Joell Ortiz Interview: Brooklyn Wins

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by Alex Shtaerman

If Hip-Hop is dead, please don’t tell Joell Ortiz. To describe the Brooklyn MC in his own words, “He’s like a crib on the sun / Sittin’ next to the fireplace / With the heat on a million and one / This young man is hot / He’ll suntan your block”. Apparently Hip-Hop’s most successful and enduring producer to date agrees, as Dr. Dre recently signed Joell to his highly coveted Aftermath label. But if you think that rolling with Dre means this Cooper Park Houses export is solely focused on mainstream recognition, think again. Joell has been endorsed by the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and KRS One. In fact, he’s already collaborated with all three. Not bad for someone who hasn’t even dropped their first album. But all the early success is no coincidence; in all honesty, it’s been a long time since someone from Brooklyn has come around with this much talent and a real palpable desire to rep for NYC. Joell Ortiz is that dude. If you know what real Hip-Hop is about and what the sound of New York City is all about, this is who you should be checking for. This is the guy. With his Aftermath debut LP already in the works, Joell is set to drop his highly anticipated street album, The Brick, on Koch Records April 24th. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

RIOTSOUND.COM: For years we’ve been hearing about different MCs bringing New York back to the forefront of rap but when their albums come out 99% of the time it’s the same old watered-down commercial garbage. With your music you seem like you are truly making a real effort to embody the spirit and sound of New York City. Can you first explain what that sound is, for people who have forgotten already since it’s been so long, and also, how are you letting that vibe and feeling come across in your music?

JOELL ORTIZ: Hip-Hop IS a feeling. It’s not a material object and it’s nothing else, it’s just a feeling. And that feeling is just a dope MC over beats. I think nowadays we overthink it a lot. Dudes are pointing their records in a certain direction like – I’ll make this one right here and that’ll be the club one. I’m not into that dude. I’m just into, let’s go in there and let’s listen to some beats, let’s vibe artist to producer and then lets just rock. Lemme go in there and just rock over the beat. And that’ll just be it. I miss that feeling. Every record sounds like it’s pointed somewhere, you feel me. It’s like, oh, we gonna go over there with this one. No, how about you just record hot records and let the fans and the DJs decide.

Back in the days a hot record in the club was something that the DJ felt he had to put in his bag. It wasn’t something that said “now put your drinks down” or “I’m a model with a bottle”, this is what we’re hearing now. How about the head-nod music? Where’s that at? Where’s the – oh my god, this is my joint, this is hard! I don’t even hear those anymore in the club and I miss that, so that’s what I do. And the way I’ma get it across is, I’m a Puerto Rican dude from Brooklyn that got signed to Aftermath and Koch. That’s real talk, that’s never been done before. It’s happening because dudes are hearing my music and feeling like, not only is dude nice but dude is telling us something.

For so many years dudes didn’t know how to have a balance, how to teach someone without making them feel dumb. And there’s ways that you do it. You tell them that you’re one of them and learned from the things they’re doing now [because] you used to do them. So if you gonna tell somebody like, yo, you need to stop hustling; you’re not gonna be like – you’re out here selling crack, killing each other! You gotta say it like – yo, I did that and I felt bad, it’s not cool – you feel me?

Now there’s a lot of underground [MCs] who remain underground and they do it because they want to. And then there’s some who want to go mainstream but they don’t know how to do it. We gotta spoon-feed a lot of the fans and stuff because a lot of them are like – I don’t wanna hear that, I don’t wanna be taught, I’m out hear doing what I gotta do and this and that. But once you let them know that you’re one of them and you come from where they come from [then they can accept what you’re saying]. There’s a difference between someone saying “yo, stop hustling, you’re gonna go to jail” as opposed to having you speak to someone who just came out [of jail]. And that’s the kind of energy that I like to give. Understand that I’m just a fan with a deal. I’m one of you guys at the end of the day.

RIOTSOUND.COM: During the time that you were recording your debut album, The Brick, you were going through some tough times personally. Can you talk about some of those feelings you were having and how they translated into your music?

JOELL ORTIZ: My moms was out there in the streets getting high and stuff like that and it was sad, you know, I didn’t like that. Drug dealers and whoever looked at my moms as just a client, they didn’t know my moms. My moms is a sweatheart. I love my moms and I put my heart and soul into this music for US, for me and her. To show her that even in the midst of you running around in the streets, you still raised one hell of a boy. Through my music is where I get to show the fans what the hustlers raised, because they raised me. The things that they gave my moms is the things she came home and talked to me about. She raised me through them. So I can show them – hey guys, this is what you made, you made this kind of kid. He’s pretty angry because he didn’t have his mom’s attention for a very long time because of you guys. So a lot of my music might seem dark and angry but some of it is happy too because, yo, I came outta there and I made it. We made it, me and my moms, she’s clean now. She’s getting a chance to celebrate her son with two record deals when [before] they wouldn’t even give him one when they knew he was doing everything right. What I do is I paint vivid pictures through my records and I want everybody to take a look.

RIOTSOUND.COM: It must be hard to put into words but how do you feel knowing that your mother is in so much of a better situation now and also knowing that you were the main catalyst for making that a reality?

JOELL ORTIZ: It’s unbelievable, like you said, I can’t define it in words. It’s ill, it’s hair-raising. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I think about just answering that question. I so coulda been the other guy, at so many different points in my life I coulda put my pen down and picked up other things. But I didn’t wanna be selfish. I didn’t wanna be selfish to me, to my mom, to my fans, to everyone I made promises to and to the haters who never seen it, to the dudes who were like – you’re just wasting your time. I HAD to do it. This just had to be done. I have too much pride, I’m from Brooklyn, New York. I had too much pride. We breed the best. It felt good when Dr. Dre said – hey listen man, I just flew you out to make sure you’re not a knucklehead, your records are great, so if you want man, welcome to Aftermath. And I’m thinking, oh shit! I did it. Yo, the first person I called when I got outta there [was my mother] – ‘cause you know, you don’t want to make the call in front of anyone [laughs], you gotta act cool like, ok, that’s wassup – I called her like “ma I got the deal, Dre wants to sign me!” So it was ill.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Brooklyn is just one borough in New York City, but how has being from that borough influenced you in your music and more importantly, your mindset?

JOELL ORTIZ: It influenced me crazy. You don’t have to live in Brooklyn to know about Brooklyn, you just have to visit it. There is some kind of competitive nature in the air when you get over here. It’s just that “yo, you can’t fuck with me” attitude that everyone walks around with. It makes you the person that you are, it makes you carry that swagger like – oh please, I’ve been there, done that, whatever. Getting co-signs from dudes like Big Daddy Kane is huge and it means a lot to me. Like three weeks ago we was at Lord Finesse’s birthday party in the city and O.C. stopped before he performed. He seen me in the audience and he called me onstage like – hold on, before I even rock I see someone who has to come up here right now. He called me out of the audience and after I rhymed, Chuck D and everyone was embracing me like – yo dude, you are the truth. It’s crazy man! And I’m glad man. That’s one thing them pioneers and them veterans don’t have to do and that’s co-sign a new generation. They’re already someone. They’re their own entity and their own person already. So when they say something it’s genuine and it feels good.

RIOTSOUND.COM: A lot of times when we look back at Hip-Hop’s golden era, most people just tend to focus on the music itself, sometimes we forget the performance aspect and all the great performers we had back then. With that said, how would you describe you skills on stage? When fans go see Joell Ortiz live, what can they expect?

JOELL ORTIZ: Oh my god, I always let it all hang out. It takes me so long to get out of the club, put it like that [laughs]. I’m giving so many pounds and so many – because listen, people are paying money to come in and look at you. Look at YOU! There’s a million or trillion other dudes they could be coming in to check and they coming to check you. If you don’t let it all just hang out then you’re just a sucker. I go up there and I’m sweating. I ask them like – hold up a second, you mind if I get a water.

Some dudes get up on stage and in their mind become hotter than they really are. I’ve had a chance to rock without a hit record so every time I’m up there I’m trying to win people and that’s the same energy I carry over even with the recognition. You gotta go up there and rhyme as if no one knows [who you are]. I go up there every time and give it to them and I love it. I love the feedback, I love the crowd participation and I love the feeling. I miss that feeling and that’s why I’m so into my project because my project brings that feeling back. That MC feeling, that Hip-Hop. It’s not because I have a hit record on the radio, it’s because I’m one of ya’ll.

RIOTSOUND.COM: After The Brick, which is coming out on Koch Records, you also got your Aftermath album dropping. How has the situation with Aftermath progressed since you first signed with the label?

JOELL ORTIZ: The Koch album is finished and right now we just setting up promo tours, you know, doing all the right things to promote the album. The Aftermath album I’m already working on. I don’t have an impact date for the Aftermath album but I’m pretty sure what happens on April 24th [when my Koch album comes out], if the right things happen the way I know it will, if the man upstairs blesses me and the right things happen on April 24th, the Aftermath venture is going to be a fun ride.

RIOTSOUND.COM: If you could change anything about Hip-Hop at this very moment, would you alter anything or would you keep it exactly the way it is?

JOELL ORTIZ: I would keep it the way it is because if anything is altered I might not be here. I’m here because I’m a breath of fresh air. I’m here because people are like – YES! something I can breathe in without coughing. If I switch [Hip-Hop] up, I may not make sense anymore and I make a lot of sense right now. I wouldn’t switch it up because these kind of things happen for reasons, this is where the state of Hip-Hop is supposed to be. This is what it’s meant to be, this is what we MADE it. If you feeling bad, understand that you contributed into it. DJs who say “we gotta bring New York back” and then play eight Southern records, you know what I’m saying? What’s going on? Dudes are buggin’ out. [Rappers] who are pointing records in the club direction and then saying “damn, I miss how the old shows was”. Then stop making those records. Go back to what worked for us, hard rhymes over hard beats, HIP-HOP, ya’ll forgot? They just started making a lot more money and it clouded everyone’s vision. Not mine, I still got 20/20. Ya’ll could have millions of dollars but I still got 20/20 vision and I know what Hip-Hop is supposed to be and that’s what ya’ll gonna get on The Brick, April 24th on Koch Records.

RIOTSOUND.COM: If you had to live on a tropical island by yourself for the rest of your life and you could only bring five albums with you that you could listen to, what would they be?

JOELL ORTIZ: Wow, that’s crazy [laughs]. I gotta say Illmatic. I gotta say Raekwon’s purple tape [referring to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx], I gotta say BIG’s Ready To Die. [pauses for a few seconds to think] I gotta say Donell Jones’ Where I Wanna Be [laughs]. I had to dude, I love that album. And I gotta say The Brick. I’m sorry dude, I gotta say The Brick, I love my album. It wouldn’t even be fair to me to be on a tropical island without having a chance to hear me [laughing].

RIOTSOUND.COM: You got your album dropping April 24th, what else should the fans be looking out for when it comes to Joell Ortiz?

JOELL ORTIZ: They should be looking out for the Aftermath venture after that. Also they should be looking out to when I’ma be in their part of town. They should be looking out for more people shifting over to my side and my team like, yo, I’m rooting for this kid. And most of all they should just be listening for great songs because I’m going to make them and I’m not going to stop.

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