of fifteen people toward the stage. He ends up starring the show, not missing a beat, yanking his words like a yo-yo through Krayzie and Wish's verse. Layzie shows off his ghetto charm with the spicy Mo Thug rapper, Felicia, getting giddy in her business as they perform the ghetto love track "Get Up and Get It," the first single off Thug World Order.

For as established an act as Bone Thugs, the crowd is thinnish, though at four on what is now a Tuesday morning it'd be tough for even Jay-Z to get 800 people this up and into a show. No one in the small crowd has a back up on the wall. Everyone waited, patiently, to hear Thugs, not just to party at a club. And they all stay till the end, which comes around 5:00 a.m., even though many of the white suburban jocks and ghetto fab blacks have to get to work in a few hours. Bone Thugs mean something to them, and it isn't just a good time.

"These guys are the real deal, it's a smaller concert than what they've done in the past but it's more special, they're up rapping in the fucking crowd, man," exclaims a six-foot-four black dude from a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile Layzie and Krayzie rhyme on the edge of the stage, over the heads of fans rapping along, with no security in between.

This group isn't about to start acting like hip-hop prima donnas. It knows success is fleeting and it has plenty of baggage to bring along too. Stardom's been bumpy for Bone Thugs since accepting two Grammys for the 1995 megahit "Tha Crossroads" off the multiplatinum debut E. 1999 Eternal. Tension within the group and legal spats with label Ruthless Records, along with stabs at solo careers, haven't pulled the group apart so much as slowed it down.

Flesh-N-Bone and Bizzy Bone, two original members technically still in the group, provide drama the rest can do without. Flesh is in prison for threatening a man with an AK-47. He was sentenced to ten years back in 2000 right before the release of his solo album, ironically titled 5th Dog Let Loose. The other Bone Thugs say they always have Flesh's back. Problems with Bizzy and the group are more annoying than anything else. He skips out on shows, including the Level date, and focuses primarily on solo material and his label, 7th Sign. Bizzy's on tenuous speaking terms with the group (except Layzie, everyone loves Layzie). None of the members ever know for sure if Bizzy will do a particular gig or show up for an interview until he appears. But Bone Thugs don't want to make a big deal out of the way Bizzy handles his business.

For Wish, it's simple. "Bizzy can be an asshole. But he's still part of the group, man.... He helped originate this shit," Wish explains. "We've always said we were gonna do solo records and come back to do Bone records. But being who we are, the eye is always on us, so any little thing is blown out of proportion and everyone's like 'They done broke up.' But we're a family. We've known each other since we were kids. And like five brothers do, goddamnit, we're gonna fucking fight."

The turmoil with Ruthless Records is much more cut-and-dried. "We outgrew Ruthless. It got to a point Bone Thugs got bigger than what Ruthless can provide. We owe them one more album and we're out," Wish proclaims. Aside from financial disputes over when and how much Bone Thugs get paid and what they perceive as a lack of promotional support, there are personal rifts between the group and the label's owner, Tomica Woods-Wright. Bone Thugs were signed and mentored by Wright's late husband, the label's founder and original gangsta Eazy-E. They say they don't believe she's running the show the way Eazy meant it to be, but won't go into specifics. Layzie just points out that "since Eazy was dead we've had problems. Ain't nobody gonna fill that nigga's shit. It could be anybody in the world besides him and that still would have been the difference."

Back in the day when Bone Thugs were just Cleveland street-corner prodigies looking for notice, they knew they had to work with Eazy-E. Bone Thugs took legitimacy very serious. Why they got on Eazy's ass by taking bus trips to L.A., even rapping for him on the phone as a way to get signed instead of reaching out to closer East Coast producers, has everything to do with the creed Eazy lived by: "The only thing is to be legit." Wish explains that "we knew Eazy was the realist motherfucker in the game, and there was a lot of bullshit in the game." Eazy-E, the gang-star of Niggaz With Attitude who bankrolled Ruthless with money from running rackets to put artists like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and MC Ren on nationally distributed records, made an impression when he finally booked Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. "He sent for us to get to L.A. and when we signed he was sitting back on his chair rolling up like a hundred motherfucking joints; man, I will never be that high again," Wish recalls.

Yeah, Bone Thugs party. Which brings them to Miami often, where they party with the likes of Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell, who Wish says shows his hospitality by putting "about a thousand" big butts all on them. Lately, they've been partying with Ecstasy too. They even have a track titled "Ecstasy," a drug reserved in the past for the predominantly white dance scene, but which is all over hip-hop these days. Wish still thinks the drug "is too high of a high for me. You do shit you wouldn't normally do. We don't promote it but we're still gonna talk about our experiences."

Their experiences, not their fantasies, are what fuel their music. Being rap stars, their fantasies come true -- the champagne, the money, the women -- but "we don't really rap about shit like that because most of the people really listening to us can't relate to all that," Wish says. "The dimensions of music and what we say is deeper than that. You can do so much more than rap about a Bentley or Rolex because people are really listening to you."

The new album is deeper than a magnum of champagne. Bone Thugs get political on the track "What About Us," speaking out on the war on terrorism and the lack of concern for the poverty in our own country. They don't come right out to diss other rappers for their light content, but at the mention of brand-name hip-hop à la Ja Rule, Wish responds, "I feel ya. We're spokesmen in this world. We wanna tell these kids they all don't have to be rappers or basketball players or football players."

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are as honest and unapologetic as rappers should be. When their show is done, Layzie makes his way backstage, his fro bouncing like his George Jefferson stride. Bone Thugs know what it's like to move on up, but they don't forget where they moved up from. Nothing's really changed -- "the only difference is we can afford chronic and liquor," says Wish. "Before it was beer and cigarettes. We're still the same motherfuckers."

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Humberto Guida
Contact: Humberto Guida