by Justin Moore
Quarter Water: n. A drink made up of sugar, water and food coloring that only costs 25Â¢ and can be found at any corner store or “bodega” in the country. Quarter Waters are a symbol of the hood and the hunger and hustle that’s apart of it. Joell Ortiz embodies that hunger and hustle. Although he has a fresh new deal with Aftermath Records and his debut, The Brick (The Bodega Chronicles) is dropping on Koch in a month, don’t get it twisted, Joell is just like you and me. He’s a Hip-Hop head from Brooklyn that happens to have an incredible gift on the mic. Read about his struggle to make a name for himself, how it felt to meet Dr. Dre and why you’re more likely to see him on your block with a Quarter Water than a bottle at the club.
HipHopSite: What’s going on? What’s the latest with you?
Joell Ortiz: My day to day is crazy. From waking up, to writing, to going to studios to lay it down, and getting producers to bring in more beats. I’m doing radio drops and phone calls. It’s just real busy, but this is what I signed up for.
HHS: How does it feel to be a wanted man?
JO: [Laughs] You gotta be happy that you wanted dude and that people are actually caring about what’s going on in your life. At the same time, when you look at it, it’s really flattering.
HHS: My introduction to Joell Ortiz came from an unexpected spot. I was playing NBA Live and heard your song. Come to find out that you won a battle and was offered a spot on the soundtrack. What was that experience like?
JO: Aww man, that was huge. You’re talking about 20 million people that buy this game and many of them are hood and underground people. And for me, I’m an NBA Live fan myself so it was crazy. I ain’t gonna lie, I put my song up against the other songs on the game and I was like, “man, I got one of the best songs on here.” [laughs]
HHS: Like many of today’s artists, you use the internet to help build your fan base. Why do you feel the internet is so important to your career?
JO: The internet gives you one-on-one with the fans that you can’t get otherwise. It helps put a face to the name for people who can’t get access to me. That s**t is real instrumental in my career and I see a lot of artists who didn’t do it before [take advantage of the internet] doing it now. But remember that Joell Ortiz was one of the first to know that it’s important to get that one-on-one with the fans. I only put out one mixtape, so I had to use the internet to keep my name out there.
HHS: You have definitely made your mark with your mixtape and for many rappers, it has been difficult to make the transition to a full-length LP. How is your album going to compare to your mixtape?
JO: If I can sum up my album in one word, it’ll be real. Nothing changes. From the mixtape to the album, same kid, same Joell Ortiz. It’s gonna be like that with all my records because you never fix anything that ain’t broke. It won’t be a big difference. Obviously bigger production with bigger producers because of who I’m signed to, but it’s the same feeling. Every album that I make is going to be another mixtape that’s just called an album.
HHS: Talk to me about your debut album, “The Brick (The Bodega Chronicles)”. What can we expect to hear on it? Who’s doing the beats? Who’d you get in the booth?
JO: You got Showbiz, Premier and Alchemist on the beat. Rass Kass, Akon, Big Noyd on the joint. I was just so happy to be doing an album that I wanted everyone that I thought was real to be apart of it.
HHS: Why name it “The Bodega Chronicles”?
JO: I named it that because you’re getting that Puerto Rican kid that’s been in front of the store and has seen everything. The kid that did some things that he isn’t proud of, the kid that seen the hustlers, murderers and the everyday Joe. Basically my album is a picture of the front of the corner store.
HHS: I have to ask. If you’ve got $5 at the bodega, what are you leaving with?
JO: [Laughs] It depends on what time of day. If I’m hungry, probably a beef patty. If I’m thirsty, probably a Snapple. If I want a snack, then definitely a Slim Jim beef jerky. And if I run out of money then I’m stealin’ something [Laughs]
HHS. Last year you hooked up with Dr. Dre and signed to Aftermath? How did all of this come about?
JO: My management got in touch with Dre’s assistant and she called back and said “Dre really loves this kid.” We were like okay cool. Then she said, “No, no. You don’t understand. Dre wants to fly this kid out A.S.A.P.” So we were on a plane and in two days, I walk in the studio with Dre and I’m just crazy excited. He told me that he liked my music and just wanted to make sure I wasn’t a knucklehead and wasn’t involved in any beefs or things like that. I just told him that I’m a good kid that’s lookin’ for an opportunity and he said, “Welcome to Aftermath.” I couldn’t believe it. It took 10 years to get to this point.
HHS: Your first album isn’t coming out on Aftermath though. It’s coming out on Koch. Who made the decision to go independent first before the major release?
JO: We did. Myself and my management. By going independent you build a fan base and you also build leverage if you do well that you can use to get a major deal. That’s how we planned it, but Dre showed so much interest that he signed me on the spot and said that we could do whatever we wanted with the Koch release. I was gonna do The Brick first then approach the labels with this fan base but Dre really wanted me to be on Aftermath. So it worked out nice for me.
HHS: A lot of fans think that people get famous overnight, talk about the grind that it takes to become successful in this business?
JO: I wish people know how hard it was…. but when they hear The Brick, they’ll get some of it. They’ll get some of that grind, some of that blood sweat and tears that got me here. Cuz anybody that got anything going in this music business worked for it and probably shed a few tears like I did. Feeling like, “I can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet.” I’ve been around the block and back, I’ve been co-signed by pioneers and I want people to know that I didn’t just hand in a CD and got signed. I did a lot of groundwork that put me in a position to be signed.
HHS: Was there ever a time that you wanted to quit?
JO: Man, I’ve come out of meetings where they would love my music but would say things like “he’s too chubby.” And I’m like, “are we listening to the same music?” “You mean to tell me I’m not gonna get on because of marketing?” There were times where I was like, “maybe this s**t ain’t meant for me.” I even told myself, I won’t give up on music, maybe I’m just a writer. Even just saying that makes my hairs stand up. To know how close I was to just saying I’m gonna write for other people. I started thinking about my moms and all of the people that I would be letting down and it would be selfish for me to just throw it away so I just stuck with it and I got two deals when people didn’t think I deserved one.
HHS: Being a very lyrical artist, how do you plan to get commercial success in an industry where dope lines come second to catchy hooks and dance moves?
JO: I’m not going to even try. The commercial thing is gonna come get me. Even the dudes doing the commercial thing ain’t happy. I’ve met all of them and they talk about their music in a down way. The reason it’s this way is because there’s so much more money involved. The jewels, cars, MTV Cribs are involved so dudes are making flashier songs trying to get paid. And if dudes want to do that then fine, let them do it. But what I do is tell great producers to bring up a beat and I rip it. I don’t point songs in any direction. That’s the mistake that a lot of artists are making. They are pointing songs in a certain direction. It was never like that before. Songs were just laid down and that was it. What happened with them happened. Now when producers ask rappers what they want, they say, “I’m lookin’ for that club joint.” That’s not Hip-Hop. The songs that you hear from me in the club are songs that just happened to get there, not because I told you to “Put your drinks down and put your hands up” or “Shorty got a fatty like a model with a bottle.” You’ll like Joell Ortiz if you like emcees, period.
HHS: What rappers do you check for and who inspired you to start rapping?
JO: Well I’m a little bit younger so dudes like Biggie, Nas and Jay[-Z]. I’m not afraid to give props to people still doing it because I’m a fan first. Even when Canibus came around, I was like “damn!” Talk about someone who just lets off when the beat dropped. I’ve always liked how Nas was so conceptual and he had that you can’t f**k with me attitude. That’s the competitive feeling that I miss. Dudes would rather say meet me on the street on some beef s**t than try to be beat people on the mic. Beef for me is meet me in front of S.O.B’s [Underground Hip-Hop spot in NYC] and bring your tightest 16.
HHS: For the people who’ve never heard of Joell Ortiz, what’s the one thing that they need to know that makes you different from everyone else out there?
JO: That Joell Ortiz is one of you. And I take pride in that. When you read about Joell Ortiz, you reading about the kid that probably sat next to you in class. The same dude that went out and bought albums like you guys do, the kid that looks on the internet for what’s hot. The kid that ain’t excited about the state of anything in Hip-Hop. I tell this to people all the time, I’m nothing more than a fan with a deal. Once you start feelin’ like you’re better than people, you lose yourself man. I’m just a fan.
HHS: Leave one.
JO: Yo, April 24th, Joell Ortiz The Brick (The Bodega Chronicles). Go get that. Hip-Hop ain’t never dead…. it just took a little nap. [Laughs]
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