Does 6ix9ine Actually Compare to Onyx?

Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine is a bonafide internet sensation who his friends-turned-rivals describe as a fast car that you’re about to see crash. His image and stardom seem to have appeared out of thin air and it’s hard to look away from his reckless talk and behavior. At times, discerning whether he’s serious or trolling is truly challenging. I’ve watched numerous interviews and viral videos with him and his associates since his debut album “Day69” dropped last week and I see a young person looking for acceptance in both the music industry and the larger world. Ironically, when I played a 6ix9ine song for some friends, one said, “this sounds like music that’s meant to push people away from you.”

Throughout “Day69” is a recurrent us-against-them motif that depends on the power of the gun and the gang. 6ix9ine’s raspy shouting style of rap is easily identified as a descendant of Onyx, a group who burst on the scene back in 1993 with the hyper-violent single, “Throw Ya Gunz.” 1993 is also the year that New York’s version of the Bloods gang (including the Nine Trey Gangster set that 6ix9ine claims) was founded on Riker’s Island. 6ix9ine’s “Billy” is pretty much the same song as “Throw Ya Gunz”. However, the soundscape of his album draws from several Hip-Hop related genres, crawling from crunk, to grime and back to trap. The influence of Cash Money Records, Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are front and center, supported by deeply echo chambered screeches, squeals, howls and other vocalizations that are more heavy metal than rap. The songs are short, generally containing 1 or two verses, and the album isn’t even half an hour long. The average song length is 02:38 mm:ss and there’s something punk rock about that to me. Fittingly, rap/ rock fusion is a part of why Onyx’ “Slam” was such a big hit and lead to their album “BACDAFUCUP” going platinum in 6 months. This was a strategy applied with other artists on Def Jam’s roster from the early days with Run DMC and Public Enemy. It seems that 6ix9ine’s camp understands the economic power of the crossover.

I went back and listened to Onyx’ first two albums to see what exactly connects them to 6ix9ine beyond being loud New Yorkers. While “BACDAFUCUP” is full of aggression that is almost tongue-in-cheek , 1995’s “All We Got Iz Us” is darker, harder and poetically superior. Hyper-violence takes a backseat to investigations of the institutional reasons behind why ghetto boys rebel. My favorite song on the album is “Getto Mentalitee,” on which Sticky Fingaz raps, “my ancestors was brave and most of them real strong hard black sweaty slaves workin in the fields. Four hundred years later I learned about my roots and how they traded in they white sheets for badges and blue suits. So I’m taking recruits to set the fuckin score right...” 6ix9ine has yet to use his music in this way. His lyrics contain glorifications of gun violence, misogyny and drug use, without any perspective on the social and emotional conditions that underlie his portrayal and understanding of life in the ghetto. Still, with his music catalog being so small, there’s a lot of room for growth. I’ll keep my ears open.