The content you find on RapReviews.com is very much driven by its contributors. They decide what they want to review, it’s that simple. That explains our sometimes peculiar choices and untimely programming and it explains this review. “Gesammelte Werke” is a 2009 career retrospective for German rap crew Die Firma. Physical copies are rare, suggesting that it wasn’t expected to be a bestseller to begin with. Neither is it currently available on digital platforms. Nevertheless the group was part of German hip-hop’s early advance into the commercial market and deserves to be remembered as an act embodying the distinct convergence of pop rap and true school hip-hop in Germany of the later ’90s and early ’00s.
Like their short-lived namesake in the United States (helmed by hip-hop legend Nas), the choice of name may have partly been influenced by early ’90s bestseller ‘The Firm’ by John Grisham and the following screen adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, but more accurately the name Die Firma paraphrased the kind of underworld organization that would craftily circumscribe its affairs with the language of business. In German, ‘Firma’ would be more akin to the English universal term ‘company’. It might also have simply stood for ‘family’.
Consisting of two rappers and one producer/DJ, the capo of the crew (or company) would have been the latter, a dedicated hip-hop enthusiast and activist named Fader Gladiator (who happened to have an Italian parent). He had the experience and connections, having been part of a number of projects during the first period of recorded rap music in Germany between 1991 and 1995, and even releasing a solo album in 1996 by the title of “Der Profi” (‘The Pro’) – whose only vocal track, “Der Todeskuss” (‘The Kiss of Death’) served as Die Firma’s formal introduction by starring MC’s Tatwaffe and Def Benski. During 1997 (the year the aforementioned Firm released its only album on the other side of the Atlantic) they gathered on a couple of compilations and guest spots before officially debuting with their first full-length in 1998 on Fader Gladiator’s LaCosaMia label.
“Gesammelte Werke” (‘Collected Works’) revisits the Cologne crew’s career chronologically, opening with a well-attended general meeting titled “Aktionäre” (‘Shareholders’), which shows German rap’s early ’90s collectivism to be ready for the corporate world, featuring members of groups such as LSD, Stieber Twins, Äi-Tiem, STF, RAG and DCS who, over a panoramic, steadily proceeding beat, drop plenty of pop culture and business and financial references, bringing it back to hip-hop in the hook by claiming to ‘invest on Beat Street’.
Die Firma’s 1998 debut longplayer “Spiel des Lebens/Spiel des Todes” (‘Game of Life/Game of Death’) already displayed all facets of their brand of rap music. Specifically Fader’s movie soundtrack approach to the production, their goal to pursue success with an anti-materialistic frame of mind, their urge to find upliftment amid human despair, their penchant for mythical and historical symbols, for philosophical-conceptual songs and for figurative language that goes beyond your average rapper’s vocabulary.
It’s interesting to note that especially Tatwaffe regularly inserts bits from what you could call the conspiracy theory cosmos, and while such games of make-believe are currently favored by the right-wing milieu, not so long ago such thoughts were also entertained by people on the left (usually – but not always – without the blatant anti-Semitism), last but not least in rap music.
“Nachricht aus Utopia” (‘Message From Utopia’) is an ambitious song that also bears these markers. Def Benski hopes to save the utopia he describes from the destructive force known as mankind, while his partner in rhyme is already living under the New World Order, his report from the future at this point outdated to the extent that today’s facial recognition systems don’t require the barcode tattoos on the forehead that he imagines. But it wouldn’t be a Firma song without an optimistic spin, as they let us know it’s not too late to change the course of history. That’s also the message of one of their most recognizable singles, one which interpolates Mozart and features popular German reggae singer Gentleman, but notably also closes with a very consciously chosen Melle Mel quote from “Beat Street Breakdown” who reminded his 1984 audience that “the future of the world is in your hands”.
“Das Neue Jahrtausend” (‘The New Millennium’), released on the eve of Y2K, too features some of today’s ubiquitous conspiracy ingredients, but it doesn’t vilify scientific progress and predicts the future, for instance our pandemic present, quite accurately with the image of teens partying together across their laptops. Benski envisions scenarios that could have been inspired by ‘Waterworld’ and ‘Dante’s Peak’, but you can easily connect them to climate change – a topic that was only slightly less pressing 20 years ago.
Another staple are self-mythologizing tracks that build the Firma legend, ironically applying similar clandestine strategies as the dark forces they claim rule the world in inaugural address “Die Firma” and other songs in that vein. Finally, there’s the private, family-friendly trio who scored one of German hip-hop’s most notorious crossover hits of the 2000s with platinum single “Die Eine 2005”. The song, which is about finding your soulmate, had already appeared on their debut. Both versions interpolate the same classical chords, initially introduced to rap music in 1997 by Coolio f. 40 Thevz’s “C U When U Get There”. These songs undoubtedly rubbed some hardcore supporters the wrong way, and from a critical standpoint they are too sentimental and simplistic to merit attention. At the same time it has to be acknowledged that in such moments Die Firma get off their apocalyptic horses and take a break from their action-packed adventures to become human, and it was only logical that 2007’s “Wunder” (‘Wonder’) would add a newborn to the family portrait.
Bound by commercial ambitions and a commitment to hip-hop values at the same time, Die Firma was destined to get itself in certain predicaments. In its original version (not included here), “Scheiss auf die Hookline” (‘Fuck a Hook’) was a forceful rebuke of industry standards to a banging beat carried by hymnic pianos and celestial vocals straight from the RZA playbook, but the smooth disco funk remix that made “Gesammelte Werke” almost makes a mockery of the middle finger gesture. And it does seem a little bit hypocritical when your debut single states that you ‘don’t copy America’ but this review already mentioned Coolio, RZA and The Firm while later, mid-’00s material evokes names like Dame Grease or Just Blaze. But it is perhaps any non-American rap act’s fate that US hip-hop history is a bottomless pit of reference points. (For the record, the trio maintains that Die Firma predated The Firm.)
And yet harping on about a few questionable or unoriginal musical choices and self-imposed artistic dilemmas would do Die Firma a great disservice. What we’re dealing with here is an extraordinary European hip-hop enterprise who decided to take a literary and cinematic approach to making rap records and despite crossover success maintained hip-hop credibility. There is an idea behind this group, it quickly became a recognizable brand and eventually evolved into one of the defining rap acts of its time.
Def Benski plays impulsive sidekick to Tatwaffe’s verbose, authorative proclamations. Tatwaffe (roughly translating to ‘weapon used in a crime’), who is still active today, is arguably one of Deutschland’s most distinct MC’s, a sober, rational lyricist with pin-point aim. In the delivery, there’s perhaps a modicum too much deliberate masculinity and accidental Teutonic seriousness, still you can immediately tell the MC. Ditto for the writing.
Even though a handful of German rap groups of their generation may ultimately be more critically certified, Die Firma daringly explored the possibilities of thoughtful hip-hop with tracks such as “Wenn Ich Meine Augen Schliess…” (‘When I Close My Eyes…’), which is about the power of imagination and freedom of expression, “Im Nebel der Geschichte” (‘In the Mists of History’), a discourse on Christian history and mysteries, or science-fiction storytelling with a message like “Die Dunkle Seite des Mondes” (‘The Dark Side of the Moon’) and “Die Neue Welt” (‘The New World’).
Not their greatest hit but the one that sums up their legacy is “Kap der Guten Hoffnung’ (‘Cape of Good Hope’). The 1999 single celebrates hope as a fundamental motto of humanity across nautical metaphors. For whatever reason, US rap largely passed on the opportunity to engage in this kind of allegorical, universally philosophical songwriting. By the same token, the related “Glücksprinzip” (‘The Happiness Principle’) does require rappers who admit to being privileged, and this to cheerful pop funk. Who in America would have fit that bill?
But if there exists a moment of truth for an artist, where they can realize their raison d’être, when it’s time to lay it all on the table, accomplishments and aspirations, Tatwaffe and crew met that challenge with “Kein Ende in Sicht” (‘No End in Sight’), a momentous masterpiece recorded in the aftermath of 9/11. Beginning with an introduction just short of a ‘Told you so’ (“Und jetzt wisst ihr, warum unsere Alben so düster waren…”: ‘And now you know why our albums were so grim…’), Tatwaffe calls upon everybody to withstand bigotry and extremism. Although lamenting the futility of writing enlightening rap songs and also retracting the key statement of ‘Cape of Good Hope’ (‘It’s not enough to hope’), he delivers one hell of a humanist message.
A witness to Die Firma being a full-blown rap unit, Fader Gladiator produces most of their music. Some of the best beats here are minimalist arrangements (like the faintly sparkling “Die Dunkle Seite des Mondes”), but there are also epic tapestries, creating the musical blueprint for internationally renowned hip-hop producers Snowgoons, see the midtempo “Kampf Der Titanen” (‘Clash of the Titans’) where cello strings set the pace, or the instrumental “Circus Maximus” off his 2001 producer album “Der Innere Kreis”. But it probably takes a b-boy past to handle the heavy rock guitars of “Bang Your Head”, which definitely lives up to its title and U-God sample. He also does retro dancefloor grooves, heard here for instance on tracks with affiliate Nesti. 2005’s “Spiel Des Lebens” (‘Game of Life’) mashes ’60s, ’70s and ’80s samples/interpolations into a furious electro funk update. Yet another example of how Die Firma were not adverse to enjoying life yet took the time to think about it at the same time.
As is likely the case with future endeavors on the part of RapReviews.com to cover historical European rap acts, “Gesammelte Werke” is simply a pretense to say something about Die Firma. As with any compilation, some selections make more sense than others, but one clear positive for the few in possession of a hard copy is that it also covers guest appearances (the street-certified “Für die Strassen” or the collosal slide show “Von Anfang An”) and solo projects. Die Firma would release one more album a year later and is now part of history in a fast-moving genre that doesn’t care all that much about the past. Fader Gladiator, Tatwaffe and Def Benski were rap advocates and to a certain point even rap aristocrats who held on to certain customs and standards. Nevertheless they left some hip-hop dogmas behind and managed to become masters of their own universe, an effort that span twelve years and six albums. Failure and success were sometimes close to each other, but with a holistic view, mythological and futuristic decor and enough quality control hip-hop style, they were gatekeepers who welcomed those that may under different circumstances not have joined the party, or the lecture.