SPOTLIGHT: Joell Ortiz
Brooklyn’s “new something to be proud of”
by Tony Scarangella
YAOWA (pronounced: YAOW-AH!!!)
The word/sound rapper Joell Ortiz proclaims on almost all his tracks. Not a giggle, not just a “zy” at the end of his name; “Yaowa” is what an often inebriated neighbor would say to Joell back in the day. It’s short for “Yo, what’s up?” and has become Joell’s adopted brand. YAOWA…
A friend recently made me a mix of random Joell Ortiz tracks. After blasting it from my car stereo for several days I asked myself, what makes an artist hot? Please don’t try and sell me on mass appeal. I’m talking about the emcees whose metaphors and punch lines pierce deep inside you with effortless consistency. It’s obviously not an inordinate number of spins that brings the heat. It’s not a high priced feature. It’s definitely not a blockbuster deal at a major label. It’s not a sub-woofer shaking beat by “Name UR Filthy-Rich Producer” filled with screeches, horns, and laser sounds. None of these thermometers accurately measure a rappers temperature because none even get a reading for Joell Ortiz. Yet “Mr. YAOWA” brings some of the most smoldering lines to the mic in recent memory.
You might have heard him get unconscious on his remix of “Beemer, Benz, or Bentley” and if you did the chances are the jock never even said his name. Ortiz, a native son of Brooklyn, is doing his best to breathe life into hip-hop. He’s finding that without major label support and a club banger he’s left making mix tapes and freestyles. Mix tapes and freestyles that have more heat than most rappers albums but in perspective are never heard. His freestyle on the “Lemonade” beat makes me wish Gucci Mane was never born. Whether it’s writing a “Letter to Sanaa” (actress, Sanaa Lathan; Ortiz calls her his “orange soda”) or giving you “Food For Thought” about the music he loves; Ortiz combines intelligence, authenticity, and a flow that won’t quit. His style is distinctly and refreshingly Big Apple, even reminding other artists, “…if you from the East Coast act like you’re from here.” So, if Joell Oritz is murdering tracks without fail, why isn’t there a single on the radio or a video snuck into MTV’s limited music programming? One likely answer, the music industry is a ravenous beast that swallows souls.
In 2004, at age 24, Ortiz won the EA Sports Battle. The victory earned his song “Mean Business” a slot on the soundtrack of NBA Live 2005. His success at the battle was also supposed to grant him a roster spot on Jermaine Dupri’s label, SO SO DEF. The deal was quickly voided by Dupri, who soon after signed BET “Freestyle Friday” emcee, Sonny. I can picture an aggressive yet subtle “Come on son!” from Ed Lover. Ortiz put out his first studio album, The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, in 2007 with Koch/E1; even though he was signed to Dr Dre’s Aftermath at the time. While waiting with the rest of us for Detox, Ortiz was let out of his Interscope deal. Though as quickly as the Music Gods giveth, they taketh away. As a member of the rap super-group Slaughterhouse (along with Joe Budden, Royce Da 5-9, and Crooked I) Joell continues to meet resistance from the industry, all while Slaughterhouses abilities are universally praised. With four talented lyricists going in on every verse, it’s no surprise Shady Aftermath was interested in the group. Unfortunately for Ortiz he still owes one album to E1, who isn’t as willing as the Doctor to let its artists explore new possibilities.
“I think the longer you do this, the more you realize that it’s not a talent contest”, Nasa told me. The rapper/producer/label owner of Uncommon Records has a unique view on the landscape of the music industry. He’s been running his own underground label since 2004. Like any good TV cop would, Nasa insisted I follow the money. “In the underground even, there are a lot of emcees and producers that get more light…because they’ve hired a PR firm and the PR firm is sending payola to blogs and radio stations.” Sensing the crushing tone in his email, Nasa concluded, “It happens every day.”
In a 2005 interview with TheStateOfHipHop.com Ortiz explains, “Sometimes I feel like, I should get on cause of pure skill but it’s not like that…” As a self proclaimed “fan first” of hip-hop Ortiz loves the artistry, storytelling, and vibe most closely associated with the early 90’s. The attitude, intellect, and street wise confidence are all there. As a result, Joell Ortiz doesn’t fit the mold used to cookie cut “the new sensations [that] try to get you with a dance”, to borrow from “Food For Thought”. Maybe that’s a good thing. Some might argue it’s the best thing.
According to Ortiz via his MySpace page, “You can’t get nowhere with industry buzz… you get hot from the interns who might still live at the projects.” I asked my friend, up and coming producer, Don V from Krush Grove Music his opinion on Ortiz. I asked with great anticipation, hoping we could share a few moments bigging up Joell and trashing other rappers. My friend replied with, “Eh, my whole thing is, make a hit.” I was shocked. I thought if anyone could separate having a top selling record and actually being talented it would be a record producer. What came first, the hot rapper or the hot track, and who decides? Dope lyricists still exist yet so few get put on.
If the fact that he uses his birth name isn’t evidence enough, one thing should be blatantly clear when you listen to the man who seems to get cleverer by the verse. Joell Ortiz is at all times himself, a true artist with heat that’ll make you want to summer on the sun. However, in this game making it to the heights of fame, fortune, and celebrity has little to do with talent. That’s great news for almost everyone on the Hot-100. Prepare yourselves, Joell Ortiz is coming.