Joell Ortiz admits that Slaughterhouse’s success has added an unshakeable qualifier to his name. He is now, as much as a solitary rapper from Brooklyn, a quarter of the group. And while he seems as committed as ever to that growing brand, his latest album reclaims a persistent solo career.
More than a decade ago Joell was a hungry artist on the come-up and landing a guest spot on Kool G Rap’s The Giancana Story in 2002 was a validation of his underground appeal. His first album was in the same vein: hard-hitting and autobiographical. Even before the 2007 release, he’d tallied enough industry letdowns to seem partially disenchanted.
Speaking with HipHopDX he’s nearly unwilling to talk about his second album, Free Agent, tersely calling it a “disaster” with “good intentions.” A year after his departure from Aftermath, the project seemed like a microcosm for Joell’s industry frustrations: quality material shelved for too long before a botched release. House Slippers is only his third full-length, but some of his signature and most characteristic songs have come packaged in mixtapes or independently released EP’s along the way.
Ortiz credits Slaughterhouse as his post-Free Agent career redirect, an opportunity to run, perhaps away from the hurdles he’d become so disillusioned with as a solo artist around the same time. Half a decade later, the group has cemented their own brand in complex lyricism, and Joell allows that he may have even rapped himself into a box. With the success of the Total Slaughter Battle Rap venture, the group and Shady Records have locked themselves even more deeply into a subsect of the niche. But Joell seems bent on taking back his solo career as well, wistful about the catharsis evident in his best work.
Longtime fans of the Brick Bodega rapper will have gleaned the type of personal details that rarely arise in interviews, that his son has asthma or his mother diabetes and gritty details about his childhood. Ahead of the new album release, the rapper explains why House Slippers is a return to a different Joell.
“Music has always been my out,” he says. “When life got rough and things weren’t going right or when things were great, I just always wrote. I always turned to the beat. I haven’t done that for four years. This is long overdue. I’m excited about this album coming out for the fans, but I’m excited about it for me too.”
Joell Ortiz Describes Penalty Entertainment As An Indie Acting Major
DX: I was looking back in preparation for this interview and saw that you were in the “Unsigned Hype” column of The Source in March of 2004. Obviously that’s more than 10 years ago now. With the new release, does Penalty Entertainment seem like the right fit for you?
Joell Ortiz: This is great, to be honest with you. For a long time, when you’re coming into the music game, the major record label deal is what you’re chasing. But it can be a gift and a curse if you’re not properly ready or things don’t swing your way, things won’t pan out. Hence my Aftermath situation where I felt like we had a lot of steam at that time. I was told to wait on an album or two before I came out. I asked to be released from that. With Penalty relaunching and it being indie and everything being out of pocket and just grinding on our own and chasing this down ourselves, it’s just awesome. Neil Levine is a great guy, and I thank him for bringing this project over there and being a fan first and everything. It’s a good thing. Everything is happening organically and naturally. I have no complaints man. This is gonna be a fun ride.
DX: In that light, how does it feel to be one of the artists involved with this relaunch? Obviously Penalty goes way back, releasing music from everyone from Lord Finesse, to Noreaga, to the Beatnuts and all sorts of artists. How does it feel in 2014 to bring the label forward?
Joell Ortiz: Man, it feels great. Penalty is responsible for a lot of classic Hip Hop. CNN is one of the things that comes to mind off-the-top. To welcome them back to Penalty is awesome as well. To be [there] is an honor. The people that you named, in my book, they’re class act guys and class act Hip Hop artists. I’m just flattered to be honest with you. I’ll be much more flattered when we can destroy everything and records are selling and we’re selling out shows, doing a ton of things on that level. Which I see in the near future. It’s a blessing. Yeah man, Neil is excited again. We all have this attitude—no one’s saying it—like, “Watch us prove everyone wrong even though we’re being rooted for,” if that makes sense. We just got that back-against-the-wall attitude. I swear on many levels, ‘cause I had a major record deal, it feels like we’re an indie acting like a major. That is just crazy to me.
Why Joell Ortiz Says His Bigger Sound Isn’t Swinging For Radio Play
DX: You spoke with HipHopDX earlier this year and that interview has actually been one of the most popular on the site for 2014. I think the topic of health and exercise resonated in an industry that is sometimes associated with unhealthy living. Is this album a direct result of some of these lifestyle changes that you’ve been pretty vocal about?
Joell Ortiz: Oh yeah. I mean, first of all, when I made those health changes—which were to stop drinking for two years, to workout and diet, to stop smoking cigarettes—when I made those changes, I started seeing clearer. There’s a high that comes on naturally from the body when it’s not being polluted. It affected my songwriting. It affected the content. It affected the things I chose to speak about. It made me grow up and mature in so many different ways, all very fast. When I approached this album, I didn’t think about what to talk about. It was just kind of there and in front of me. So you’re gonna learn some things about Joell Ortiz on this album. I took chances with records.
For so long I wanted to make sure my core was touched through hard bars, lyricism, head-nod music, metaphors, and cadences and flows. I don’t sacrifice or compromise those things on this album, but I do have records, such as the B.o.B. single “Music Saved My Life” where I am just rhyming over bigger sounding beats and doing celebrative records. Sometimes fans can get afraid, like, “Man, he’s leaving us. He’s swinging for the radio.” That’s not the case. You know, when you make these kind of life changes and you look up and you look and feel different, in general you know you’re a different person, you wanna talk about that. I did that on a couple of songs. I’m in a good place right now. For a large portion of my career, I felt like I had to scrap and remind everybody, “I’m ill! I’m super ill.”
Early on in my career they were booking me for Latin Rap venues, saying, “He’s nice for a Puerto Rican.” I always had something to prove. This is the one time I feel like I’m validated and verified by pioneers. Everybody knows that when you get Joell Ortiz on the track it’s great lyrics, good content, and a good performance overall. I didn’t beat myself up trying to stress that. I talked about some more personal things. I collaborated with people like B.o.B. and my homegirl Kaydence and tried to make some of those records where it’s not so raw. It’s not that beat-you-up-in-your face Hip Hop, backpack, box that for so long I feel like I’ve lived in because I’ve rapped myself into that. Which is fine, when I’m remembered I want to be remembered as one of the better lyricists in Hip Hop, so that’s fine by me. This album I also want to gain new fans. I also want to tell people where I’m at now, mentally, how I feel. I want people to really learn more stuff about Joell, and I feel like this album, due to the life changes I’ve made, will display that stuff.
DX: Are “Music Saved My Life” and “House Slippers” examples of what you’re talking about with regard to the sound? Neither are a departure completely, but they seem like opportunities to pick up new fans.
Joell Ortiz: That’s exactly what seems to be happening right now. It’s not at all a departure to be honest with you. It’s more like, “Let’s get on another flight.” We’ve been riding around on the bus for so many years, the Joell Ortiz brand and its core, but it has grown. So it’s like, “C’mon, we don’t gotta get on this bus no more, let’s get on this flight. Come fuck with me over here.” Everybody’s rooting for it…They’re rallying behind things like “Music Saved My Life” and “House Slippers.” They’re not feeling like I left them behind, which is awesome and which is why I feel like I got some of the greatest fans ever. They watched me grow. They seen my story. They know what it is. They know how hard it was for us to get in. They know how hard they had to argue in barbershops. This ride is not like, “Hey, I’m out. Thanks for the support.” It’s like, “Ready? Let’s board this vehicle and keep it pushing.” They wanna see me in the big arena. For so long they felt like I was bigger than some of the bigger names. The argument was always solely, “Let’s go rhyme-for-rhyme.” Now finally they can say, “Okay, what about this record versus this record?” It just gives them more fuel to argue about.
DX: There always seem to be that split between wanting your favorite artist to remain a secret and wanting your favorite artist to get put on. It sounds as though you’re managing that balance.
Joell Ortiz: Yeah, it’s good. I read comments. I’m in tune with my core, and I’m in tune with new followers and new fans. I can see that delicate balance. You’ll always get your one or two that are like, “C’mon, man. Your album cover looks like you’re an R&B singer.” [Laughs] Then you’ll have 150 that’ll be like, “So proud of you, dog. I been telling dudes forever.” You also know that the one or two guys that are commenting [negatively], it’s only because they care. So it’s all a blessing anyway. It’s beautiful, that’s all I can say.
DX: Speaking of the cover, I’ve read you talking about the title in other interviews. It seems like you’re just saying that you’re at home, both with yourself and in the industry.
Joell Ortiz: I’m just in a comfortable place. When I’m at home the most comfortable state for me is in my house slippers and a pair of gym shorts and probably a tank top. That’s how I felt with this album. Like I said earlier, I didn’t think about necessarily what I had to talk about. It was just kind of flowing off. It was comfortable, it was natural. I was at home with this album. Hence the title, House Slippers. To be honest, I’m really excited with what’s about to come. My fans are about to embark on a new adventure with me. It’s all set up to be right on all fronts. We grew up together. That’s what it feels like. So when you see me on the cover, and I’m buttoned up, and I got a pair of slacks that fit well, it’s because I grew up. My fans from 2004 grew up with me. They were there with the Champion hoodies and Timberlands, and that’s what I was doing when I came in. Now, I’m a parent. I’m a man on many levels, I take care of my family through this music. I lost weight, and I want to show that, and I want to feel good about myself. It’s just a change. Sometimes people can be afraid. Some others embrace it, but everybody will end up coming along ‘cause I never compromised my fans, I never sacrificed my talent to spearhead the change. The change came from within. It came from working out. It came from decisions to not drink and not smoke. It didn’t come from, “Hey man, let’s dumb down on these lyrics so we can get some radio spins.” I never did that. The music has got bigger with the production from the Heatmakerz and !llmind. The music matches my bars now which is making it a good marriage and making deejays be like, “I can spin this. This feels good.” The feature from B.o.B. also familiarizes with me and my brand at radio.
DX: Through everything you have always struck me as someone that really just wants to rap, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about not compromising for a chance at radio spins.
Joell Ortiz: You always gotta work. There’s nothing that could happen that could make you be like, “Alright, cool.” In actuality I think right now I’m gonna work the hardest I’ve ever worked because things are in place. There’s a bunch of little fires that I started. People knowing Joell Ortiz as this good rapping kid out of Brooklyn, Spanish, all that stuff is there. Deejays that were fans are still fans, because every time I drop something it says that. It tells that story. They’ve been wanting to support me on such a bigger level but the music itself didn’t match what gets spun on radio. I would get a lookout, a spin here or there just solely based on, “I’m a fan of this guy. This guy’s dope.” Now, with the “Music Saved My Life” single, it’s still a dope record. The things I’m talking about are honest, everybody can relate, and now the music matches it. [For deejays] it’s like, “Hey, finally I can say, ‘New Joell Ortiz’ confidently and not have to look over my shoulder like, is my boss gonna say, ‘Why are you spinning this?’” Now I have to work even harder because I need to let fans know I’m not leaving. We still here.
I’m always gonna rap. Like I did the other day, I went up to Hot 97 and I told Ebro, I said, “Listen, I love doing interviews, it’s great. But when my fans get me on this kind of forum they want to hear bars.” So I have to give bars. That’s what I do. It’s cool, we could talk about the record, but we could talk about that when we leave. That’s how y’all could look out for me. Right now, while I’m up here, I gotta look out for my fans. That’s giving them bars. That’s why every chance I get I drop a freestyle or get up on radio, and on these shows and I rhyme. I really love it, and I love the excitement that my fans get. I embrace it. When I get on the road this time, I’m really gonna go hard. I feel like that window where you leave from the “underground” and just become a dope artist but still are underground is open now. It’s open right, right now. People are paying attention right now. It’s been a long time. Anything is timing. Time is constant. When it’s time, it will happen. For so long people next to me—family, friends, even music people—were telling me, “If you lose weight you’ll feel better. The opportunities would open up as far as endorsements.” It took me to want to lose weight to do it. The time is right now. Everything is in place.
DX: You talked about rhyming about your life. That seems to be something you’ve done throughout your career but maybe the tone has changed. One of my favorite songs of yours was “How To Change,” and that’s one of those examples of a track where you share everything, good and bad.
Joell Ortiz: Yeah, you’re right. When you think about it in that way I’ve always been transparent. If you ask a Joell Ortiz fan about Joell Ortiz, he could pretty much tell you everything. I always tell you who I am. I guess this time around some things have changed. It’s an update.
Joell Ortiz Talks Balancing Slaughterhouse With His Solo Career
DX: As a part of the group, was releasing this solo album a strategic decision with regard to timing? I know Glass House is still on the way as well, but as you’ve been saying, this is a very personal record about you yourself.
Joell Ortiz: To be honest with you, Glass House has been done for quite some time now. We moved it because of the success of Total Slaughter, the Battle Rap reality show we just did alongside Fuse and Electus. I been away from me, Joell Ortiz, for too long. We all came into Slaughterhouse as solo artists. It made sense to the world to call us a supergroup because of who we were individually. That’s my first love, man. I’m my first love. Joell Ortiz is my first, first love. I love recording with Slaughterhouse, I love touring with them. I love surprise pop-ups from Eminem and being at the studio with those guys, but I miss me. You know?
To be honest with you, I got on the phone with them and was like, “Yo man, I’m working on an album. I just got some things I gotta get off my chest.” And everybody was so supportive, man. All my group members, Shady. Just, “Do you. Get that going.” It felt good to hear that from them. With it happening and things rolling out the right way I don’t see how that won’t just help everything. It will only help Slaughterhouse and the Glass House album. It will only help Road To Total Slaughter and whoever drops next it’s just good things. The Slaughterhouse brand has gotten so big that I can’t do anything without them saying, “Slaughterhouse’s own, Joell Ortiz.” [Laughs] I can’t shake that brand, nor would I want to. But I miss Joell. I miss talking about me, I miss the stories from my projects. I miss songs that I think I’m writing for everybody else that end up being just therapeutic to me. Music has always been my out. When life got rough and things weren’t going right or when things were great, I just always wrote. I always turned to the beat. I haven’t done that for four years. This is long overdue. I’m excited about this album coming out for the fans, but I’m excited about it for me too. I mean, I have the album, and y’all don’t have it yet. [Laughs] I ride around with it all day, like, “Woohoo! This is that Joell shit right here.” I’m just pumped about that to be honest with you.
DX: I was looking back and Joe Budden’s Halfway House was released almost six years ago. That was the first track where you all rapped together, but weren’t a group yet obviously. Then Free Agent came out in ‘09. Did you think that Slaughterhouse would last this long?
Joell Ortiz: This is it right here. Free Agent leaked. There was a whole bunch of label issues with that. Free Agent was a disaster. I don’t even wanna invite that energy into what’s going on now, so I won’t talk about it. It was a good album, and it had good intentions. But it didn’t pan out for a lot of different reasons that had nothing to do with music. Then Slaughterhouse happened, well, Slaughterhouse was already happening. But that just made me be like, “You know what? Let me ride this Slaughterhouse thing ‘cause I hate the way this panned out for Free Agent. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be.” Then Slaughterhouse got legs of its own. Then that day came when I was like, “Where are you? Not the one-fourth of this group, where are you bro?”
We’re in such a fast-paced, Internet-driven world, I don’t wanna be forgotten. I don’t want my new fans to move on, like, “Yeah, I remember that. That’s when I was in high-school.” Not when I’m still able to rhyme at such a high level. I gotta get back to that. I kind of got selfish with this one. I’m happy that I got support from everybody, but that also didn’t matter to me. This is something that I’m doing for me and my fans and that’s it. I don’t care if it flops. I need to get this off my chest and I need my fans to hear me rhyming well. That’s it.
Forget everything else. I don’t really care. I’ll do these interviews ‘cause I’m talking to my fans through these outlets. I really don’t care though. Just make good music. I want a word-of-mouth album. I don’t want a mad-hyped so it spiked the first week and then second week looked like nothing [album]. Whoever supported me first week, tell somebody else and second week looks the same because the album is good.
I don’t have any gimmicks. I was talking to somebody before the album. They were like, “We gotta do something besides music to get you talked about.” I know it came from a place of love, but I don’t have any gimmicks. I don’t dress a certain way. I dress very clean. I don’t smoke weed, or I can’t tell fans, “Light a blunt with me!” I’m not a heavy drinker. All I got is rhymes and people who like the way I rhyme. So that’s what I gotta do. I gotta make sure that the music sounds good. That’s my in. That’s it.
Why Joell Ortiz Says Total Slaughter 2 Has Bigger Things in Store
DX: You mentioned the Total Slaughter event earlier. I was at the event doing some coverage and it struck me how big of a production it was for Battle Rap. What was that experience like for you with one of your partners battling in the headline matchup?
Joell Ortiz: It was great being there. All of us, we’re all fans of that battle scene. We like that stuff because first and foremost it’s rhymes. Forget about the stage that it’s on, it’s just like who got iller rhymes and who can deliver it. It’s all emcee when you talk about battling, so emcees are gonna salute that and try to move the culture forward. That’s what we did with Total Slaughter. There’s so much that goes into a battles that kids don’t see sometimes. There’s the behind-the-scenes, the crumpling the paper, the doing your research on your opponent. You try to find a different cadence and flow and approach, maybe an outfit. Maybe a prop. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into battles now, and they’re like theatrical plays. We just wanted more people to see it. We have ways and people around us that could put it on in a different way, so it doesn’t just have to live on YouTube or a website. We bring it to Pay-per-view. Season 2 we’re thinking about doing even bigger things. So many other people wanna be involved. Celebrity Rap acts want to rap battle. Signed artists are like, “Man, I would tear this dude’s head off in your ring.” It’s amazing what’s happening. There’s so much that you’re gonna see in Season 2. But to be there, as an emcee, I can say that was the first official battle I was at. I’ve been at battles before and I’ve even been in one or two but not like that. Not produced that well. That stage is huge.
The battlers were saying too, “You look off and there’s a camera to your left, your right, above you, below you.” Television is so much more different than somebody just standing there and you know which mic to rhyme into and you know what’s going on. There’s so much more that goes into television production. You got polished battlers that were feeling like they were stepping into their first battle. It’s crazy though. Man, I feel like battling brings the kid out of everybody. I was standing there like, “Mook did it to Lux!” It just makes everybody 15 again. I can’t wait for Season 2, nor can the guys.
DX: From everything you said about the upcoming album, it sounds like it was a very organic process putting it together. What’s been the highlight for you? Whether it’s a verse or song or general aspect of the project itself.
Joell Ortiz: I’m happy the way this happened. It started out with me and !llmind working on a record towards what might be an album. That session turned into somebody coming downstairs saying, “Yo, the Heatmakerz are upstairs. They got word that Joell’s here. Could you stop up after this session and meet?” I went upstairs after doing the !llmind record, which is on this album, and I met the Heatmakerz. We recorded a record that landed on this album that same day too. I never got out of that studio. That kind of stuff is rare. We just kicked it as music people, vibed, and it felt like I knew these guys my whole career. They were fans. Them executive producing never came up. They just did so much for this album and contributed so much that they earned that. When it came time to start talking about that, I’m like, “Yo, you guys executive produce.” They opened up their doors and studio, and we made songs on the spot, and created beats from scratch. It just happened so naturally. It just feels like that.
There’s a song on there called “Say Yes.” That’s probably my personal favorite ‘cause it’s just one of those tracks where I’m just talking about me. I’m just talking about the changes I’ve made, the mistakes I’ve made, some of the good times. It’s just a therapeutic record. Every now and again I make one of those, and they’re one of my favorites because of what they say to me when I listen to it. Like I said, this is a fast-paced world, not just music, just life. Sometimes you need to celebrate where you are because you remember where you came from. I couldn’t forget where I came from if I wanted to, ‘cause I made those kind of records that I can listen to when things get cloudy, and it’ll clear everything right back up for me. “Say Yes” is one of those records. That’s a highlight on my album because that record was writing itself. [Laughs]