JOELL ORTIZ: ALREADY HOME (INTERVIEW)
Words & Interview By Jake Paine
If you listen to Joell Ortiz’s early solo recordings, you know of the uphill climb. The Brooklyn, New Yorker had devotedly pursued a career in Hip-Hop since before he was Jo-Ell Quickman, in the last great wave of Rawkus Records-distributed 12” singles. Entering the 2000s with a buzz in tow, Ortiz transmitted lyrics with an MC’s flare and a hustler’s conviction, making him a poised voice for the Hip-Hop genre’s increased interest in street-rap by 2005. In the years that followed, everybody from Dr. Dre to Eminem, Kool G Rap to Showbiz heard this skill, uniqueness and honesty, and wanted in.
But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
In the last eight years, Joell has made plenty of songs to tell his own story better than any journalist could. An MC autobiographer, Joell has chronicled the pitfalls, the delays, the doubt, and an industry that again shifted while he was in the on-deck circle, waiting to slug his message. Loopholes, label botchery, and leaks have been a constant threat, even as the fan-base grew, in step with the strong acclaim.
Once remembered as a sharp-tongued reactionary, Joell Ortiz is calm, loquacious, and jovial on a July afternoon. Like the production heard on his new single “House Slippers,” Ortiz is mellow, open, and incredibly pleasant. Laughing at some anecdotes from his journey, the skilled MC points to his House Slippers third album, and is eager to share reflections on his time as a father, a New Yorker, and somebody who’s traveled the world alongside Slaughterhouse. In a lengthy discussion with Crazy Hood, Joell explains the strong significance of his new video single and album of the same name, he discusses the role of radio in his career and earliest ambitions, and he even goes back to a 2002 album appearance alongside a lyrical legend.
By the sound of things on and off the microphone, Joell Ortiz went from a career on deck to truly safe at home.
Crazy Hood: One of my favorite verses of yours was “Move On.” As somebody in the media, I felt like after that song, no matter what, people had to think before asking you – and the rest of Slaughterhouse – these redundant, pestering questions. In the same vein, the single “House Slippers” kind of takes everything leading up to this point and puts it out there like a Wikipedia page. You respect your years of grinding, but culminate it in one single, in a really cool way. How deliberate was it to use this moment that way?
Joell Ortiz: Man, that song was very deliberate. To be honest with you, I just knew that I had took such a hiatus from my solo career with the success of Slaughterhouse over the last few years that I kinda wanted to just answer the questions that I knew were going to be asked. I just felt like the first representation of my project should be something that informs my fan-base and new fans what’s been going on with Joell, as far as his personal life, as far as his career, and just as far as everything.
When I recorded it, everyone in the studio reacted to it so just excited. They were excited about the song, and [reinforced that] it needs to be the first thing people hear from me. I didn’t know whether it was just gonna be someone’s favorite song on the album, or the first thing that went out. When we decided to go with it, I felt really confident about it. I said, if anybody’s wondering or has wondered “is his solo career gonna get back [to where it was] or is it gonna be solely Slaughterhouse?” I just wanted that to go out so they’d understand. No, this has been a while, but I’m back at it. It’s awesome though, because I feel like I got better since I got next to those guys—since I’ve been next to Royce [Da 5’9] and Joe [Budden] and Crooked [I].
I’m in a good place right now, hence the title “House Slippers.” I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been as a solo artist, and I’m just ready for this next ride.
Crazy Hood: Sonically, I’ve never really heard you on a song like that, a beat like that. It fit really well. The fact that it came out the same week of you hoppin’ on Nicki Minaj’s “Pills & Potions,” which was also a very different sound, it all works. Even though over the years, my favorite record of yours is “Battle Cry,” which is far more traditional. Coming afterFree Agent, how did you decide to take a next step with the music matching your positive head-space and accelerated skill?
Joell Ortiz: You what’s crazy? I’ve always liked to get on some of the more personal and emo-sounding stuff, and rap, to be honest with you. Early on in my career, those cuts just didn’t make it, for what was going on in that time in New York. Nah, right now, we’re gonna solely focus on the head-nod. My career kinda got off the ground around the time they were like, “Is Hip-Hop dead?” and “Is New York Hip-Hop dead?” and things like that. So some of the softer records weren’t what we felt was needed. We wanted to push into the forefront of, “Yo, let’s go head-nod! Y’all know what it is! How can Hip-Hop be dead when there’s stuff that exists that sounds like this?” But I’ve always been a fan of gettin’ over on that softer-sounding stuff; I don’t mean “soft,” I just mean lighter—lighter stuff, where you can be the only thing that’s hard about it.
When I got on “Pills & Potions” and stuff like that, to be honest with you, those things are easier than a “Battle Cry.” “Battle Cry” is pickin’ your brain for punchline to punchline, metaphor, ill cadence, delivery, hard on this part…it’s tougher. There’s a lot of scrap paper when you’re putting together stuff like that. But that kind of stuff, like the “House Slippers” and “Pills & Potions” kinda thing, you don’t have to dig for that because it’s very, very in front of your face. Really, it’s right there. You don’t have to look around to come up with stuff.
This time out [with the album], I’m gonna be very in front of your face. It’s gonna be very transparent. It’s gonna be like, “Yo, this is Joell. The growth, the mature kid from New York that has his story to tell. I’ve been traveling so much, I’ve been seeing things. I’m a parent of two boys.” There’s a lot goin’ on, you know what I’m sayin’? I just want [House Slippers] to touch my base and be like, “Aight, cool. This is our guy.”
Crazy Hood: That’s a great segue-way. You mention honesty and in-your-face. Something that I’ve always admired in you is something that I’ve admired in 2Pac, Ghostface Killah, and even your label-mate, Masta Ace. It’s the ability to be confident, but still make fun of yourself, when necessary. Do you see that coming full circle in Hip-Hop again, where people value that vulnerability and intimacy in verses?
Joell Ortiz: Ummm, vulnerability? I’m not so sure that that is ready to come to the forefront…only because of what the younger generation is coming up to, what they’re growing from. Like, the next generation of MCs are 12 and 13, writing their rhymes now. What’s happening now is what they’re growing up to. ‘Cause when you’re a kid and you’re trying to be a rapper or an artist or whatever, the first thing that you think about as success is radio. Like, “Aight, ‘cause when I make it and my song’s on the radio…” It’s always the radio—it’s not even money! When you’re a lil’ kid, it’s just fame. Fame means you made it; “everybody knows who I am because I can rap.” Right? So these kids are listening to the radio, and they’re not growing up to vulnerability. It’s weird. Kids are on the ‘net and they have their favorite artists, or maybe somebody a lil’ older is like, “Yo, you’ve got to check this out,” which could be a me, or somebody else that does come across, like you said, Masta Ace and [2Pac] and dudes like that, but it’s not very easy to access. It’s not common for the 12 and 13 year-olds. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, it’s all on us: the generation now, to shift.
Crazy Hood: It feels like just yesterday that you made the Covers The Classics mixtape, which I loved. At my age, when Def Squad did “Rapper’s Delight,” it made me take a deeper interest in The Sugar Hill Gang. Was that same line of thinking at play for you doing that, especially with your fan-base, showing them to do the knowledge for the experience you had growin’ up as a b-boy?
Joell Ortiz: Ab-solutely! Because it all starts with the music. They pick up the tape; the first thing it says is “Covers the classics.” Bam! Right there, we stuck the word “classics” in there. They want to know, what are the classics? Then they hear their favorite artist, at that time, ripping beats that they might have heard but didn’t really know what is what, or they didn’t hear. That starts the investigation. That starts the doubling back; “Oh, this is Naughty By Nature, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap—Kool G Rap is from Queens? Get out of here!” It starts all of that. It all starts with the music. That’s the best way to do all of that, rather than, “Sit down young man, let me tell you about who Kool G Rap is.” No kid wants to learn that way. It’s gotta come across fun. So when they hear an artist that they’re a fan of, rip something and pay homage, and mention the names of greats that they don’t know about but what to know about, they want to know—because they’re so invested in the person that’s enlightening them. “Damn, Joell said this dude is classic? Aw man.” So when they have their arguments in the barbershop, they can say, “Yo, you heard him rip Big Daddy Kane’s beat?” and feel good about saying it. It’s a fun way to learn, because it’s a listen-and-learn.
Crazy Hood: You said that young rappers’ first desire is fame through radio. Right now, there’s a greater discussion going on about the role of radio, especially in New York. I’m not exactly trying to get directly into that. But with DJ Kay Slay playing material of yours since way back, and Funkmaster Flex tied to your “Sing Like Bilal” video, plus the lines on “House Slippers,” what role has radio played in your career?
Joell Ortiz: Let me tell you somethin’: it’s so crazy ‘cause like, I’ve never had a national [added song to radio]. I’ve never had something that was just playing on every station. I’ve never had Top 40. My radio success was more like Mixshow and relationships with DJs, or just DJs being a fan. There was never no big roll-out on records, believe it or not. I had two independent deals with Koch [Records], and I had a major record deal with Aftermath [Entertainment], but I never put a product out there. I’ve never the machine service a record to radio the proper way. It was always just me being out and about, DJs lovin’ me, or me hittin’ the grind, or me passin’ my joints out outside of the station and things like that. That relationship or that grind led to a few look-out’s here and there. But I will say this: when you get those spins, when people are driving and they hear you on the radio, when people are on their way to work and hear you on the radio, when people are leaving the gym and they hear you on the radio, when people are getting ready to go out and they hear you on the radio, and then one of the joints that that’s played on the radio makes it to the club, you become un-human. Like, something happens. The same thing that you want to happen when you’re 12, like “I made it,” that happens! People go, “Oh snap, that’s Joell Ortiz!” It’s like a stamp of approval: this thing right here is good to go. “This name? This yoawa thing? Yeah, that’s official, and that’s New York.” Now, when I was walkin’ into clubs, promoters—who knew me before, knew I was on my grind, might let me skip the line—but when you get on radio, it packs your shows, and now when you’re in the club, it’s not like, “Yo, you can skip the line,” it’s, “Yo, you need bottles? How many?” Something happens, and you’re validated.
To this day…I just did a “0 To 100 Freestyle,” and HOT 97 has been playing it. It still feels like the first time that I’ve ever been on radio. Something is different when you hear yourself on radio; they just added “House Slippers” to Shade 45. I’m driving and hearing it, like, “Man, this is just a validation!” The same thing you want when you’re 12, you want at 30, bro; I’m being honest with you. Put it like this: radio will always matter to me. It won’t personify [my career], but it will be something that’s important to me. I’m not just in this box where, “Yo, he’s mad super nice, but you gotta dig for him.” Nah.
Crazy Hood: Between Free Agent and House Slippers, in early 2012, you had announced that your third album would be called Yaowa. That all changed, was there a scrapped album and concept along with the title, or this is simply a re-titled LP?
Joell Ortiz: [Laughs] You know what it is? A year-and-a-half, two years ago, it was just an idea. It was just solely in idea form. ‘Cause [The Brick: Bodega Chronicles] did cool, then [Free Agent] leaked and it didn’t sell too well, and people were upset. So I’m just like, “The next one, I’m naming it Yoawa, it’s all me,” and I was just this, “Trust me, y’all, we’re gonna be good,” [mind-state], talking directly to my fan-base. That’s what it felt like. Through all the Slaughterhouse success and running around, I never got a second to get to it.
So after 2012, I did some looking in the mirror. I wanted to lose weight. I just wanted to become a better person. Through that—through losing weight and stop smoking cigarettes and slowed down heavily on drinking, I started seeing things differently. Literally, I started feeling different. It’s like my eyes opened up; it wasn’t so cloudy in that Rock star life. It wasn’t alcohol, and girls in the back of the bus, and things like that. It’s just grown and mature, like, “Yo, you’ve got to do this.” ‘Cause I honestly feel like this is a very important album for me. It took 18 months and I lost almost 100 pounds. I really sat with myself and started learning more things about myself. And then, I just started writing. I wasn’t even recording, I was just writing about my day-to-day, ideas, what I want to do, what I want to accomplish—not even rhymes, just writing and keeping the pen moving. So I’d write a song or two and then [go to record it]. It was very, very, very organic.
The way I came up with House Slippers was, when I listen to the album, I’m not afraid, man. I’m very comfortable with myself. I don’t care what anybody’s gonna think. This is the first time I can honestly say that. I don’t care if they go, “Word? That happened?” or “He’s okay with sayin’ that?” I don’t care! In so many ways, this album is only for me. But I swear it’s gonna be for everybody who feels like me. Once I found my comfortable place as a human being, I wanted to find a name that equated that comfort. When are you most comfortable, Joell? Sitting on my couch, in my house slippers, with the remote in my hand, just doing what I want to do.
I really can’t wait to see what people think. I’m on some good production; [House Slippers] is executive produced by The Heatmakerz. I’m working with !llmind, who I think is a fantastic producer. We all got it! It wasn’t like my past projects where a bunch of producers were comin’ in and whatever beats sounded hard, I rapped on, and if it made it, it made it—and we tried to form a consistent sound. Yo, it was us in there, all together, creating it. They were all Joell for a month-and-a-half. It’s so cool, man! I really feel good about this album. Whether it does a ton of sales or [not], it’s another thing that I absolutely don’t care about. I just want everybody who’s been wondering what’s up with me to tune in, and enjoy the album.
Crazy Hood: What you just said right there makes this next question especially meaningful. I always look back at those introductions, whether it’s Jay Z on “Hawaiian Sophie,” or it’s Nas on “Live At The BBQ,” or whatever. Those moments where someone incredibly important gets their first moment in history. I remember getting your Rawkus singles in the record pools, but your first big appearance was 12 years ago on Kool G Rap’s The Giancana Story. Twelve years later, in the space that you’re in now, how do you reflect on “It’s Nothing” ?
Joell Ortiz: [Chuckles] You know what’s so crazy? The title of that song is “It’s Nothing,” and a song like that is absolutely everything. It’s the first time I was co-signed by somebody who you didn’t have to pay to get a co-sign from. It’s the first time I actually went out on a project—like you said, it’s a single on a Rap album. That songs means a lot to me! When I bump into G Rap, he jokes around with me, “It’s Nothing!” [mimics Kool G Rap’s laughter] Yo, that means a lot. Twelve, 13 years later, man, I’m still out here, bro. That’s how I feel—amongst millions, millions of kids who are trying to do this. I still have a following. I can still announce [a show at] S.O.B.’s today, and sell it tomorrow, ‘cause kids wanna hear what I got to say. I can still do a freestyle and websites pick it up—not because I’m the most paid or most successful or most anything, it’s just, “Yo, every time I see that Joell Ortiz name next to it, I know that guy rhymes well, and I want to hear it.”
I still stand for that same thing. If somebody asked me, “Yo, when it’s all said and done, what do you want people to remember Joell Ortiz for?” I just want them to say, “Yo, he was nice!” That’ll do it for me.
Crazy Hood: Perfect segue-way for my final question. In your career, amidst all of these freestyles, one-offs, appearances, mixtapes, albums, group-work, what is your proudest verse?
Joell Ortiz: Whew! Proudest verse? That’s a crazy question, man! My proudest verse… [Laughs] There’s so many for so many different reasons. I hate to give that corny answer, but really, that’s really, really how I feel. I mean, there’s a song called “Finale,” a part of my 125 series, yeah. That one hits home when I listen back to that one. I didn’t even know, at the time, that I was writing to myself. I didn’t even know that I was being my own therapist, I was just being how I felt. But now, I listen to it, and I realize that that song about what I was ready to do and what I felt like doing is exactly why I didn’t do it: why I didn’t give up rhyming, why I contemplated suicide, and why I was so angry that I couldn’t get a deal. That song didn’t let me give up. So I rhymed about giving up on just about everything that you could possibly give up in life. That song means a lot to me.
I even liked the “[Outta] Control” verse. [Chuckles] Like, for what it meant at that time. It was a reminder, “Hold up, now, careful with [mentioning you’re the king of New York].” Shouts to Kendrick [Lamar] for inspiring that. For an MC to get riled up, it can only work if an MC gets them riled up. I respected him enough to respond to his comment. But, I went on tour in Canada after that and they were just “Do ‘Control’!” It was just what Joell stands for: I feel like I’m one of the elitest, and not in a cocky, ”I’m the man” kinda way. It’s just that, yo, I work hard to really remain good. I’m gonna remind everybody that every time I get a chance to.
Jake Paine has been a music industry professional since 2002. In addition to five years as HipHopDX.com’s Editor-in-Chief, Paine spent five years as AllHipHop’s Features Editor. He has written for Forbes, XXL, The Source, Mass Appeal, among others. He currently resides in his hometown of Pittsburgh.