How Onyx Put Hardcore Hip-Hop Back On the Radio
By Soren Baker
It was intentional. Onyx was a group on the rise in 1992 thanks to its raucous “Throw Ya Gunz” single and was putting the finishing touches on its Bacdafucup LP. Then the Queens, New York quartet of Sticky Fingaz, Fredro Starr, Suave (aka Sonny Seeza), and Big DS was given a directive by its record company, the Def Jam affiliated RAL (Rush Associated Labels).
“When we did ‘Slam,’ ‘Slam’ was not an accident,” Sticky Fingaz says today. “We didn’t make the album and then say, ‘Let’s pick the songs to be the single.’ No. ‘Slam’ was the very last song that we recorded for the album. ‘Throw Ya Gunz’ was already out and on the radio. Def Jam was like, ‘Yo. “Throw Ya Gunz” is killing it. We need something else to come on top of it that’s more radio friendly but is still energetic.’ They say that in seven days, God created the Heavens and the Earth. In seven days, we created the rhythm and the verse. It took us seven days to make it.”
The group worked with producers Chyskillz and Jam Master Jay on the beat, amending it along the way. They collectively tweaked the chorus through its various incarnations. The group members revamped, altered, and tightened their verses. After seven days, “Slam” was finalized.
“We made that song to do what it did,” Sticky Fingaz says. “We didn’t choose it. No one came in and picked it. That song was intentional. It was deliberate.”
With Bacdafucup released in March 1993 and “Slam” following two months later, the plan worked. Onyx quickly became one of rap’s most dominant and prominent groups. But it was more than just “Slam,” which, like Bacdfucup, sold more than 1 million units by the end of October 1993.
Primarily produced by Chyskillz and Jam Master Jay, with Kool Tee and Jeff Harris also contributing, Bacdafucup was a sonic standalone, an unorthodox, distinctive aural experience with an otherworldly edge and undertone. The four Onyx members were hands-on in crafting the project’s dynamic sound and thematic direction.
“We were all there, present,” Sticky Fingaz says. “Even though Chyskillz was at the helm, Jay was actually driving the entire ship with the beats. Me, Fredro, Son Seez, and Big DS, everybody had their input.”
The late Jam Master Jay, in particular, was crucial to Onyx. He signed to the group to his JMJ label, served as one of Bacdafucup’s executive producers, and was a sounding board for the group at every step.
“Jam Master Jay, he gave us our freedom,” Sticky Fingaz says. “He told us what he thought, what he felt. We definitely valued his opinion tremendously. He showed us the world.”
With Jam Master Jay’s guidance, Onyx ushered in a rowdy revolution. It was a movement anchored with scowls thanks its high-energy videos and songs such as “Da Mad Face Invasion,” and that became synonymous with rocking bald heads, as noted on “Atak Of Da Bal-Hedz.” With every song and video, Onyx was set on showing its grime, a trait that carried over to its energetic live show. Thanks in part to the “Slam” video, Onyx helped bring mosh pits, slam dancing, and stage diving to rap shows.
After relentless touring, Onyx returned in 1995 with its second LP, All We Got Iz Us. Fredro Starr handled the majority of the production duties, with Sticky Fingaz contributing on several tracks as well. The LP didn’t generate any singles as massive as “Slam,” yet Sticky Fingaz views the project’s dark themes and militaristic tone as the epitome of Onyx.
“We started producing some of our own beats,” Sticky Fingaz says. “We started tackling the business more, rapping about different topics. It just grew.
“I don’t really see the difference” between the albums, he adds. “It’s all Onyx. It’s like if a guy’s wearing a sweat suit and he comes back wearing a suit. Is there a difference? He’s just wearing different clothes. They’re still clothes.”
When it returned with Shut ’Em Down in 1998, Onyx put its militaristic face on the cover. It looked like the group was heading to war on its third album cover, with Sticky Fingaz wearing a battle helmet and Fredro looking the part of a paramilitary operative.
“It’s who we are,” Sticky Fingaz says. “Ultimately, I’m a security guard first and foremost. We’re at war and we’ve been at war. Now the war is being televised and it’s crazy. You’ve got to carry yourself like that. Otherwise, you’re going to be vulnerable. If you’re vulnerable, you get yourself hurt and you can be a hindrance to others that you love. Now they’ve got to carry you. In war, they say that instead of killing a soldier, you injure him because by doing that, you take out three men instead of one. Now they need two other men to carry this injured muthafucka. Everything is contemplated and safety first. The army shit, that’s who the fuck we are. It’s natural.”
Today, Onyx continues releasing music and regularly tours the world, including Eastern Europe. In January 2021, the group released the video for “Stik ‘N’ Muve,” the 1991 song that got Onyx its deal with Jam Master Jay and RAL, and was included on Bacdafucup. “Slam,” of course, is regularly used in films, including recent placements in Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015’s indy sensation Dope and in Fist Fight, the 2017 comedy starring Ice Cube, Charlie Day, and Tracy Morgan.
As a solo artist, Sticky Fingaz has released a string of acclaimed solo LPs, and been featured on Snoop Dogg’s No Limit Top Dogg and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, among many others. He’s a working actor, with appearances on the hit television shows New York Undercover in the mid-1990s, Blade: The Series in 2006, and Empire in 2016 and ’17. On the film side, he’s had memorable supporting roles in 1995’s Clockers and Dead Presidents, 1999’s In Too Deep, and 2000’s Next Friday.
Onyx stands as one of the most distinctive groups in rap history.
“We are fuckin’ visionaries,” Sticky Fingaz says. “We were godfathered into the industry by the greatest hip-hop group ever, of all time: Run-DMC, Jam Master Jay. I didn’t care about being famous. I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to be the illest ever. It was all about the craft, being original.”
* HEADER CREDIT: Onyx--Sticky Fingaz (aka Kirk Jones), Fredro Starr (aka Fred Lee Scruggs Jr.) and Sonny Seeza (aka Tyrone Taylor; Suave) appears in a portrait taken on April 10, 1996 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives)