Establishing yourself as a new artist while building a buzz in the hip-hop industry without the Internet is no easy feat. Doing so as a female in a genre dominated by men during one of its renaissance periods is simply improbable.
But between 1995 and 1996, Foxy Brown did just that, and she put together one of the more eventful entrances into the rap game. Creating momentum and fanfare via remixes and guest appearances, her campaign would culminate with the release of her debut album, Ill Na Na, in November of 1996. After its release, it was considered one of the hottest albums of the year, and thrust Foxy Brown into superstardom. A platinum plaque would quickly follow, as would her coronation as one of rap’s leading ladies — but to truly appreciate the impact of Ill Na Na, you’d have to trace back to Foxy Brown’s humble beginnings in Brooklyn.
Raised in the Park Slope section of the borough by her mother, a Trinidadian school teacher, Foxy Brown (born Inga Marchand) may not have lived among the roaches, rats, and pissy elevators, but gravitated to life in the concrete jungle as a teen. “There was something that intrigued me about the projects,” Foxy recalled in an interview. “I didn’t come from that. I grew up in Park Slope in a brownstone. I used to go to my girlfriends’ houses in East NY and BedStuy after school (when I was like 14) and there would be the guys parked on the corner in the Mercedes 190 E. With the mesh tank tops. That’s the scene I would go to and that would be my escape.”
Although she would be drawn by the allure of the criminal element and illegal lifestyle, Foxy quickly realized that her goals and ambitions stretched further than the dope infested corners, avenues, and boulevards surrounding her. “All my friends were in the park smoking weed and getting pregnant,” she says. “I didn’t want to be the young black girl having a baby, a baby’s father, being on welfare. That wasn’t going to be my story. I wanted to be a criminal-justice attorney.”
While those plans to shake up the justice system for the better wouldn’t pan out, she did find her path out of the hood through the art of rhyme. Although only fourteen at the time, Foxy displayed an innate talent for putting together raps, capturing the attention of her family and friends, but it would be her more gutter musings that separated her from the pack.
With associates ranging from DJ Clark Kent to Tone of the production duo Trackmasters all taking notice of the promising spitter, the wheels began to be put in motion for her transformation from Inga Marchand to Foxy Brown. “My parents are from Trinidad, we didn’t even listen to hip-hop like that. DJ Clark Kent was like family to me. He was my cousin’s best friend, and they used to always be cutting, playing records. Tone from Trackmasters lived next door to us, and we were all family, and I was the little sister to everyone. I was writing little rhymes, but always going hardcore.”
Originally rhyming under the name Big Shorty, Foxy inked her first record deal with Capitol Records, but would change her name to AKA before being unceremoniously dropped from the label. After being turned down by Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records and back at square one, she official assumed the name Foxy Brown and headed back to the drawing board, but this go-round would come with a breakthrough. Chris Lighty, then CEO of Violator Records, would co-conspire with Tone from Trackmasters and Steve Stoute to covertly add one of Foxy Brown’s verses to the end of LL Cool J’s 1995 single, “I Shot Ya.”
“There was a big thing about putting Foxy Brown on the record,” Tone said in an interview with Complex. “They were like, ‘We’re not putting no new artists on the record.’ Until she went in the booth and spit and they were like, ‘Holy shit, we gotta keep her on this record!’ That spawned Foxy.” Trackmasters producer Poke also recalls “I Shot Ya” prompting the recording of what would be Foxy Brown’s debut album, Ill Na Na. “when she got on the beat and murdered it, everybody was like, ‘Yo, this is it.’” he says. “So we did the Def Jam deal and then immediately we started on that record. Everybody knew that we had to seize the opportunity because this was the record that was gonna launch her.”
LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” turned out to be one of the hottest records of late 1995 and would continue to keep listeners asking “who that chick on the last verse was” for months on end, but little did they know that they would soon be more than familiar. Following up her performance on “I Shot Ya” with appearances on Total’s “No One Else (Puff Daddy Remix),” Case’s “Touch Me Tease Me,” a remix of Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin Me High,” and two appearances on Nas’ sophomore album, Illmatic, Foxy Brown’s status would skyrocket, making her one of the hottest acts in rap without even having an album out.
An intense bidding war ensued, which included major players like Russell Simmons, Sylvia Rhone, Andre Harrell, and even Puffy, who had previously declined to sign her, vying for her services. Eventually Fox chose to roll with Simmons and Def Jam Records. She was already riding high off of her slew of guest verses, but it would be her appearance on Jay Z’s “Ain’t No Ni**a” that would go down as the crown jewel of Foxy Brown’s career pre-Ill Na Na.
Recorded for The Nutty Professor soundtrack, Foxy, who was the more popular artist at the time, played a huge part in raising Jay Z’s own profile and credibility in the mainstream — while continuing to build momentum for the release of her highly-anticipated debut.
Released on November 19, 1996, Ill Na Na debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and would be deemed one of the biggest debuts in rap of the year. Led by tracks like the Jay Z assisted single “I’ll Be” and “Get Me Home” featuring R&B group Blackstreet, the album quickly moved over one million units and was certified platinum within months, making Foxy Brown a bonafide star. In addition to the sales figures and accolades, Ill Na Na cemented Foxy Brown as the chic counterpart to friend turned foe Lil Kim, who released her own debut, Hard Core, a week before Ill Na Na, with a more gruff sound, which Trackmaster producer Tone readily admits. “Our whole thing was that we tried to make her Foxy Brown—the uptempo sexy bi**h. That’s what we wanted to make her, the hard, uptempo bi**h.”
Ill Na Na may have been intended to be an all-out glossy affair, but in hindsight, it contains more gritty musings than unabashed sexual innuendo. Selections like “(Holy Matrimony) Letter to The Firm,” in which she pledges her allegiance to the members of the eventual supergroup The Firm, which would release their eponymous answer to Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Conspiracy, in 1997. Havoc of Mobb Deep brings a ghastly aspect to “The Promise,” while Foxy goes for dolo on “If I…” and “No One’s,” two other songs that speak to Ill Na Na’s substance.
In the aftermath of the LP’s release, Foxy Brown would continue to shine, releasing her sophomore album Chyna Doll, duplicating the success of Ill Na Na and stamping her as one of the most successful female solo rappers of the decade.
Although industry red tape and personal issues would throw her career off track during the aughts, Foxy Brown’s standing as one of the greatest hip-hop artists, male or female, of her time cannot be taken away, and Ill Na Na will forever be the album that marked her rise to fame.