WORDS KRIS EX
IMAGES CHRISTOPHER BEYER
Dominick “Crooked I” Wickliffe and Joell Ortiz are on a balcony of the Grafton on Sunset, a boutique hotel on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. For Wickliffe, who grew up 45 minutes away in Long Beach, it’s a homecoming (of sorts); for Ortiz, it’s a glimpse of a possible future (of sorts). The hotel proudly and non-ironically markets itself as “meant for the dreamers, the rock stars, the hipsters and you,” which is the sort of the glamorous douchebaggery that makes L.A. L.A. “I might just stay here,” says Ortiz, before adding as clarification, “in Hollywood.” Full stop. Then: “They want me to read for scripts, all types of shit. Like, dude, it’s unbelievable. Like, other shit, bro—other shit.”
It’s the first time in the past hour that Ortiz, a first generation Puerto Rican-American who was raised in the pre-gentrified wastelands of Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg (Cooper Park Houses, to be exact), has seemed genuinely agog. Much like the rap persona that’s made him one of the more engaging personas putting words over beats on the current music scene, he’s been occasionally pensive, consistently boisterous, sometimes defensive, always forthcoming and pretty hilarious. But now there’s a pure and somewhat heavy wonder as he thinks about the future of his career: “How do you think Joell on Shady would look, though? After Slaughterhouse?”
You want to tell him it seems to be a fait accompli, because Slaughterhouse—the quartet he forms with Wickliffe, Joe Budden and Ryan Montgomery, aka Royce Da 5’9”—is already signed to Marshall Mathers’ Shady Records. And even though “the phones haven’t stopped ringing [with requests] for Joell [to go] independent” from the “big dogs,” Ortiz’s “free-agent” status doesn’t fool anyone. Once Slaughterhouse’s drops welcome to: Our House—their major label debut, which should easily fulfill the promise of the group’s self-titled independent release from 2009—Ortiz will most likely announce his individual affiliation with Shady and/or Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s Aftermath (where he was once signed), or some other situation secured under the umbrella of Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records. But that’s from the outside looking in.
From the inside, it’s a different look. From the inside, Ortiz is a guy who was academic enough to skip the ninth grade, only to turn down a full basketball scholarship to college in order to help get his mom off drugs, only to start selling drugs himself when his high-school girlfriend became pregnant with his first son. From the inside, he’s a guy that’s been on the periphery of rap success for over a decade. In between releasing independent albums, mixtapes and a 12-inch vinyl (going by the stage name Quikman, he released music with Philadelphia rapper Pretty Ugly on Rawkus Records about a dozen years ago). He was recruited by Dr. Dre—a man considered by many to be hip-hop’s greatest producer, past or present—in 2006 only to be told his Aftermath debut would have to wait until after the release of Young’s next album, Detox, which (even then) had been “coming soon” almost as long as Ortiz himself had been rapping. “That wasn’t the best business move for me,” Ortiz confesses. “So I asked Mr. Young if we could part ways, and he played ball all the way. He expressed how much a plan he had for me as an artist—he wanted me to sit tight, but he understood and he allowed me to shake free.”
This explains why Ortiz is not pressed about details of the release of his next album. He says it’s tentatively titled after his personal catcall, mantra and nickname: Yaowa. But as for: “Where? I don’t know and I don’t care. When? I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m really focused on Slaughterhouse right now. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I love it.”
As well he should. By signing Slaughterhouse and treating the act as a priority, Eminem—undoubtedly one of wordsport’s greatest technicians, who also just happens to be one of rap’s most commercially dependable figures—has done the improbable, the absurd and the unexpected (which, if you think about it, is exactly what you’d expect him to do): He’s given a group of guys who view rap in the primary colors of poetry, substance and slick talk a seat at the big boys’ table, where conversations about art, meaning and form are rare and cursory. Even the marquee names that get credited as being word connoisseurs aren’t purebred verbal demons à la Slaughterhouse: Jay-Z is a hustler-turned-businessman who doesn’t use a pen, Lil Wayne is a Martian, The Notorious B.I.G. is dead. But Slaughterhouse are rappity-rap rappers’ rappers who are also your favorite street rappers’ favorite rappity rappers. They’re the kids who grew up too smart to care about being cool yet were too street- savvy to ever be nerds and too outside the lines to fit into any box. Which is why, when they came into adulthood and got major-label record deals, they found themselves exiled to the Island of Misfit Toys known as Internets. The fact that they’re still alive at all is a wonder.
“I think it’s just a testament,” says Crooked I. “You have to have an inspiration on every level. You’re gonna be inspired by the dude who goes straight to the league; you gon’ be inspired by the motherfucker who had to work his ass off to get to the league. If I happen to be the guy who has to work his ass off, I’m cool with that, because I know that somebody out there is gonna wanna fuckin’ give up, but then they’re gonna remember, Well, it took this dude this amount of time and he finally got his shine. I remember Bun B told me a couple of years ago, ‘This has been my biggest year in my whole career.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, you been in the game a looong time, dawg.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah. Imagine if I woulda stopped before this year.’”
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