Happy 25th Anniversary to Threat’s debut (and only) album Sickinnahead, originally released July 20, 1993.
In 2018, the Gangsta Rapper is an endangered, almost extinct, species. Some of the most prominent icons of the era have moved on or “aged out.” Dr. Dre makes hundreds of millions more from headphones than gangsta rap ever brought him. Ice-T has been playing a cop on TV for close to 20 years. Ice Cube spearheads the Barbershop franchise and makes movies with Kevin Hart. Snoop Dogg released a gospel album earlier this year.
Occasionally guys like YG and Nipsey Hussle, both of the gangsta lineage, come along and drop a dope album, and The Game still releases quality product. But these days, the gangsta rapper has been all but replaced by the morose drug addict, more concerned with popping pills and being emo than making their audience witness the strength of street knowledge.
Corey “Threat” Lloyd Brown was a gangsta rapper, and 25 years ago he released Sickinnahead, a largely unheralded set. Sickinnahead was one of the last albums of its kind: the diary of a Los Angeles street soldier. And he definitely lived what he rapped.
Threat a.k.a. Deadly Threat grew up in South Central Los Angeles, longtime friends with producer DJ Pooh. He first appeared on record in ’91 on Ice Cube’s classic Death Certificate. He contributed the “Killa Cali / the state where they kill” verse on “Color Blind,” and was the voice behind the opening “Yeah you, motherfucka!” monologue on “True to the Game.”
In the next two years, Threat shared the mic with the likes of King Tee, 2Pac, and Yo-Yo. He also wrote for each of those artists, along with Compton O.G. Eazy-E. Threat was in and out of jail throughout this period, but used his time behind bars to write Sickinnahead. It’s no wonder that the album felt absolutely authentic.
Sickinnahead dropped during a period when Dr. Dre’s The Chronic still ruled hip-hop and people were still waiting with baited breath for Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. Maybe it was because people were anticipating Snoop’s debut album that they slept on Threat. Whatever their reasoning, it was the public’s loss. Subject-matter wise, he’s an amalgam of Kool G Rap and Ice Cube, adept at both kicking tales of gang-life and anti-establishment manifestos.
Sickinnahead captured a view of Los Angeles after the infamous ’92 uprising better than any other release at the time. It was a period after the heralded gang truce that occurred in the wake of the Rodney King verdict was starting to falter, and ’hoods throughout Los Angeles were once again starting to flare up with gang violence.
The production is an integral component to the album’s artistic success. Beat-wise, DJ Pooh, with the help of Suede, Bobcat and King Tee, created an extremely funky soundscape that made brilliant use of hip-hop standard sample source material. Songs like Parliament’s “Flashlight,” the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” Bob James’ “Nautilus,” and Zapp’s “Dance Floor” are put to good use, sometimes on multiple tracks, but the producers make them sound interesting and unique each time.
Sickinnahead starts off with “PDK,” Threat’s grim portrait of life in Los Angeles in the days after the riots. He starts the song off with one of the more underrated opening lines, “I’m here to let you know that no ho plays me / I don’t smoke crack ’cause I’m already crazy.” Over muted keyboards and a guitar sample, he spins a proto-“I Don’t Give a Fuck” anthem years before Eminem. Meanwhile, songs like “Let the Dogs Loose” (the album’s first single) and “LA Zuu” further detail the chaos that has enveloped the greater Los Angeles area.
Throughout Sickinnahead, Threat expertly creates straight-ahead gangsta shit. “24-7” features Threat on his straight thug shit, rolling with his crew, brandishing fire-arms, daring anyone to test. “You can bet I bring it, just the way I sing it,” he raps. “I got the cleanest, meanest .44 that you ever seen / it’s the 1999 model, no numbers, fresh out the box / Pull it out, n***as run like snot.” Meanwhile, on “Give It Up” he details his crime-filled escapades, jacking unsuspecting victims for their loots and slanging drugs. As with many gangsta rappers at the time, Threat frames his decision to engage in illegal activity as a necessary means to continue his existence, rapping that “only the strongest survive the longest.”
Threat’s superior storytelling ability is on full display throughout Sickinnahead. “Get Ghost” is an excellent entry among several rappers’ descriptions of fleeing from the police. DJ Pooh loops sped-up portions of Parliament’s “Flashlight,” creating a frantic energy as Threat raps how he “Stepped in so much dog shit they couldn’t sniff my prints.” “Bust One For Me” portrays the step-by-step process of getting arrested in the small hours of the morning all the way to learning to survive a one-to-three year stretch in prison.
“4-Deep” is the album’s best track, where Threat exhibits his best mix of pure lyricism and storytelling ability. Threat details the complex dynamics of navigating through different neighborhoods and what amounts to occupied enemy territories, as he raps, ““Punk, kiss the riot pump / You thought your homie next to you made to his trunk / Light ‘em like a candle / That’s right, the scandal vandal handles mines like a man though.”
Threat paints a picture on the song of a place where violence remains ever present and even sleep is a rare occurrence, due to the constant stream of gunshots. The beat by DJ Pooh, which samples J.J. Johnson’s “Harlem Clavinette,” is not only the album’s strongest, but also one of my favorite tracks of the era. The funky electric guitars blend perfectly with the drums from the Five Stairsteps’ “Don’t Change Your Love,” and the melodic whistles. The scratches during the outro of a line from Sadat X’s verse from Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down” wrap things up perfectly.
Threat evens takes time for a little bit of reflection on “N***as Like You,” which is the best song that Ice Cube never recorded. Here a frustrated Threat catalogueing his grievances against those who function without principles. In three verses, he concurrently targets street captains who lead from the rear, gangstas who get too drunk and high and get out of control, and the President of the United States at the time, Bill Clinton. It’s an eclectic list of people to single out, but Threat displays remarkable insight.
Threat occasionally veers away from describing the harsh realities of inner-city life. On songs like “Shut the Fuck Up” and “Shote,” he details his interactions with not-so-scrupulous women. Threat even includes a few straight-ahead lyrical exhibitions. Threat settles into battle mode on the frenzied, Bobcat-produced “Ass Out,” boasting that he’s “got a fat enough wallet to buy Cal Worthington plus his dog, Spot.”
Sadly, this was Threat’s only full-length release. He continued to record music occasionally through the mid-’90s, mostly with DJ Pooh. “Lettin’ N***as Know” appeared on the Friday soundtrack, and he appeared on numerous songs on Pooh’s Bad Newz Travels Fast compilation (1997). “Nowhere to Hide,” the album’s first single, was a regional hit.
Mostly Threat has made his living post-Sickinnahead as a ghostwriter. He has reportedly written rhymes for nearly the entire Death Row roster, in addition to Ice Cube and his affiliates, as well as many others. So while you might not have heard Threat’s voice that often post- Sickinnahead, chances are that you’ve heard other material that he wrote.
And yet I personally wish that Threat had been able to put together a deeper catalogue of his own work. Sickinnahead was something special, and it would have been gratifying to see how he could have followed it up. As it stands, I believe his sole album has stood the test of time better than much of this drugged-out, auto-tuned mess that passes for “real” shit these days.