Last Dayz Revisited: Onyx’s “All We Got Iz Us” at 20

On its 20th anniversary, Pete Tossiello looks back at Onyx's criminally underrated sophomore album, "All We Got iz Us."
By    November 30, 2015

Pete Tosiello’s favorite Pataki is Helga.

One of the more compelling subplots of the 2016 presidential race has nothing to do with Sanders’s avuncular socialism, Trump’s fascist showmanship, Carson’s emergency-room fascism, or that Clinton may be the first president to ever have sex with an earlier president. It’s that George Pataki, for so long an Empire State titan, has been made a punchline mostly of his own doing.

Although a Republican, Pataki was a perfect candidate for Bill Clinton’s presidency: a small-town dreamer with a working-class background, Yale degree, and rapid ascent through the statehouse. Yet once in the governor’s mansion, he was criticized as a bumbling stuffed shirt, both a poor speaker and bad thinker. He let the mayor and the president do all the talking when his home turf was attacked by foreign terrorists. After nearly a decade out of the spotlight, his candidacy has been treated as a sideshow—he gets to debate other has-beens, right-wingers, and up-and-comers as the opening act to the real debates.

In rap from the years of his governorship, he’s cited as a marionette of the Albany establishment. In AZ and Raekwon’s narratives, he and Giuliani are the ones deploying armies of plain-clothes g-men into the outer boroughs to storm their backroom card games and basement crack dens. But where Giuliani may have cast a complex figure—Brooklyn native, charismatic ethnic candidate—which made him a more elusive receptacle of rappers’ gripes, Pataki’s upstate lack of character and jurisdiction over some of the country’s largest prisons were somehow more egregious than Giuliani’s former day job as a mob prosecutor.

I don’t know that “South Sui-Side Queens” as depicted on Onyx’s 1995 sophomore effort All We Got Iz Us ever existed, but it doesn’t now. The cosmetic cleanup of New York City enacted by somewhat controversial policing strategies began shortly into Giuliani’s mayoralty and ensured a short window during which All We Got Iz Us might have existed at all. A triumph of cinematic brutalism, it now plays more like a dystopia than a horror film because even if I haven’t experienced such a world, I can conceive of such a vividly-rendered setting somewhere beyond the reach of subway lines and the interstate.

Onyx is usually three or four guys—Sonny Seeza comes and goes and Big DS died in 2003—but the mainstays are Sticky Fingaz, a scowling, growling sewer creature, and Fredro Starr, a pint-sized version of Sticky Fingaz. On their 1993 debut Bacdafucup, their in-your-face brashness mostly resulted in stray bullets: death to the bitch-ass bootleggers, let the boys be boys and all that. On All We Got Iz Us they proclaim the end of days, not via some Y2K apocalypse conspiracy, but because things are bleak, man. The cartoonish tone of the debut is wholly eradicated in order to portray the world which has spawned these snarling, sputtering mercenaries. A world of high risks, low odds, and stacked decks. They carry guns and grenades and wear Timberlands and “dirty Donna Karan sweaters.” They sell it so hard that this domain becomes believable.

On the frantic intro, Sticky’s character convinces a man to shoot himself in the head, yelling “You’re better off dead!” The declaration is a refrain throughout the album’s 45 minutes. The first full track “Last Dayz” might be the finest song Onyx ever recorded, a hook-less descent into mania:

If this fucking rap shit don’t pay

I’ma start selling drugs around my way

Killing my own people in the USG

Shit, they gonna get it from somebody, I’d rather it be me

The first single is “Live Niguz,” the only song which strays beyond the musical boundaries of spare basslines and drums by way of an uneasy horn blast. I might be able to picture it being played at a party, if the party were held in a men’s prison or attended by Ninja Turtles villains. The minimalist production is all credited in-house except for three songs by 8-Off Assassin, a quietly prolific producer from Brownsville whose best work with EPMD and Das EFX may have been undermined by the fact that his stage name was an allusion to Hitler. He went on to work with DipSet and now raps as Agallah the Don Bishop.

The strangest thing about All We Got Iz Us is that it’s an album about suicide by a crew of black skinheads, released while much of America parsed through Kurt Cobain b-sides and read David Foster Wallace stories. Here suicide is presented with a perverse badge of honor, not as a product of weakness or illness but as the ultimate instance of the helpless taking fate into their own hands. While Mobb Deep and even Nas were penning screenplays about territorial Queens warfare, Onyx progressed beyond glamorized car chases and project shootouts. They found no thrill in these scenes, and reserved at least some of their arsenal to turn on themselves.

All We Got Iz Us is unusually fluid—the songs and skits blend into one another, and the three rappers are so in step it’s easy to lose track of which one’s on the mic at any given point. Perhaps the most stunning moment is the suite comprised of “Getto Mentalitee” and “2 Wrongs.” The former is a revenge fantasy featuring All City that presents an origin story for their broken world:

It’s a conspiracy, I’ve been framed

They call me nigga so much, I’m startin’ to think it’s my name

Light-skinned and ashamed, ‘cause way back in the days

They raped my grandmother’s mothers when they was enslaved

The latter furthers the call to action:

Lovers of life, don’t keep your hopes up high

‘Cause it’s just a matter of time before it’s your turn to die

But until then, when you stop breathin’

It’s time to stand up and fight for what you believe in

It’s moments like these that make for such a fully realized setting.  They channel the heavy metal aggression of their earlier work while showcasing well-crafted skills. While not their best-seller— there’s no way this could have been packaged for radio or MTV—even Onyx seemed to realize All We Got Iz Us was their apex. They seemed all too eager to retreat into self-parody afterwards, but perhaps continuing to occupy this world would have been too dangerous. They might not have made it out alive.

When I was eighteen I bought tickets for an Onyx show at a small stage ninety minutes northeast of New York City. I expected a raucously good time because I had always detected a distinct tongue-in-cheekness about the group; in my estimation they were a more severe, close-cropped Naughty By Nature. Upon arriving I was terrified by the congregation of thirty-somethings in Jason Voorhees masks and bulletproof vests strapped over sweatshirts—one dreadlocked seven-foot colossus showed up in full body armor. Sticky and Fredro were on stage for all of about twenty minutes and spent most of it grimacing and cursing at us.

1995 is appropriately defined by its decisive New York manifestos—The Infamous, Doe or Die, and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx—but All We Got Iz Us endures in its over-the-top ambiguity. If Onyx intended it to be funny they succeeded, but if not they also succeeded.

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