Joell Ortiz: Back to the Future

Last year, Busta Rhymes decided it was time to return to his “New York S**t” while Nas asked “Where Are They Now?” The Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest reconvened as Raekwon chipped away at his Only Built 4 Cuban Linx sequel. The ‘90s New York Hip-Hop sound is dearly missed, but as Papoose and Tru Life have revealed the contemporary direction of their albums, few new artists or labels are willing to trade hard knock hit making for reasonable doubts concerning sales.

Enter Joell Ortiz – perhaps the best of both worlds. As the New York delegate of the Aftermath roster, Ortiz’ future might be air-tight. But as brethren like Bishop Lamont and G.A.U.G.E. are forced to wait, Koch Records releases The Brick, an album before the album. What’s more is the independent project permits Joell to go right to the sources of ‘90s New York greatness – Showbiz, Domingo and DJ Premier. Quality control and eyebrows ought to be simultaneously raised as cries for Hip-Hop help are answered.

Beyond just boom-bap, Joell promises to tell stories in his songs. In this discussion with AllHipHop, the artist who JD seemingly passed over admits to more than feeling himself. With his precise vision, and reliance on word of mouth, “brick” may no longer mean missed shot, and become the strong building-block foundation for going back to the future.

AllHipHop.com: Before we go too far into the future, can we look at some things from the past? It is rumored that there was a problem with a deal with Jermaine Dupri.

Joell Ortiz: Really, I don’t like talking about the situation because it’s done…But I’ll tell you what it was really about. It was a simple [situation]. He sponsored the EA Sports battle. The winner was supposed to get a slot on the NBA Live ’05 soundtrack and a deal with Arista Records. I won and got the slot with the Live soundtrack crackin’ and he was supposed to follow up with the deal – he didn’t. It was that simple and that was pretty much it.

AllHipHop.com: How did you hook up with Aftermath and Dr. Dre?

Joell Ortiz: What’s up with Dre? Oh, He’s got this new Latin artist from Brooklyn that he’s really excited about…[Laughs] Nah, for real, I got the CD to one of his people out in L.A. and I got a call the next day saying that Dre really liked my stuff. I was just like, “Alright, that’s what’s up,” but then [Dre’s people] were like, “No, you don’t understand, he loves the stuff and wants to fly you out A.S.A.P.” Two days later, we’re on a plane, and then we’re with the Aftermath staff just kicking it. The next day, I’m in the studio with Dre and he tells me “Yo man, I like the record.” I’m like, “Yo man, I like the beats!” We start laughing, one thing leads to another, and he tells me, “I really flew you out to make sure you wasn’t a knucklehead. You know, I’ve taken a lot of losses in this rap music already and I really don’t want to take anymore losses.”

AllHipHop.com: That happened pretty quickly.

Joell Ortiz: I was sitting there after we left the studio in the hotel room and it finally soaked in. Oh s**t. I’m on Aftermath. Ten years of grinding for a ten minute meeting.

AllHipHop.com: The last notable people to have a story like that….rapping for a decade, being called by Aftermath, short meeting with Dre, and getting signed to the label, were Eminem and 50 Cent.

Joell Ortiz: Yeah, that’s some good company. I think I’m in a perfect position because Dre doesn’t try to change what you have already done. He let 50 Cent come over there and do his record. He let Eminem come and do his record. [Dre] just puts you on a broader stage. Me bringing that New York gutter sound back out, that head nod music, that conscious but not preachy music….he’s gonna help me get that to a broader stage. That’s all I needed because I have a great team already, and when you combine that team with the Aftermath machine we’re gonna have a ball.

AllHipHop.com: Why do you feel that “New York gutter sound” has disappeared?

Joell Ortiz: What’s happening is…I really feel like the DJs need to do some soul searching – a lot of them. I keep hearing people say, “We’ve got to bring New York back,” but they don’t play New York s**t. I’m not knocking the South, because we all come from the same place. If you come from the gutter and rise up, then I’m proud of you because you could have taken another route. I’m not knocking anybody’s hustle. But if you’re going to preach, “bring New York back” then play some New York songs.

New York has been shying away from what’s working which is dope beats and lyricism. The records that I do will not be records that are directed at the club. The records that you hear of me in the club will be records that DJs put in their bag because they love them. I’m not talking about bottles and models and trying to make you wobble and drop, because it’s just not my thing. It might be someone else’s thing, but it’s not mine. That’s why I work with [DJ] Premier. That’s why I work with Showbiz. That’s why I work with The Alchemist. I miss that feeling, and I’m going to try my best to bring it back.

AllHipHop.com: Do you feel like artists get signed to labels and then just lose the drive?

Joell Ortiz: I work because I love to do it. I could have done a bunch of things, but this is my passion. I was All City on my high school basketball team; I made good grades, 1400 on my S.A.T’s… I could have done a lot of stuff. When I wake up in the morning, I look forward to the work. This is the grind that I chose, and for people to care about that grind is flattering.

AllHipHop.com: Do you feel there is a disconnect between conscious rappers and the music buying public?

Joell Ortiz: Umm, it’s not that…it’s just that you have to know how to talk to people. You can’t walk up on a block where a dude is hustling and say, “Yo man, what are you doing? You’re killing your own, man. You’re buggin. Don’t you see what’s happening?” Nah, you can’t do that. You got to go up to that dude and say, “What’s good man.” He may speak back to you…he may not. You continue, “I see what you’re doing and let me just tell you one thing: I’m not here to preach to you, but I did it. I’ve seen the results and they’re not good. I don’t know you and you probably don’t know me but I just figured it was my job to let you know.” Regardless of whether he is feeling you or not, he will at least respect you.

You can’t yell at people when you try to teach them. You can’t preach to them either. You have to speak by example. That’s what I do with my music. There are a million rappers out there who say that the hustled. [I can say] that [I] sold drugs to a pregnant woman and I regret it. Who says they bought a video game from a dope head and knew it was his son’s? I’m going to paint a picture and make sure even the small details get in because sometimes the small things have the biggest meaning.

AllHipHop.com: You’re obviously influenced by the early ‘90s, but is there anyone out right now that inspires you? Someone that makes you want to stop and rewind the tape?

Joell Ortiz: I mean, no one is exciting people nowadays. I mean—remember when you first heard Canibus on the Lost Boyz joint [“Beasts From The East”] and you went, “What the f**k just happened? Hold on, hold on, who the f**k is homeboy and what did he just say?” And then you had to bring it back—you just had to. Dudes don’t make you rewind s**t anymore. I miss my man asking “Are you gonna listen to it again?” Where is that s**t at? I miss that because I’m not excited. I’m only excited about me and that’s a shame. And I’m not tooting my own horn, I’m keeping it real.

AllHipHop.com: What do you think of the comparisons that fans make between you and Big Pun?

Joell Ortiz: I’m flattered. That’s the best word. We’re talking about a legend and someone that I look up to. I’m Spanish, he was Spanish. I’m heavyset, he was heavyset. He had a legendary flow, and people consider my flow legendary. He represented a lot more than just rap because he represented a culture of Latinos. That’s what I’m trying to do with my music now. I mean, when I look out at the crowd from the stage and see fans, I see hope. I mean, there’s still an invisible wall up for Latinos in Hip-Hop. I still get that feeling of people thinking, “Dude is nice…for a Puerto Rican kid.” I’m here to abolish that statement.

AllHipHop.com: To what do you attribute that invisible wall that keeps Latin rappers from gaining ground in Hip-Hop?

Joell Ortiz: I really don’t know. I don’t know who to blame for that. It’s just a predominantly Black art form, so that’s just taken as the norm. I can’t say who to fault for it because I wasn’t there in the beginning, but I do think that I have a voice that can help to change it for future Latin rappers.

AllHipHop.com: Do you feel the Reggaeton movement helped or hurt Latin artists in Hip-Hop?

Joell Ortiz: It was a double-edged sword. It helped, but it also categorized us as a people. It took a lot of Latino brothers out of the hood and put them in the forefront, but it also made people think we had our own music. No, we don’t have our own music. What stops a non-Latin person from doing Reggaeton? Nothing. If anyone can do Hip-Hop then it works both ways. I’m Puerto Rican, but I came up from a project in Brooklyn that was all Black. I’m Puerto Rican but I’m still in that mix. You can’t take that from me. Dudes hear me rap and don’t even know that I’m Spanish. So c’mon, you can’t say that they have their own music, but at the same time, I’m proud that my culture came up in the world. Hip-Hop is not Black, Reggaeton is not Brown…it’s music.

AllHipHop.com: There was a time when Eminem was always introduced as “the White rapper.” Now he has come to a point where people barely make a notice of it.

Joell Ortiz: Oh yeah, he’s up there. Plus the fact that he was White helped him too. Don’t get me wrong, he’s nice. But so many people paid attention because he was White and gave him a little edge. Dudes were like, “Did you hear him on the [Jay-Z] “Renegade” joint? He got Jay. Don’t front on him because he’s White. He got Jay-Z.” So the skills helped as well as the fact that he was White.

AllHipHop.com: Big L, early Nas, and early Jay-Z were critically acclaimed but that didn’t reflect in their album sales at the time. Do you worry about album sales when you’re trying to bring that type of music back to the forefront?

Joell Ortiz: Marketing sells these albums. A lot of these underground albums are way better than the major releases. They have skill, lyricism, and cohesiveness to them. The albums just need to be pushed. A lot of these major albums are just as many singles that can be put together on a record. I’m just going to do what I do and let it take its course. I’m going to let the fans decide what happens with this record because word of mouth is a motherf**ker.

Related Stories