Simply put, Joell Ortiz is a good dude. Large in physique, clad in black jeans, a black hoodie and black Nikes, New York hip-hop’s latest last-best-hope looks fully capable of bone crushing. But as soon as the 6-foot 2-inch, 220-pound Brooklyn-born rapper talks, intimidation gives way to disarming warmness.
Laughs and smiles abound in a midsized office in Koch Records’ Big Apple headquarters the day after the thriving indie label threw an album-release party for his independent debut, The Brick (Bodega Chronicles), at the downtown club S.O.B.’s. Ortiz, walking past those waiting outside, recognized a loyal fan he’d seen at several past shows. “I was like, ‘I’m pulling you in. You aren’t paying,’” says the 26-year-old Ortiz. “But he was like, ‘No, I’m paying!’ He got back on line and waited!”
Loyal support has come easy to Ortiz. Over the past two years, the Puerto Rican spitter has amassed a devoted following through grassroots promotion, intimate audience interaction and lyrically sharp, NYCentric music. Representing a once-dominant city that’s now struggling to anoint a fresh, undeniable rap star, Ortiz is committed to accessibility. He’ll never shrug off a chance for a handshake or ignore shouted props on the street.
Today, in fact, closeness to his ever-growing fan base is something Ortiz literally wears with pride. Hours before an in-store signing at lower Manhattan’s legendary vinyl shop Fat Beats, he explains his aforementioned choice of a black hoodie (“Hustlers and Hardcore” is written in red across the chest). “I was actually in the barbershop, like earlier today,” he says. “And this kid saw our tour bus parked. He opened his trunk and asked my manager if I’d wear this hoodie he designed. And now I’m wearing it to an interview.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Cooper Projects, Ortiz grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood (“That’s why I don’t speak Spanish well,” he says), with only his mother, Michelle Ortiz, present since his second birthday. A star both in the classroom (SAT score: 1390) and on the basketball court (varsity averages: 19 points/8 assists a game), the Puerto Rock was on a straight path at Manhattan’s Lower Eastside Prep.
However, a sudden shock in his home life sidetracked his college plans: His mother had developed an addiction to drugs. “Once I became aware, I put things on hold and stayed home with her,” says Ortiz, who had received letters expressing interest from Division 1 hoops schools like Louisville, Iona and Georgia Tech. “I’m her only son. I couldn’t let her go down the drain.” Ironically, to make ends meet, Ortiz started hustling the same products that had his mom hooked. “That gave her a little cushion,” he explains. “Like, ‘You can’t condemn me. You’re hustling!’” Fortunately, in August 1999, she kicked the habit. “She came in my room one day and said, ‘I’m done,’” he recalls, noting that she celebrates the date every year with an anniversary cake.
Ortiz cleaned up, too, taking to the streets in a more productive way. A longtime dabbler in battle raps, he got serious in street-corner ciphers and drew the attention of neighborhood hip-hop heads. Local producer Dennis Wynn brought him into Queens’ Hydra studios to hone his skills. The green MC got better, and Wynn took on a management role. But then, early 2000, Wynn caught a five-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute. “Just like that,” says Ortiz. “My loyalty was tested again. It’s like some higher power was punking me.”