Thursday, April 12, 2012

Onyx at the Jazz Café

Dear friends, I think you can picture the scene by now. D'Alma and yours truly are back in the JC, catching up on family, gossip (D'Alma's recent adventures with Mark Knopfler) and overpriced Red Stripe. The reason ? After the *revelation* that was Rakim's set here last year, here's something else we feared we'd never see back in London. It's the mad face invasion: Onyx is here.

If you wondered why, in the early 2000s, we ever devoted time to reviewing Sticky Fingaz and Fredro Starr (aka Firestarr) solo LPs inamongst those new Shinkansen and Matinée 45s, it was because a few years before both had been mainstays of Onyx: protegés of Jam Master Jay, one of New York's most explosive outfits and the soundtrack to plenty of our more youthful um, exploits. Ever since, they've sat happily in our record collection, nestled between One Thousand Violins and the Orchids.

In "Fight The Power", Simon Reynolds observes how uniquely amongst the hip-hop of their day, Onyx seemed to have exactly the same persona offstage as onstage. That persona was - as Uncle Mark might have it - totally wired, and always worried. Indeed, Reynolds called their schtick "social darwinism" (at the time) and "paranoid-apocalyptic-survivalist" (on reflection), both of which will ring true to any longtime fans. It all seemed cartoonish, until you realised they meant it. And meaning it gave their music a certain soul.

So it should be no surprise that, from the off, self-confessed 'bald headed bastard' Sticky, Fredro, their DJ and their non-smiling burly minder are making as much of a mess as they can of the stage. Literally bouncing up and down throughout (not many hip-hop crews actually pogo '77-style, or indeed stagedive with the lack of self-preservation instinct Sticky shows tonight), mic men Sticky and Fredro burn off energy all the way (strictly no ballads this evening, no repeat of the R's "something for the ladies" segment), shedding clothing as they go: Sticky only takes about four songs to strip down from full hoodie to vest to tattoo-strewn bare chest. It's no wonder, given this amount of exercise, that neither of the frontmen have the girth or paunch of many a 90s-revivalist on the circuit. The only (temporary) pause for thought comes when Sticky hollers shout-outs to the fallen, including East Coast titans Biggie, Big L, former Onyx "fourth member" Big DS and of course the late great JMJ himself.

Onyx start with "Bacdafucup", the title track of the Def Jam album from '93 or so that still defines them, and it feels *momentous*. It's all smiles and dancing in here, even for us aged barflies: no sign of the legendary Onyx screwfaces anywhere. Tonight may not be as hectic as Wormrot, but then given that Onyx are twice the age of Wormrot, they are having a fair stab. And the moshpit, certainly, is operating at grindcore velocity. (Neither Friendly Chelsea Headhunter, nor Anti-Suit Richard Jobson appear to be in tonight, but apparently one of TesseracT is in the building, should that be any consolation).

The set spits out the necessary staples: "Shiftee", second album title cut "All We Got Iz Us" and of course (a pretty cracking) "Slam", the anthem that brought slam-dancing into hip-hop, briefly gave Onyx kudos with the wider MTV generation, and even grazed the UK singles charts in the days when that was something of a rarity for any hip-hop. Their other UK top 40 hit, "Throw Your Gunz", also emerges to a rapturous reception. Best of all though, we get in love with these times, in spite of these times favourites "Shut 'Em Down" and "Raze It Up", the highlights of their maybe slept-on third LP. Like "Slam", both feature breathless, rasping rants from Sticky on which he truly displays his *unique* rhyme style, his ever-compellingly fucked-up meter: on "Shut 'Em", right down to the studio version's "I don't need no mic!" tantrum, at which point he hurls it to the floor. There is surely nothing better than mouthing along to extended verses from premier leaguers like Sticky (no, not even writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub).

Unsurprisingly a discreet veil is drawn set-wise over Onyx's uninspired post-millennium "Bacdafucup II" and "Triggernometry" LPs, but it's notable that the boys choose not to end with "Slam", but with a rare new cut: "We're So 90s". You've got to give any band who built their rep in that decade some credit for acknowledging their long-past "best before" date so brazenly. You wouldn't get either of the Gallaghers writing a song called "My Creative Flame Burned Out Last Century", although they should. There is no encore: just like the Weddoes. Onyx are outta here.

Anyway, tonight was a blast. D'Alma and I chat until the lights go up, and return home invigorated, still humming "Slam". Onyx always were the point at which rap met punk, and tonight must surely have been one of the punkiest shows ever to take place at the Jazz Café.

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