"New York is in a fucked up place, man..."
Fredro Starr is kidding. When asked about the state of NYC Hip-Hop, he smirks jokingly that the radio is too busy playing Afrobeats these days. "East Coast music never left a strong place," the other half of Onyx, Sticky Fingaz, chimes in. "It depends on what you're looking for. You can play the radio and let them decide what you listen to or you can play your own music, and you decide."
Much has been made of the resurgence in New York City's hardcore Hip-Hop and Onyx represents the proud parentage from whence that spirit was born. The famously mad-faced crew didn't invent grimy NYC shit, but they've damn-near spent the past three decades embodying it to the fullest. Under the tutelage of the late Jam-Master Jay, they broke through majorly with 1993s Bacdafucup and the inescapable "Slam," introducing slam-dancing to rap shows and providing a template for everything from East Coast followers like M.O.P. and Ruff Ryders, to the rambunctious energy of southern crunk music. Their new project Onyx Versus Everybody comes on the heels of 1993, released just months prior, and finds Fredro and Sticky Fingaz as "shiftee" as ever.
But today, they're rushing around New York City, on a press run. And Fredro is on the phone, making sure they send things out. "That record's a hit, bro," he says to whomever is on the other end of the exchange. "We need to do a single deal with eOne. Fuck it." He and Sticky are all business, as both wrap up some phone conversations before things get started. Rock The Bells is hanging with Onyx as they make some runs in Manhattan, but everything has to be on the up-and-up.
"This is on-camera?" Fredro asks, before announcing that he needs to pick up some new sneakers while scheduling the day. "We might as well go to Shade 45, man." Meanwhile, the infamous Sticky Fingaz is also on his phone, taking care of a personal matter before his day of Q&A gets started.
They're less than 48 hours removed from their Verzuz appearance in Los Angeles.
Hyped as "Fight Night Music," the event pitted Onyx against Angeleno icons Cypress Hill, but the promotion left a lot of fans frustrated that they didn't know about the matchup. And it wasn't broadcast on Instagram Live, something that B-Real of Cypress Hill took exception to. He posted a video on his own Instagram, airing his grievances the following morning. "I'm just disappointed that y'all didn't get to see it here on IG," B-Real said in the IG video. "Because Verzuz didn't run it live for some fuckin' reason."
He shrugs it off initially, but Sticky Fingaz agrees with the sentiment.
"I feel the same way B-Real felt," Sticky says. "I loved it and everything. But how you gon' put the slap down and don't nobody see it!" But Sticky gets animated when he brings up the fact that B-Real has allegedly already mentioned a do-over.
"The nigga said he want a rematch," he says to Fredro. "Two people told me already...[he] want a rematch. I said 'nigga you a glutton for punishment?' I said rematch that money, how 'bout that?"
Fredro shares his partner's bravado, while conceding that it's all love between the two legendary groups.
"I love Cypress Hill. They smoked us out after the Verzuz..."
"We not smokin' no weed with them niggas cuz them niggas got that crazy ass weed," he adds. "I smoked weed with them niggas, we was in Germany one time; and I swear to God, I was forgettin' my lyrics. I told the crowd 'I was smokin' with Cypress Hill, man. Forgive me.'"
When they step into Bloomingdale's to check out some gear and see what sneakers they have in-stock, a woman working behind the counter congratulates Fredro on an "amazing" Verzuz and says that she and her friends watched it. The duo definitely gets attention as they do some last-minute shopping, as fans take pics and shout them out throughout the store. Onyx is definitely in the building. They've had to endure changes over the years: founding member Big DS died of cancer in 2003; while Sonny Seeza (formerly known as Suave) left the group in 2009 to pursue a solo career. They've worked with everyone from Run-D.M.C. to DMX and A$AP Ferg, all the while remaining true to the sound and spirit that got them here.
"The approach on this album was the approach on every album," he explains. "To just go hard, you know what I'm sayin'? But the approach as far as music was to just make the grimiest, dirtiest beats I could think about. Grimy. Dirty. Dusty. I wanted this to be the grimiest album of the year. EP-slash-album, whatever you wanna call it. 20 minutes of hardcore Hip-Hop, fly New York shit. East Coast. Ill rhymes, some street shit."
Having worked with everyone from The Alchemist to German production team Snowgoons, Onyx decided to do everything in-house this time around. The entirety of Onyx Versus Everybody is produced by Fredro himself.
"We did albums with a lot of producers. I'm back in my bag as far as doin beats. so it's like...the 'All We Got Iz Us' kinda vibe. We worked with a lot of different producers. We've worked with all types of producers. But I feel like I'm in my bag right now doing beats, let's go! This Mr. 'Last Dayz,' man."
Eminem famously freestyles over Onyx's "Last Dayz" during the final battle scene in 2002s 8 Mile. Fredro takes a measure of pride in the fact that a song that he produced himself made it into that beloved film.
"Every time I see Eminem rhyming on my beat," he says, flashing another grin. "...I think I got something."
The subject of ever-popular Top Five debates was broached, following Treach of Naughty By Nature dismissing the notion as insufficient appraisal for Hip-Hop's history. Groups like Naughty, Cypress Hill and Onyx helped define the 1990s and 2000s, but in more recent years, solo emcees seem to be the preferred way to appraise rap greatness. But Onyx dismisses any notion that groups are being downplayed. And there are just too many emcees to reduce things to five, says Fredro. It's all subjective.
"It's always interesting. Top Fives always changin.' It's too many rappers to be a 'Top Five...'
"You might have one or two people that are always in Top Fives, but you always change it. There's too many rappers to be a Top Five. I can name ten dope rappers from the 80s alone—I could name twenty dope rappers from the 80s alone. I could name a hundred dope rappers from the 90s alone." Both Starr and Sticky don't give much weight to the idea that groups aren't properly celebrated.
"Nobody gets undervalued. It depends on what you value," Fredro explains. "What's your number? If you have a number and they can't give you a number, you're not undervalued. I wanna see the Car Max value. I wanna see the Blue Book, nigga."
"That's an opinion," Sticky adds.
And opinions are like assholes, a wise man once said. Onyx ain't gonna suddenly switch up on you. Thirty years in, it's still fuck the world. It's still Onyx versus everybody. And they're going to keep it hardcore.
"That's the only shit I listen to," Sticky says of the group's love of that classic aggressive sound. "That's not true, I listen to R&B shit, too. Hardcore shit just comes natural to me. If I did sing, it would be some hardcore shit!"
"We gon' do what we do," Fredro adds. "If you listen to Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan, that nigga still raps like the first album right now. Niggas ain't changing. Niggas is doin' they one-two. It's just a different verse, but it's the same verse. This shit is just one long verse. My whole career is one long verse. We just giving it to you how we do it. You ain't hear Raekwon singing. That nigga ain't singing on his shit. He do what he do. Just like us, we do what we do. How else are we supposed to bring it, if it ain't hard, rough rugged, low down gritty and grimy? Shiesty."