In Mo Thugs’ 1998 record “Ghetto Cowboy,” country-western imagery is transposed onto the hood, connecting the images of two American outlaws: the cowboy and the hustler. The track, which expanded listeners’ expectations for what midwestern hip-hop could be, reached number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and propelled rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony straight out of a sawed-off shotgun and into the public eye. West coast rapper Eazy-E of Ruthless Records mentored the group — consisting of members Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, and Wish Bone — and they’ve been performing both in tandem and solo ever since.
The rapper-as-outlaw connection comes back in Layzie Bone’s recent record, Wanted Dead or Alive. The album, which was released July 3 on Layzie’s independent label Harmony Howse, begins with a sample of the Bon Jovi song of the same name. Layzie drew from Bon Jovi’s song not just to designate Bone Thugs’ roots in the western rap tradition, but to indicate his mission of making “timeless” music.
“Our music is wanted, whether we’re dead or alive,” Layzie says. “I wanted to make music that would last.”
Layzie’s project to create timeless music yields a record that tends to jump through time, a collage of sonics from various hip-hop traditions. Layzie says, since he was born in 1974, he saw and experienced all of the genre’s history. When asked about his influences, Layzie mentioned artists young and old, from the East, West and South.
Some tracks on the album are timeless in theme. In “Resolution,” Layzie raps: “We need a resolution, what’s that?/The popo kill another one, bust back/There ain’t no Constitution for us Blacks/We wanna be equal as a people, just facts.” This song could belong in the collection of protest music released in response to the police killing of George Floyd, but Layzie wrote “Resolution” a year ago. Though the American public consciousness is currently creating room for an understanding of unjust policing systems, rap music’s consciousness has always operated with this understanding.
The album’s atemporality yields an assemblage of sonics. The top of the album comes directly out of Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, juxtaposing the clarity of Layzie’s quick East Coast delivery with slower Southern sounds. “Holla When U See Me” sounds like an early-aughts club hit, and “AMAZING” employs modern R&B melodies, sung by Layzie’s biological sons. Another theme transcending time in Layzie’s music is reefer — “LIKE 2 SMOKE” is delivered like a ballad for a loved one, who happens to be a blunt.
Although Layzie sought timelessness, the timing of the album’s release was intentional. Even amidst a pandemic and decreased opportunities for post-rollout touring, Layzie wanted to release the record prior to Independence Day. The choice wasn’t influenced by this year’s protest of the holiday — Layzie does not consider himself particularly political — but was in protest of major labels. Wanted Dead or Alive is Layzie’s fourth solo release on his independent label, Harmony Howse Entertainment — a play on his given name, Steven Howse.
According to Layzie, releasing the album before Independence Day was a “Declaration of Independence” for his music. He, like many hip-hop artists, has felt stymied by the major-label system, and wanted to create a label in the tradition of his mentor Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. He gives artists, including many members of his own family, the tools to create music without too much oversight.
Layzie realizes that independent production may beget less popularity, but at this moment in his career, he is unconcerned with topping the charts. He just wants to make art on his own terms, and wants it to be heard whether he’s dead or alive.