Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Week Day 2: "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" And the Importance of "Branding"
Whether consciously or not, rappers have understood the concept of branding since the on-and-on-to-the-break-of-dawn days. You can listen to everything from the "The Breaks" to "Crank That" and figure out pretty quickly that they were performed by Kurtis Blow and an autistic 4th Grader with a rudimentary understanding of Pro Tools, respectively. You don't see that sort of self-promotion in other genres. Thom Yorke doesn't ad-lib "Radiohead, up in this bitch!" in the middle of "Paranoid Android." Jimi Hendrix never wrote hooks like "J-I-M-I/How do you stay fly" Though Benny Goodman once write a pithy couplet big-upping the fact that he was the"Good-Man."
The thing is, it's good business sense. You can't buy someone's music if you don't know who they are and logically, you'll increase your notoriety the most by repeating your name 15-plus times in the course of a three minute song. Of course today, most every pop star is a brand, with their own clothing line, fragrance, and unique sexually transmitted disease. But rappers have been doing this sort of stuff forever and out of the thousands of mostly worthless odes to themselves, "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" is one of the greatest, every bit as as good as "Nobody Beats the Biz," "Who Am I (What's My Name)" and "Ice Ice Baby." (relax, it's a joke.)
Yet it takes on an added resonance with its video, one of the most gully affairs ever filmed that doesn't involve someone named Freekey Zeekey. Shot in '94, it's a bare-bones ode to Bone Thugs' Cleveland ghetto (I'd write "C-Town" ghetto, but I'm probably a bit too white to get away with that). The video tells you everything you ever needed to know about Bone Thugs. Who are they? Thuggish. What else are they? Ruggish. What does ruggish mean? Who cares? (though I always fancied it to be a combination of sluggish and rugged.) Either way, the song's awesome. The sound of five innovators who discovered that the only way to put a fresh spin on Eazy E's hood nihilism was to do speed-rapped thug gospel, with a touch of barbershop. They were like the B-Sharps, but much higher.
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"Thuggish Ruggish Bone" is the sort of video you'd never see today, with practically every major label rapper concerned with depicting their faux-billionaire life style. By contrast, "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" is straight-up grimy, depicting Cleveland as somewhere between Major League and a lower rung of the Inferno (if you squint hard enough you can see Willie Mays Hayes in one of the group shots). Murky gray Cleveland freeways melt into stark urban decay and we see grainy shot after shot of Bone stalking through their hometown, past liquor stores and bail bonds joints, crew intact, burning tires in junkwards, shirtless and menacing.
It's hard not to see the imprimatur of Eazy-E. Say what you want about the man. That he can't "scrap a lick" so you know he's got a gat, that he "fucks with his road dogs," but Eazy knew how to market and package a rap group as well as anyone. "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" is an updated "Straight Outta' Compton." The lyrics are pitch-black, nothing but talk of getting high and remorseless killing. The look is similar. Oversized baggy t-shirts, graffiti-scarred walls, Loc sunglasses and a whole lot of very scary looking dudes scowling. Not to mention, put Eazy E in any video and I'm willing to give it a +5.
Wildly original, Bone's whirlwind raps seem effortless, but are nearly impossible to mimic. Want to feel stupid? Try rapping along to a Bone Thugs song. Needless to say, this made for outstanding laughs on the Bar-Mitzvah circuit in 1994. I suspect that part of the reason why Bone don't get much critical love is that they haven't had much of an influence on subsequent groups. But I'd argue that Bone Thugs were so unique and inimitable that any group that tried to copy them would look totally ridiculous (though Crucial Conflict's "Hay" and Do or Die's "Poor Pimp" are wonderful exceptions to this rule). More importantly, they made great songs, which I will continue to needlessly over-analyze in the next two days. But arguably none were better than this, their first Ruthless single, which taught 3,432,124 8th graders that it was perfectly alright to use "ruggish" as an adjective.
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