It's a bit past midnight, time to praise the Lord and pass the Moët. "Don't Jesus make you feel good?" Bizzy sings between sips of champagne, celebrating the Sabbath with a pair of drunken chicks who've wandered onstage. The girls roll their hips at the crowd as the sermon continues, their wobbly legs gelatinized by too much booze.
Bizzy doesn't seem to notice. "Praise God all day," he commands, sweat glistening on his tattooed neck, a gray jogging suit clinging to his thin shoulders. "Crush the Devil's head."
Peabody's serves as Bizzy Bone's pulpit on this chilly October night, and the scent of reefer, cologne, and lowered expectations hangs in the air. Bizzy mostly rhymes with his eyes closed, and who could blame him? Only a couple hundred people take in his performance, which is shakier than a drunk's hands. Bizzy raps to a CD of his tunes, occasionally losing his place and letting the backing track cover for him. He's known for his nimble tongue, which can make four syllables sound like one, but tonight, the booze flows more swiftly than Bizzy.
"We need to get a cranberry and vodka up here," he says after draining his bottle of champagne, and later complains, "Somebody didn't put enough vodka in this drink."
Ten years ago, no one would have expected Bizzy to be performing in a club of such modest size, sharing the spotlight with a couple of tipsy groupies who look as if they're waiting for the Girls Gone Wild crew to show up.
Bizzy was a legend, Cleveland's most successful rapper. He helped put Cleveland hip-hop on the map with his group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, which sold more than 15 million albums, won a Grammy, and made midwestern rap famous long before Eminem or Nelly.
But more money brought more problems. Three years ago, Bizzy had a bitter falling out with the other members of Bone. After earning a rep for missing shows and performing drunk, he was booted from the group.
In the years that followed, Bizzy became something of a pariah within hip-hop, an intensely spiritual man whose religious fervor at times seems to border on fanaticism.
"Bizzy is a high-maintenance artist, which means you have to devote a lot of time and attention to him," says Jared Weisfeld, co-owner of Bizzy's latest label, 845 Entertainment. "With Bizzy, it's day-to-day. You never know what you're going to get. He's just a unique character."
That's putting it lightly. In May, Bizzy had a well-publicized meltdown on a Houston radio show, where he ranted wildly in a series of cartoon voices, praising Jesus and quoting Tupac. Since then, he's brawled with former bandmates and spoken openly about being homeless last year. This from an artist who should be kicking back in an MTV-style crib.
"He's a thoughtful, caring person, and I think he has more passion for this music than people give him credit for," says former Clevelander Tony Franklin, who heads up hip-hop promotions at Asylum/Warner Bros. "But he's gotta deal with his demons, the inner feelings that he has about himself. And I think coming off the drugs and alcohol would be a great first step."
Bizzy purrs his words like a kitten getting its belly rubbed. Speaking with him feels like slipping into a warm bath. He's been on the phone for over two hours now, and he's as effusive as a young man who just lost his virginity.
"It's just like you don't even expect much in life, when you're in love with birds and you're in love with trees and you're in love with bees and you're in love with beautiful stuff," he says from the Comfort Inn in Wickliffe, where he's staying while in town for a show. "Then you're like, 'I don't ask for much.'"
Bizzy sounds more like a stoned yoga instructor than the thug rapper who once rhymed about selling crack on Brackland Avenue. But that'll change soon enough. One moment, Bizzy will whisper like there's an infant sleeping in the room. The next, he'll break the calm with a sinister hiss. Occasionally, he talks in the hyper-tongued manner that made him famous. If he hits upon a word or phrase he likes, he'll literally repeat it a half-dozen times.
"Everything means something," he says at one point. "Which brings forth, which brings forth, which brings forth, within, within, within . . ."
This is Bizzy on a good day, and he sounds as if he wants to bear-hug the world. He constantly gives shout-outs to the Lord like Jesus' hype-man, laughing often. He's funny and forthcoming: the rare hip-hop star who's defined more by his vulnerabilities than his bravado.
"I'm sensitive, and I'm a lover. I've never been afraid to cry," he says. "I don't think anybody's going to ever be able to understand me or love me, because of the way I love -- it's almost disgusting to people."
Bizzy's high-pitched, vaguely effeminate voice has led some to question his sexuality. But Bizzy waves off the insults.
"People can call you a hundred names, they can call you a girl, they can call you homosexual, they can call you any-fuckin'-thing, and you just sit back like, 'Okay, whatever,'" he says.
Life humbled him at an early age. Born in Columbus to a white mom and a black dad, Bizzy (Bryon McCane) was molested and abducted by the father of one of his sisters when he was four. Told that his mother had died, he was taken to a reservation in Oklahoma, where he and his siblings lived under assumed names.
He was rescued after his photo was shown at the end of the 1983 TV movie Adam, a fact-based film about a couple whose son was kidnapped and murdered. From there, Bizzy bounced around foster homes, eventually landing back with his family in Cleveland.
But the experience had a profound effect on him, putting him in touch with his spirituality.
"Being in foster homes and running away and different things of that nature, I was constantly speaking to the Lord," he says. "When the Lord's guiding you in every path that you're in, you're not really thinking that everything is so bad."
Besides, there was always music to soothe his spirit. Bizzy discovered his voice at an early age. One of his first memories is of singing with his sisters in the car with his mom and dad.
"It was like, 'Go ahead, Bryon, you're the superstar. You do the singing,'" Bizzy recalls. "And then, everywhere I would go, it was always something about singing."
Though the sun is out, a dark pall still hangs over East 99th and St. Clair. Windows are boarded up, and iron bars protect every doorway. Outside a crumbling brick building tattooed with 50 Cent posters, teenage boys eye passersby with suspicion.
It's from this rough-and-tumble neighborhood that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony hails. Bizzy first met Steven Howse (Layzie Bone) at Franklin D. Roosevelt Junior High, and they began writing rhymes together. Layzie already had a group going called the Band Aid Boys, which featured Charles Scruggs (Wish Bone), Anthony Henderson (Krayzie Bone), and a rapper named K Chill. With Bizzy in their ranks, they became B.O.N.E. Enterpri$e and cut an independent album, 1992's Faces of Death. It was Bizzy's ability to add lilting melodies to B.O.N.E.'s roughneck rhymes that distinguished the group.
"He was the one that had the signature new sound. He could actually sing," says Kermit Henderson, who released Faces of Death on his Stoney Burke label. "I actually thought he was the one that was going to come out of the group, like Lionel Richie leaving the Commodores or Michael Jackson leaving the Jacksons."
After Faces of Death, Bone's story became urban folklore, told over and over until most hip-hop fans could recite it by heart. The group famously took a Greyhound bus to California to try to land a deal with Eazy-E's Ruthless Records, but never hooked up with the rapper. They eventually cornered Eazy backstage at a Cleveland nightclub, when he was in town for a show. After an impromptu audition, Bone signed with Ruthless.
Bizzy was just 17 when the first Bone Thugs album was released, 1994's Creepin' on Ah Come Up EP, which sold four million copies. The group became a household name with its full-length debut, 1995's E. 1999 Eternal, which sold five million copies on the strength of the smash hit "Tha Crossroads," a song that popularized the hip-hop power ballad.
"They ushered in a whole new generation and a new sound in music," says Quincy Taylor, head of In the Way Marketing, a Cleveland hip-hop promotions company. "A lot of the current things that are on the radio now are due to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony."
Just as the group members started realizing their dreams, Bizzy began to wilt under the spotlight. He missed interviews and shied away from the camera.
"In '94-'95, we were being put on television and different things of that nature, and I was more or less like, 'Uh-uh, I don't want this around me, and I don't need this to consume me,'" Bizzy says. "So I just kept me a drink and stayed away. On the plane trips, I'm drinking. The TV comes on and the video starts playin', I turn it off. I'm goin' out to drink. Maybe smoke a blunt. Who knows? Who cares? I was just looking for something that just wasn't never there. I guess it was just wanting to be loved. Just really wanting to have somebody that could satisfy me and fulfill me completely. And that was something that I was never able to have in a relationship."
If Bone's rise to prominence was swift, so was its downfall. In 1998, Bizzy released his first solo LP, Heavenz Movie, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and nearly went gold. But soon after, his relationship with Bone began to disintegrate. Bizzy earned the ire of his bandmates when he refused to promote their 2000 disc BTNH Resurrection because of a dispute with Ruthless Records over royalty payments. The disc went platinum, but didn't sell nearly as well as Bone's previous albums. Two years later, Bizzy was booted from the band after a New York City gig in which he got so drunk he could barely stand up onstage.
Bizzy has performed with Bone on numerous occasions since then -- including gigs in New York and Texas earlier this year -- but when the band signed a new contract with Swizz Beats' Full Surface Records, Bizzy wasn't included.
The remaining members of Bone seem tired of discussing their estranged bandmate. "We don't comment on Bizzy," says DJ Ice, Bone's DJ. Wish, Layzie, and Krayzie all either declined through their publicists to participate in this story or didn't return phone calls seeking interviews.
"We are all fed up, and we are tired of Bizzy trying to make niggas looks stupid," Krayzie told the website Allhiphop.com last summer. "It's like he's been sabotaging us our whole career."
Bizzy seems reluctant to be drawn back into any bickering. And his future with Bone -- if such a thing exists -- is one of the few topics upon which he refuses to elaborate.
"As far as anything that's gone on in the past, it's like I done been hurt before, and I won't be hurt again," he says. "I refuse."
Bizzy has always been known for his volatility, but it wasn't until he did an interview on Damage Control, a hip-hop show on Houston radio station KPFT, that people began to think he was unhinged.
The interview began innocently enough, with show host Matt Sonzala, a Houston hip-hop scenester with a friendly-sounding voice, asking Bizzy what's up.
"Love, love, love, love, love!" Bizzy trilled, before lurching into a loopy discussion of his finances.
And that's when things really start getting weird.
"Render to Caesar what's Caesar's, render to Gawd what's Gaaawwwd's!" he drawled into the mic, his voice a low rumble that sputtered like a car running out of gas. "One true God and representative! Please believe! In-the-name-of-our-Lord-and-savior-Jesus-Christ -- how you doin'?"
Sonzala seemed flummoxed, like a man attempting to defuse a bomb without knowing which wires to cut, but he tried to stick to the script.
"What brings you down here, bro?"
"Well, you know, been movin,' ain't got nowhere to live really," Bizzy explained. "So we lookin' for somewhere to live, we lookin' for something to eat, sleepin' at the bus station. Everybody was laughin' at me. I had calluses up under my feet, everybody was laughin' at me, but I'm up in this muthafucka."
The conversation lasted another 20 minutes, with Bizzy continuing to rant about God and encouraging people to bootleg his records. It was like an Andy Kaufman routine -- the audience didn't know whether to laugh or run for the nearest exit.
According to Sonzala, Bizzy started acting up as soon as he entered the studio. "Bizzy Bone was in the fuckin' room, jumping around; he was kind of like flappin' his arms a couple times and yelling," he says.
Adds John Lomax, music editor for the alt-weekly Houston Press, who was at the show: "People were just like, 'Look at that boy buck wildin' in there.' I do think he was on something. He was struggling to organize his thoughts."
Before the mics had gone cold, the interview was uploaded to the internet, where it quickly became a sensation. Rap fans didn't know quite what to make of it.
"He made a fool of himself and maybe ruined Bone's chances of ever signing with a major label," one fan wrote on a Bone Thugs fan site. "No label is gonna wanna work with a sick druggy like Bizzy."
Others theorized that Bizzy was just acting crazy to drum up publicity. At the time, Bizzy was on the verge of signing a new record contract to revive his faltering career. But the interview almost queered the deal.
"I didn't know about it until we were just about to sign him," 845 Entertainment co-owner Jared Weisfeld says. "And somebody's like, 'You gotta listen to this thing. You gotta make sure the dude's not crazy.' I listened it, and I'm like, 'Is that shit real?' So before I signed him, I had to talk with Bizzy on the phone, cause that shit definitely freaked me out. I was like, 'Oh my God.'"
After the Damage Control interview, Bizzy had to do some damage control of his own. He explained that he'd had a few Long Island iced teas before the show. His publicist issued a statement claiming that Bizzy was taunted with obscenities in the studio, which made him act out.
But Sonzala steadfastly denies that any name-calling took place. "No one was doing anything but standing against the wall looking at him, kinda scared," he says. "Nobody down there had any beef with Bizzy."
Bizzy's publicist also attempted to clarify his statements about being homeless, saying that Bizzy lived in hotels by choice. But as Bizzy later revealed on MTVnews.com, he wandered the streets of Ohio for seven months last year, walking from Cleveland to Columbus with little more than pocket change. He claims he was on a spiritual journey. According to the article, Bizzy's family urged him to seek psychiatric help, and his mother wanted to institutionalize him.
"I didn't have nowhere to live, buddy. There was nobody that I could go to, to even trust anything," Bizzy says.
He seems nonplussed about the whole affair, though he's a little disappointed that the incident didn't move many CDs. "It didn't sell no damn records," he sighs. "I'm like, 'Well, whatever. I told the truth, I kept it as real as I possibly could.'"
The Houston fiasco underscored Bizzy's financial woes. It's no secret that the members of Bone never made big money. The group has been outspoken in its criticism of Ruthless Records and Eazy-E's widow, Tamika Wright, who runs the label, claiming that they were grossly underpaid in royalties. "Ruthless got us on 50 dollars a day/One-hundred-and-ninety-thousand, I guess platinum don't pay," Bizzy rhymed in the song "Time Passing Us By."
Since then, Bizzy has tried to recover money that he believes is owed him by various record companies. In 2000, he sued Sony for neglecting to pay him a $1 million advance for his second solo disc, but dropped the suit in exchange for a termination of the deal. In 2001, he sued Southwest Wholesale Tapes & Records, a Texas distribution company, for interfering with the release of his sophomore disc, The Gift, by issuing the album after Bizzy had signed with another distributor. Southwest later went bankrupt. Earlier this year, he threatened legal action against Koch Records in a dispute over Bone Brothers, an album he cut with Layzie Bone. Bizzy says he was promised a $33,000 advance and claims that the label didn't tell him that $25,000 would go toward mixing and mastering fees, leaving him with just $8,000. (Koch did not return phone calls inquiring about the incident.)
But even when Bone was on top of the charts, Bizzy didn't keep close tabs on his funds, he admits.
"When I've ever had any kind of money or financing, it was always about giving it to other people," he says. "I had a crew of people -- 'Whatever you need, man, what you want?' I've never been able to hang onto any money, I've just been able to give it to people. I like to see other people happy. And if there ain't no more money left, I knock on their door, and they don't let me in their house, it's cool. I still love 'em, and if I had some money, I'd still give it to 'em."
Bizzy can still earn a living, albeit a modest one. He recently released his fifth solo album, the appropriately titled Speaking in Tongues (his label came up with the name, playing off the Houston interview). It's a solid, predictably eccentric album with songs about "Seeing Things" and praising God. It debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard independent charts, and Bizzy's label says it's on track to meet its sales goal of 50,000 copies.
What money Bizzy does make these days goes to his family; he's claimed to have fathered at least 10 children with a number of women.
"All the money he makes, he gives it away to all his family people," says Dan Cull, former owner of Peabody's, who booked Bizzy several times at his club and became close friends with the rapper. "Every penny the guy makes -- immediately, it's gone within two days. He's probably got a couple hundred bucks on him, because he takes care of everybody he knows. It's wild. He's so into God now, it's like it's weird for him to have money."
"He'll hand out a couple hundred dollars a night to homeless people -- for real, there's times that I've seen that," adds Troy Netkum, a local producer who crafted beats for Bizzy's next album and who helps oversee his career locally. "He don't care about money and shit."
"Move onto the next song, and see if I start snapping and shit," Bizzy says, chest heaving. He stays calm. For another hour or so.
Shortly after the Houston incident, Bizzy returned to Cleveland to play a show at Peabody's. Bizzy packed the place and was in particularly strong form, pirouetting about the stage dizzily, sweat dampening his oversized white T-shirt.
At the time, Bone's deal with Swizz Beats was still being hashed out, and Wish Bone and DJ Ice dropped by the show to try to get Bizzy on board, recognizing that Bone Thugs would get a more lucrative contract with their original lineup intact. At the end of Bizzy's set, Wish and Ice unexpectedly took the stage.
"Hey, y'all check this out, would y'all rather see Bizzy Bone by himself or with the whole motherfuckin' group?" Ice asked to loud applause. "We got a $20 million deal on the table right now. Do y'all want to see us come back out as one? We love y'all, but it ain't us. It's that guy that just left off the stage, and that's real."
Bizzy and his former bandmates then went upstairs for an afterparty at Club Rock Star. Bizzy was hanging with Cleveland rapper Johnny Givens, a muscular young MC whom Bizzy has taken under his wing. Bizzy and Johnny were "throwing the ones" -- making a "number one" gesture to represent the one true God -- when a couple of drunks at the bar started poking fun at them by flipping them off. A fight broke out.
"I threw the first punch and knocked the first dude out cold," Givens says. "And then the whole place just erupted, and at that point I don't know how many people I swung on. I was just trying to protect Bizzy. We're not violent, but when shit happens, we handle it."
Bizzy chased one of the guys toward the door. Wish Bone grabbed Bizzy to settle him down. Caught up in the heat of the moment, Bizzy swung on Wish. But Wish had a big crew with him, and the fight quickly escalated into a full-blown riot.
"Dude, they were brawling," says Eddie Bell, a concertgoer who witnessed the fight. "Johnny busted like four dudes' heads open. There were riot cops outside. Bizzy and Johnny had blood all over their hands."
The melee eventually spilled onto the streets, where police broke it up. Soon after, Bone signed with Swizz Beats, sans Bizzy.
"Don't act like you love me, don't act like you give a fuck about me with your fake ass," Bizzy snarls into the phone. "You a fake motherfucker."
Yesterday, Bizzy was as sunny and warm as a weekend in the Bahamas. Today, he sounds as if he wants to punch out the reporter asking him questions. Stewing in his hotel room on a Friday afternoon, Bizzy begins the conversation in a sullen mumble that ratchets up to an ill-tempered growl. You can practically hear the veins bulging in his neck.
"Go on, be nasty," he fumes.
What set Bizzy off is anybody's guess. He often speaks in metaphors -- it's almost biblical, at times -- and refuses to explain his outbursts. Talking with him is like wandering into the middle of a movie and struggling to catch up with the plot.
Even softball questions provoke heated responses.
"Do you like being back in Cleveland?" Bizzy is asked.
"They gonna spit in my food, they gonna piss in my food, they gonna bust nuts in my food, and they gonna try and make me feel bad about it when I eat," he roars. "I'm gonna eat anyway. I don't care about that shit. Go on, do what the fuck you gotta do."
"Who's upset you?" the reporter asks. "Are you speaking about anyone in specific?"
"Well, I'm just speaking. Period," Bizzy snaps. "Whoever feels it in they spirit is gonna be like, 'Damn, that's me, I'm doin' that shit. That's fucked up. And this dude done pimped me.'"
Throughout the conversation, Bizzy's words are tinged with fatalism. Earlier this year, he made some particularly ominous comments to the entertainment publication Lowdown. "I'm not enthusiastic about being here on Earth and stuff," he said. "It's just crazy out here. People don't even allow you to be happy." Now he seems to have picked up right where he left off.
"I don't need to be remembered," he says. "Fuck being remembered. Just let me get the fuck out of here. As long as I'm out of this motherfucker, I'm cool. As long as I'm away from here, I'm cool. This shit is weak. This shit is whack. Don't nobody give a fuck about nobody out in this bitch. Y'all fake as fuck. That's how I feel. Leave me the fuck alone. I'm my own family."
This is the side of Bizzy that scares people. But as quickly as he gets angry, he cools down.
"I love you more than you know," he says softly.
Bizzy never puts much effort into containing his emotions, and he has paid dearly for it. He lives by himself in hotel rooms, traveling alone, cloistered from the outside world. He knows people think he's crazy, but doesn't seem to care. He has his memories. And that's enough.
"I know what it feels like to be loved," he says. "And if I ever need that, then I'll just look back and be like, 'At least I was loved.'"