Things are looking up for Slaughterhouse, the crew of super-lyricists comprised of Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden, Royce da 5'9" and Crooked I. Each one of the Slaughterhouse Four has had his low points, his broken label deal or regrettable rap beef. But today is a new day. Hit refresh. Rejuvenate. The future looks neon bright for the representatives of hip-hop's rich breeding grounds: Brooklyn, Jersey, Detroit, Los Angeles. Slaughterhouse has officially signed to Eminem's Shady Records, appearing alongside the Grammy winner and new signee Yelawolf on the March cover of XXL and on the internet heater "Shady 2.0" Toss in a tight new self-titled EP, and the table is set for 2011 to be the year of Slaughterhouse. Wack MCs, beware. To paraphrase their latest single, Joey, Crook, Royce and Ortiz are back on the scene, crispy and mean.

Things are going great now, but all the members of Slaughterhouse have been signed to major deals that eventually fizzled. Was there a point where you felt like giving up on music?
Joe Budden: I was always creative as far as gathering new ideas and new concepts, but I just began feeling like it was pointless to record or make music. People fail to realize, once 2004 hit, I was living life as an unsigned artist. I had absolutely no attention, no feedback. I didn't have an A&R, no budget. I didn't have shit at Def Jam. I don't want to dwell on a part of my life that's over and done with, but I was unsigned. When you're unsigned, I had to focus on life more so than music, or life began to interrupt music. That's the case with a lot of unsigned rappers. I definitely thought about doing something else. But the reality is that music is a passion of mine, and that passion wouldn't go away even if I tried to make it.

Joell, do you have any reservations about joining Shady considering things didn't work out when you joined Aftermath as a solo artist?
Joell Ortiz: 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.
Joell: 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.

Have you conversed with Eminem about emceeing?
Joell: When we did "Session One" [the first Slaughterhouse-Eminem collaboration] 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 emceeing, 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.

During a BET interview Eminem mentioned you, Royce, among a select few artists making good rap music today. What was your take on Eminem's verses from the D12 song "How Come"?
Royce da 5'9": A lot of people told me, "I think it's about you." But when I heard the song, the hook if anything I thought could be about me, but I didn't think any of the verses were. I didn't think so, and I listened to it verbatim, but the hook definitely sounded like something that could pertain to me and Em's relationship.

The Crooked I story often begins with talk of the underrated artist who signed to Death Row but never dropped an album. Do you regret signing with them?
Crooked I: Nah. I don't make a lot decisions on the spur of the moment. If it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't. And that was a well-thought-out decision. At the time, hip-hop on the West coast was pretty much dead as far as the music industry, not on the street corners and the parks. We weren't putting up the numbers that we were, Tupac was rest in peace, so a lot of the attention was taken away from the West coast. We were being blamed for the deaths of Biggie and Pac, so the industry didn't want to mess with us. I went to a lot of different labels; they didn't want to put the marketing dollars that it takes to give somebody a chance to sell 100,000 records. The climate was horrible. I was independent and doing well, so when I went in to talk to Suge [Knight], he was like, "Yo, I don't want none of your publishing. I'll give you a great advance. I'll market you with every dollar I got, and I'll give you an album where you can say what you want to say. It doesn't have to be about making a hit." I thought about the pros and cons, but at the end of the day I made a decision and I stuck with it.

How does the Slaughterhouse creative process work?
Royce: Since there are four of us, the beats come quick because everyone's coming to the table with something. We have producers coming through all day. So if a beat come on and everybody react to it at the same time, it's safe to say that's one we should be writing to. As far as the verses, everyone's trying their best to come with their A game, rhyme at the height of their ability because they're competing with the next man, the next MC. So very rarely does someone have to rewrite something. Nine times out of ten, if that artist feels his verse isn't as good as the rest, he's gonna rewrite it anyway. We don't have to tell each other to rewrite. It came real easy. In six days we did the [first] album.

Were you all together for those six days?
Royce: We were all together. Before we started the six-day process, there was a couple songs ― I might start one, or Joe might start one, and then send it and have everybody else do their verse. But that was only a couple songs, and a lot of those didn't make the album.

Is it wise to have a group project and be pursing your solo careers at the same time?
Royce: I thought about that, man. I'm back and forth with it. Sometimes I think the Slaughterhouse album might drown [my solo career] out because of the buzz that's surrounding it. I don't think it's gonna matter, because everybody else [in the group] is putting out projects, too. We just keep ourselves fresh. And the Slaughterhouse sound is so different from my solo album sound that I don't think it's gonna matter.

Whose idea was it to form Slaughterhouse in the first place? You're all from different cities.
Royce: Nobody's in particular. Joey had a beat that he wanted us all to get on for his project, and he reached out to everybody. Once everybody laid their verses and the song ["Slaughterhouse"] hit the internet, how crazy the response was to it is what made everybody feel we should do more records. We formed from there and didn't look back.

You guys have moments where you turn into beasts on the mic. What brings out such focus and hunger when you step in the recording booth?
Royce: I matured into that. I matured into a more focused, hungry, fine-tuned machine. I had a lot of play in me eight, nine years ago; I played around too much. I was just a kid enjoying all these overwhelming experiences. It was a little much for me. One by one, God started to take stuff away from me ― and He gave me so much. Once I started noticing the pattern of what was going on and my career started to spiral, I had to make the conscious decision to turn stuff around. Stay focused, stay hungry no matter what comes my way, no matter how much money I'm getting. And I think I've been doing that so far.

How difficult is it to get amped up to deliver a fierce verse?
Royce: It's hard to get amped up to go record when I have nothing, when I have no beats that I'm really excited about. It's hard to just go to the studio and figure out something. By the same token, I usually have music. If I don't have anything, I gotta go through some mixes or make changes to songs I already have done. But when I finally get in there and get into what I'm doing, that inspires me. I'm always glad that I decided to go [to the studio], because I could've just stayed home.
Joe: If you ask me, all of my verses are the best of all time. [laughs] When my mind is set on one particular topic or I'm feeling some type of way about something, the best verses come out that way.

Do you write every day?
Royce: Not every day. I don't have the time when I'm on the road. But when I'm recording an album or a mixtape, I'll pretty much write every day.

Joell, you often record even while touring. How do you do it?
Joell: 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.

How do you stay creative on the road? Travel can make you exhausted. You're off your routine, you don't eat properly….
Joell: 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 bets 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.

Crooked, how did you develop your skills as a pure lyricist on the West coast, especially Long Beach, when the West is often overlooked as a lyrical hotbed?
Crooked I: There's a lot of that goes on in the West. We had a café called the Good Life Café, where a lot of rappers used to come and battle, just like another spot called Project Blowed in the Leimert Park area. These were places MCs came to. If you were just a mainstream rapper, you would want to stay away from these kind of places. That right there is just shadowboxing, slapboxing, sparring and sharpening your skills. When I was young, I used to go to my homeboy's house and we would just freestyle. We had a day of the week where every week we're gonna come over here and freestyle. There's still a lot of artists out here like that, but they don't get the light. And that's one of my missions: to unify the separate genres of music as far as hip-hop. A gangster rapper and a backpacker ― there's a thin line between those two dudes. A lot of these backpack MCs are still out on the streets. They might not gangbang, but they're in the streets. And a lot of these gangster rappers want to be skilled. So I'm trying to pull those two worlds together. And me just wanting to be better and compete on high levels, that's what made me sharpen my skills.

Did you attend Good Life?
Crooked: I used to go to Good Life all the time. As a matter of fact, one time I was up there and Kurupt was up there. Kurupt came through, and he had a cousin named Enemy. And his cousin Enemy was real dope, and me and Enemy sat there and battled forever.

Who won?
Crooked: I'm 100-0.

What's your most memorable battle?
Joe: I don't remember the kid's name, but he was a white boy. This was in either Harlem or Brooklyn. He was running through everybody, and I was running through everybody. But he was actually freeestyling; I had a bunch of verses ― I wasn't freestyling. Me and him ended up in the finals, and he ended up winning. He didn't tear me up, but he definitely ended up winning. He was really, really dope. I wish I remembered his name, because apparently he's been tearing people up for quite some time. I think he still does it to this day…. I also remember going up to Harlem, across the street from Apollo, when The Source was doing this big battle, and I couldn't get in because I had just found out about it that morning. Me and a friend of mine, who also rapped, we couldn't get in, so we stood outside and battled a bunch of rappers who were waiting to get in. We tore all of 'em up.
Crooked: You got some battles where you really don't like this dude in front of you and you want to crush him, but then you got some where maybe a radio DJ puts you in position like, "I like how you rap, and I like how this guy raps. Why don't you kick a few raps and see who raps the best?" There was one time I was on Sway and Tech's Wake Up Show out here, and DJ Clark Kent was on. Wu-Tang was up there with a lot of their young guns, Killer Bees and different guys they were trying to bring out at the time. Outlawz was up there; Ras Kass was up there. There was, like, 50 rappers up there, just a gang of rappers. I sat back and listened to about 30 rappers rhyme, and when the mic came to me… I don't know. I just had an out-of-body experience and went so bazerko that they were like, "Yo, that's it. We're ending the show with that rap." A lot of people didn't get to rhyme after that. They were like, "We don't want to hear anybody rhyme after that, but records." People were mad, lookin' at me out the corner of their eye, but I just had to show and prove. And that was one of my favourite verses. I can't remember the verse right now, but that changed my career because Sway and Tech were like, "Yo, we gotta get this dude up here more often." I became one of the Wake Up Show top guys based on that first rhyme that I ripped that day.

What has the Wake Up Show done for freestyling?
Crooked: The Wake Up Show has done a whole lot for that. They don't get enough props, especially from artists who would've never been on the radio if it wasn't for the Wake Up Show. I got all the respect in the world for Eminem, but I never would've heard of Eminem if it wasn't for the Wake Up Show.
Joe: I started out freestyling. We used to get high, start ciphering and just kick it, but that eventually turned into writing. Some of those verses that I first wrote were really, really bad [meaning bad]. As wack as I thought I was, I was getting recognized in my area, in Jersey City, so I just kept at it and continued to do it. Eventually I had built up the confidence to walk into any cipher, anywhere and just rap. All I wanted to do was rap, and I was crushing dudes. That eventually led to me just driving and trying to jump into different ciphers and battles, whatever was going on at the time. I was there trying to rap.

Is it harder for you to write proper songs than just spitting 125 bars aimed purely at damaging emcees?
Joell: 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.
Joe: I make it a point to go out and buy a certain type of pad from Staples ― I don't remember the name of the pad, but whatever type of pad it is, it holds 36 bars per page. So I never count the bars; I'll just stop at the fifth or fourth page, and it always turns out long that way. I never premeditate when I rap for six, seven, eight minutes; it just kinda happens that way.

Have you ever had writer's block?
Royce: Very rarely, but I have. I think every MC has at one point or another. If it happens to me, I step away from it for while and go home and try again another day. I've tried to force things before, and it doesn't work out. I don't even do that to myself anymore.
Joe: Those days are over for me.
Joell: 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.

Do you remember your very first rap, Royce?
Royce: I don't. I don't even remember what year that was, so much has happened since then. I used to write other people's songs down and try to rap them better than them. But I can't even remember songs I wrote three, four years ago. I was a huge Redman fan. I remember there was one point where I sounded exactly like Redman. Before I really started, I used to mimic people. And I think that's why my delivery is so diverse now. I honed that skill back then ― being able to change my voice to different pitches and doing other people's flows. So when I started defining myself, once I got around Em[inem] and found myself, I was able to do so many different flows because I came up doing it. That whole era, it's like a blur. It went so fast.

Why is it so blurry?
Royce: Once I turned 19, things got so serious. Everything before, all the open mics, I remember having a lot of fun; I just don't remember specific things from that time. My brain is on overload, all the people I met, all the experiences I've had, how many cities I've been to, how many songs I've done. My brain is selective on what it'll remember. I'm sure there's things that can happen that'll jog my memory. Em brought up a few things [in conversation] where I was like, "I don't even remember that." Remember when we did such and such? "Man, I don not remember."
Joell: I remember my first rap, but 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.

Is there an ideal setting for you to write?
Joell: 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.

You've done a ton of collaborations. Are they better recorded together in person, or can they be just as effective through file sharing?
Joell: It can be just as good e-mailing 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 punch line 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.

What's the biggest challenge for you now?
Joell: 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?

Do you have the respect you deserve?
Joe: Not yet. It's on its way, though, slowly but surely. Just consistency on my part. It'll take me performing at my highest level for a long time. It's on its way. I'm not too worried about anything going on in hip-hop. I worry about myself and my music and my last effort and try to continuously get better. If you do that, everything else will fall in line.