By Steve Weinstein
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Joell Ortiz saw gentrification engulf Greenpoint from the vantage of the Cooper Park housing projects. As the new millennium began, the 31-year-old rapper noticed the first changes sprouting up with "a little condominium here, a loft setup there." Before the influx of high-income housing, his section of Brooklyn suffered from a domino-effect blight: "My area was really drug-infested 'cause across from us was a shelter with a lot of drug addicts—the drugs bring the money, and the money leads to violence." But not these days. "Now, it's ridiculous. They brought in the hipsters, brought in the yuppies, and built up the big condos that no one in my 'hood can afford."
He's describing a phenomenon common to many areas of Brooklyn, but he could just as easily be talking about hip-hop. With a new album, Free Agent, on the horizon, Ortiz is at the forefront of a generation of New York rappers who have seen the music gentrify around them, their gritty rhymes and no-gimmicks personas pushed out by slick-talking Southerners with no qualms about taking over turf that was once the birthright of Big Apple rappers alone. As he puts it, "I'm part of this little project of raw hip-hop surrounded by so much happy pop shit—like three-bedroom condos all around us."
Make no mistake: Hip-hop is New York's music. Time was that simply hailing from the five boroughs brought both bragging rights and an audience at any major record label. New York was the place where an aspiring artist had to prove their talent—critically, commercially, and on the live stage. At our '90s peak, artists like Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, pre-Kelis-era Nas, and adopted New Yorkers Gang Starr reigned supreme with a blueprint of scrupulously composed lyrics, soul- and jazz-derived beats, and a pretext that rappers were reporting from the slums. It's a formula often regarded as "purist" and antiquated these days. But, as Ortiz testifies, "Back then, you had to be nice. You couldn't just get by with a catchy chorus and something to fill up the gaps in between."
Not any more. Today's biggest hip-hop artists hail from down South: Giants like T.I., Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne may tackle the same street-level subjects that Ortiz dealt with growing up in Greenpoint, but when T.I. spits about dope boys, he does so over production that's cannily palatable to daytime pop radio, suitable for sweet-16 parties, and unafraid of hinging things on a hummable chorus. (It's to Jay-Z's credit that he's one of the rare New Yorkers who've managed to stay abreast of rap's sonic shifts.) Labels don't want to market an MC standing around in utilitarian Timberlands and Carhartt clothing—they want Wale in expensive, tight brand-name pants. "Rough, rugged, and raw" no longer earns a badge of authenticity—labels are looking for clean-cut kids like Drake, a rapping Dawson's Creek character if ever there was one. It leaves classical New York rappers like Ortiz, intent on staying true to their regional roots, left out in the commercial cold. Dollar cups of coffee from the corner bodega have been replaced by $4 cafe lattes, if you will, all served to a soundtrack of Jeezy and Weezy.
Ortiz is aware of the changed arena he's fighting in. Now living on a calm, residential Bushwick block, he's open to admitting that his brand of hip-hop is far from fashionable. He favors a style of rap that's abrasive and uncut and sounds best over production that cribs from the same well of sample sources his '90s New York contemporaries plundered. Done right, it's a ferocious but uncompromising blend, as exemplified by the DJ Premier–produced "Project Boy," a Free Agent track he comically recorded in a three-piece-suit while en route to a "formal function." Over a beat that sounds like it's based on the theme from a low-budget '70s spy flick, Ortiz paints an uncouth environmental picture filled with "crack heads [that] smoke anything that can fit in that stem/And little girls do grown men just to sit in that Benz." Then, as if condensing his whole mentality, he vows, "What y'all spit's sugar-coated—I be spitting that phlegm." (In a similar vein, in Ortiz's hands, Lloyd Banks's "Beamer, Benz, or Bentley" became the economical "Nissan, Honda, Chevy.") Asked whether he'd have been a better fit 15 years ago, he smiles broadly, leans back on his couch, and proclaims, "If I was making music back then, this interview would be going on in my mansion! I'm pretty sure it would have been a lot easier then."
But he's not bitter. He has had his dalliance with the top echelons of the music-industry machine, and it didn't work out. The buzz Ortiz created with his 2007 debut The Brick: Bodega Chronicles, earned him a chance to sign with Dr. Dre's Aftermath label—he did, only to sit on the shelf after being told that a new Eminem album and Dre's chimerical Detox pre-empted him on the release schedule. (A track titled "What's Your World," originally scheduled for Free Agent, caught Dre's ear and has been earmarked for Detox.) He was officially released at the start of 2008—a move that prompted the title of his new album, which will be released on E1 Music.
Looking back on his gamble with Dre, Ortiz reasons, "How could anyone not take that chance? I wanted to be alongside Eminem and 50 Cent, and get pointers on how to do records and get better as a rapper." The experience only fortified his belief in standing firm with his core hometown values—the very traits that attracted others to hip-hop in the first place. He predicts that Free Agent will be better received than his debut, but guarantees that it won't come with any gimmicks. He won't, as he jokes, bend to his label's marketing department and come out "50 pounds lighter with a six-pack." After all, he was here first, and he's confident in his heritage: "The thing is, I want to get a condo just like everyone else, but I'm not gonna change who I am to get there," he says. "And when I do get there, my apartment will still feel like the projects inside. I won't be going out and ordering a gourmet salad—I'll still be getting chicken wings and french fries."