Nearly 30 years ago, one of the hardest hip-hop albums ever dropped. No, not Enter the Wu-Tang – we already talked about that – but this album and group, like Wu-Tang Clan, helped lock in New York as a hotbed of hardcore hip-hop for the ‘90s and beyond. Of course, I’m talking about motherfucking Onyx and their goddamn masterpiece debut, Bacdafucup.
I’ve been waiting a long time to find an excuse to write about this, and since March 30 is the album’s 30th anniversary, now’s the best time. Really though, I’d talk about this any time, as it’s one of my favorite albums ever. It’s one of the most sonically raucous and rowdy things I’ve ever heard, embodying the raw energy that New York City had at the time, outdoing scores of extreme metal bands then and now in terms of intensity.
Onyx at this time was made up of four dudes primarily from South Jamaica, Queens in NYC – Sonny Seeza (also known as Sonsee or Suavé), Big DS, who is unfortunately no longer with us, Fredro Starr, and, my favorite, Sticky Fingaz. They were discovered by Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay, also unfortunately not with us, who also executive produced Bacdafucup. It’s a very wild story that you can read a taste of on the album’s Wikipedia page, suffice it to say it has a ton of common threads with other huge artists at the time: genuine talent meeting unreal circumstance; something that probably shouldn’t have happened and it’s your guess as to how it came to be (fate, destiny, divine intervention, luck, etc).
Bacadfucup wasn’t just a title; their motto seemed to be ‘back the fuck up’. And what a title it was. Not only was it a somewhat clever way to bypass excessive censorship that was rampant in the post-Satanic Panic/PMRC/NWA world, but it encased the energy of the group. Fredro and Sticky spoke to DJ Vlad of Vlad TV (who I don’t support like that, but he’s gotten some good interviews over the years) about the concept and intent – ‘The whole industry gotta back the fuck up… Das EFX gotta back the fuck up, Naughty By Nature gotta back the fuck up, Cypress Hill’s gotta [back the fuck up]… not like no beef shit, but just like really competitive’.
The spelling of the album and its song titles were thought up by Sonny, who clearly went to the same English class Redman took as he was already knee deep in this aesthetic with Whut? Thee Album and would continue with Dare Iz A Darkside. And what about Originoo Gunn Clappaz and Heltah Skeltah? Iconic for the ‘90s.
I would think most people know “Slam”, their chart-topping hit that’s been everywhere from mainstream TV commercials in America to stoner comedy cult classic film How High. That’s such a fun track. There’s a great bassy bounce to it, the sampled horns act like a unique fingerprint for the song, and the chorus is a wonderful mix of power and catchiness:
‘SLAM, da duh da, da duh da
Let the boys be boys
SLAM, da duh da, da duh da
Make noise B-boys’
At its peak, it ranked fourth on the Billboard Hot 100 and is currently certified platinum by the RIAA, along with Bacdafucup as a whole.
Producer Chyskillz is mostly responsible for their vintage jazz sound when it comes to the beats. Every track is laced with ominous pianos, frantic brass, thunderous bass, all masked with a layer of fuzzy age that immortalized this album as a ‘90s staple along with greats like Midnight Marauders, Enter the Wu-Tang, Illmatic, and more; a great foil to the West Coast’s more soulful, experimental edge and G-funk takeover a year prior in 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (though let’s be real, The D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better was more of a proper precursor to that sound, but Dr. Dre produced that too so either way the man gets credit).
While “Slam” was becoming a radio darling with its more approachable themes and sound, “Throw Ya Gunz” was busy not being that. Also a single, it was a much more violent and antagonistic song. ‘It’s time to get live, live, live like a wire/I set a whole choir on fire’, starts Fredro after the song’s shouted, body-piling intro. It’s got a great flow to it and one of the best hooks on the whole album, got me walking around my suburban-ass neighborhood with almost no crime going ‘Throw ya guns in the air/And buck buck like ya just don’t care’. Big DS is notably missing from this song because he was apparently in jail while it was being recorded as alluded to by the song’s outro (‘Ayo, DS man, we gonna come get you out of jail man, fuck that’).
Where Bacdafucup really shines, though, is the deep cuts, and goddamn they cut deeper than a buck fifty. “Atak Of Da Bal-Heds” is legendary, the dissertation for the band’s baldhead aesthetic, which is as serious as it is deadly:
‘What’s the matter with my braaaain?
I can’t think clear, oh it’s the hair
Run and get the razor gotta make it disappear
There, now I got an open mind, plus some grease to give it shine’
Just reference the cover art if you need a visual aid.
“Bichasni*uz” is the post-intro track, and it sets the tone so well. Big DS has the distinction of having the most effective verse, even though it’s almost half the size of everyone else’s. The drums knock hard and the bass is warm, something that would make for a comforting track if the Onyx dudes weren’t talking about beating the brakes off of you.
“Ni**a Bridges” is a great, outrageous track; a hardcore take on the “London Bridge Is Falling Down” nursery rhyme, even borrowing the melody of that song for this one’s hook. Sonny has some of my favorite bars on the track (‘Got a Smith & Wesson autograph for your whole staff/A stick up a day keeps the pockets okay’), but it’s Sticky that really starts to establish himself as one of the most savage, grimiest rappers of all time with bars that genuinely make you rewind and do a double take (‘You done fucked with the wrong ni**a, brother/You’d rather fuck your mother’). No surprise – this is the same dude that laid one of the most vile, legitimately jaw-dropping verses I’ve ever heard on Eminem’s “Remember Me?” (even Em stans have to admit Sticky out-rapped the shit out of him on that track).
Onyx are a multifaceted group though – they also like sex! Generally, I don’t like sex songs by men for many reasons, and while “Blac Vagina Finda” and “Da Nex Ni*uz” don’t do much to persuade me in that direction, they’re still solid songs with great melodies and production. “Blac Vagina Finda” is great for its sultry horn samples and off-kilter drum patterns while the lyrics range from horrendously horny to downright offensive. At best, it’s a product of its time, though let’s be real, demeaning sex songs are still a dime a dozen nowadays too.
“Da Nex Ni*uz” is a more explicit take on Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P”, taking aim at women who cheat with you, on you, through you, every way possible. The production is the most chilled out of the whole album, and now that I think of it, so are the vocals. They’re still bold and Onyx as fuck, but when the rest of the album’s lyrics could be transcribed in all caps, in contrast this is a calm ballad. It does have a pair of funny lines from Sticky though: ‘Tell your girl to stop changing her lipstick/I’m startin’ to get rainbows around my dick’.
The thing was, this type of demeanor continued well outside of the records, for better or worse. Like, Onyx really embodied those dudes you would not wanna fuck with under any circumstance. It was not studio gangster shit. It was a reflection of the unforgiving environments they came up in, where people had to toughen up or perish.
My favorite instance of this is when they performed at the first annual Source Awards in 1994. They didn’t win an award (of which they were nominated for several, and I believe they should have won at least half of them no question), so when they were slated to be the final performance of the night, they did it… their way. Right before launching into “Throw Ya Gunz”, Sticky did literally that and dumped what sounded like a whole fucking pistol mag into the ceiling while yelling into the mic for people to essentially do the same. No one was hurt, venue security never found a gun, it’s now a legendary moment in hip-hop history.
What’s more is during a post-show interview with press, Sticky kept things all the way real. Some of my favorite moments include:
- When a reporter asked if they could do a freestyle rap before they leave, Sticky said ‘Nah, we only bust a paystyle’. That’s a huge boundary draw showing they’re not up there to be performing circus animals on command, and to respect the art enough to pay for it.
- Along those same lines, I believe another reporter asked Onyx about new music coming soon and Sticky said ‘No disrespect, when it come out, just represent and buy it.’ The reporter, in his infinite wisdom said ‘I get it free, man’, which prompted the following gem out of Sticky:
‘But I’m saying I get artists’ albums free and all that shit too… If I like their shit and they represent, I’mma go buy it and put that purchase in so they can fucking go platinum and double platinum like them bullshit-ass old western country motherfuckers.’
- Finally, another reporter asked about an open case Sticky had regarding an assault charge. Sticky talks a bit too much on details for someone with an open case (‘he fronted and got the shit slapped outta him, what?’) leading a reporter to follow up with ‘so you’ll be entering a guilty plea?’ Sticky said ‘nah man, all the people in jail ain’t guilty, everybody in jail is not guilty, go there, ask them, they’ll tell ya.’
Check out all of these moments and more with this very convenient YouTube clip, which is probably one of my most-watched on the site at this point.
Fredro reflected on Sticky’s Source Awards gun throwing and their general attitude back in the day, also to Vlad TV, calling it vivacious, arrogant, and ‘another day in hip-hop’, which isn’t wrong. The ‘90s were a different time where chaos seemed to win over much else. I don’t really support what Sticky did back then, but it wasn’t me making the decision. Still, it’s a wild moment in hip-hop’s legacy, a snapshot of the mood and temperament back then.
Old heads will lament the loss of this realness in hip-hop, disparaging the current state of the culture and how old ‘90s Onyx would have been ‘canceled’ nowadays. I agree, but not for the same reasons. This, to me, makes Onyx more important in the historical context because, no, we couldn’t have an Onyx like that in 2023. We can’t even collectively, societally agree that Black lives matter, let alone wholly defend Black artistic expression. A group like Onyx would be conservative enemy number one for several reasons. Damn, I said Onyx a lot in this paragraph.
In the end, I choose, joyfully, to respect and love Onyx for what they were, and are now. Bacdafucup wasn’t just a one-off of greatness. Although most of their hits came from that album, they had strong follow-ups with All We Got Iz Us in 1995 and Shut ‘Em Down in 1998. Bacdafucup Part II came out in 2002, but hip-hop of that era is very hit-or-miss for me (mostly in the production department), so I don’t like it much and it just didn’t have the same grit to it – critics agreed unfortunately.
Their output in the last nine years has also been impressive for late-career entries. They even made a spinoff album of sorts in 2014 called #WakeDaFucUp and fully produced by German DJ/production team Snowgoons. It has some modern-day grimy shit like “Whut Whut”, “We Don’t Fuckin Care” with A$AP Ferg and the late great Sean Price, and “Buc Bac”. Maybe we’ll talk about that album next year (we won’t). I’d also recommend their 2021 album Onyx 4 Life, which has the only anti-COVID lockdown song I’ve ever liked because it wasn’t conspiratorial in nature, they just gave so little fucks about it all – ‘And we don’t take orders/So FUCK the state orders/We coming outside!’ With the energy they bring, I’d expect Sticky and Fredro to just shoot COVID if they saw it anyway.
Big DS is already dead from cancer complications when he was only 31. The rest of Onyx is still here to get their flowers, so this is my way of doing just that. If you aren’t hip to them, I’d hop into their shit beyond the singles if you like hardcore/gangsta rap. Their mad face logo is iconic, they put bald heads into style within the culture, and their music remains timeless. When we talk about Wu-Tang Clan, NWA, and other hardcore groups and duos back in the day that left a trail of blood and teeth behind them, it’s a disservice and disrespect not to mention Onyx alongside those other greats. They’re inimitable when it comes to the combination of success and realness they had, and there will literally never be another group like them, for better or worse.
Early ’90s NYC seemed wild as fuck. So many legendary, gritty as hell, toxic rhyme spitters brought so much aggression out of that area in that era. The energy was always turned the fuck up, and anxious aggression teetered with the threat of chaotic violence breaking out at any given moment. A few folks channel this energy perfectly: Action Bronson, Bobby Shmurda, and Zillakami more recently, along with DMX, Westside Gunn, El-P, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killa (when he wants to), and obviously Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and his twin spirit Sticky Fingaz.
Sticky absolutely dominates this album. Everywhere he’s feverishly pushing non-sequitious bars that launch like rockets and explode like napalm bombs. It’s invigorating, and representative to the untamable spirit of NYC.
This entire album is so obnoxiously aggressive. It’s equal parts catharsic and threatening, but always infectiously energetic. When Onyx are absolutely on their shit, it’s nothing but shotgun blasts and sledgehammers, as the boom-bap production slaps sparingly in the background. When they shift it up, and decide stabbing is necessary the tracks feel piercing like a thousand razor blades are raining down. The track titles, and subject matter are everywhere, and sometimes don’t make sense. ”Blac Vagina Finda” is bluntly straightforward and confusing as hell in the same measure, “Bust Dat Ass” is either sexually aggressive or just fucking aggressive; I’m not sure because the track is only 37 seconds long, and I’m not about to ask Sticky Fingaz anything at all, ever. The dude is scary.
Stand out tracks that shine like the exposed landmines they are exhibit why Onyx is such an amazing group . “Atak Of Da Bal-Hedz” has everyone throwing bars so goddamn hard that all land with dramatic thuds. It’s the posse cut of getting jumped, and doesn’t stop for air at all. Another one, “Onyx is Here”, feels like a slow motion drive by sequence that slows it’s brutality down to a can’t turn away assault that displays its full menace.
The softest on this 18-track behemoth, “Slam”, feels buoyant, and flexible, as if you’re bouncing on a trampoline, except underneath that trampoline are a bunch of jagged rocks and rusted metal. There are no safe spaces on this album, and it’s one of the most violent LPs to drop in that era, edging out such tough competition coming out of the West Coast, the Dirty South, and the rest of NYC. Pair this whatever chaos you want, and burn it all down.