The Bone Thugs-n-Harmony rapper struggles to make peace with his hometown.
Editor’s note: With Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on a nostalgia-laced tour this summer, Columbus Monthly is republishing this 2004 profile of Columbus native Bizzy Bone.
He walks among the gravestones at Evergreen Cemetery, 27 years old, wearing neatly pressed khakis and a wily smile. A tattoo creeps out of his collar up his neck. He's visiting the friends he has buried here while talking about his life as the “greatest rapper in the world.” He sips from a juice bottle and pulls out a light for a small cigar. The man who has sung about the pleasures of marijuana says, "Don't worry. It's just tobacco." He squints into the sun. “You know how it goes," he says, laughing, "everybody's got a wonderful fucked-up story."
The story of the man who goes by "Bizzy Bone" begins in Columbus, where he was born at Ohio State University Medical Center as Bryon McCane. Unlike those of other babies born at OSU that day, his story includes a Grammy Award and album sales of more than 15 million as a solo artist and as part of the hip-hop phenomenon Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. It includes time in a studio with rap immortals such as Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
There's the famous part of the story—the Big Break—which began with members of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony selling drugs in the streets of Cleveland, dropping rhymes for influential L.A. rap mogul Eazy-E over a phone and landing a record deal. Bizzy was a teenager at the time.
All his stories loop back to Columbus, where he grew up, for the most part, and now lives. Leaning over a grave, he promises to be buried in his hometown. "Where I was born, so shall I die,” he says, almost resigned.
In the interim, with Bone Thugs on a recording hiatus and three years having passed since his last solo project, Bizzy is spending less time making headlines for drinking and assault charges, as he did in the late 1990s, and more time trying to ensure the only press he gets is good. After all, he has a new solo album coming out in September and Bone Thugs is back on his radar.
Despite the fact Columbus is home, Bizzy has harsh feelings toward the city. An unstable home life as a youth, numerous traffic stops, perceived slights from local promoters and the recent deaths of several people close to him have turned him against Columbus. He says the city has stabbed him in the back. At each mention of an incident he reaches over his shoulder and pantomimes the removal of a knife. He extends his hand, his palm open to show the invisible blade. He smiles. He says the city is full of “haters," and that he doesn't get the respect he deserves. “I can give you one thousand reasons why not to [live in Columbus]," he says, sounding mystified. “I can't give you one reason to."
Later, Bizzy will contradict himself and come up with a few reasons to stick around. He does this often. He gets carried away with his stories—adding details that sound too good to be true. However, sometimes, like the one about the toy giveaway, the stories are good and true.
Bizzy speaks in extremes. Still and mournful about friends lost, animated and defiant about a lack of respect in Columbus, bitter and resentful about his brushes with the law, stern and dismayed about violence in black communities. Friend and recording partner M’Shala Moses says Bizzy is "like an emotional roller coaster. He'll go from happy to sad, happy to sad, happy to sad.”
He also is a big ham. There's a different voice for each mood or story. He lapses into something vaguely Spanish, imitates a stodgy police officer, a Southern Baptist grandmother, a snooty upper-cruster. He'd kill on Saturday Night Live.
He says he doesn't go out much. "Right now, to be honest with you, most time is in the studio, basketball courts, graveyards," he says.
The recording studio where he spends part of his time is a nondescript two-room space on Indianola Avenue called Studio Rat. It's the kind that would never be featured on MTV's “Cribs.” Settled in at the studio, Bizzy leans back in an office chair and holds up his hand to tick off on his fingers the Cliffs Notes version of his childhood. "The story goes like this," he says, taking a deep breath. He pauses for dramatic effect. "See, I was kidnapped, found by John Walsh, went to a foster home, stayed with my mother for a few years, went back to a foster home. By the time I was in Cleveland I was 13."
That's the John Walsh, as in America's Most Wanted. And yes, he did say kidnapped.
His unstable, rough childhood influenced his music and taught him to be suspicious. It also gave him a drive to succeed. He's accustomed to having to break out of bad circumstances, if not those from his youth, then from the terms of the contracts with record companies he claims grossly underpaid him.
His music is full of references to the drugs and violence of the thug life, not just so his audience will understand him, but so they'll know he's a fighter. It's hard to imagine Bizzy would be completely happy, even if he got all the respect he feels he deserves. The haters push him to keep proving himself. Maybe this is why he stays in Columbus.
His experience with fame has led him to surround himself now with people he's known since before he became famous. He met Brian Parker at Medina Middle School. Now a singer, Parker goes by “Big B” for obvious, towering reasons. On “I understand" on Bizzy's new album, Alpha and Omega, Big B sings a chorus that is searing and soulful. It could be Bizzy's sign of hope for yet another new beginning.
Those that love me if y'all leave me,
Made some bad decisions in my life,
Raise my right hand up to God, right where I stand
I'm gonna go get stronger, become a better man.
Bizzy blames Columbus for many of the tragedies in his life, the reason he's spending so much time in graveyards. The most recent involved Adrian "Capo" Parlette, whom Bizzy met 10 years ago on a return visit to Southfield, the south Columbus neighborhood where Bizzy grew up. Parlette was 13. “I took him under my wing," Bizzy says. “That's what made us brothers, we were brothers till death, that's how I feel.”
Parlette spits hard, staccato rhymes on the new album, including one song called “Out of Control.” It's a lament about street violence. Parlette can be heard rapping, "Twenty-two years and still counting..."
The words are eerie. Last June, after the song was recorded, Parlette was shot to death in North Linden. His murder remains unsolved. "The death of my brother set us back, stopped us," Bizzy says. “After that happened I was thinking about quitting music, quitting rapping and singing and the whole thing. It went deep. It kinda messed me up for a while. But we go on, we got no choice."
Bizzy also mourns Karlos Davis, a former member of the Short North Posse and another Columbus rapper who worked with 7th Sign, Bizzy's record and movie company. He was shot and killed three years ago by an off-duty Columbus police officer in the course of what police said was an attempted robbery. His death added to Bizzy's anger toward the city. When Bizzy decided to launch 7th Sign, he didn't envision two of the founding members dying. His company and music are constant reminders of his loss.
Bizzy grew determined to be his own boss after feeling Bone Thugs' record deals were taking financial advantage of the group. He eventually sued to get out of his contract and says he launched his own label to ensure artists would “start out with at least minimum wage per album."
He declines to say whether financial reasons forced his move from a big house in Westerville. He won't say where he lives exactly or discuss his divorce. “The kids are with their mother. I'm kinda doing the career thing right now."
He says he's a father to eight children from three women, adding that they're not all his biological children. He tries to clear up any idea that he's a player. “Who I've had children with are women I've had relationships with," Bizzy says.
Doing the career thing has included countless hours in Studio Rat. Owner M'Shala Moses produced five of the 13 tracks on Bizzy's upcoming album. Moses used to go by his first name, Anthony, but switched to his middle name, Shala, around the time he met Bizzy, whom friends frequently call just “B” The rapper rechristened him. “B just couldn't leave it at that," Moses says. "He had to add the M."
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise from a man who goes by “Bizzy.” For context's sake, consider that the other members of Bone Thugs go by Krayzie, Layzie, Wish and Flesh—all with the surname Bone.
The group won a Grammy in 1996 for “Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group" for its breakthrough single "Tha Crossroads." That song equaled the Beatles' “Can't Buy Me Love" for fastest rising number-one single. Bizzy's laconic, singsongy style has been heavily imitated since the group's debut, as has its rapid-fire delivery, now a hip-hop staple. It is not just hip-hop hubris for Bizzy to think that he did it not only first, but also best.
That was before his drinking led to repeated press reports that he'd been kicked out of the group—only to be reluctantly let back in. “I can drink gallons and gallons of Hennessy," Bizzy says. He says he has given it up. “The bottle had been hindering me a lot. ... It got to be used as an excuse not to work with a talented artist,” Bizzy says. “At this moment in time I don't drink at all.” He says his drink of choice is now Red Bull.
He brushes aside rumors that the group ever really broke up. “Bone Thugs n-Harmony, 13 years together in the business," he says. While they're not currently recording together, the nonincarcerated members performed in Cleveland in July and were scheduled to have given a concert there in August. Flesh Bone (Stanley Howse) is currently serving an 11-year sentence in California for weapons possession, resisting arrest and assault. He made an appearance on the last group album in a phone call recorded from the correctional facility.
Layzie Bone—Stanley's brother, Steve Howse—echoes Bizzy's feelings about the tight bunch. “The status with Bone Thugs n-Harmony, it always remains in one place: It's family. … We raised each other." He says Bizzy's place in the mix is key, and he's been welcomed back. “Bizzy's addition to our group is what we were missing. He was real, real relative and our key to being successful,” Layzie says. "He's always been a go-getter, that's why we clicked."
Bizzy and Layzie say phone calls out of the blue from one member or another got the group on a stage together for the first time in years. Both think it will be the first of many shows. “All the labels are coming to do their bidding wars, this is major," Bizzy says. “It's a blessing because I didn't expect for it to happen, and it's here. I'm not going to be a party pooper. I'm not going to be the outcast, the outsider that says no. I'm going to [go], 'OK, whatever?’ "
Bizzy knows there's no guarantee the group will again top the charts. “Nobody's really knocking down doors for Bone Thugs-n-Harmony," Bizzy said before the Cleveland shows materialized. “A lot of people say they would love to see us come together and do another album, but when you look at the record sales for the last couple of albums, and you see how they dwindled, and you see them not going four and five platinum like it was going and it's only going platinum ... the industry tends to look at you like you fell off.”
According to Nielsen SoundScan, the group peaked in 1995 with E. 1999 Eternal, which debuted at number one and eventually sold 5.1 million copies. Previously, its 1994 album Creepin' On Ah Come Up sold 2.4 million. Its most recent, 2002's Thug World Order, sold a comparatively few 394,000 units.
Bizzy's first solo effort, Heaven’z Movie, came out in 1998 and went to number three on the Billboard 200, selling 722,000 copies. His sophomore record, The Gift, inched up to number 44 when it was released in 2001 and sold 202,000 units.
He has higher hopes for Alpha and Omega, scheduled to arrive in stores Sept. 14. “The album starts off raw, very street," Bizzy says. “What's going on in Columbus, things I'm going through. It's from the beginning to the end. ... It ends real smooth."
Columbus makes several complicated appearances on the album. In intros he touts the town and Studio Rat, then raps about “player haters.” He feels misunderstood, or, even worse, forgotten. But his diminished celebrity does not keep him humble. In conversation Bizzy earnestly describes himself as “the deepest person in Columbus." He also says, “The greatest rapper in the world is from Columbus, lives in Columbus. If I was from anywhere else, they'd be claiming me like Viagra."
It's not really clear what this means, but it makes his point. He is very aware of the fact that his hip-hop fame is eclipsed by another Columbus rapper, a young man who was only 7 when Bone Thugs hit the scene. "After a couple of Grammys, the American Music Awards, kidnapped, returned by John Walsh, discovered by Eazy-E—all before he was 17 years old. ... Am I being respected? Who the hell went through all of that?"
It certainly wasn't that other Columbus rapper.
"Bow Wow. They love him," Bizzy says. “They all up his butt. They all up his butt, and Bizzy's out there passing out turkeys."
He references for the second or third time his charity work. While Bizzy is prone to hyperbole—it was just the one Grammy—there is truth behind his boasts. He performed for free or a reduced fee at the 2000 and 2001 Juneteenth Festivals.
Five or so years ago he also saw an ad on TV featuring the Rev. Dexter C. Wise for his Faith Ministries Church in the Mifflin area. As Wise tells the story, the rapper was compelled to act by what he saw on television. “Whatever I said impressed him," Wise says. “He called the church and said, ‘I want to give some money to help the young people for Christmas.' I think he gave us $2,000. We went down to Mt. Vernon Plaza, and we bought toys and candy and stuff like that. I think we helped about 100 kids that Christmas."
Bizzy also participated in May in Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit in Detroit to encourage young people to vote. Yet, just one month later, Simmons brought his summit to Columbus, but Bizzy stayed away. Again he brings up his feelings for his hometown. “There's so much hate here it's ridiculous." Part of Bizzy's animosity stems from his brushes with police. In 1999, he was charged with misdemeanor assault for an altercation at Hair Experts Barber School on Karl Road. A man claimed Bizzy and two bodyguards tried to push him down the stairs. Bizzy said he was not involved. A Franklin County jury found him not guilty in less than one hour. He hands back another "knife" from his back as he recounts the story.
Bizzy suffers from an odd sort of fame in Columbus. There are parts of town where he would draw attention only for being an African-American man with a coaster-sized platinum medallion of the world around his neck. In other places, where Bone Thugs' hits such as “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” mean something to people, he's a superstar.
He actually comes up with a reason why he lives in Columbus: "I'm able to be left alone.” Despite this, he says, “Everyone knows me. Everyone. Young, old, teenagers, all colors and religion. All of them know about Bizzy Bone from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, because everywhere I go out I've never turned down an autograph."
"I've seen people swarm him up at Easton when he's trying to eat," Moses says. "He be eatin' a salad, and they want him to sign a paper."
In May 2002, Bizzy was featured on America's Most Wanted. He wrote a song for the show and dedicated it to John Walsh and his son Adam and all the children that AMW has helped.
Welcome to the pain, AMW, John Walsh
Not only do I say thanks, but we love you
All of us that you saved.
When they shoved you, you wouldn't budge
Anger wanted you to hate, and you showed us love.
When Bryon McCane was 5 years old he lived in Columbus with his mother and sisters. One day, as Bizzy tells it, his mother's husband, a man unrelated to him who shared his last name, took the kids, put them in a car and drove away, telling them their mother and family were dead. Bizzy's memory of the time is fuzzy, and the way he came to be reunited with his mom sounds like something in a TV movie.
In a way, it was. The 1983 TV movie "Adam," about the abduction and murder of Walsh's son, led to Bizzy's being found. Walsh had insisted that photos of missing children be included at the end of the movie. One of the photos was of Bryon McCane, who had been missing for nearly two years. He was spotted on TV by someone near the Oklahoma trailer park where he was living.
He was returned to Columbus to live with his mother. Their reunion was short lived. He soon ended up in the care of Franklin County Children Services. After time in foster care, he was again reunited with his mother and his biological father. After three years he went back to foster care. He left at 13 for a sister's house in Cleveland and eventually got his Big Break and the Grammy.
Unfortunately, the Grammy leads to another bad Columbus story and another knife plucked from his back. Bizzy says he believes neighborhood kids broke into his former Westerville home and stole the Grammy. He says he had had a plexiglass case made for it with an inscription to Adam Walsh. “We still remember." He planned to give it to John Walsh.
Bizzy, like the name says, is busy. He still tours, though the venues are smaller. His company keeps a 7th Sign website current with Bizzy updates. Layzie says Bone Thugs-n Harmony is currently planning a 25-city tour to begin in September. Bizzy is expected to be a part of that.
As Bizzy struggles to reconcile his feelings for Columbus, he seems to have found a way to accept the facts of his childhood. He says the man who kidnapped him died in 1997. Bizzy attended the funeral. He maintains a relationship with his mother and his biological father. “You get to a certain age and your spirit reaches a certain level. It's not a grudge anymore. It's understanding. I'm a little bit ahead of my time," he says calmly. "We don't hold grudges because we're trying to make it to heaven. I'm a Christian, so I have to forgive you. I may not like it, but I have to forgive you."
Perhaps time will help him find an uneasy peace with his hometown, too. Maybe he will find he was not as unloved as he believed.
He mentions performing at the Juneteenth Festival a few years ago, but seems mystified that he wasn't asked back. The reason has nothing to do with lack of respect.
"He did a couple of fantastic performances," Juneteenth organizer Mustafaa Shabazz says. “There's no question about his fans. They truly love him. He had a troubled crowd that he moved through and gave hope and energy. Bryon let them know, 'If I can do it, I believe that y'all can do it as well.’ ”
Shabazz recruited Bizzy over the phone while Bizzy sat in a barbershop. He listened to a short pitch about the African American festival and signed on. “The first year Bryon did it free and the second year he didn't ask for nothing—we wanted to pay him something," Shabazz says.
"He's a common guy," Shabazz says. "When I say 'common,' it means he's out, he's accessible. You may see him at a barbershop, you may see him at a restaurant, and there's not this large entourage of people around him. You may just see him by himself."
Actually, Shabazz would love to have Bizzy back. The reason he has not is simple: "I lost his number." There are no listings for “Bizzy Bone” in the Columbus phone book.
“Will you talk to Bryon again?" Shabazz asks. “Just tell him to give me a call. Give him my number."
This story was originally published in the September 2004 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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