Thursday, September 9, 2010

Musical Memory: Onyx Gives Us a Glimpse of the Apocolypse With "Last Dayz"

By Scott Tre

Spurred by the success of various acts during the very late 1980's, the golden state cemented its dominance in the early 1990's with the release of The Chronic and the reign of the mighty Death Row dynasty.  Slow to react to the changing tides, east coast rappers eventually came to the conclusion that a new battle plan was needed.  Listeners outside of the five boroughs were unmoved by the abstract stylings of the Native Tongues and the Afrocentric/militant posturing and "uplifting" messages of conscious rappers.  West Coast Gangsta rap cast an inescapable shadow over the industry.  The writing was on the wall.  If the east wanted to survive it had to adapt.  Enter the hard black stones known as Onyx.

The fearsome foursome from Queens offered a more nonsensical and animated form of ghetto violence than their west coast brethren.  The group originally started out making dance music, but had reinvented themselves bald headed New York styled stick up kids that would just as soon scowl at passers by than nod a polite hello.  They regurgitated bile filled growls and yells and raspy voices over energetic yet opaque tracks by Chyskills and the late great Jam Master Jay.  At their shows they encouraged crowds to slam dance.  Their biggest single "Slam", was crafted as a primer for the activity.  They grimaced cartoonishly into cameras and offered interviews that played like parodies of the kinds done with known criminals.  It was all gloriously over the top and resembled self parody, but it worked.  Their debut, Bacdafucup, became one of the few East Coast rap albums to achieve platinum sales in 1993.  One couldn't go anywhere in New York City in the summer of 1993 without seeing a t-shirt sporting the Onyx mad face logo.

When the Def Jam machine started up again in 1995 to set the stage for Onyx's second album All We Got Iz Us, the east coast was in the midst of a renaissance that started in late '93 and had yet to subside.  Cocaine traffickers and black gangsters with la cosa nostra monikers were the order of the day.  Onyx's approach to gangsta music proved too gritty and even dated compared to the dapper yet rotund Notorious B.I.G.  Fickle fans had moved on without acknowledging how Onyx set the stage for this transition.  Still, Sticky, Fredro and Sonny Ceaser pressed on without the dead weight of Big DS and crafted a sophomore LP that was even more rich in musical texture than Bacdafucup.  It was even darker, as evidenced by by the chilling first single "Last Dayz".

The mood is set by perhaps the loneliest flute sample to ever blow its cold wind over a boom bap track.  The unmistakably east coast factory like plod of the drums slumps along like a lumbering giant leaving crater like footprints in his wake.   This cold and unfriendly beatscape was crafted courtesy of group member Fredro, who utilizes a sample from "Love Lips" by Bob James and Earl Klugh.  As the song title suggest, the song is a visualization of the kind apocalyptic dystopia that the newly illuminati obsessed east rappers loved to paint.  The song reeks of New Millennium paranoia.  Fredro starts things off with a verse that portrays a world were criminal endeavors have become the only reliable means of survival.  Sonny Ceaser follows with Sticky batting clean up as his verses are always the most memorable.  He takes a page from Suicidal Thoughts on B.I.G's Ready To Die: 

Thinking about taking my own life
I might as well
'cept they might not sell weed in hell
and that's where I'm going
cause the devil's inside of me
they make me rob from my own nationality

The video depicts a police state in which society had devolved into all out war between cops and thugs.  Police prowl the streets gestapo style.  Plain clothes/undercovers go about their business while uniformed officers engage street corner grinders in mini riots and melees.  Onyx goes about engaged in traditional Hip-Hop sign language, mugging and grimacing into the camera with their jaws so tense that veins bulge from the necks and temples.  Lots of the action takes place on freight elevators and corridors, presenting the group as some sort of resistance movement à la John Conner in the Terminator films.  As a whole it's not exactly one of the more memorable videos of its era, but it is quietly unsettling.  It possesses the same low key power as the song itself.

All We Got Iz Us was not as instantly likable or as attention grabbing as Bacdafucup, and began a slow and unremarkable crawl toward gold status.  Though trendy record buyers had moved on the the likes of Bad Boy and Wu-Tang, the faithful were treated to a follow-up that was more musically  and thematically varied than Bacdafucup.  The album was still hopped up on rage, though a more focused version than the first time.  Last Dayz was the only single released from it, and strangely enough, it was all that was needed.  Onyx was headed in a new direction.  Those who didn't want to follow were free to move with the mercurial winds of pop culture.  The Official Nasty Niguz had moved on.

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