Joell Ortiz Speaks About Never Dumbing Down His Sound & Standing Up For Hip-Hop (Interview)
In the last 15 years, Joell Ortiz has climbed from a Brooklyn, New York MC releasing 12″ Rawkus Records singles to the top of the Pop charts. The pride of the Cooper Houses projects still dazzles with his flow and exudes the highest love for Hip-Hop culture in his art and spare-time. While the MC has dabbled with different sounds, and collaborated with his acclaimed Slaughterhouse group as well as !llmind, the core foundation is still set in “brick.”
Following a busy 2014 and 2015, 2016 shows no signs of braking. Joell Ortiz teamed with fellow BK native Domingo (Big Pun, Masta Ace, Rakim) for That’s Hip-Hop. Releasing March 15, the compilation-style album (with Ortiz on the cover) features lyrical giants such as Kool G Rap and M.O.P., as well as emerging flow technicians Token and Snow Tha Product. Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Joell describes what this project means to his career and overall mission, and how he is paying it forward in a way fans can celebrate.
Ambrosia For Heads: This That’s Hip-Hop project, from what I’ve heard from it, is very special. It aims at people like me, who have been rocking with you a long time. Why did you want to do it, and what lane does it allow for you at this point in your career?
Joell Ortiz: To be honest with you, [That’s Hip-Hop producer] Domingo reached out and was like, “Yo dude, I’m a big fan and I’ve always wanted to work with you.” It was supposed to be just a record or two—us just getting into the studio with him up on Pennsylvania. It turned into this, because the vibe was just there. Me and Domingo are both fans of probably the same thing you’re probably a fan of: that pure essence of Hip-Hop. So when he started playing music, it was music that I haven’t heard in a while. I don’t mean dated music. I just mean things that I used to love hearing—certain drums, certain instruments. It evoked emotion and made me want to just stay [in the studio with Domingo] and do more.
I feel good about the album because…for one, it gave me a chance to go down memory lane with me writing to certain kinds of instrumentals, coming up with certain kinds of rap, different content and subjects. [For] two, I got to put Tony Touch on the album, Billy Danze from M.O.P., [Kool] G Rap—and introduce my new audience and my younger audience to people I respect so much. Domingo’s production is so dope on there. I just wanted to rap and tell my story over that kind of music again. It turned into a real nice, boutique, fun project.
Ambrosia For Heads: So, “Kill At Will” and the remix—are really special. AFH has been covering Token lately. He’s come out of nowhere and proven himself as one of the craziest spitters in the game that people are still getting to know. When people see him in his environment, he’s changing minds too. That’s true of Snow Tha Product, also. She takes it to her own level. I know for you, 15 years ago, those features were so important. Tell me about that song and what it means to you to be in a position to usher in two heavy-duty MCs…
Joell Ortiz: It feels good, man. Shout out to Token, shout out to Snow [Tha Product]—two artists [that] I respect. I respect their grind and I respect their message. Most importantly, I respect their ability to rap. That’s really what [“Kill At Will”] was about though, to be honest though. It was me lending my stage to [people] I—one, respect and two, could use a boost. I wanted to be that guy that was like, “Yo, check this out: I see it, I love it, I endorse it. Here is my fan-base, here is my stage, you guys feel welcome. Do what you do.” I told Domingo, “Make sure Token knows [to] go! Whatever ‘go’ means to him. Go there. Mess around.” No one is coming over our backs like, “Yo, is this a single?” None of that! Just be a creator; rap really well. “Snow, do the same. Rap really well. Please, I want to use this stage for you guys to showcase your talent.” They both really did their thing. They hung with me. They sound really, really good—plus Domingo with that Big Daddy Kane sample, it just felt so dope! It felt like the vintage era met the now. It meshed really well. I’m just happy that there’s still artists that take pride in being dope.
Ambrosia For Heads: Coming from Slaughterhouse, you’re already in a group where guys are trying to shine on each and every track. I know that there are situations we all hear about where a veteran artist of stature brings on somebody, and they gotta play a position. The beautiful thing about a record like that, and the “Go” mentality is everybody is trying to grab the spotlight, and nobody sees it as from each other.
Joell Ortiz: Definitely, yeah. Each person—myself included—when they come on the track, you recognize it. You get it, like, “Okay, there’s a whole new energy that just arrived. Wow. ‘Who is this kid? Token? This kid’s nice; this kid’s amazing!'” Then when Snow comes on, it’s like, “Wait a second. Was that a female sounding like that?” So everybody has their moment. I love those records where there’s more than one person on a record and everybody has their moment. Every one is sharing that spotlight. I’m just happy that it was them two, ’cause they’re both really nice people and really good MCs. People that know Joell Ortiz know that I stand for that: I stand for never dumbing down your sound, never conforming to what has become popular—just being who you are. Token fans are hitting me up, and so are Snow fans, and now my fans are checking them out. That’s what Hip-Hop is, it’s sharing that platform with people that you respect.
Ambrosia For Heads: In the last [week], Kendrick Lamar put out untitled unmastered. The project features songs with lyrics that he had performed, and people were keeping track of. People are analyzing bars again—after an era when the beat ruled out. Do you think we are suddenly in an age where lyricism matters more than it did five or 10 years ago? Is the stock higher again?
Joell Ortiz: Oh yeah! When I [agree] that “the stock is higher again,” the “again” means in the eyes of the popular platform, again. It’s never went away. It’s always been kids trying to rap their ass off, it’s just that they weren’t getting the looks or the opportunities or invited to the “cool kid parties” anymore” because that wasn’t “cool” anymore. What’s happening is, rappers and artists on bigger platforms are rhyming well again: Kendrick [Lamar], J. Cole, even Macklemore rhymes well to me. Now the popular masses are just being like, “Oh, snap. Look at how these guys string words together, bro.” Here we go again. This is what Hip-Hop was, you guys. Being “nice” isn’t new. It’s been around forever. The people I [just] mentioned were inspired by Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Biggie Smalls, and Jay Z when they were rapping at super-high levels. It’s just being popular again. It’s just the in-crowds, the masses, and the cool kids getting a peak at something we’ve known all along.
Ambrosia For Heads: I had the opportunity of hearing Royce 5’9″s new album, Layers. In my opinion, it’s his best solo work, ever. Kxng Crooked & Statik Selektah smashed it with STATIK KXNG, which probably stands as Crooked’s best solo showing. You’re getting massive amounts of interest and streams with our site alone on That’s Hip-Hop. For Slaughterhouse, is 2016 going to be the kind of year like ’95 and ’96 for Wu-Tang Clan, where you all make definitive solo work then get back to it?
Joell Ortiz: Man, who knows. I will say this though: we are all putting out really good work as [individuals]. That can only be good for Slaughterhouse as a collective. Everybody is just rapping at a high level. The music that we’re rhyming over is really good. And we’re passionate. That hunger is there. You can hear it in all of us. We have conversations where we laugh and joke about records, like, “Man, you try’na catch me on that!”—just friends talkin’ and kickin’ it. Who knows what the universe has in store for us? I’m just happy that we’re still playing. So many have came and gone from that [XXL] “Freshman” cover that I graced in 2007, with Crooked I—who I didn’t even know at the time.
I’m so happy that me, and Royce [5’9″], and Crook’, and Joe [Budden] have all stayed relevant for one common reason: that we rap well. We didn’t conform and do what everybody else thought was “it.” We always did what we do, and we’re still doing that. So the STATIK KXNG joint, Royce’s [Layers], and this Domingo project I’m doing, and whatever Joe’s getting into, that will only help the group, and it will only help Hip-Hop, in my opinion. I feel good about 2016, really!
Ambrosia For Heads: I think it’s really dope to watch guys get to a higher plateau and do what you’re doing on this That’s Hip-Hop project, which is probably what you would have done in 2001 anyway, if you could, then. That’s cool for the fans, and as a role-model to people about being true to their dreams and what they love.
Joell Ortiz: What you just said kinda spawned this thought: I kind of look at Hip-Hop in comparison to food. I’m a foodie; I love food. I love to eat. There were times when I went to really, really fancy restaurants and had really, really good steak. The ambiance was amazing. That might be the equivalent to signing to Eminem [and Shady Records] and being on a major platform. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever, ever stop going to that mom-and-pop restaurant where there’s only 5-10 seats, but the chef [in the kitchen] is really, really good. I love it all. Hooking up with Domingo felt like that, a [place] I’d been going to for years. A place I always wanted to eat, sit down, and kick it. The dishes aren’t as expensive, but the food is phenomenal.