You don’t have to remind Rap fans about Joell Ortiz’s credentials. But here they are anyway: one quarter of Slaughterhouse, Brooklyn-bred emcee and a low key solo career that doesn’t get enough shine. On July 17, he’s adding to it with Human, his first project with one producer and it’s none other than !llmind. Ortiz and Ill make a pretty good team—the heavy-hitting posse cut “Latino Pt. 2” and the aggressive “Lil’ Piggies” are strong teasers that have us begging for more. Their chemistry expands outside of music: they’re actually friends who let everything happen organically, as they made Human in only a few months after frequent impromptu sessions. The results are proof that Ortiz doesn’t need much from a producer other than innovative enough beats to push his pen on the pad a bit harder.

Last month, HipHopDX was invited to Ill’s studio in Bedstuy, which is also the headquarters for his Roseville Music Group. Ortiz and Ill were chilling and playing ping-pong with anyone who wanted to step up for a friendly game. After a few rounds, we headed to Ill’s trippy studio set-up—a dark lounge area with nothing but strobe lights reflecting different colors in the visible spectrum. There’s a reason why Ill calls it “The Freak Show.” In our lengthy conversation, they discuss how they met, the concept of Human, expectations for the album, the trend of a surprise release in Hip Hop, and whether or not we should still consider them underdogs. Cheat sheet: They aren’t.

Joell Ortiz & !llmind Explain The Lead-Up To Their Work Together On Human

DX: How did you guys meet?

!llmind: We actually met through a mutual friend, the homie Statik Selektah. Statik had a session at his old crib in Bushwick. So at the time, Statik and this artist named Jared Evan were working on a project called Boom Bap & Blues. They called me into mix the album. I went to Statik’s crib and Jared was there. I rolled in and Joell just so happened to be there on his way out cause him and Statik had a session previous.

We met and we kind of hit it off. I asked him if he could stay a little bit longer and I played him some tracks. It was good because I think we kind of always wanted to work. There would be situation where we would run into each other and that so happened to be the situation. We hit it off and ended up working from there and building from there. I ended up working on his House Slippers album. And from there, the work just hasn’t stopped.

DX: This is the first producer you’ve worked with one-on-one. Was it easy or difficult to do?

Joell Ortiz: Aw man, it was just fun, hooking up with him in the studio. The lights [Laughs] making you feel some type of way right off the rip. And, the music matching and sounding good. Just feeling good and having a blast. I think the best music is made when it is not thought about. Whatever the vibe is, we just roll with rush. ‘Yo, play some stuff. It’s crazy. You know what I’d do here? Yeah, maybe if you do this.’ Just all like creative and good vibes. It was a cinch to work with him. We finished this album relatively quickly. We recorded 12 records and 11 made the album.

!llmind: It was crazy because we would go in and make a song with no preconceived notions of the kind of song or let’s do an album. ‘Yo, let’s get up. Let’s do a song.’ Yo, do you wanna get up tomorrow?’ ‘Cool, boom. How’s the next week looking?’ And it ended up becoming a project. Every song we did, we sort of went with the flow and we kind of like loved every song that it ended up being a situation where 12 records recorded, 11 ended up being the album. It wasn’t us recording 80, 90 songs and picking the best ones. There was just a special vibe. I don’t know—the stars aligned.

DX: What does the title Human mean?

Joell Ortiz: We’re human just like everybody else that’s gonna listen to this album. It’s an honest album. Me and him we’re in there vibing. We didn’t target an audience. We didn’t script the tracklist. We didn’t do anything except be human beings in the studio, rocking out together. Ill played music when we first got into this album, which I didn’t know it’d be an album originally. Our interactions were as regular as can be. For many years, I’ve hooked up with producers. And it’s like, here’s a beat CD. Or, ‘I got one. I got a joint!’

!llmind: Like, hyping you up on it. You have to do this one.

Joell Ortiz: Like, ‘Yo, when I thought of you? I thought of [this].’ And they are rocking it and selling it to you. When I got up with Ill, it was like, ‘Yo, about fucking time, right?’ It was just human. It was just as fucking cool as can be. That was the whole vibe of this album. Of course, there are some records on there that reflect different emotions because nobody is walking around all damn jolly all day. So you’ll get anger, and you’ll get aggression. All in all, you’ll get imperfection and we’re OK with that.

We always talked about and when this goes out [and] the kid who hated it. We’re like, ‘Yes! At least he felt strongly about it.’ Its fine, but we wanted to capture this human moment. You know, it’s just two friends in the studio that’s been in a long time coming for us to work together. What better title than Human? This is for the people, by the people.

DX: As industry veterans, do you think that gets lost? How artists work together as friends rather than professionals?

!llmind: I don’t think it’s gone and I don’t think it’s a matter of us championing it and bringing it back. But, I will say the approach me and Joell took with this album was our attitude toward the album and our passion for the album. I could see that lacking with certain people. I also see that thriving in certain people too. I feel like both sides of the fence exist now. I just want to be part of this side of the fence and kind of make that clear and spread that message across.

When you think of music creation and the word collaboration, human beings were made to be social. And when it comes to creating music, human beings were meant to create with other human beings.  And I realized that as a music producer, or as a beatmaker in the beginning, you are sort of with your machine and in your room with your headphones on and you’re inspiring yourself and you’re creating yourself.

But the moment that I realized that I needed to start going out and actually being a music producer with other people, collaborating with people that play guitar, collaborating with pianists and songwriters and rappers. And then I realized this is what it is like to make music. You make it with people. As long as people get that message, then I am happy.

DX: What are some of the differences between Human and House Slippers?

Joell Ortiz: Just being in that emotional bag. Recognizing the moment and the time. Not so much figuring out what needs to be recorded and what needs to be on an album because it didn’t take shape of an album until it was damn-near done. So we said, ‘Yo, we got a goddamn album here!’ [Laughs]. As long as it’s not business before recreation, it’s gonna feel fun. And House Slippers was amazing and shout out to The Heatmakerz for being there and opening their doors and us rocking out and getting that album out. Everything is important for what you do next. Everything. We are already talking about recording on the road because that’s just what we do.

Joell Ortiz & !llmind Talk Surprise Releases in Hip Hop

DX: You guys announced Human with little build up. What are your thoughts on the trend of surprise releases in Hip Hop? Does the traditional roll out still work or does a surprise release help build anticipation?

Joell Ortiz: I think we caught the middle without trying. Nothing about this album was conference calls and meetings. It was all creating music and rolling with rush. Once we realized that we had an album on our hands, it was like, ‘Alright cool, you down to do an album?’ Like, we’ve done it. You want it to be an album? ‘Alright, cool. Let’s announce.’ And then that happening and being like, ‘Alright, cool. Maybe we should leak a joint off of it? Yo, Puerto Rican parade approaching. Let’s put out ‘Latino Pt.2’ out.’ Just everything is just happening organically. That date lined up with the handing in of the album. That’s the reason that’s the date. That wasn’t a big old meeting. It’s just like, ‘Yo, this is a perfect time to put this album out.’ Capturing the moment, recognizing the time, and delivering the music. Not the big ol’ traditional textbook [way]. We did an album together and we want y’all to hear it.

!llmind: At the end of the day, do what you want to do, as long as it’s in the form of music that people can hear – awesome. I would say statistically and from an analytical standpoint, putting a surprise thing out is beneficial if you have a huge audience. If you are nobody and you put an album out that no one cares about, that’s counterproductive. The surprise release thing is surprising. It’s cool.

Joell Ortiz: No rollout, no surprise, no anything matters if the music isn’t good. The most concentrated on subject here should be making a good piece of work. How that gets out? Alright, that’s cool. That’s on you. Whatever we release tomorrow and it goes out and it just like hmm then that’s it. Whether we have a big campaign rolling out and it’s just alright and it’s just hmm and it’s still gonna be hmm. But if people get to it and it’s like, ‘Yo, did you check that Human out? It’s kinda fresh.’ Or, the other way, ‘That’s trash!’ But it makes you feel? Then you have accomplished something.

!llmind: I think that’s a big part of the name and theme behind the project Human is like when you think of human, you think of emotion. That’s exactly what we are trying to pull, not only from us but from people that want to hear it. You want to pull extreme emotion. You want people to feel a certain type of way when they hear it. We don’t want them to hear it and say, ‘You know, it was alright. It was decent.’ We want you to be obsessed with it or to hate it. We want people to say, ‘Yo, I fucking hate that album.’ As long as it makes you feel a kind of way, then we are happy.

On Human’s Singles “Latino Pt. 2” & “Lil Piggies” 

DX: In the album’s intro, Joell, you say that you wanted to elaborate on your story a little more.

Joell Ortiz: Yeah, being a part of a group is wonderful and I love my brothers. Shout out to Royce, Crooked, Joe and Em over at Shady. I love doing that. But I came into this individually and telling my story is my first passion. It’s my first love, it’s my first crush. Finding out who I was and finding out my individuality and my little spec on the wall of Hip Hop. Like, it matters so much to me. Anytime I can totally me idea-wise and creative wise. You know, take the lead and finish cause Slaughterhouse is one big relay race. It’s super fun. It took on this whole life. It’s a whole another animal when it comes to Joell and the Slaughterhouse fans get a different Joell sometimes because I contribute as a quarter of a group and it might be an idea that has been spearheaded by a Royce or Joe. And I follow lead and I’m like, ‘Alright cool. Here’s what Joell would do to this.’

But on Human, on House Slippers, on The Brick. It’s me. I like to get off when I can. Things off my chest. Things that have happened in my life that might not fit the Slaughterhouse theme. It just always feels good to make the music that you initially want to make. Listen back to it and learn something else about you. I’ve noticed in my career that sometimes I’m in that moment and I’m writing some stuff down. It’s usually very personal. I don’t put that out there, I don’t really care. And it ends up being a song to myself without even knowing. Those honest ass songs get felt by people who feel you. Who can relate. Human is the most relatable word I know.

DX: How did Latino Pt. 2 come together?

Joell Ortiz: “Latino” was on the original, my first debut album, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles. It was just a very proud, Latin record. Every now and then I sprinkle in my set somewhere and someone is like ‘Oh, he did that?’ You know just one of those joints like, ‘That’s how you feel?’ Being that I had Bodega Bamz, Chris Rivers, Emilio Rojas, Latino brothers on there. You know, it just makes sense to make a sequel to that. Ill added the retarded, uptempo stupid bounce that required no chorus for you to still remain. It just fit so well. Shout out to boys—Bodega, Emilo and Chris Rivers for being on their grind. I just wanted to embrace them and give them a platform to shine.

!llmind: They actually recorded it separately. They all recorded it in their comfort zone, but the track was pretty much self-explanatory.  I know Joell called them individually and there were some brainstorming happening. For the most part, it was very organic in the sense of ‘Yo, Emilio you are really good at what you do, do you. Bamz do you. Chris, do you.’ It just kind of all worked out.

DX: What’s the single, “Lil Piggies,” about?

Joell Ortiz: We want to lead strongly and evoke emotion immediately. And we feel that record isn’t an in one ear, and out the other record. It’s definitely one that you are going to like …

!llmind: You are going to definitely, definitely feel a certain type of way from what he’s saying to who he’s saying it to, to what he’s talking about. And then the beat is like ‘Whoa,!llmind did this?’ It’s just like a statement sort of song and again with that record…I feel like every record on the album does this. But with that particular record, it’s a good representation of pulling some kind of extreme emotion from it.

Joell Ortiz: And to speak to his point, every record makes you feel a way. We are just electing to select aggression as the first representation of the album. It’s a strong emotion and we wanted to lead out strong.

Joell Ortiz and !llmind On Whether They Still Feel Like Underdogs in Rap 

DX: Do you guys consider yourselves underdogs at this point in your careers?

!llmind: Really it just depends on what their perspective is and what their definition of underdog is. You don’t know how many times, like for me, you are referring to me as a veteran.  I feel like a beginner.  That’s just my own personal perspective. From your perspective, I’m a veteran. From my perspective, I’ve have so much more to accomplish and I feel like I’m just getting started.

Joell Ortiz: Veterans are like they are back from war right? We’re still fighting. I’m not a vet. I’m on the frontline. I’m still out here reppin. When I’m gone and they are carrying me, ‘Yo, that’s a vet dude.’ I’m never making music, I love it too much. I want to tour. I’m trying to be like Bon Jovi.

!llmind: There are `so many levels because there’s always more. When you think of Drake, for instance, he’s not even 30. He’s just starting but he’s sort of a veteran. But for him, it’s a journey. As long as he’s passionate about it, he’s gonna want to make more music. He’s gonna want to win more Grammys. We feel the same way. We are passionate about this so we don’t know exactly what the future holds but we know that it’s about a journey. And what we are accomplishing now.