When critics pondered hip-hop’s future back in 2007, Joell Ortiz responded with a barrage of punchlines linked together on a resounding track titled "Hip-Hop." The song has since become an anthem for the genre and one of the most pivotal moments in Ortiz’s career.

Every single line that he has written down means something to him, and the 2008 XXL Freshman can now boast a catalogue filled with thought-provoking lyrics that inspire cheers at concerts and countless comments on YouTube. Whether he’s flexing on a freestyle or responding to a demoralizing diss track, Ortiz is out to assault the airwaves, whether on a solo track or standing tall alongside his Slaughterhouse cohorts Royca Da 5'9", Crooked I and Joe Budden. With a solo album, House Slippers, and two Slaughterhouse projects—a mixtape, House Rules, due out any day, and a third group album executive produced by Just Blaze—all on the horizon, the hard-hitting Brooklyn MC broke down 11 of his most lyrical tracks, telling the stories behind each. —Christopher Harris

joell ortiz

"Battle Cry"

Album: Free Agent (2011)
Joell Ortiz: "Battle Cry" was one of those special songs because my pen never stopped moving and that only happened a couple times in my career, where I put the first line down and I just can’t stop writing. "Battle Cry" was one of those moments. 'Til this day, even when I perform that, it does something to me. I watch the energy in the crowd escalate. I feel the chills and it just feels like something when the music comes on and you hear Just Blaze say, "J.B., Joell Ortiz."; something happens, and that’s just one of those records. It’s not my favorite track to perform, but it’s definitely one of my favorite moments in the show. That’s probably pound-for-pound one of my better displays of just wit, cadence, and aggression. There’s a lot of things happening in that 100 bars. "Battle Cry" is going to be one of my all time favorites.

Joell Ortiz

"Run This Town (Freestyle)"

Album: N/A (2009)
Joell Ortiz: "Run This Town? [Laughs] That was on the back of a tour bus. I think we were on the Tech N9ne tour. Slaughterhouse was on tour with Tech N9ne at the time and I was working on a mixtape, Road Kill. At that time, I was just rhyming over any beat I wanted to rhyme over, and I just really liked that beat. I remember, me and DJ Frequency went to the back of the bus, and I was like, "I want to do 'Run This Town,'" and he was like, "Alright, cool." He found the beat and I just started going in, having fun. That’s what that freestyle is to me. I have all these things in the computer and when I listen to that one it just feels like fun. That’s the first word that comes to mind with that freestyle.

Joell Ortiz


Album: The Brick: Bodega Chronicles (2007)
Joell Ortiz: When I wrote "Hip-Hop," it was the answer to the many questions I was receiving from all kind of media outlets. "What do you feel about the state of hip-hop? How do you feel about the state of hip-hop in New York?" This was around the time when they were saying, "Is hip-hop dead?" They had the Nas record out, it was a bunch going on. I was tired of answering that same question and it was starting to get dry to me, and I just wrote that record and I started like, "I ain’t trying to bring New York back, I’m just that breath of fresh air, that good ol’ NY rap." You can’t bring something back by discussing it, you just gotta do what’s missing. So my answer to the question was like, here goes a track titled "Hip-Hop." Now, you guys answer me, do you feel like hip-hop is back? If you hear a track like this, shouldn’t it answer the very question that you’re asking me?

"Hip-Hop" is my favorite record to perform on stage, because that gets every hand in the air. That gets every oooh and ahhh. That record stamps a time in my career; that’s one of the biggest moments in my career. As you can see, the video [is] with me standing in front of the corner store, shot by Dan the Man. The raunchiness of the car, the beer, the 40 oz; that record means a lot to me. And it was a single off of my first album, and it wasn’t even like...it was just a two-track. The dude that produced it was somebody in my neighborhood and they couldn’t even find the actual session on his files, so we just released it as a two-track. That’s hip-hop in every sense of the word.

Joell Ortiz

"Roll Deep"

Album: Funkmaster Flex Who You Mad At? Me Or Yourself? (2013)
Joell Ortiz: "Roll Deep" was my first visual after my weight loss. I think about that when I see that video. It was the first time anybody had really seen me after my workout regiment and I had stopped smoking and drinking and stuff like that. We shot part of the video in Puerto Rico with my homie Tego Calderon. I remember him being like, "Yo, where the hell did you go?" I was like, "Yo, I made a couple of life changes." He was like, this is good. You look healthy in spirit and in the physical. That was the first time I moved around the island with Tego and really soaked up my heritage. That was the record that allowed me to do that. I always feel good about making a "Proud Of Being Puerto Rican" record, because they just sit well with my soul. "Roll Deep" is one of those moments where I remember Flex launched his app and it was a part of that Flex mixtape. People were hyped, like, "Ohh, they got Joell with a Puerto Rican song on the Flex tape, that’s crazy!" It was just good stuff. "Roll Deep" is definitely one of those joints I think about and smile.

Joell Ortiz


Album: The Brick: Bodega Chronicles (2007)
Joell Ortiz: "Latino" happened organically. I was with my manager Dennis at his mom’s crib in Del Tuna, Florida. Just the way she moved around that house, the way she cleaned and cooked and catered to us when we were out there. I tell you she inspired that record—now that I think back, she definitely inspired that record. I remember when the beat came in my e-mail, I was like, this is crazy. I gotta write something that’s going to make my people smile. I started looking around in my head for that theme. I wanted that song to be a visual, like, you listen to it but you see it. So I started looking around my neighborhood and in my head, and I would look at Dennis’ mom and just see a Puerto Rican woman handling the household. I wrote that record in 40 minutes probably, top to bottom. It just felt right. That’s another song I perform and right off the rip you know who’s Puerto Rican. Whoever’s Puerto Rican, even Latino in that crowd, they just identify with that one right off the rip. You gotta represent when you hear the truth.

Joell Ortiz

"Make It Without You"

Album: Road Kill (2009)
Joell Ortiz: Well, "Make It Without You" is self-explanatory. I lost my Grandmom’s on tour, almost five years ago. I always turn to my pen in whatever situation. When I’m happy, I write. When I’m sad, I write. When I’m excited, I write. When I’m sitting around the house and I’m listening to beats, I end up writing. That situation was no different. I turned to my pen to be therapeutic at the moment. I was out on the road and I got that phone call. I immediately booked the next flight out and got back to New York and started handling funeral arrangements with my mom. I got back on the road because I know my grandma would’ve wanted me to get back on the road. So we buried her and I mourned for like two or three days and I got back on the road. I got back to recording the tape that I was recording in the back of that bus and I ended up writing "Make It Without You." It was the first thing on the top of my mind. I couldn’t get to anything else other than that. I had to address that. My mind wouldn’t let me start thinking about flows until I did something in honor of my grandmother. And that’s what "Make It Without You" is.

Joell Ortiz

"125 Part 4"

Album: The Brick: Bodega Chronicles (2007)
Joell Ortiz: "Wake up, wake up the first is here." You know what? I was telling my mans, when we first started putting together the tour for House Slippers and I start getting on the road solo again, I want to incorporate that in my show somehow. I want to have a much longer show, almost play-like, and making that song one of those moments, because that song always evokes a celebrated energy for me. "Yo dude, look where you came from, look where you at." Not in a bragging way, just in a celebratory, "Thank God" way. I remember waking up like, "Yes, it’s the first of the month, my mom is going to get a check. Here come the food stamps, I can go to the arcade and the pizza shop." That’s all I looked forward to as a kid was the first; the first was like Christmas.

Now, there’s so much more that God has allowed me to see through this music. So much more traveling, so much more opportunity, my mom’s life is different. Everything through this music. And on "125 pt. 4," I’m just zoning about the things I want you to celebrate, and the hurt and just the struggle. I’m so happy that I don’t have to, my mom doesn’t have to, my children don’t have to, my friends...we don’t have to do that anymore. There’s something better for all of us, and we’re living it.

Joell Ortiz

"Big Pun’s Back"

Album: N/A (2011)
Joell Ortiz: [Laughs] My whole career I’ve always tried to give it up to Big Pun. I mean, there is no Joell Ortiz without Big Pun. The guy was phenomenal, man. The guy was easily top five with just the pen. I just remember hearing him and saying to myself, "That dude is Puerto Rican?" That dude is nice, like really, really nice. He can hang with anybody. And me being Puerto Rican, it’s only right. You gotta celebrate that moment like, alright cool, we here. Don’t get it twisted. Fat Joe was repping and shit like that, but yo, we here, we ain’t going nowhere. When hip-hop started and it was breakdance and just beatbox, we was there. We’ve been there since the beginning, and Pun was the first time where I was like, "Wow!" This dude is definitely taking his craft very, very seriously.

I remember when Pun’s wife asked me to perform on his birthday with his urn on the stage. Yeah, I performed with Pun’s ashes. I’ll never ever forget that. For so long, just the fact that I’m Puerto Rican and at the time I was very, very heavy, people was like, "You the new Pun, you Pun again." I know the comparisons were for only two reasons: I was Puerto Rican, and I was heavy, because ain’t no way in hell I can flow like Pun. [Laughs] I used to constantly say in interviews and shows, "Those are big shoes to fill, I appreciate it." But there is only one Big Pun and one Joell Ortiz. Big Pun has always been around since the beginning of my career in comparisons, in celebrated rhyme that I did in his honor, things that. "Big Pun’s Back" was just one of those. I remember when he released that "Tupac Back" and I was like, "Man, I gotta hop on there and rep Pun." That’s one of my favorite songs as well.

Joell Ortiz

"'90’s Free Agent"

Album: N/A (2008)
Joell Ortiz: That’s probably one I put out right before the Free Agent album. My album that leaked that I’m still bitter about to this day, because it was my second album, but whatever, though. That was just me venting, bars around the Free Agent album to be honest with you. I was coming off the Brick and the Brick had got so much good reviews and critical acclaim that I was just on a high, and I was like, "Yo man, this is it. This next album is going to put us there."  I was in one of those zones; I just felt free, man, free of everything, free of the chains, free of my mind being trapped in the devil’s realm and having to do the devil’s work to get money. The blessings were coming in. That’s what those freestyles around the Free Agent time signify: the freeing of my soul and spirit, just to move on and make music and look back at those dark times and say goodbye.

Joell Ortiz

"Brooklyn Bullshit"

Album: The Brick: Bodega Chronicles (2007)
Joell Ortiz: Shout out to my dude Showbiz. Showbiz of DITC. Rik Cordero did that video. Me and Rik had rocked out early on in my career. I was probably one of the first people Rik Cordero ever worked with. "Brooklyn Bullshit" was just me being me in a Brooklyn setting. That’s it, just a whole bunch of fun. That’s all I can say about "Brooklyn Bullshit." Ain’t really too much to it; the title is self-explanatory.

Joell Ortiz

"Outta Control"

Album: N/A (Response to Kendrick Lamar's "Control" verse) (2013)
Joell Ortiz: To be honest with you, first of all, I tip my hat to Kendrick and everything he’s doing for the culture, because I do feel like he’s one of the dudes that is putting art before everything and I have to respect that as an MC. Second of all, it’s because of that respect for him that I even responded. If somebody else says, "I’m the King of New York" that isn’t from N.Y., who knows how I feel like? "Oh, this guy is trash," or, "Here we go again, another guy," or maybe I respond. Who knows? But he said that on a big stage. And a lot of people thought I was going at Kendrick Lamar, but my beef wasn’t with Kendrick Lamar, it was with the King of New York reference. As a New York MC, I was like, "Okay, you’re not quite allowed to say that." I can’t let that slide, it’s not sitting well with me and I’m going to have to go in the studio and say what I feel about that.

At the end of the day, it was not no drama. It wasn’t no beef from MC to MC, and he respected it. He actually got on Hot 97 and was like, Joell Ortiz was my favorite one. And that’s what hip-hop should be. It should be respectable competition. It was a moment, and I had fun with it, the kids enjoyed it. That’s what it’s about anyways, the fans enjoyed it. They enjoyed his verse and then they enjoyed my comeback and then there were a slew of them after that. That should say a lot about what Kendrick means to the culture, when just about everybody from this side had something to say about that. Some people went at Kendrick, some people went at the reference. I personally felt like, I’m a New York MC, and he said the King of New York. I gotta come back.

Joell Ortiz