Published Jan 24, 2011"Who is the best at spitting verses? That's Joell Ortiz," says rapper Brother Ali. "How did he get that title? It's by putting out something new every three days or every week. Shit, the dude is not playing."
Joell Ortiz, a rapper's rapper, should be more famous than he is. He was almost co-signed by Jermaine Dupri when he won a rap-off sponsored by a major videogame publisher, he was once signed, then abandoned, by Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, and he has recorded mixtape material and toured relentlessly both as a solo artist and with Slaughterhouse, the crew of super lyricists the Nuyorican formed with Joe Budden, Royce da 5'9" and Crooked I. This winter the hardworking 30-year-old toured Southern Ontario, performing cuts from his spankin' new solo record, Free Agent, to small but enthusiastic clusters of his loyal fan base. Prior to his Toronto gig, Ortiz ― an engaging interviewee who's easy with a hearty laugh ― spoke about Slaughterhouse's forthcoming opportunities with Eminem, his stinky writing process, and his diggidy Das Efx style as a kid raised in the Brooklyn projects.
How many times have you been to Toronto?
This is my fourth time.
How do you like the city?
It's dope. I like the ladies, too. Really culturally diverse. Looks good. [laughs]
Is the album officially out? I grabbed it online a couple days ago.
Screw you for grabbing it. [laughs]
Hey, I gotta do my research.
I'm only joking. Yeah, it got leaked on Amazon.com. E1 notified them that we'd be releasing it on Nov. 30, and when we switched the date [into December], nobody gave the memo to Amazon.
Can you even get frustrated about a leak? It happens to every album now.
Nah, I'm in a good space now. I'm literally a free agent. I have no ties now with E1 or anyone else. I'm recording daily, touring as you can see. I'm moving forward, looking forward to newer things.
How do you record while you're on the road?
I bring the mic stand and the M-box and we record in hotel rooms. Just try to find a quiet corner where there's not so much of an echo and we filter the sound out. Just grind in hotel rooms. On the last Slaughterhouse tour through the States I did a whole mixtape on the road called Road Kill. We were in the back of the bus, we were in hotel rooms. So we just maximize any little space where we can get some quiet time and lock in. Me and Frequency, my DJ, did that.
How do you stay creative on the road? Travel can make you exhausted. You're off your routine, you don't eat properly….
It is exhausting. But me, when I hear music, it brings me alive. A lot of times before the show, I'm dead. The fans will never know that, because when I get up there, I feed off energy. Now when I get off, I might be done. Bring me to the room! But I listen to beats when I wake up on the bus, put the headphones on, see if something inspires me. It's like when you have a conversation, and before the conversation you were hungry, but the conversation went on for three hours and you're no longer hungry because it was such a good conversation. That's what beats do to me. I'm tired, but once I get caught up, I'm in there. Once I write something, I'm a fiend to lay it down, a fiend to record. If it stays in my notepad or my Blackberry too long, I'm killing myself like, "This has to be recorded!" It's the music that keeps me alive on those long tours.
And that's why you're always jumping on other rappers' beats that just come out.
Right. When you get on someone else's beat, it inspires you. They went where they went with it already, so it makes the beat come alive for you more, as opposed to when you hear a naked beat and you have to do all the drawing. Like when I heard Lloyd Banks' "Beamer, Benz or Bentley." They already put an idea out there, him and Juelz, and it was dope where they went with it. So I just applied Joell Ortiz to it. In my 'hood we don't have the luxury cars. I'm hangin' around everyday men, so I put my twist to it ["Nissan, Honda, Chevy"]. When I do covers, it's not as hard. But when I do original beats, I have to dig in my brain. I try to keep it fun, though.
Your verse over Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" beat is ridiculous. I killed that one in my iPod.
[Laughs] Thank you, man.
Has anyone ever taken offense to you jacking their beat?
A lot of people do it now; it's pretty common. If someone goes over my beat, it's like they're saluting me. I inspired them to go over my beat. It's hot enough that they want to touch it. So I wouldn't be offended. But you never know. If a guy's boys are like, "Damn, dude. He kinda roasted you on your own beat," you might get [the original artist taking offense]. But I've never got it from anybody. I'd be mad if I got roasted on my beat: "Uh, thanks for doing it, but no thanks." [laughs]
How do you decide what makes the album when you're recording so frequently?
We listen back to everything, me and my team. There are great songs that just don't fit an album. You can't have the theme of an album interrupted, even if it's by a great song, because it just doesn't flow well. The key to making an album is to have people listen from Track 1 through [to the end] ― you don't want any skips. With Free Agent I wanted to keep it musically where I was at with [2007's] The Brick, but more song structure. I had a couple 125-bar songs on The Brick to display skill, but this time I wanted to display skill while having good concepts, subject matter and song structure. It was more musically what would fit.
Is it harder fro you to write proper songs than just spitting 125 bars aimed purely at damaging MCs?
Yeah. The 125, they come pretty easy. All you do is pop junk and say I'm better than you. I play with metaphors and similes and just try to get "oohs" and "ahhs" and "yo, did you hear what he said?" With a song, I don't think writing the song is hard, it's just coming up with the concepts. I try not to be generic and cliché. If I do a personal-struggle song, I don't want it to sound like, "Oh, man, feel sorry for me"; I try to make you see what I went through. It's not really the song, it's how I'm gonna paint it that really takes time and detail. But I'm a writer. Once I get those first couple of lines, the pen starts moving around.
What was the hardest song for you to write?
The tribute to my grandma ["Make It Without You"] was really rough, over the Alicia Keys joint ["Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart"]. That was tough because as I was writing it, I was crying. I had to think about things to say that I remember, but it was all gone now. As I'm writing, I'm getting teary-eyed, and I stop and think about it. It was just tough, losing my grandma. I had to re-evaluate: Is this something I want to share? But I've shared my whole life with my fans. I've always told them everything about me. This is something I was going through, and the song ended up being therapeutic to me. By me trying to give something to the fans, it gave something to me. I even listen to that song every now and again, because it means a lot to me.
Have you ever had writer's block?
Yo, I had writer's block once in my whole life, and I erased it because I wrote about writer's block. You understand? I was so scared that nothing was coming to my mind that I started writing about being scared. And I never got writer's block again. See? You can even write about that. Writer's block no longer exists with Joell Ortiz. I can always script something down.
Is there an ideal setting for you to write?
I'm-a be honest: I do a lot of my writing on the toilet bowl. When I get in there, it's like a little sanctuary for me, yo. It's quiet. Sometimes I run the water, whatever eases me. I like to be at ease. I don't like loud things around me. I like the only thing for me to hear is the beat. I don't want conversations. And nobody interrupt me there. It don't smell too great in there for you to be wanting to have a conversation. So the bathroom is my sanctuary.
How difficult was it for you to get all three members of the Lox on the song "Put Some Money on It"?
Not difficult at all. They was all down for it. It was all phone calls, and every last one of them was like, "Let's do it. When?" They all sent their verses it, but it sounded like we were all in [the studio] like one big party. That's what happens when you get lyricists that get it. I don't reach out to just anyone if I'm doing joints, if I'm the one reaching out. The Lox, as a whole, hasn't done a lot in a while. They've been so branched off with their solo careers. I remember hearing "Reservoir Dogs" [by Jay-Z featuring the Lox] for the first time and being like, "What the hell is this? Who are these guys?" Or old freestyles where it was them going in and out. I wanted to recreate that whole feeling of rough Lox, one behind the other, bar after bar.
You've done a ton of collaborations. Are they better recorded together in person, or can they be just as effective through file sharing?
It can be just as good emailing files ― depending on the person. If someone's really busy, it might throw the mood of the record off, and the things they talk about might not be as relevant. If you dealing with a punchline rapper who thrives off metaphors dealing with current events and he sends his verse four months down the line, it might not make any sense anymore. When Slaughterhouse got in [the studio], it was an assembly line. There were beats being played that Crooked might be listening to; Royce might be in the corner writing to a different beat; Joe will be laying down vocals; and I'll be there zoning on concepts. We were in there for six days straight. The vibe was crazy, but I can't say we haven't come up with just as good a song from sending it around [electronically]. Like, sending a vocal to Cali and let Crook jump on this, then Detroit, Jersey and Brooklyn. It can be done right if it's done according to the music.
Anyone that you're still dying to work with?
I wanna get on a joint with Kanye. I haven't reached out to him, but he gave me a shoutout on Hot 97 ― that was really cool. So I am gonna reach out to him and see if we can do something. I've always wanted to get on a track with Andre 3000, always thought he was dope. He brings his own element to any music. I'm a Brooklynite, so I've always wanted to get on a track with Jay-Z and see how we would rattle the masses with cleverness, that Brooklyn shit.
Has anyone spit so fierce that they made you go rewrite your verse?
No. Because I always approach it with my A game anyway, and I've always felt that God made my A game enough. Now if I lollygag and I get my ass whipped on a track, I deserve it. I'm still not gonna rewrite. You gotta approach everything to try to win. I give everything my all, so I don't have to rewrite. If somebody wins, they win. This is a sport. I'm a fan first, and I'll be like, God damn it, he got me. I'm around three lyricists all day ― you're gonna get got. As long as every now and then I can be like, "Hee hee. Got you!" I'm cool. It's friendly competition, and we all embrace this.
Tell me a battle story.
EA Sports did a battle: 60 competitors, East coast, West coast, in 2004 or 2005. I won the whole battle. It started in an NBA store in the East coast and it started in a Nike store on the West coast, from 60 to 30… you know how it goes. And I battled this kid from the West coast in Niketown in the Beverly Center, and I won. It was for a demo deal with Arista Records ― Jermaine Dupri was sponsoring it ― and $10,000. And I didn't get a demo deal or 10 grand.
I don't know. Arista had went down, and Jermaine Dupri was like, "We're making a transition." I believe they were doing something with Virgin. I was really disappointed. I was a young kid. The 10 grand, I was gonna dump back into my mixtape. It's my career. I don't even do battles. My boy Max Blazer woke me up like, "Yo, there's this battle in the city. What up?" I was like, "Aiight, let's do it." So I was disappointed, but I'm past that. I'm in a whole different chapter now. It felt good 'cause I won the battle, so I'm 1-0 in battles.
Can you think of a punch line that was so dope, you wish you'd have written it?
Ah, man. No, I can't. I'd say something, but I'd be making it up.
Have you conversed with Eminem about MCing?
When we did "Session One" [together] I got a chance to briefly talk to him. We were all in music mode. Just Blaze was doing the track, and we were all writing. I can't say we really spoke about music; we just spoke about Slaughterhouse and how he respected the Slaughterhouse. He loves what we're doing. And of course I gave it back to him: "C'mon, dude, you're one of the greatest. I love everything that you've done for music." Just being in the presence of someone with so much accolades and achievements in the business I'm trying to thrive in was an experience in itself. We never chopped it up about MCing, but said he admired the way we flow, the way I flow, my passion for rhyming. I reversed it and told him what I thought about his stuff. It was brief, but it was big. I'll never forget that.
What's the official status of Slaughterhouse on Shady Records?
It's definitely happening. I can tell you 100 percent it's happening, and you can put me on record for that. Now when it's happening is another thing. You're dealing with four solo artists contractually bound to production companies and management, so it's all working itself out. It's in the business stage already; it's out of the verbal talk.
Do you have any reservations about joining Shady considering things didn't work out when you joined Aftermath as a solo artist?
No. That's one chapter, another chapter. They're totally separate to me.
They're separate, but they're both labels run by major artists who only have so much time on their hands, and they have their own recording careers to worry about, their own projects to push.
Right. But Eminem's a fan, and he's a hip-hopper first. He's a rapper. I'm finally going into a situation with a dude that gets it, and is excited about it. So it's going to be handled a lot different. I know that. When you hear something that's hot, as a rapper you're like, "Yo, everybody's gotta hear this. Let's go!" It's not like, "How are we going to roll this out?" It's more passionate.
Take me back a bit. Do you remember your very first rap?
Yeah, I remember my first rap. I'm not saying it.
C'mon. Two bars.
I called myself Kee, K-E-E. I was a kid, super-duper kid. I was like: K.E.'s wreckin' it/ I got a Tech 9, so biggedy buck buck buck, now your grill is mine! [laughs] I wrote that on my boy Liven's washing machine in the projects, yo. And we went outside, and we had an annual project day called Cooper Day, and we performed it as kids, and they went crazy. I was about 10, 11.
At what point did you realize, "OK, I have some real skill here. I can make a go of this"?
The first time I listened back to myself recorded. I went from the hottest dude in my projects to the hottest dude on my block to my area. Then I went to the studio with some dudes from my area, and we were recording stuff. And I didn't have a problem with the transition from the cipher to the booth. When I listened back, it was like, yo, this sounds crazy. And people in the studio also were like, "Dude, you sound dope." I pretty much got it really fast. Hearing myself rhyming over beats I felt like this might be for me.
What's the biggest challenge for you now?
Being the best rapper. I'm not in this for anything but that. Anyone who tells you, "Yo, I'm just trying to make ends meet"… I want to go down as the best rapper. That's my goal. I'm not setting a goal shorter than that. So that's my biggest challenge: How do I become the best rapper to ever do this?