Street-Level Threats — Onyx at Crocks

 

By Justin Allec

Onyx is a gangsta rap group from New York who go back to the early 90s, but they’ve been enjoying a late-career resurgence, and on January 19, they’re hitting Thunder Bay. The group is touring in support of their seventh album, Shotgunz in Hell, and enjoying a return to form. Twenty-five years ago the group was part of the mushroom-cloud explosion of hip hop, and they were decent enough to be a national draw. They produced one near-classic, 1995’s All We Got Iz Us, have one absolute anthem with their song “Slam,” and enjoyed a lot of crossover appeal thanks to their rap-metal collaborations with hardcore punk band Biohazard for the Judgement Night soundtrack.

Though the group disbanded for a period in the mid-2000s, the rappers never really went away; guest appearances, solo albums, and mixtapes kept them busy in the hip hop world. It helps that the group’s members have great style, as hard-packed as a back alley in Queens. All three emcees—Fredro Starr, Sonny Seeza, and especially Sticky Fingaz—have dense, inventive rhymes that are as simple and subtle as a shotgun blast. Subject matter is the usual gangsta stuff, all about the unforgivingly harsh New York streets, hustling and robbing, firearms galore, status, murder, drugs, and so on. That wouldn’t be too remarkable, but these guys sell the insanity a little too well. It seems like they scratched out lyrics between deals and picking up spent shells.

The music matches the lyrics. Even if you disregard all the disturbing skits the group’s produced, every note they rap over has a cold, hard authenticity. It’s not interested in being friends; it’s all sparse, creaky beats and skittering synths. Horror movie stuff, really—a pervading atmosphere of dread painted blacker, beat by beat, through rhymes dealing with poverty, crime, misogyny, and revenge, as if spit from the same street corner as crack deals gone bad. This isn’t music that makes you feel good or happy, but it is incredibly visceral and personal. That Onyx has been able to maintain this feeling of danger over decades is definitely worth witnessing, even on a smaller stage, just above street level.

Onyx plays Crocks on January 19, visit  loffredo.ca for details.