Nature’s calming voice can be heard on some of DJ Clue’s earliest mixtapes, bringing forth timeless street parables rather than cheap punchlines. He made his bones on New York City’s brutally competitive mid-90s mixtape circuit among the likes of Jadakiss and Canibus. His masterful freestyles would eventually earn him admission into The Firm after Cormega, a fellow rising Queensbridge rapper, was unceremoniously ousted from the supergroup. In the wake of The Firm’s self-titled debut LP, he was featured on what many consider to be the greatest posse cut ever recorded, Noreaga’s “Banned From TV.” Nature recently partnered with Deep Concepts Media, a Long Island-based record label founded by Joshua Lauria and DJ Mickey Knox. He took a break from finalizing his latest seasonal themed EP to discuss his symbiotic relationship with Noreaga, working alongside Dr. Dre, and The Firm’s unorthodox cast of contributors. — Harold Stallworth
Over the last few months you’ve been releasing EPs as part of your “Seasons Changed” series. What made you want to focus on shorter projects?
Albums are dope, but I just wanted to put together nice little compilations of songs. I didn’t want to overdo it. I just wanted to keep it short and dope, and EP’s were the best way for me to do it.
Will this series continue on into fall and winter?
Yeah, winter will make it complete, because I started with spring. The fall edition is about to drop. I haven’t determined whether I’m going to continue doing EP’s or make another full-length album. The spring and summer editions have been fire up to this point, and fall will definitely continue in those footsteps. I’m still a fan of all this. I just try to make the type of music that I fell in love with. I don’t get to hear too much of that anymore.
Nowadays, everybody’s either already super-rich coming into the game, or they’re just super-tough—everybody’s a super-thug. So it kind of keeps that window of real lyricism [limited]. I’m a street guy, so I’m always going to have hood flare with it. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge whether I’m still being accepted the same kind of way, because [my] numbers don’t jump out like some of these newer commercial artists. But I’m just trying to keep the game alive.
Does your approach to recording music change with the weather?
The approach is still the same. I’m just trying to make something that’s dope. During the colder parts of the year you might have more action going down, as far as the clubs. In the summertime, everybody’s out in the streets and throwing cookouts. [That affects] the content, but as far as the actual recording process, it’s all the same.
You released a video for “Time Is Money.” What was it like to reunite with Noreaga?
That’s my boy right there! I been connected with him. It’s not like I just suddenly appeared. A lot of times in the past I’ve jumped on his records, so it just feels different because “Time Is Money” is my song. When I first heard the beat I thought it was dope and I heard his vocals on it. So I shot it over to see what he thought about it, and he was vibing instantly just like me. That was dope. We filmed the video in Miami. He lives down in that area, so I just came down and enjoyed the weather.
Which one of you guys is Larry Bird?
I really never thought it out that far. It was just an idea stemming from the song we made back in the days. Magic and Bird are still regarded as the top guys at their positions. Right now there’s a lot of new guys like Lebron, but Magic and Bird are just two class acts. We’ve been recording since the Trackmasters era. It’s just dope. When you know somebody well enough to consider them to be like a brother, you can pretty much envision how they’re going to react to certain things—or how they’ll vibe off of it. I can’t really even explain the chemistry. It’s just always comfortable recording with my brother.
When I spoke to Cormega this summer he was really excited about a record you guys recorded for Mega Philosophy.
Yeah, I remember recording that song. I guess at the time he wasn’t really too sure, because sometimes I’m really finicky when it comes down to certain beats. But I remember him sending it to me, and I thought it was dope. It put me in a whole different zone. [Cormega] appreciated what I did. I’m just glad that it stuck and that it’ll be heard by the world.
Were you recording music prior to The Firm?
I was rhyming on DJ Clue tapes, but I wasn’t trying to do a project by myself. That was just the thing to do—dude’s was rhyming. But I didn’t realize how big the mixtape circuit was becoming. I was just fortunate enough to have access to guys like DJ Clue who who were blowing up. I didn’t realize how the game was changing, or how Nas would become a [rap star]. We was just trying to have some of the freshest music out. I didn’t really understand the power of the mixtape at that time.
Who are the Wild Gremlinz?
That’s just a team of dudes I know from around the neighborhood. Just the dudes that were willing to go that extra mile for me and for whatever we were trying to accomplish. They’re still there now, it’s just some of the guys are trying to be more business about it. So now it’s less hoody and a little bit more corporate. I got a couple guys from the hood that can spit, but they’re not the most business savvy guys, so they just have to fall back until they can put it all together.
How did you wind up working with The Firm?
Really, while it was brewing I was just fortunate enough to be cool with Nas. Because that was Nas’ project right there. I think before it actually came into fruition it was just a lot of talk about [assembling] the dopest guys in the neighborhood to put together something that’ll be memorable. I was in some of the same circles as Nas. We went to the same school and lived in the same neighborhood. Word traveled when guys were kind of dope, so our names were always being mentioned in these circles. So when we put together that project it was kind of dope, because it was my first actual chance for the world to hear me on a major scale. So The Firm was dope to me.
Was The Firm album recorded in California or New York?
We were in California for some of it. We also record some of it in Miami. The whole recording process—we recorded the entire album in about nine days. We were in Miami for a lot of it. We were in the best studios that I’d ever been to at that time. We were just constantly working. We had four different rooms at the same time. So at any given time you might have Nas, AZ and Foxy all recording in separate rooms. Then, as soon as they finished their verses, they would be running into another room where different songs were taking shape. Everyone was playing musical chairs like that. That was dope.
Everyone expected Nas, AZ and Foxy Brown to rap on every song, but the line-ups were unorthodox. How did you all decide who would be featured on each song?
We put the album out on Aftermath with Dre. Due to the fact that there were so many different artists involved, and everybody’s coming out on different record labels, there were a lot of stipulations. Some of these guys had stipulations where they couldn’t even be on certain records. For instance, Nas might have been told he could only perform on [six] records. Same for AZ and Foxy Brown. Whereas I was so new, I could just fill in all the voids. Whatever they couldn’t do, I was just like give me the record. That’s why a lot of people consider The Firm my first album. I think I was heard the most on the album.
So you weren’t already signed to a major label back then?
No, that was before the deal. That was just me being in the right place, at the right time, with the right guys.
Did you get a chance to work in close proximity with Dr. Dre?
That was like the highlight of the whole thing. Just being around Dre. The infamous [coastal war] was just dying down, and we were the first artists he was dealing with after that whole Death Row thing. I’m a New Yorker, so that was my first opportunity to see some of the people and places I’d only heard of on the radio before. Dre was there for the whole shebang. That was dope.
Did Dr. Dre work side-by-side with the Trackmasters?
I want to say yeah, but I don’t actually know. I was just so new at being an artist, I didn’t really pay attention to some of those details. Dre is such a professional, though. He has a team. He has guys that come in and play live instruments. He’s a really creative guy. Trackmasters had a team as well. I didn’t see who pressed the buttons, but I’m quite sure they did work side-by-side. I was just soaking it all up. You can imagine some of the beats we didn’t rap over that we probably heard in the studio. Shaking our heads like “oh my God!”
Did you write Dr. Dre’s rhymes on “Firm Family?”
I never wrote a Dr. Dre rhyme. We recorded it together, but I’m not sure if he wrote it. But he had the best writers. That’s how I got cool with Xzibit. I think Xzibit might have wrote that. I’m not exactly sure.
So a lot of other west coast guys were running around the studio while The Firm album was being recorded?
Yep. I got cool with Xzibit, and he introduced me to Snoop and—rest in peace—Nate Dogg. I used to always see these guys around and we’d kick it. We would kick our New York stuff, and they would kick their Los Angeles stuff. It was dope.
You made a daring escape in the “Firm Biz” video.
Of course! They had me running all through the video. I’m the only guy that’s not even featured on the song, and I’m the only one with a stunt double.
Last year you leaked a Halloween song called “Magic.” What made you want to release a Halloween song?
That’s probably going to be packaged with our fall [edition]. Because we released it, but we didn’t really release it. The theme is perfect for the fall. It wasn’t just a bunch of blind vocals. I was just trying to paint an eerie picture of Halloween in the hood.
When you were writing your verse for “Banned From TV,” did you know it would be something that would resonate with people 15 years later?
I just know that it was something I really didn’t have too much time to think about. The record could have went in a totally different direction. When I went to the studio, Noreaga had a different beat for that song picked out already. I wasn’t too fond of the beat. Then we had Swizz come in and start playing more beats. When I heard that record I was blown away by it. It sounds like a superhero beat. Like, you’re supposed to be a superhero on it. Immediately, when I heard it, I started to write. It took a couple minutes. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and I was done.
I think the song was initially supposed to be just me and Noreaga—just going back-and-forth, rap-for-rap. I laid my verse down that day and left. So [Noreaga] had time to sit back and put everything together and make it the record you hear today. The very next time I heard my vocals there was all these legendary cats behind me, and I felt I needed to change it. Like, they got to study me before they laid their rhymes. But by that time, the record was already mixed and on it’s way to becoming a classic.
You have a lot of classic features under your belt. Do you have any particular favorite?
I wish that I did. To this day, people still talk about “Banned From TV.” But there’s so many verses where I still think “damn, I should have held that for myself!” There’s a lot, though. If I had to choose one, I don’t know where I would even start. But I just pride myself on delivering quality work. I’m just glad people appreciate it.