Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Week Day 3: Why "1st of Month" is the Greatest Song Ever Written About Welfare
Sometimes, I feel sorry for the 13-year olds of today. I can't even begin to imagine how disgruntled my adolescence would've been had I been forced to listen to "A Bay Bay" and "Low" everywhere I went. We got "Regulate," and "Hip-Hop Hooray," they got the Soulja Boy dance. And of course, there was "1st of Tha Month," a song that pretty much defined the summer of 1995. Those were a weird couple of months. O.J. tried on the infamous "if it don't fit, you must acquit" bloody gloves, Jerry Garcia died, and really not much else happened. It was the 90s, this was perfectly common. In fact, all I really remember doing that summer was watching a whole lot of Small Wonder, playing a lot of Tony LaRussa Baseball, and listening to E. 1999 Eternal. I'm still not sure whether it was supremely awesome or the worst summer of my life.
In particular, I listened to "1st of tha Month" more than anything else. It was hard not to, the thing was everywhere, from the radio, to MTV and Rap City, to my basketball practices in the afternoon. I even distinctly remember one day in my sweltering summer school computer class when a sub came and we spent the entire period listening to E. 1999 Eternal on flimsy Discman headphones and flipping through the liner notes, baffled by the hazy mysticism of the Misterouija board, the street map of E. 1999 Eternal and the mournful RIP message to Eazy who had died in March.
I imagine kids don't do stuff like that anymore. You can't exactly look at liner notes if no one owns the CD and no one buys CD's. An article that ran yesterday in the LA Times, claims that nearly half of teens didn't buy a single one in 2007. By contrast, E. 1999 Eternal sold six million and I'd wager that at least half were kids staggering through the mine-field of adolescence. Of course, "Tha Crossroads" was partially responsible for the album's astronomical sales but the original copies of E. 1999 came sans the tribute to Eazy who had died after original recording had ceased, so at first Bone Thugs while still popular, were pretty much the province of the hip-hop kids.
Yet it wasn't any sort of exotic desire for "the other" that drove our obsession. "First of tha' Month" is explicitly designed to be a party song, except it's completely not. It' s a celebration alright, but one with a bleak subtext about getting welfare checks and using the money to buy weed, 40s and coke. Everyone tells the story about ODB taking a limo to picking up his welfare check, but he never wrote a hit single about it (though he did once announce that he "came out of his mom's pussy on welfare," on "Raw Ride.")
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Sometimes, I think that if Congress had heard how happy those welfare checks made Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on the 1st and 15th, they'd have been a little more tender-hearted in drawing up welfare reforms. (Then I think about this picture of Newt Gingrich and think better of it.) It'd be tough to envision a contemporary major label rapper willing to admit that their video budget was less than a million, let alone one who would pen an ode to getting a $135 check. Hell, Kanye probably spends than much on bottled water each day.
Of course, I don't think any of us were aware of the subject matter at the same. Not like it mattered, I can't imagine a topic my 14-year old self could've related to less than needing government assistance to buy drugs (save for maybe Gerardo's "Rico Suave.") All I knew was that it was one of the best and most fun songs I'd ever heard and I liked the video even more. Looking back, the clip looks almost absurdly cheap, but that just sort of adds to the charm. The shots of Bone Thugs riding on top of the car look particularly ridiculous, though I give them props for re-appropriating the Cleveland version of Michael J. Fox's "Surfing USA" performance in Teen Wolf.
"1st of tha' Month" was one of the first indications that lyrically, Bone were slightly more complex than your average gangster rappers. The themes on their first album Creepin' On Ah Come Up are pretty one-note, killing, robbing, dealing drugs and taking drugs. Not much beyond. But album number two is permeated by an unsettling occult vibe, with songs obsessed with death and a spirituality extending past your typical rote gangsterisms. Indeed, the "First of tha' Month" opens with them staring into crystal balls trying to divine the future, Bizzy's hanging out in a darkened room with candles, skulls, and a flaming beanie (no Sigel). Hell, Layzie is wearing a fucking Mark Price jersey, the uni of arguably the whitest player ever (this is an exaggeration, we must never forget the stunning translucence of Tony Bennett.)
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With its main goal to depict a day in the life of Bone Thugs on the first of every month, the video is primarily devoted to BBQing, car surfing and divining the future. Additionally, we get the perspective of a perplexed welfare officer who seems to only spend his days reading a newspaper with a magical telescreen that allows him to pour dollar bills on homeless people. Inevitably, this did not jibe with the Contract for America soon to sweep through Congress. Which is too bad. If welfare allowed for songs like this, I'd be tempted to abandon any sort of of fiscal conservatism I might posses (which mainly means not paying for valet parking). I for one am perfectly okay with giving my tax dollars to Lazyie Bone to "get faded and get [his] hair braided."
The thing I like most about Bone Thugs is how completely untethered from any sort of reality they seem. Somebody at their label had to be advising them not to release a five-plus minute paean to welfare as their lead single. The beats, provided by the terminally underrated DJ U-Neek, are as anti-pop as possible, with sinister, sinuous synth lines and slow hard drums. And I can't imagine that anyone thought it'd be a good idea for them to pose as male fortunetellers staring into crystal balls (unsurprisingly, Bone's short-lived 1-900 psychic hotline had very little success). But while Bone always seemed completely unconcerned with any sort of commercial compromise, they still managed to sell roughly 20 million CD's worldwide in the 90s alone. "1st of tha' Month" is as good a record as they ever made, one of the decade's finest singles and a perfect distillation of what made Bone great: the fact that they were willing to wear Mark Price jerseys.
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