I first noticed Siccness.net in 2009, when they released Beanie Sigel’s street album, The Broad Street Bully. The label name struck me as profoundly dubious, like one of those shell companies that distribute illegal mixtapes to online retail stores only to magically dissolve the minute rights-holders come poking around. The album also prominently featured a sample of Queen’s “I Want It All” that I suspected the imprint’s legal team might have been less than rigorous in clearing. There’s a hilarious moment on the intro to the extremely solemn song “Tear Drops” where Beanie mutters, “Turn my vocals up a little bit . . . yeah, that thing right right there, Brandon.” Immediately, Brandon’s appearance and identity became a matter of hot debate among my friends, and Siccness.net became a minor fascination.
It turns out these guys put out a lot of great gangsta-rap albums, all by mostly over-the-hill rappers, legacy artists with cult followings but tapped-out commercial potential: Pastor Troy, A.Z., Keith Murray, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Beanie, in the aftermath of his commercially disappointing The Solution and the onset of his self-annihilating, pitifully one-sided feud with Jay-Z, fits right into this wheelhouse. Moreover, Siccness.net is distributed digitally through E1 Entertainment, the new name for Koch Records, the New York label that was once infamous for collecting rappers smarting from failed major-label deals and promising them $8 for every album sold. (Fat Joe was, and in many ways remains, their mascot.) Now Koch has gone upscale, having slightly shed their reputation as a hip-hop “graveyard,” as 50 Cent once pointedly put it. Now that their property value has increased, a handy little rap niche has re-opened.
Siccness founder Nemo Mitchell explains that the label began as a Sacramento-based rap message board devoted to the seminal horrorcore rapper Brotha Lynch Hung. The board grew into a hub of Bay Area rap; when Mitchell acquired it in 2001, he was also hustling wholesale CDs purchased directly from rappers up and down the West Coast. The two ventures converged, and he now makes no bones about his aims: “Our business model is, like, trying to get artists that have an inbred fan base, a cult-following fan base. Because, you know, you can’t really compete with the majors with advertising.” So he snaps up these artists and lets them crank out unvarnished full-length hardcore-rap albums that fall with a comfy thump into the waiting arms of devotees.
As for their legal status, well, “Our records are kind of in between a mixtape and a full album — street albums,” Mitchell says, a feint that probably helps them duck some of the same sample-clearance high-beams that paralyze higher-profile operations. “Most of the time the music is original music, but I don’t like to think of it as a full-blown album, because we can’t really run the type of promotion that big labels do.” And about that Queen sample on Beanie’s Broad Street Bully: “I’m not a big fan of Queen, so I didn’t even know that until you just told me right now.”
In any case, here’s a brief primer on ten solid-to-great Siccness.net releases. Some are odds-and-ends collections; some are all-original material. There are a surprising amount of them, however, especially in contrast to the wasteland that is the major-label rap landscape. Those guys may never figure out how to effectively market or sell gangsta rap again, but guys like Mitchell have figured out the benefit in finding great rappers and offering them a chance to just sound like themselves. Here’s what they end up with.
The Jacka, Flight Risk
The Jacka is a sober-minded Bay Area rapper with a distinctly East Coast approach and philosophy. Which means, for better or for worse, that there are no goofy exclamations about how “this slap is tremendo.” Flight Risk is a mournful, atmospheric collection of the rapper’s odds and ends. Jacka’s rap style is one long, pained exhalation, and “world-weary street-corner philosopher” is his default mode. He’s great at it: The conversational delivery initially obscures the incidental poetry in his writing. Pick hit: the airy, trance-like “So High,” which boasts the fantastic opening ad-lib “you choppin’ up lobster and puttin’ it in fettuccine and shit. What kinda dumb shit is that?”
Turf Talk, Turf Sinatra
Turf Talk is a more wide-eyed, spittle-spraying presence than Jacka, unpredictable and hair-trigger where Jacka is cool and composed. The beats here are prime Bay Area: trunk-shuddering bass, spare snare slaps, aggressively plastic synth blurts, gabbling snatches of vocal samples. Like a lot of other rappers from his scene, Turf Talk relishes and chews on his words; you can hear him reveling in the sounds they make leaving his mouth on hard-loping shit like “Nothing Changed.” He enunciates the word “bitch” with the best of them, separating the word into four audible syllables.
Mobb Deep, Tha Safe Is Cracked
Post G-Unit, post Blood Money, post every humiliation and indignity these roughnecks have endured over the last nine or so years, Mobb Deep released a pretty strong full-length on Siccness in 2009. Tha Safe Is Cracked opens and closes with two mind-blowingly entertaining Prodigy phone calls into radio stations, right around the time of his immortal “LOOK WHAT I BRING TO THE TABLE” prison blog posts. The album itself is basically 14 straight tracks of back-to-basics Mobb Deep: horror-movie sonics, smeared-Vaseline-lens street-documentary ambience, and muttered and/or snarled death threats from two of the most convincing-sounding gangsta rappers ever. Some of it is old, some of it’s new, and not all of it catches fire, but this is, for better or for worse, the most consistent Mobb Deep full-length since 2004’s Amerikaz Nightmare.
Keith Murray, Puff Puff Pass
Another East Coast legend whose moment in the sun faded somewhere midway through the first Clinton Administration. Murray never really got famous enough to “fall off.” His career reads like a mini-history of every promising New York rapper who couldn’t quite break through: Jive, Def Jam, Koch. And then, in 2008, Siccness. Puff Puff Pass, like a lot of these records, gives Murray a wide berth to deliver the sort of music he’s most comfortable making. That means there are zero surprises here, unpleasant or otherwise, but that’s kind of the point of the label’s no-brainer approach: Keith Murray is a great rapper. Someone should let him do a lot of rapping. Here it is.
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Present Layzie Bone and A.K (of Do or Die), Finally
How about some breathless triple-time rap? Layzie Bone of Bone Thugs and A.K. of Chicago’s Do or Die take turns pummeling an hour’s worth of beats with blinding tongue-twister verses. Pure, eye-crossing technical fireworks abound — if you’re the kind to geek out over rhyme/syllable patterns, gorge yourself. Layzie and A.K. are two of the canniest and most sneakily musical of speed-rappers alive, though, so it never grows dull or numbing — they know just how good it sounds when they hit the gas and string their words over slow-creeping beats like “Let’s Get It Crackin.” And when they shift into hyper-drive, they stay fluid, always landing somewhere left of where you expect on the beat. Immensely satisfying.
Beanie Sigel and Freeway, Roc Boys
This came out last year, and in a lot of ways, it’s disheartening to hear Beanie and Free rhyming over such grimy, dime-store-level music. But in retrospect, the phenomenon of street artists like Beanie and Freeway rapping over albums full of top-shelf production from peak Just Blaze and Kanye seems more like a glorious fluke than anything else: We’ve all just been spoiled. And the production here isn’t bad, exactly. It gets the job done in the same way No Limit albums often did: tinny and clanging, but forceful and businesslike. Beanie and Free, meanwhile, are two rappers chronically incapable of sounding anything less than compelling on record, no matter what’s going on in their personal or professional lives.
AZ’s densely interlocking, syllable-heavy rap style hasn’t changed since he debuted it on “Life’s a Bitch”. It doesn’t need to: it has a timeless quality to it, a sense of inherent rightness and proportion. The words slot together seamlessly, and you can hear the crumpled sheets of draft paper behind them. Give him a good beat, and he’ll make it sparkle, the same way, every time. Give him anything less, and you will probably tune him out in less than five minutes. G.O.D. is marred by a few of the tepid jazzbo beats that have too often dragged down his other solo projects, but more often than not, this is crisp, firm-handshake East Coast classicism, the kind that sends AZ’s writerly, worked-over lines skyward and makes them sound effortless.
DMX, The DMX Mixtape
I confess to not having done enough legwork to pinpoint exactly which two arrests this particular mixtape came between, but this mixtape knocks. The few on-record performances of his the last few years have sounded ragged and unfocused, but here he’s in sharp form, and his hunger is audible. Pick hits: “Put ‘Em Up,” a great piece of ’98-style, Timbo-boot-to-the-head aggression, and the discordant, eerie “Boy Back Up” with Mobb Deep.
Haystak, Crack the Safe
Haystak is an extremely well-named white rapper from Tennessee with a spectacularly evocative voice — he sounds like someone’s Central Casting idea of a hobo wino, gargled in booze and scorched by cheap blunts. He can sing, too, in that rangy, lived-in drawl that evokes some of the best and warmest Southern hip-hop. Pick hit: “H#&& Naw”, which finds him kicking double-time bounce raps over greased-up Southern-boogie guitars.
Beanie Sigel, The Broad Street Bully
The album that kicked off my Siccness exploration remains a low-stakes, high-rewards bruiser, 12 tracks Beanie explaining exactly how he plans to dispose of you. No one is better on this particular topic: He might, say, duct-tape your house, or pour lye in your mouth, or go with a good old-fashioned broomstick up the ass. Murder is Beanie’s muse, and on The Broad Street Bully, his morbid imagination gets a vigorous workout. Alas, I was unable to shed any meaningful light on the identity of Brandon, other than the fact that he was the residing engineer in the Philly studio where the album was recorded. “I have to go back and hear that,” Mitchell says, laughing.