Marking the 25th anniversary of the supergroup’s lone project — The Firm: The Album — Boardroom explores the woes and what-ifs of Nas, Foxy Brown, Nature, Dr. Dre, and more.
Based on sheer scope of achievement, few American authors hold a candle to either John Grisham or Nasir Jones.
Grisham, an ex-lawyer with seven years in the Mississippi House of Representatives to his name, traded in politics for the pen when a court case inspired what became A Time to Kill.
At first, the pivot proved fruitless as most publishers rejected his entry into the fiction space.
Undeterred, his second book, The Firm, proved an instant classic.
Acclaimed by The New York Times and occupying best-seller status for 47 weeks straight, Hollywood quickly came calling, turning the sophomore effort into a movie and casting Tom Cruise as its star.
The Firm film made $270 million at the box office, and along the way, it earned the interest of an avid reader and film fan working on his own writing career.
In 1993, Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, was finishing his first project much like Grisham was several years prior.
Like Grisham, Nas used his real-life experience to inform his storytelling.
Also like Grisham, his debut release was at first deemed a failure commercially, but garnered smashing acclaim critically.
Unlike Grisham, however, Nas was facing higher sort of pressure at the time as it related to his writerly success and ability to sell.
After 1994’s transcendent Illmatic, Nas embraced the Escobar persona on songs like Mobb Deep’s “Eye for an Eye” and Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse.”
Though his autobiographical work was acclaimed by critics, it would be his mafioso-inspired sonic screenplays that would crack the commercial code.
By 1996, Nas had recruited The Trackmaster to produce It Was Written, an ambitious second album that took big swings at pop plays but still told stories that mirrored Martin Scorsese.
Whether rapping from the perspective of a gun or envisioning a utopian society with Lauryn Hill, the new approach landed him amongst the best-selling artists in all of hip-hop.
Amidst the album’s recording, a concept occurred: just as Biggie had Junior M.A.F.I.A., Nas, too could build his own crew or collective. This assembled set could create a new world for stories, sportswear, and mafioso music videos.
It was to be called The Firm — a direct nod to Grisham’s bestselling book and cinematic smash.
Cast in his masterpiece would be a mix of local artists on the cusp and living legends in the making. The role of femme fatale would be played by Foxy Brown, while Illmatic affiliate AZ would take on a supporting character. And amplifying it all would be none other than Dr. Dre.
Previously, Dre produced “Nas is Coming” on It Was Written during the height of the East Coast vs. West Coast beef. While neither party starred in the warfare itself, both were revered as the top talents in all of hip-hop where production and penmanship were concerned.
Pairing the two titans had the potential to be polarizing and prolific. Through the grandiose guidance of The Trackmaster and Steve Stoute, The Firm could crush coast to coast and be the biggest brand in hip-hop.
“I saw the future being albums, tours, Firm athletic wear,” Nas told Complex in 2016.
As a teaser, It Was Written offered “Affirmative Action,” an introduction to The Firm’s first formal lineup. The album version featured Foxy, AZ, and Cormega.
Even more aspirational, Nas enlisted French hip-hop band Suprême NTM for a remixed music video in an attempt to connect with an international audience.
While all those efforts impressed, alternative scenes were shot for The Firm’s first formal forays. Namely, other co-stars were considered for rapping roles, which in hindsight could have changed the entire scope.
“We had been trying different members out,” Trackmasters producer Tone told Complex. “We had 50 Cent in it for a little while. It just didn’t work out, though we made a record.”
Yes, years before 50 Cent exploded with Eminem and Dr. Dre behind him, he was set to be a member of Nas’s original supergroup.
“It was 50, Nas, and Nature,” Trackmasters producer Poke told Complex. “Mary J. Blige was going to be a part of The Firm too at one time. She came in, we entertained it. She did a record with us and Nas that we put out with.”
In 1997, The Firm album almost featured 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, and other eventual top sellers all alongside Nas and Dr. Dre.
“N.O.R.E. slipped in there, Mobb Deep,” Poke continued. “We made it a real Queens thing. That’s why we tried to put 50, because 50 was from Queens as well.”
While The Firm didn’t have 50, it was backed by Aftermath and Interscope. Because of this, The Firm album had the chance to be even bigger than the book and movie of the same title.
Over the course of 1996 and into 1997, the various members of the supergroup began piecing together the concept album. The only problem was the pieces rarely fit together. Cormega left the group and was replaced by Nature. Foxy missed flights and thus missed studio time, making the recording process both brief and patchy.
“When we were doing that record, it was a lot of problems in the studio,” Dr. Dre told Tim Westwood in 2000. “I only spent maybe four days in the studio with the artists and we were supposed to make a whole album within four days.”
Though the scene-to-scene synergy was missing as The Firm: The Album was pieced together, it did all make for one artistic apex: “Phone Tap.”
With beats by Dre and bars by Nas, AZ, and Nature, the sonic storytelling was everything Esco could’ve dreamed of.
What it wasn’t, however, was the album’s first single.
Rather, that distinction went to the radio-reaching “Firm Biz,” an En Vogue-assisted crossover attempt backed by a big-budget Hype Williams video. Failing to be embraced by the commercial crowd it strongly sought, The Firm was deemed over before it got a chance ever truly to begin.
“Do you know how many people would have ran out to buy that album if the first thing they heard was that song?” producer Chris “The Glove” Taylor told AllHipHop in 2012 in reference to “Phone Tap.”
Due to mismarketing and tough travel schedules heightened by hip-hop’s brewing coastal beef, The Firm failed to achieve any of its lofty aspirations. It was critically panned and commercially crushed, only going gold in Canada despite a star-studded cast.
Though the missed opportunity brought The Firm quickly to an end, all members of the group quickly landed on their feet. Firmly.
Steve Stoute and The Trackmasters bounced back almost instantly, releasing Will Smith’s Big Willie Style a month later. The crossover album spawned a slew of hit singles and went 9x platinum in the US, earning plaques on three different continents.
Behind the scenes, Nas received writing and publishing credits on Big Willie Style. In the limelight, he made his official cinematic crossover a year later in the Hype Williams-directed Belly.
Foxy Brown went on to release Chyna Doll to platinum sales success, while both Nature and AZ benefitted from Trackmasters production on their subsequent solo efforts.
Perhaps the biggest winner, however, was Dr. Dre. While The Firm felt like another low point after leaving Death Row and dropping another criticized compilation, the moment set him up for a sharp left. Months after The Firm flopped, Dre was introduced to an unorthodox emcee inspired by Nas and AZ: A Detroit kid named Marshall Mathers.
25 years later, it’s hard to imagine there are any hard feelings over The Firm. In fact, the group reunited on 2020’s King’s Disease, the first solo effort from Nas ever to win the Grammy Award for Rap/Hip-Hop Album of the Year.
Still, one has to wonder just how huge The Firm could’ve been had 50 Cent been cast in the Escobar screenplay or if “Phone Tap” had indeed served as the first single.
“We had all those meetings and shit,” Nas told Complex in 2016. “But the politics of this manager, that manager, this label, that label—it just got in the way of what I thought could’ve been huge.”
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