There was a moment between the late ’80s and the early ’90s when hip-hop was cheerier than diaper commercials. Acts related to and inspired by the Native Tongues family were eternally optimistic, even in their contrarianism. As for the pop realm, well, let’s just say my mom was bumping “Funky Cold Medina” in her Volvo. Then along came Onyx — shamelessly slinging, slamming, shooting, and reminding us that hip-hop has a dark side.
ANGER MANAGEMENT: “A lot of people have changed the rap game over the years,” says Fredro Starr (left, with Sticky), “but we changed it from being happy to that shit being mad.”
“A lot of people have changed the rap game over the years,” Fredro Starr says over the phone from Los Angeles. “But we changed it from being happy to that shit being mad. We brought the gangsta, and the Timberlands and Carhartts that came with it. Shit, even MC Lyte wanted a roughneck after Onyx dropped.”
Onyx, who come to Harpers Ferry this Friday, might seem a novelty to hip-hop pedestrians — their “Slam” is, after all, a universal riot starter that crossed into far more stereos than any of their other singles. Yet the Queens-bred, Cali-based hardcore duo maintain legendary status among rap connoisseurs. Sticky in particular: his voice may be the most frightening in the entire genre, and his verses are bloated with memorable zingers: “I got a chip on my shoulder, when I’m sober I’m live-er/I once robbed this nigga with a Phillips screwdriver.”
“The individuals have always loved me — not the masses,” Sticky says during the same call. “That’s why I never try and please everybody — because I’ve always felt like I’m underrated. When I hear these ‘Top Five Dead or Alive’ lists, Onyx is never included, like they’re trying to write us out of the book of hip-hop. Motherfucker — we’re the first group to ever have black kids slam-dancing. And even past that — I’m the first person to make a whole movie with an all-rap script.”
It’s true, and Sticky’s hip-hop film adventure — titled A Day in the Life, and now available on DVD — isn’t the Master P–caliber production you might imagine. Fred and Sticky have been camera-ready for 16 years, ever since Forest Whitaker tapped them to star in Strapped, his seminal 1993 HBO flick about Harlem gun runners. Soon after, they appeared in Clockers and Sticky was in Dead Presidents, and they’ve since racked up hundreds of credits in films and on such network dramas as C.S.I. and Law & Order.
“When I started rapping, I wasn’t trying to be a star,” says Sticky. “I was content making $1000 a week in the barber shop.” Yes — hip-hop’s Kojak crew used to cut hair. “Then I got abducted into Onyx. I was good at it — just destroying everybody on the microphone — and the same goes for getting roles. When I went to the audition for Clockers, I wasn’t about to wait in line. I had a couple of dudes with me, so I skipped to the front, and with that adrenaline I got the part.”
Although Onyx will unleash their back catalogue on tour, the goal of their nine-date East Coast trot — which also includes Thursday, August 13, at Jerky’s in Providence and Saturday at Charlie’s Pub in Lowell — is to support the soundtrack for A Day in the Life (Major Independents) and to preview their upcoming metal-esque project, Black Rock. Sticky concedes that they phoned in their last two albums, but he and Fredro concur that this time they’re back in true original form (and with proper distribution). Why shouldn’t they be? If hip-hop ever needed to darken up a bit, that time would be now.
ONYX + RITE HOOK + BEAST + MAYHEM + MIC MONARCHY | Harpers Ferry, 154 Brighton Ave, Allston | August 14 | $20 | 18+ | 617.254.9743 or www.harpersferryboston.com