Interview by Barbara Bohr
When I met Joell Ortiz after the sound check of his Zurich show, he showed some signs of jetlag. He and his manager Michael Herard had just arrived that morning from New York City to start his European solo tour. It was one of the foggy winter days in Zurich that does not really help to overcome a jetlag. He yawned heartily before we sat down in the backstage room. While dead serious at the beginning, he quickly cheered up and got more animated. He is perfectly aware of the fact that the signing of Slaughterhouse to Shady Records offers him his (at least, second) “moment in time” to make it to the top.
He was already dressed in the dark-blue jeans with seams in two colors and a light-orange leather jacket he would wear during the show. His sparkling brown beady eyes definitely helped me to understand his humor and revealed a rather good-natured guy that the rapper often hides behind his oversized “don’t-fuck-with-me” sunglasses. He has, indeed, great talent as a jokester – have fun reading his answers.
You’ve had an epic start into the year: Slaughterhouse was signed to Shady Records, your album Free Agent got finally released, and then this week the surprising release of a collaborative single of all new signees and Eminem with “2.0 Boys” got to the internet and caused considerable digital buzz. How does that feel?
I was surprised about the timing, too. We had recorded it and everybody was anxious when to leak it. Eminem had said he would put it out, but nobody knew when. So we opened up the websites and then it was everywhere and the reception was dope. The whole glamour after the signing has been really exciting.
After this brilliant start, what are your expectations for 2011?
I don’t have any expectations. I don’t think “expectations” is the right word. I just know how hard I’m gonna work. And you know, when you work hard, you get awarded. And I know, I’m gonna work really, really hard this year – to solidify the alter ego of a member of the super group Slaughterhouse, but also the solo artist Joell Ortiz.
Do you also plan a tour with Slaughterhouse this year?
Yeah. We are trying to get some stuff in Australia going. We are trying to do some things in Japan and also in other parts of Asia because we haven’t touched those continents so far. We are really excited about that. But, all the four of us are solo artists first, so we have to do things for us, too. The tour of Slaughterhouse will be an exciting trip for all of us.
I can imagine that all four of your have very strong personalities, being alpha men in the purest sense. How does co-operation work out?
This works out fine because I joke around (he is all smiles now). I am the funny guy and I make everybody laugh when things get intense, but we are all strong, alpha, focused on strengthening our own brand. We are all friends before music. We make sure we do not disrupt our friendship with business.
Do you have any plans outside of music, a plan B in your business strategy?
Since elementary school, I have always been a kid that wanted that others pay attention to. I’ve always been the class clown; I’ve always been the jokester. A career outside music? I did a film in 2008 called „Inside a Change“ by Rik Cordero and it gave me a chance to act. That’s always been something I’ve been interested in. I can definitely see Joell Ortiz taking his business to Hollywood for a second career. And I’ve always been a good liar, ask my mom (chuckling), so I can turn into somebody else if I need to.
Life hasn’t been so easy all the time. What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome? I just think of all the troubles with your record labels.
The hardest obstacles had nothing to do with music. The hardest thing was not to go away to school after high school. I had an academic scholarship and I decided not to go away because my mom had a drug addiction and I wanted my mom to kick the habit. And that was hard because I stood at home trying to be still active in hip-hop, do things but looking that my mom cleaned up.
With respect to music. Aftermath wasn’t that bad. And E1, oh well. We just couldn’t agree on the release dates. The big wigs didn’t believe in me. They signed me because they heard I was the hottest of the younger hip-hoppers coming from New York. I was so talked about in New York. They signed the idea rather than the person. They didn’t really believe in the person so it didn’t work out there.
But the hardest obstacle was obviously a personal one.
Who’s been supporting you in your career?
My managers, my mom – she’s been clean for like 10 years now – and (makes a pause)… the fans. All the fans that I see at the shows. I see the same faces all the time. It’s really rewarding. Take this story: There is this kid in New York that I see at all my shows and when I walk in I see him on the line together with his girl friend. I tell him to come with me and he denies saying that he is here to support me and he prefers to stay on the line like everybody else. I do this for this kind of kid. He is a stand-up kid supporting my art and he wanted to show that he was there for me, not the other way round. That feels good.
Who are your role models?
You mean music-wise? I have always been a fan of Jay-Z. I have always been a fan of Biggie Smalls. You know, I’m from Brooklyn. And those golden age rappers, may they rest in peace, were influential on me. But do you know, some weeks ago, I was at the Grammy’s for the first time. I was sitting right behind Will Smith. When his son Jayden was about to go on stage to perform with Justin Bieber I overheard him saying to his son: “This is your time. This is about you, not me. Have fun and make your dad proud.” That was just a moment to me. This was Will Smith with all the glory around him and he was still a dad. I started to do some research on Will Smith, found some inspirational speeches, telling the kids to learn reading, running. Will Smith has become an inspiration to me – as a person and as a role model.
The outcome of the Grammy’s might have been somewhat disappointing to you. Did you still party afterwards?
Yeah, we went to Jimmy Iovine’s party and we all thought that Eminem would have deserved the Grammy for Recovery, but he didn’t get it because it went to (long pause, which I had expected because it has kind of become a running gag in the industry)… I forgot the name of the group (he pretends to be thinking about the name again, prompting me to help out). We still went out and had a good time. The occasion alone was great, being among all theses celebrated and successful people. It’s a humbling experience. And my mom saw me and was so excited that I sat so close to Will Smith.
If your best friend from childhood days or your mom would have to name your most prominent character trait: What would that be?
If they got to define me with one word, they would surely say that I am silly. I am a silly guy. Music is therapeutic to me. A lot of my music comes out so serious and real because it is real. I don’t turn into anyone. It’s all pure Joell Ortiz. I’ve been through a lot of stuff and I share it because I know I’m not the only person who’s been through it. Underneath of all of that, I love to laugh. I love to smile. I am the first person to crack a joke. I’m a mediator. I’m always the one who says, it’s not that serious guys. It’s just a little argument, don’t worry about it. There are people with more material problems, like having to walk miles for getting proper drinking water. Nothing in our careers should be taken so seriously to be complaining about it. I love to laugh. I love to make jokes.
That’s good. America needs some jesters.
You’re right. (Laughing)
Allow me to ask one last question, one that many applicants have to answer during a job interview: If you could change one thing in your life, what would that be?
(He thinks for a long time and starts talking slowly) Change anything? (He continues to frown) I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I really wouldn’t change anything. I love what’s going on. The success and good fortune and the blessings that come in my way only feel as good as they do because of the hard stuff, experiencing poverty, pain, misfortune early on in my life because that way the success now feels much better, being on a cloud together with Eminem, and Slaughterhouse. I love the way things balance out. (He pauses, suddenly rises and becomes agitated) There is maybe one thing so that I can answer your question. I think I might have pursued my basketball more. I was a passionate basketball player and was really good (he starts to swing around with my iPhone, which he holds in his left hand for recording purposes so that I fear he is ready to dunk it anywhere soon). I am still active and do a pick-up game whenever I can. I am still really good, don’t be fooled about my stomach, but it’s just hard to get the ball out. Basketball was my biggest passion outside of music. Maybe I should’ve pursued that a little more (leans forward and places the iPhone back into my hands).