I can’t say I remember how I came across Joell Ortiz. I just know one day, his album The Brick: Bodega Chronicles was in my playlist and I’ve been a fan since. To me, Joell is the embodiment of the New York City Public Housing experience – something I can identify with growing up myself in the Projects/PJs (what we call New York City Housing Authority – NYCHA/Public Housing). Since that album, Joell has bounced from label to label, put out a ton of music, and become a member of the hip-hop super group Slaughterhouse, and once again a solo artist, with a new album on a new label, and finally – in his own words – comfortable with himself. I managed to catch up with him after a chance run in at WNYU with Raury and once again at his Sweet Chick listening party. After a recording session with The Heatmakerz at Diamond District Studios, we sat and discussed
PETE PABON: Can you introduce yourself?
JOELL ORTIZ: What’s up, it’s your boy Joell Ortiz, Brooklyn’s own. Yeah, I’m from Brooklyn, I’m a hip-hop artist, MC, writer, music guy, and all the above; that’s what I am.
Cooper Projects right?
Yeah, 13 buildings, Greenpoint Brooklyn, that’s what shaped me, that’s what made me who I am.
What was the first album or song that made you say, “This is what I want to do”? Especially since “Music Saved My Life.”
One of the first albums that I really, really loved was Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt to be honest with you. It was the first time I got super excited about being nice. Like, yo, see how you could slick talk and still put together concepts. See how you can talk the way you want to talk and reflect who you are but still keep that pure rawness.
I feel like with Reasonable Doubt Jay Z was real pure – got every bit of Brooklyn out of that guy. At that time that’s when I was so excited, I remember having a sample tape like, “Who is this? What is this? I want in.” So that’s probably one of the first albums.
You’re described as a lyricist and once said in cyphers when you were younger other MCs would say, “Sounds nice for a Puerto Rican.” Do you still feel that’s the case given the state of hip-hop and music and how it is now?
I think I chipped away at that wall enough now to where it’s like – if there is somebody out there, it’s like this big [holds up fingers] really little. Yeah, because I’m received as a hip-hop artist now, now it’s valid. It’s like, “Joell Ortiz is hip-hop, he’s a hip-hop guy. He’s just Puerto Rican.” It’s a sound thing and it always should’ve been a sound thing to be honest with you.
When you look different, people act different. When you aren’t the same they’re not the same. It’s just the way of the world so it took a little bit more time for me to be more welcomed with the masses. My peers are predominantly African American and you get a sprinkle of white in there with your Ems and your Mac Millers and MGK, a couple of guys, Macklemore; but it’s predominantly black.
Even though I feel like, in many ways, Latins were there in the beginning breakdancing and doing things of that nature and being a part of it. So I feel in today’s day I don’t think I get, “He sounds nice for a Puerto Rican,” anymore. I think I might just get, “He’s a nice ass Puerto Rican.” [Laughs]
You’re definitely carrying – in terms of lyricists I think there’s no one that can –
I appreciate that, man. I just take pride in being good at rhyming. When people say that it’s flattering but at the same time it’s like, “Alright now, I gotta live up to this shit.” When fans come up to me and are like, “Yo, you don’t understand, right now in New York you’re that. You mean a lot to us because you’re that.” It’s like, “Oh boy, back to the booth.” [Laughs]
There’s this guy, Barry Katz and he manages Jay Mohr, and he has this thing where he’s like, “You have to be so good at what you do that it becomes a problem for everyone else. Just be so good at it that you’re just a problem for everyone else.” And I definitely see that in you.
You definitely are a problem for other lyricists. [Laughs]
I hope so. I hope they recognize that I’m here to stay. I’m passionate about being really good and the only thing I fear on Earth – besides God – is not being able to rhyme well anymore. I think about it – what do I do when I go into a booth and I come out and I’m really, really unhappy and go to try and fix it and I can’t fix it? That’s a scary day for me, even saying that right now is like – I feel like in so many ways that’s the one constant in my life.
Relationships change, children get older, family changes, people move, jobs – a bunch of things, but me being nice in that booth has always remained the same. I’m afraid of that day, but I don’t think that day could ever come. If that day came I’d probably write a record about that day?
It seems New York, which was the birthplace of hip-hop culture, and the hub of talent that was hot hasn’t been for a while now. Do you think that has to do with a lack of talent and what the industry has been promoting?
It’s been a bit of both of why hip-hop is what hip-hop is. I think that as not being so lyrical and more bubblegum and filler and pushed – the kids grew up to it.
And that’s become the norm.
They’re not rapping as well and they don’t know it. That’s the problem, I think they think they’re rapping well because they’re comparing themselves to what’s going on now. If you’re going to compare to that then you’re going to be just fine. But if you’re going to compare to when it started and where it came from then you’re not representing it well – in my opinion.
Now, don’t get me twisted, since the beginning of time I think there’s been an element of fun records and just good times. You know, like “Ice Ice Baby”, that’s hip-hop believe it or not, you have Biz Markie… They were telling those stories of fun – Slick Rick telling fun – “Mona Lisa” and all that stuff. You had those kinds of records but everything was getting pushed equally so you had your choices. Like, “I’m going to listen to this hard shit or listen to this story or whatever.” And now it’s just all push, push, push the happy dancey.
Now you get on the Internet and find your lyric guy, find your substance. When I say “them” I mean radio and television, that’s what they’re pushing on the kids so the kids are growing up thinking that’s how you’re supposed to sound. That’s why I don’t fault these kids for making these records because that’s all they know and they want to be on the radio, that’s what they dream for.
So when you look and nine things on a playlist sound like this, you want to be the tenth.
I agree. A lot has changed with you since The Brick, which is one of my favorite albums, with your label changes, Slaughterhouse, your health, and now back to being a solo artist, do you feel you’re closer to who you want to be as an artist?
I feel like I’ve always been who I want to be as an artist, but I do think that it’s my time. There’s a greater plan and it’s coming to fruition now. I feel it from how this album got made and the people that are surrounding me now an dhow we met and how organic things have been in the last year for me; it’s a sign. It’s happening, it’s my time, and I’m happy because when you can recognize your time you can grab it. That’s the gift, God shined his light on me because I’m recognizing my time.
So I’m going to go for it, I’m not going to let up; I’m going to keep the pressure on everybody that does this rap thing. You’ve got to be good, you’ve got to be better than me. I’m going to ride this thing – the wheels ain’t even going to fall off, I’m just riding this thing. I just feel blessed to be honest with you, man. This is Joell Ortiz at his best and he knows it. He’s writing better, he’s seeing clearer, he’s matured in many ways, he’s picked up little tricks from his Slaughterhouse members, and he’s been around everything.
I’ve been in the oven for a second man, I’m about done, so much seasoning on me, I’m ready to get served. Just embracing that and being happy and blessed and thankful.
Safe to say you’re in a comfortable place right now, that’s why you called the album House Slippers?
Yeah man. Like what you said, all organic, it’s all me. I just feel like – I don’t know what I quite was before, I’ve always been me but I’ve been wearing a lot; holding onto a lot. Even though I give you a lot of me through my music there’s still stuff I was holding onto. I feel like it’s been lifted off of me after I lost the weight and I stopped drinking for awhile, stopped smoking cigarettes, and started seeing things clearer. I got up with the Heatmakerz, who executive produced this album.
Everything is just smooth, man. Everything is just at home, I’m at home with myself. So I just wanted this album to reflect how I was feeling. I’m most comfortable when I’m at home in my slippers with a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. I wanted this album to feel like I feel when I’m like that.
I think the Heatmakerz too, you can identify with them as well because at the end of the day they’re from the projects. I grew up in Taft houses.
Yeah, I mean, I’m telling stories that they know.
And you guys can relate to one another so it’s an organic –
Yeah, literally, like we grew up together, but just in different projects. So it’s a good match.
So what’s in store for Joell now that the album is out? Touring?
Yeah, going on a couple tours in the US, Canadian, European – everything is tentative now but we’ve been talking to people. It’s time to get out and get back to that grind, I want everyone to hear this album even if you don’t buy it. I want to get on stage and tell it to you; perform it for you. People need to hear honesty, I feel like it’s a missing element in music right now.
People are writing music in the mindset of writing music instead of just talking to themselves or talking to someone, which is what I chose to do on this album. I didn’t think of what to talk about, I just had my pen move on a bunch of records. Not one of them is like an out of thin air record, they’re all how I felt at the time; where I was at. It’s just all honest and I think people – I think that resonates well with people when they hear that and see that. I just want to be able to get on the road and show it to them.
Any final shout outs? Thanks?
Man, this is Joell Ortiz, add me on Twitter and Instagram, @joellortiz. I want to thank Penalty Records for giving me a home for this album and just giving me a home in general as far as a solo artist.
Thank my manager, Dennis, my team, Jermaine and the guys. Anyone who supported House Slippers. It goes a long way with me – the only way that us indie people win is from the support of their fans. There’s no big ol’ machine pushing this thing along – it’s me and my fans. When you support it, I survive, and I get to get back in the studio and do another project. So from me to you, I thank you.