JOELL ORTIZ REBUILDS HIP-HOP ONE “BRICK” AT A TIME
By Khalid J. Strickland a.k.a. Dirty Angel
Oh my God… a rapper who can actually (*gasp*) RAP!!
Nowadays, commercial rap is like Peter Pan… it doesn’t want to grow up. Fans of substantial lyrics and incredible wordplay may feel neglected when they turn on the radio. Nostalgia is not in fashion, but I’m old enough to remember a time when hip-hop music had variety; when a listener could turn on the radio and experience all types of poetry in motion. Fast-forward to the present day. Rapper-of-the-millisecond Mims sums up the state of commercial hip-hop eloquently on his infectious hit, “This Is Why I’m Hot”, as he boasts with pride: “I can sell a mil saying nothing on a track”. He can’t rhyme his way out of a paper bag, but I respect Mims for keeping it real. True indeed, a lot of the junk food records in current rotation are catchy. AIDS is catchy too, but that doesn’t mean I want it.
That’s why when I first heard Brooklyn’s own Joell Ortiz spitting bars, I felt as if my prayers had been answered. Joell Ortiz, the highly-skilled lyrical beast from Williamsburg, has been putting in work for years with numerous mixtapes, cameo verses and live performances. Mr. Ortiz more than held his own on records with hip-hop icons Kool G. Rap and Big Daddy Kane. With his precise, multi-syllabic flow and well-penned verses, Joell Ortiz has been likened by many to another talented Latino rapper, the irreplaceable Big Pun. Ortiz’s relentless hustle garnered the attention of legend Dr. Dre, leading to Joell signing a deal with Dre’s Aftermath Records. Joell’s Aftermath album is forthcoming, but on April 22nd the rapper will release his debut LP, “The Brick”, on Koch Records. Joell had “The Brick” in the works long before his meeting with Dr. Dre, and the album is a certified banger from start to finish. With guest appearances from lethal wordsmiths like Immortal Technique, Ras Kass, Big Daddy Kane, M.O.P., Maino, and Graph, “The Brick” is a lyric-lover’s delight. Top-notch beats are supplied by Alchemist, Lil’ Fame (of M.O.P.), Showbiz and Moss, so heads are guaranteed to nod. “The Brick” is a worthy prelude to Joell Ortiz’s forthcoming Aftermath album, and Mr. Ortiz has a promising future ahead of him.
I had the opportunity to chop it up with Joell Ortiz and get the scoop on his meeting with Dr. Dre, what he expects from “The Brick” and what Williamsburg was like before yuppies and hipsters invaded it.
Dirty Angel: What were some of the things you did to get your name to ring bells like it does? How’d you propel your buzz?
Joell Ortiz: First off, I just did everything. A lot of up and coming artists make the wrong turns. You can’t pick and choose when you want to grind and you’re no one right now. I did every interview. I stood in front of radio stations giving out my singles. I did every show. I embraced the internet when a lot of people weren’t embracing the internet. I wrote a journal that followed me weekly on the grind to try to get a record deal. I just did basically anything anyone asked of me because there’s a million people they could be asking. How many people are trying to do music? So when the opportunity presents itself, you do it. And I just did it. And I’m sitting here blessed.
Angel: What can listeners expect to hear on “The Brick”?
Ortiz: Aw man… they’re gonna hear a breath of fresh air, duke. Hip-hop… you know, rhyming over beats, man. That’s what I do, I rhyme over beats. I don’t direct records. I don’t say, “This one right here is my personal joint. This one right here is my club record”. I just do records. Whatever happens, (it just) happens. The records ya’all hear from Joell Ortiz that’ll be in the club will be the ones that the DJ decided to put in their bag, you feel me? That’s the angle I take. We’re in a polluted game right now and I’m that fresh air, I’m the oxygen mask. Inhale me and exhale it to somebody else. (Laughs)
Angel: So what do you hope to accomplish? What are your hopes for “The Brick”?
Ortiz: First of all, of course I want it to do well. I want enough people to listen to it. I want people to understand that I’m one of them; that I’m a fan first. I could’ve easily (chose) another road. I’ve done things I ain’t proud of before too. I want them to understand that I’m gonna help chip away at that invisible wall that Latin rappers have. That, “He’s nice for a Latin” (statement), you know what I mean? I’m just nice. And I’ll tell you I’m Puerto Rican when you interview me. I’m one of ya’all, dude; Latinos been around just as long as everybody else, dude. And last but not least, I just want everybody to understand that Joell Ortiz is not a made-up guy. Joell Ortiz is Joell Ortiz when the lights go on and when they go off. That’s why I don’t have a stage name. I just want my respect as an emcee. I give emcees respect all the time. I’m on the internet all the time, I’m a fan, dude. So, I just want at the end of the day, (someone’s) last word (to be), “I can’t front, (Ortiz) is nice”.
Angel: I’m from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, man. I’d been there back in the day when it was ghetto. They gentrified that s**t now. For those who may get it twisted, talk about the
Williamsburg that you’re from, man; before they started moving people in and all of that stuff.
Ortiz: Aw, man. I’m from fifteen dudes lined up on the same block with different color bags, selling drugs. I’m from old Spanish dudes running numbers that had nothing to do with New York Lottery (Laughs). I’m from the ice-cream truck coming and parking for like, two hours without moving. I’m from Johnny pumps open on every corner. You feel me, dude? I’m just trying to paint a picture of where I come from. I’m from shootouts with other projects almost every other day. You know what I mean? My moms telling me don’t go across the street and go in that arcade, there’s more than video games in there. I’m from that Williamsburg. All these big buildings ain’t Williamsburg, dude. I’m from Williamsburg. This is something different. But it’s all good, it’s all changing. I’m glad my area came up. I’m glad that the kids don’t have to see what I’ve seen, you know what I mean? I bought computers for my hood, dude; that was one of the first things I did. I put computers in my community center so that when these young kids finish playing ball or whatever, their first thing ain’t to go to the back way and light up an L. Maybe I could log on, ‘cause for so many years I lived in a fifteen block radius. I didn’t know what was outside of it. If I can get these young’uns to understand that there’s a world out there, the internet helps. I put some computers in my community center. I just love hip-hop and I love what’s going on. I love the old Williamsburg and I love the new Williamsburg. I just love Brooklyn.
Angel: What was it like spittin’ on a track with Kool G. Rap? What went through your mind when that collaboration came about?
Ortiz: (Laughs) G is my dude. But I said to myself, “I can’t let that n***a bust my a**”. (Laughs) ‘Cause you know G, man. That n***a G is for real, dude. Yo, that n***a is one of the (greatest); with the witty (rhymes) and that tongue-twistin’ and all that? C’mon, man, that n***a is a pioneer. And I’m just like, “Damn, I’m on here with G, this s**t got to be (good)”. You’ve got to bring it. People gonna say, “Aw, G did it with him ‘cause that’s his man”. But when they hear you rip it, they say, “Yo, him and G got a joint”. So those were the things going through my mind. Besides the fact that G was like, “Yo, dude, I already know what you’re gonna do to it”. So he helped me; he coasted me through it too. But uh… yeah it feels good to be co-signed by veterans because their co-sign is genuine. They don’t have to do it, you feel me? They don’t have to say, “Yo, I ain’t gonna front, dude is nice” because the politic ain’t gonna apply to them, they’re already stitched, na’mean? They’re in stone. So when somebody like G be like, “Yo, dude, you the truth” or Big Daddy Kane tells me, like, “Yo, dude, you next. You the truth”, that’s for real. O.C. called me on stage at Lord Finesse’s birthday party before he performed and said, “Before I perform, I see somebody in the audience that got to get up here”. That’s real.
Angel: Speaking of legends, how do you feel about the Big Pun comparisons?
Ortiz: I feel real good about them. I mean, come on, dude was a legend like you said just now. It feels good. Those are big shoes to fill now, don’t get it twisted, because I’m a fan. Dude was for real, rest in peace. S**t, how can I complain about getting compared to an icon; an icon of mine? But I do want people to understand that Joell Ortiz is his own person. He is his own entity. He’s his own existence. Like, he brings his own angle to the game too. But s**t, if it takes people to say, “Man, they say he’s like Pun. Let me listen to him”. If it takes that for them to listen to (me), all’s good. I’m cool.
Angel: Well that tribute that you gave to (Big Pun), I was listening to it on MySpace. That s**t is incredible, son, I got to tell you. You really know how to rhyme; you’re one of the nicest dudes I’ve heard in a while, man. Do you feel that you’re the last of a dying breed, so to speak?
Ortiz: Nah, I’m the first of a breed to come, brother. I already see what’s going on, man, with dudes like Papoose and Saigon, you feel me? We’re coming again, baby. Hip-hop’s making that circle again. It’s making that turn again. And I don’t mean the turn I see dudes doing, buying rope chains and s**t like that (Laughs). You can’t bring hip-hop back with an item, dude, it’s a feeling. And I feel the feeling coming back. We just got to update the feeling. We can’t go back. That was their era. They was bodying the rope chains and the triple-fat gooses and s**t. We got to body our era, man. Yo, I’m just doing what I do. I’m happy to be a part of this.
Angel: So how’d you hook up with Aftermath? That’s an enviable position.
Ortiz: Man, my management got (my) CD to Dr. Dre’s assistant over at Aftermath. She called back like, “Dre really likes this kid. He likes the music”. We was like, all right, that’s cool. ‘Cause you know, she’s friends with one of my managers. She was like, “No, you don’t understand. He wants to fly dude out like ASAP.” I’m like, “Get the f**k outta here”. So two days later I’m on the flight… now I’m in L.A. doing dinner with his staff. He’s not there, ‘cause I’mma meet him the following day, you feel me? So, I guess it’s the kind of break it in, how’s everything, we like your stuff, blah blah… eating, having a couple of sips of Long Island ice-tea. You know… socializing. Next day comes, I go in the studio, Dre walks in. He’s like, “What’s the deal?” I’m like, “Oh s**t! (It’s) Dre!” (Laughs) Everything changed, you feel me? (Laughs) Everything just kinda went out the window, all the cool s**t. I was just like, “I’m chillin’, how you?” He was like “Yo, man, I love the records.” I said, “Yo, man, I love the beats.” That n***a just started laughing, he’s like, “I just wanted to make sure you’re not a knucklehead, ignorant kid running around out there beefin’.” I said, “Nah, man. I’m just an honest guy that just loves rhyming over beats.” And he said, “With that said, welcome to Aftermath.”
Angel: No doubt. So when you have somebody like Dre, the greatest producer of all-time, as the exec for your s**t, do you feel any kind of pressure now? Do you feel any kind of way about that?
Ortiz: Oh, of course, man. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, dude. It’s crazy. I mean, come on, man, I’m the first Latin over there too. It’s like big. And you know, with all the success that has come about (for Aftermath), I start being like, “What if I’m the first non-success? What if I’m the bad investment?” And then I say to myself, “There’s no such thing, man.” (Dre) hits homers every time. And I’m just gonna be another one deep to left, you feel me? So, I’m doing what I do and I’m taking it in stride. We’re having fun. I finished the Koch record already; that drops April 24th. I’m already working on an Aftermath (album). We got some good stuff on there. We’re vibing ill. I went to Atlanta, did something with Jazzy Pha. It’s crazy. It’s gonna be a great album.
Angel: Cool. Let me ask you one more thing. There’s no doubt, from listening to you, that anybody who likes to rhyme or pick up a pen is gonna feel inspired when they hear your s**t. Who are some of the people that inspired you and made you want to pick up your pen when you were on the come-up?
Ortiz: I would say Nas. I would definitely say Jay-Z. I would say Biggie. I would even say the early Lox, to be real. When I started really getting into hip-hop, I would say like… late ’93, probably. So you know, I just getting that early Nas, that early Jay, that early Big. That’s what I come out of, that’s what I was listening to comparing my pen to. ‘Cause I started writing in like ’91, coming out my building, seeing how much praise you get if you could spit, you feel me? So, that’s the era I come from. Just about those dudes, they were inspiring.
Angel: And one thing, man. I’mma ask you this because you did put it out there. I ain’t trying to start nothing up, but when I heard the Pun joint you did, you mentioned Nas. You mentioned “inconsistency” with his name. What did you mean by that?
Ortiz: Oh nah, there was nothing towards that. It was just that I knew he was hot, you feel me? I just wanted more of him, that’s it… as a fan. Not that he couldn’t do it, I was just like, “Damn, he takes too long for someone who’s fiending”, you feel me? You know what I mean? You can’t get n****s hyped and then just chill for a second, dude. That was just me, though. If people felt like that; that was the way I felt. I’m just like, I need something new from Nas, you feel me?
Angel: Ai-ight, cool. I just wanted to clear that up. That’s good.
Ortiz: Of course. I could never… come on, man. That doesn’t even make sense (Laughs) It don’t make sense. You talking about a dude who praises dudes like that… but you know what I mean.
Angel: I definitely know what you mean. I just wanted to hear it from your mouth, man.
Ortiz: That’s exactly what it is, man.
For more information on Joell Ortiz and “The Brick”, visit www.myspace.com/joellortiz.
For more stories and work by Khalid Strickland a.k.a. Dirty Angel visit www.myspace.com/blackpacino and www.supremearsenal.com.