Straight Outta Cleveland

ST. CLAIR AND EAST 99TH STREET IN Cleveland is a tough neighborhood to call home. A smaller version of Compton, Calif., complete with drive-bys, crackheads and street pharmacists, it's the kind of place where young black men die almost every day. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony grew up here, and they still fit in. Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Krayzie Bone and Layzie Bone (they won't give their real names) are hanging out in Gordon Park, helping out on a video shoot for some friends of theirs. They're dressed in baggy shirts and baggy pants, with their hair either pulled back into long braids or fluffed and puffed out. Though they've moved to different parts of the city now (a fifth member, Flesh-N-Bone, lives in L.A.), Bone Thugs-N-Harmony try to keep these streets a part of their identity. ""We always want to give off that Cleveland vibe, and we always put our city in our music,'' says Layzie Bone. ""We ain't got nothing to do with no West Coast, East Coast s--t. We're just making music that sounds good and people like.''

Psychologically, at least, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony have escaped. Over the past four years they've become one of the most successful and innovative groups in rap, with two multiplatinum albums, a No. 1 single and a Grammy to their credit. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony made their mark by fusing the hard-core realities and blunt observations of thug life with the sweet, gospel-tinged harmonies of R&B. Because their style is dominated by neither the East Coast nor West Coast rap sensibility, they've been able to build a sound that's totally their own: a rapid-fire flurry of words that shifts suddenly into melody, plus spare backing beats constructed mostly without samples. Their 1995 single ""Tha Crossroads,'' from the album ""E. 1999 Eternal,'' was a watershed for the hip-hop community: a lament for lost friends inscribed with redemption and optimism rather than anger and vengeance.

Next week they release their third album, an ambitious double CD titled ""The Art of War.'' The first single, ""Look Into My Eyes,'' is a hip-hop gem, filled with staccato wordplay and a eerie, unsettled rhythm. The rest of the album is solid as well, though it features a slightly disturbing performance with Tupac Shakur, ""Thug Luve.'' As the slain rapper rhymes, gunshots can be heard in the background; it's a chilling effect, given Shakur's violent demise.

The members of Bone are perhaps too familiar with that kind of violence. Around St. Clair, music was their first love, but selling drugs was their primary source of income. Then, four years ago, they hopped a Greyhound bus to L.A. in search of a career in music. ""It was only a matter of time before one of us Bones got their caps peeled - it was time to make a move,'' says Bizzy Bone. There they met the late rapper Eazy-E, who signed them to his Ruthless Records. The group's dynamic mix of hip-hop and harmony was apparent from the start. ""Growing up we loved Michael Jackson and Run-D.M.C.,'' says Krayzie Bone. ""We couldn't decide if we wanted to rap or sing, so we did both.''

But despite their success, it's been tough to leave that other world completely. ""Tha Crossroads'' took on added poignancy when Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995. ""His death really f---ed us up,'' said Krayzie Bone. ""We miss that man a whole lot. He's the reason we're here.'' Flesh-N-Bone, Layzie Bone's older brother, was arrested after the Fourth of July for making noise with firecrackers in his L.A. house. Released on bail, he allegedly made terrorist threats against his neighbors and is now in jail awaiting trial. (He appears on only three of the new album's 29 tracks.)

Layzie sums up these troubles with two words: ""So what?'' Then he adds, ""We've had our problems - hell, we're from the ghetto. What you think we gonna do, become straight as an arrow overnight? My brother is just struggling. Give us some time. You don't leave the ghetto one day and become another person the next.'' Staying true to themselves, no matter what the cost - it's what Bone Thugs-N-Harmony do best.