joell.jpg"Joell Ortiz is a Puerto Rican kid from in front of a bodega in Brooklyn that just likes rhyming.” Please allow him to introduce himself. Born in the summer of 1980, an only child to a single mother battling a drug addiction, Joell Ortiz was raised in Brooklyn’s Cooper Projects on food stamps and welfare checks. But as the young Boricua with a gift for writing rhymes grew up, he became a model student and star shooting guard at Manhattan’s Lower Eastside Prep. After graduating, though, with various scholarship offers on the table, he opted to stay home because he feared for his mother’s well-being. “If I go away to play ball at school and get this wild phone call or letter talking about, ‘Come view her…’” He shudders at the thought. “Nigga, fuck basketball! I’m not leaving my moms.”

To pay the family bills, Joell took to hustling the same stuff that had his mom stuck, honing his rhyme skills on the side. When his mom cleaned up—she’s been sober since 1999—Joell started looking at music as a serious career option. Years of days and nights at studios in and around Brooklyn and Queens yielded a 2005 mixtape, Who the F*@k Is Joell Ortiz? that showcased its author’s witty wordplay and strong sense for honest, emotive storytelling. Industry interest was piqued, and Joell started taking meetings at
record labels.

Koch Records offered a one-album deal, and papers were signed. Before the ink could dry, though, a twist of fate brought Joell’s demo CD to the place where pretty much every artist in rap music would most want their music to be: the desk of Aftermath Entertainment’s head honcho, the greatest producer in the history of hip-hop, Dr. Dre. Impressed with what he heard, Dre flew Joell out to Los Angeles. “I can’t lie, man,” says Joell, recounting his meeting. “I’m human. I’m nervous as hell. Shit! Whoa... N.W.A, nigga! Like, whoooo! I got the jitters and shit. I think I got some things to say. He comes in the room, and everything I had prepared flew right out my shit. He’s like, ‘What up,’ and I’m like, ‘What up.’ And that nigga like, ‘I love the music. It speaks for itself.’ He stopped and paused. ‘So if you want to be Aftermath, then let me know.’ I’m like, Oh shit, so this is it? He said to have my people call his and get the paperwork together. ‘Welcome to the family.’” (A deal was worked out that let Koch release Joell’s acclaimed The Brick: Bodega Chronicles this past April.)

That day in L.A., a rapper whose dreams had just come true stepped outside of the Aftermath offices and called his mom back home in New York. “‘Ma, I’m on Aftermath.’ To hear her scream with joy, ‘Get out of here!’ She’s ecstatic on the other line.” Joell Ortiz smiles. “I ain’t make the wrong decision. We won!”