DIARY OF A MAD BAND
by Raquel Cepeda
Say hello to Onyx. Guess what? They still don’t like you.
It’s an unseasonably warm day in January. The only sign of winter rests in the clouds that threaten to downpour. People wander the crowded Greenwich Village streets cheesing. Most conversations waver between the philosophical-is oral sex an act of adultery?-and the political-did President Clinton fuck his intern? Whatever, global warming has made for pleasant weather. And today, people are friendly in New York City.
On this lazy Sunday, Sticky Fingaz-one third of Afficial Nastee, bald headed warlords, Onyx-has a list of menial errands to run. He has to promote a party jumping off later in the week and fine tune a Hip-Hop board game he’s developing under his company, Multiple Media. Sonee Seeza (a.k.a. Tyrone Taylor), 27, is out in the world doing his thing and being a good daddy to his nine-year-old daughter, Tynice. Fredro Starr (a.k.a. Fred Scruggs) has been in Los Angeles since Friday morning auditioning for a movie and scouting agents and movie publicists with his manager, Aaron Seawood, all in the quest to elevate to Samuel Jackson status
Six years ago, the rowdy members of this three man army were wilding their way through life. From jumping into crowds and rioting with their fans, to bumrushing the offices of their record label, Def Jam, Onyx was more than a handful of belligerent teenagers to pacify; they were “product[s] of their environment,” as Sticky rationalizes it, thrown into the proverbial spin cycle of rap, drugs and money.
Fast forward to 1998. Fredro and Sticky remain in the public eye through acting and modeling. A more spiritually grounded Sonee Seeza is producing, and learning about the business side of music. They stay focused on the business at hand, eagerly attacking music and business ventures with the passion of unsigned hype. Of course that has come with certain costs. Take Fredro, who hardly smiles these days.
“[I’m] looking at people dying in this rap shit,” he grumbles. “Niggas don’t give a fuck no more.” His soul looks as dark as the anger in his eyes. “If 20 niggas say ‘What’s up’ to me, that means that 40 niggas just don’t like me,” Fredro says, dismissing his paranoia.
Sticky echoes his cousin’s sentiments, thinking the worst before opening up to people. He looks to himself for answers before hesitantly confiding in someone else. “My religion is life,” says the god. “I meditate every morning…all you gotta do is look inside yourself.”
It’s been five-plus years since Onyx released their capacious double platinum debut, Bacdafucup– a ghetto-centric opus of furious rhymes and basement beats that raided the mainstream, while remaining faithful to their underground core. Onyx moshed their way through the rap industry with their apocalyptic antics and mad faces, ultimately collaborating with thrash-metal noisemakers Biohazard on “Slam,” prodding the limits of hip-hop culture. Bacdafucup was such a titanic success, in 1993 it beat out Dr. Dre’s soon-to-be classic, The Chronic, seizing Soul Train’s “Best Rap Album” honors.
Onyx’s second album, All We Got Iz Us, released in 1995, was a step in self introspection that went relatively unnoticed. Marked by the departure of Big D.S. and the advent of a new DJ, 25 year old L.S. One, the album reflected a more mature, yet despondent outlook on life, as reflected by its title track and somber first single, “Last Dayz.” All We Got Iz Us went on to sell half a million units, a dramatic drop in sales. But it represented a significant leap into manhood.
“The Second album was more of an experiment with creativity and self-containment,” adds Sonee Seeza. “I blame timing, attitudes from us and the label.”
But these days the trio are focused on their third divergent long player, Shut Em Down, a collection that exhibits their hunger with the selfsame rancor that made them an instant success back in 1992. Despite their musical triumphs and consistent climb up Hollywood’s tinsel ladder, Fredro Starr (a.k.a. Never, as in never fails), Sticky Fingaz and Sonee Seeza deliver the passion of unsigned neophytes with the experience of seasoned veterans. This time around, Onyx features the prolific 18-year-old X-1 (Sticky’s little brother), Gangreen, and R&B singer Chocolate-artists they’ve been developing on their production company, Afficial Nastee Niguz. Experience, benjamins and fame haven’t pacified Onyx’s raw, animated depictions of street life, nor have they given into masturbating rap’s money pumping culture. Indeed, Onyx fans will hear something familiar, as well as fresh material that comes back like John Travolta.
Do you feel like you’ve matured over the years? “Nope,” Sticky Fingaz snaps, pulling a drag from his Newport. “I went through that shit so fast that when we got off tour a year and a half later, I [was] like ‘Yo! What the fuck happened!”
After stopping to call his younger brother X-1, Sticky continues. “I don’t give a fuck about how much money you got, shit is still boring. At least while I’m here, I wanna live good,” he smirks, eyes slanted like Spawn, giving off a menacing grin. “I’m hungrier!”
Sticky pauses. Pulls another drag from his stogie. “Truthfully man, I don’t give a fuck about life. On the serious note, I thought about [suicide] once.”
His Asiatic, dark eyes pierce the window of the Black Lincoln Town car his publicist rented for the day’s errands. Fixed on the ever-present, downcast pallor of 8th Avenue and 41st Street, Sticky studies the situation with the glare of an old soul trapped in a twenty-four-year-old frame. His right eyeball wanders out of alignment often, as if to record the imagery of Time Square’s dirty streets and helpless folk.
“New York is muthafuckin’ fast, hard and cold,” he observes as the driver pulls up to his building “somewhere” in midtown Manhattan. He also owns a condominium in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles, his permanent residence.
Sticky was born and raised in the bowels of Crown Heights and Flatbush, Brooklyn. He moved into his first apartment at seventeen, with his maternal cousin, Fredro, and his boy, Water, at 102 Brisbon Avenue in Queens.
“I was raised by the streets,” he says. “My mother raised me until I was fifteen.” He never met his father. His paternal grandmother, Sticky heard, is Japanese, accounting for his slanted buck eyes. Also known as Tropical back in the day, Sticky worked as the neighborhood street pharmacist and a barber at Nu Tribe barber shop to pay the rent. “I had every single hair style you could name,” laughs Sticky in between smokes. “Flat top, gumby, bald head, jheri curls, spiked up, blonde hair, ponytails!”
Sticky is the animated extremist of the trip, open and revealing once you get past the thick skin of paranoia he’s come to acquire through experience. He’s dangerous yet humane, a pessimistic thinker who metamorphoses into a scholar when mentally aroused. In between puffs from his infinite supply of Buddha blunts, Sticky ponders a question he proposed to himself one day in a quad he once shared with Fredro in Edgewater, New Jersey: “When you die, do you take your memory with you?”
The driver, Sam, grows awestruck by Sticky’s wordplay, scoping him through his rearview mirror as the manchild slides into his hideaway. We wait for Sticky in silence, contemplating reincarnation. In short order, Onyx’s demented philosopher returns.
“I’m a normal person,” admits Sticky, as he slips back into his seat. “I [just] be having crazy thoughts.”
Sonee Seeza, the unsung member of the grimy-voiced trio muses a request at the “old” Hit Factory studios next to Kinkos in midtown, Manhattan: can I have a couple of minutes with you? After some scrutiny, he blankly replies “No.” We do not hit it off. Initially.
Testosterone saturates the tine Studio E, along with weed smoke and cigarette haze. 40 ounce doses of Old English poison, stale leftovers and empty Snapple bottles lay around. The pretty strings on a self-produced track, tentatively dubbed “Wildin’ Wildin’,” blare from the monitors, accompanied by X-1’s swiftly delivered lyrics. The members of Gangreen-Raider, Whosane (Fredro’s younger brother) and Still Livin’-are immersed in the track. A serious Fredro sits to one side, head slumped in the neck of his yellow fleece pullover.
“What’s up Shortie?” he growls, dragging on a Newport. Despite his 5’3” in height, Fredro’s star appeal carries him like a 6 footer. Almost immediately, he disappears behind the console to write his verse. He’s gotta fly out to LA in the morning.
As soon as Sticky arrives he sits down to pen a clean version to the banging track. All the MCs are engrossed, locked away in an exclusive bubble that houses Afficial Nastee Niguz. X-1 does his verse over and over again, only to hear input from his crew and to exclaim, “Man, I want some fucking pussy, God.”
Sonee Seeza walks into the room. He’s already done his thing for the night, a swiftness of operation that reflects his advanced lyrical game on Shut Em Down.
On the following Monday, while Bill Clinton is plastered all over the boob tube, vehemently denying that he slept with his ex-intern. Sonee Seeza lounges at Def Jam’s offices, winding down from a mini press day. The eldest member of the triumvirate is in a good mood.
“I got the most ghetto name in the world,” he jests lighting a cigarette. “My name is Tyrone, isn’t that the most ghetto name you ever heard?” Compared to the other two, Sonee’s life may seem fairly ordinary. But the Brooklyn born, Southside Queens, Jamaica bred emcee may just be a bit more grounded.
“I’m not as exuberant and extroverted as the other two,” admits Son See, who is less frivolous with money and more interested in the business side of music. “I don’t get mad.”
Besides producing, Son See’s main project is being active in his 9-year-old daughter’s life. Tynice was born a year before Onyx released their first single on Profile Records entitled “Ahh,We Do It Like This.”
But despite a maturity that seems to surpass that of his rhyme peers, Sonee has long been the slept on member of the group, a situation he is well aware of.
“I guess I’m like Biggie, you know what I’m sayin’? A lot of people were sleepin’ on that cat [in] the early days until he started moving into other crowds. When ‘Party and Bullshit’ came out a lot of people ain’t automatically know that he was nice.”
Rap music has gone through a spin cycle since Onyx last rocked mics and mosh pits. Emcees “ain’t doing music no more, they’re doing death threats rather than rock the house,” Seeza alleges. “It got more cosmetic, more make-up put on it,” he adds, staring at a brightly propped Hype Williams video on the BET.
“It’s not as raw as it used to be,” Seeza mutters despondently. But at least that state of affairs doesn’t apply to him. Of that he’s confident.
“SonSee is going to come down and people are going to know that he wasn’t as quiet as ya’ll thought.” He smiles. “And he is [more] talented than y’all probably know!”
Fred Scruggs, Jr. has a lot on his mind. He just caught the red eye back from Los Angeles. From the moment he arrives in the label’s reception area late in the afternoon, the expression on his face remains stoic. In the confines of the record company’s conference room, Fredro is not feeling the interview. He leans deep into his black hoodie and dark blue Carhartt jeans, erecting a clear barrier. His suspicious eyes track every movement of my hands, as if wary of what-aside from questions-might be sprung upon him. His manager said that he’s been dealing with personal family issues, issues that are obviously weighing down his already serious demeanor.
“[When] I first came out, I was really loud…real wild,” Fredro finally offers. “Now I’m more humble, I ain’t even really excited yet.” Hungrier to succeed now than when they “were rhyming in the studio with rats in it.”
Fredro is on a quest to blow up to Titanic proportions. Likening himself to Samuel Jackson, Starr believes that in another 2 or 3 years, after at least 10 films under his belt, he’s going to gain the respect and propers that Jackson has in mainstream Hollywood.
“I’m more serious as far as the business side,” affirms Starr. “I’m just using my mind more.” Fredro doesn’t want his age revealed. He is evasive about his family (his mom, Mary Isabel Dash, is now his personal business manager), whether he has children, a wife (“I don’t even know, it’s too much to tell right now.”), girlfriend, where he’s based in New York City, or his whereabouts in Los Angeles. He only wants to discuss his professional life.
“I wrote a story about my life, see the movie’” Starr says. “I think it’s [worth] much more than just an article.” The autobiographical manuscript is called “No Heroes,” a “real ill” tale written for young Black children growing up with a lack of positive male role models. But we’ll have to wait for the film. Unless his mood changes.
Are you serious, you wrote a movie?
“Yeah, I wrote a movie,” snaps Starr. “I’m always serious, didn’t I tell you that!”
“I have a lot on my mind,” he states in what seems like an eternity later. “I’m going to take a vacation.”
Fredro’s certainly paid a tremendous price for hid widespread popularity. He doesn’t have the luxury of scheduling his business affairs around personal catastrophes, a great price to pay for fame. Perhaps that contributes to the romantic paranoia he shrouds himself with, like a “godfather” character who’s been kissed for death.
But in all fairness, we can’t dehumanize celebrities and place them on a utopian pedestal, as if they were immune to tragedy. Fredro’s about to fly out to LA this very weekend to tape an episode for Uncle L’s In the House where he’ll play Cool J’s little brother. Life goes on. And his intensity remains unwavering.
Sticky reaches into a purple folder laying on the backseat of the car and pulls out the royal blue prototype of a board game he masterminded. It’s just one of the many ventures he’s undertaking. But Sticky also has a full time job keeping his demons in check. It hasn’t been easy. There was that near suicide-attempt in Edgewater, New Jersey. But Sticky uses that potential tragedy as a point of reference. He has to avoid slipping back into a self destructive path, regardless of those little evil voices that toy with him.
“I was just sitting there, just thinking about life. I was like, ‘damn, this shit is crazy.’ I don’t know. I was curious. Would I remember all the shit that I did, or is there such a thing as living more than once? For a split second I wanted to see…I almost saw, rather. At the time I was loading a clip [in a new gun], and I was sitting there like, ‘damn.’”
A blank stare overcomes him. Maintaining a brutal honesty, he continues: “I feel like life is like a video game. You know your quarter is gonna run out but you just play anyway. So I figured, ‘If I’m gonna die, someone else is going to have to kill me.’ I don’t want to kill myself.” He smiles, “It ain’t that bad.”
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