Zilla Rocca rolls with a Eric Snow bobblehead on the dash
What continues to fascinate me about The Firm, the failed supergroup I’ve covered before that solely existed to get Steve Stoute and Trackmasters multiple summer homes, can be boiled down to three bullet points:
If you shook hands with Steve Stoute and Trackmasters in ’96-‘97, you were popping up on a Firm song. What started as a calculated conglomerate between three successful solo artists became a very real and potentially powerful clique like the 2010 Miami Heat. But what separated the Heat from the Firm is a salary cap and limited roster space. Here is a list of artists who were members of or extensively linked to The Firm at one point: Nas. AZ. Foxy Brown. Cormega. Nature. Dr. Dre. Noreaga. Mary J Blige. Femme Fatale. Pretty Boy. Half-a-Mill. Canibus. Jungle. Wizard. DJ Clue. This would be like if the 2010 Miami Heat was The Big Three and then Zach Randloph, Paul Pierce, Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Richard Dumas, Vin Baker, Paul Westphal, and Moochie Norris.
The Firm was allegedly a super group, but in reality was just a production company to leech off newer artists (Cormega, Nature, Nore, etc) and to funnel production money back to Trackmasters, since they did the bulk of Nas, Foxy, and AZ’s albums before and after this album. By the last two cuts, Nas and Foxy are long gone; both only appear a combined ten times on the 18 song album. The album ends and you’re not sure who exactly is in the group. No one was invested in making this album great, just getting paid off its blockbuster leads.
What The Firm delivered on mixtapes and what the final major label retail album delivered where two completely different philosophies. Guess which one sucked – you don’t even need the Dr. Dre line on “Forgot About Dre” to get it right (and he was a huge culprit in his own right). The mixtape joints showcased the winning formula: Super Rap Friends go in on block party jams from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This was the also the winning formula of major label rap in the late ‘90s, spearheaded by Trackmasters and Puffy’s Hitmen production team. Who doesn’t want to hear Nas, AZ, Foxy, and Cormega get busy over Marley Marl’s “The Symphony”? How about Nas, Noreaga, Nature, and Mary J Blige (along with who-in-the-hell-is-Femme Fatale) rapping over Kool G Rap & Polo’s classic “Road to the Riches”?
These are the kind of records Puffy was pumping out that radio played nonstop. And yet, when it was time for an album, The Firm let Dr. Dre, the least fun producer post-Death Row, become Lead Production Antiseptic. “Phone Tap” is great and “Five Minutes to Flush” is decent, but you know what isn’t? “Firm Fiasco”, “Firm Family”, and “Fuck Somebody Else”. This was the dawn of Dr. Dre becoming the OCD clinician of rap beats – everything was played live, mixed down for absolute cleanliness and polish, with no joy to be found anywhere. Say what you will about Shiny Suit Era Puffy, but those songs still get the ‘90s Throwback Party CRACKING!
Cuban Linx was a concept album. The Firm – The Album was a marketing gimmick. Wu-Tang was the original Marvel Cinematic Universe, building up each release, strictly working in mapped out phases under the vision of The RZA, creating a stranglehold on the music industry that had never existed before. The Firm was DC rushing to keep up by taking quick shortcuts and following an established guideline for dominance. Unlike Method Man, ODB, and Raekwon, Nas, AZ, and Foxy Brown were already household names before their clique existed. The retail album is heavily indebted to Only Built for Cuban Linx/Mafioso rap, from the Scorcese/Godfather themed album cover to the skits that ape Goodfellas.
After the fifth song “Executive Decision”, The Firm – The Album becomes a sloppy compilation album, even with several serious Spanish guitar laced beats that signify “cinematic shit right here.” The problem with The Firm was that the mixtape songs were gleeful rounds of one-upsmanship on records everyone grew up on, and the album was trying to make everyone rich, doing what Wu-Tang already had done better. Steve Stoute was like the RZA if the RZA wasn’t in Wu-Tang, but still assembled the Clan and took a good chunk of the cash. You can understand why Cormega backed out from signing to Trackmasters, who were managed by Steve Stoute – clear conflict of interest.
The Firm was really the New Juice Crew – hell, most of the songs I’m compiling are built around the Firm rapping over Marley Marl classics. With all of that to consider, there is still a great Firm album out there to be compiled. And that’s what I’m doing here, based on the outstanding songs from multiple releases which should’ve been directed towards the LP following the blueprint I mentioned above: listening to a group of exceptional rappers go to town on old school records.
#1 “La Familia” (Original version) Foxy Brown, Nature, Nas, AZ
This song originally featured Cormega and appeared on the B-Side to Foxy’s “I’ll Be”. It’s a solid, midtempo intro where the core members set the table. And it segues perfectly into the next joint.
#2 “Holy Matrimony (Letter to the Firm)” Foxy Brown
Nas and AZ didn’t appear on Foxy’s Def Jam debut Ill Na Na, but this song, where Foxy just promotes the ever living shit out of their supergroup, does. I’m putting it on The Firm album because it’s produced by The Trackmasters and flips the famous “Ike’s Theme” used by Marley Marl. It’s an appropriate intro to The Firm aesthetic of rapping on block party shit from Queens.
#3 “Welcome to the Firm” Nas, Mary J Blige, Femme Fatale, Nature, Noreaga
When you create a universe, it doesn’t matter who shows up as long as the universe is vivid, and that’s what this album is doing – the universe of The Firm is wealth, expensive clothes, slick talk, disco/R&B records, and mafia references. But it’s also flashy, fun, and vibrant. The excessive guests aren’t out of line compared to the number Wu-Tang Killa Beez that have popped up on essential Wu records. The energy on this song smashes 80% of the curated stale retail album. Hearing Nore flip KRS-One’s patois is as good as Nas and Nature blacking out over the Billy Joel sampling “Road to the Riches” by Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, also produced by Marley Marl.
#4 “Affirmative Action Remix” Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, Cormega
First appearing on the B-Side to Nas’ “Street Dreams”, the remix to “Affirmative Action” was the last time Cormega would ever appear on a Firm record. So why not place a song remaking Marley Marl’s “The Symphony” after 2 songs that flip Juice Crew classics? Done and done. Having Cormega only appear on one song is like U-God getting “killed off” after “Knuckleheadz” on Cuban Linx, never to appear again. The Firm was so dope that they ditched Cormega, one of the most successful indie artists ever, and replaced him with an unknown in Nature, who then became a DJ Clue endorsed mixtape god and had a classic moment on “Banned From TV”.
#5 “How Ya Livin” AZ & Nas
Taken from the bootlegged and heavily delayed sophomore AZ album, Pieces of a Man, “How Ya Livin” is built off the uber-Queens smoothness of LES, who previously handled “Life’s a Bitch.” Foxy had a solo joint earlier, Nas and AZ go back to back like they did on the Sprite commercial and “Mo Money Mo Murder.” The Glenn Jones sample “Show Me” peaked at #3 on the R&B charts in 1983, so it perfectly fits in the Firm universe of gangster mafia shit over jheri curl activator beats.
#6 “Everyday Thing” Nas, Nature, Dr. Dre
Sometimes you have to stomach a Nas-penned rhyme for Dr. Dre in order to hear Nas and Nature rap over Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love”. As they said in The Nice Guys, “You’re expecting an angel and you get Richard Nixon”. Fine. Naturally, this was too good to end up on the retail album. I can blame Nas or Dr. Dre because they both love vaulting their best shit.
#7 “Desperados 2” Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, Canibus, Nature
On the retail version, this song was about keeping Canibus’ buzz up. The retail version also didn’t feature Nas and Fox beyond some. “Desperados 2” begins the spanish guitar suite of the album. That sound lacks the Juice Crew 2 vibes, however the quality of these joints are still ridiculous.
#8 “Phone Tap” Nas, AZ, Nature, Dr. Dre
I used to rap with this dude who tried to tell me he was a member of a Kung Fu stunt team, and that his claim to fame was being the guy who jumped off the fire escape and flipped over the hood of a taxi in the rain in this video. What a fucking asshole – who takes time to make up a lie like that?
#9 “I’m Leaving” Noreaga and Nature
So at this point, Nore is basically in The Firm. He fits THIS version of the Firm because it’s full of more colorful and bouncy records. This joint hit way harder with people than “Firm Biz” or “Phone Tap” so of course it wasn’t a single. The mistake of the retail album is that no songs were as good or as memorable as this, and it doesn’t feature Nas, AZ, or Foxy. Nature and Nore created an underrated chemistry after this song – check their “Queensbridge 2 LeFrak” mixtape for the full catalogue of collabos.
#10 “The Welcoming” Nas, Nature, AZ
Mary J Blige isn’t in this Firm, even though this song is Nas, Nate, and AZ rapping over Jimmy Spicer’s “Dollar Bill Y’all” as a recruiting pitch to the Queen of Hip Hop Soul or whatever her title used to be. This song further proves that The Firm was built to make Steve Stoute and Trackmasters Fuck You Money, as Steve managed Mary, started a non-profit with her, and then had her doing a minstrel show type of commercial for KFC that was pulled. Fuck Steve Stoute.
#11 “Firm Biz Remix” Half-a-Mill, Nature, AZ, Foxy Brown, Nas feat Dawn Robinson
Back to the block party to close out the album: Malcolm McLaren’s “World Famous” is ripped by the crew, plus AZ’s protégé Half-a-Mill, who would’ve been a great extended Firm fam member if he didn’t get killed (RIP). Appearing on the “Phone Tap” twelve inch, this joint smokes the original, which had Foxy Brown in the video topless with hundred dollar bills covering her nipples as the lone saving grace. This is a rollerskating jam that your kid sister would’ve gotten behind in 1997. And this song, freed from Dr. Dre’s clutches, from Steve Stoute and Trackmaster’s conniving pyramid schemes, exists to show why I still can’t get over what could’ve been from a crew that went platinum, but still blew it, almost twenty years ago.