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Joell Ortiz Connects Healthy Living, Overweight Emcees and Hip Hop’s Marketing
Exclusive: Joell Ortiz details his lifestyle changes, how it affects his music and why you should opt for fruits and veggies instead of Newports during your next bodega visit.
[ Courtesy of www.HipHopDx.com ]
During a casual listen, it sounds like Joell Ortiz is having a great time on his 2007 single, “Brooklyn Bullshit.” “So what I ask for an ace on your cigarette / On the first and third I’m happy ‘cause all the fiends get a check,” he rhymed. But by his own admission, Joell says that behind the jovial talk of chipping in for a bag of weed and buying beers on credit was an excellently crafted rhyme about essentially poisoning himself with an unhealthy lifestyle.
“I was living what you call the rock star life—nightlife heavy, and diners at 5:00 or 6:00 am,” Joell explained. “I was eating cheeseburger deluxes and things of that nature and just not taking care of myself.”
Despite the preventable deaths of emcees such as DJ Screw and Big Pun, living a healthy lifestyle has long been one of Hip Hop’s taboo topics for some. Conventional thinking holds that we would rather have our favorite emcees healthy so they are around longer. Granted this isn’t new territory, as artists such as 50 Cent, dead prez and others have released products to help incorporate their own healthy lifestyles with their musical careers and business interests. But in the wake of New Year’s resolutions of shedding weight and living better—resolutions that often don’t make it to March—Joell Ortiz lays out a non-preachy blueprint for a balanced way of living. The Brooklyn emcee is considered dope by many regardless of his weight. But here, he explains how he woke up one fall morning in 2012 and decided to change his way of living.
HipHopDX: What does September 3, 2012 mean to you?
Joell Ortiz: Oh, I woke up that day, and a long time before that day I tried doing the same things that I am doing now—look the part, feel better and get healthy. For whatever reason, me being lazy, not being consistent or just the way the Rap life lives, it didn’t let me get there. That morning I woke up and I was tired of myself. I was tired of being tired, I made a change and I’m still changing to this day.
DX: That day was a pretty big day for you. Prior to that, how was your average day?
Joell Ortiz: I’d smoke about a pack of Newports a day, and whenever I had a gig, I would have alcohol on my rider. For those who don’t know what a rider is, it’s what artists ask for when they are doing shows—stuff backstage and things of that nature. I was living what you call the rock star life…nightlife heavy, and diners at 5:00 and 6:00 am. I’d be eating a cheeseburger deluxe and things of that nature and just not taking care of myself.
For a long time I’ve known it was a problem. I just couldn’t execute it for some reason. That morning I woke up, and I just didn’t like what I saw and what I felt. I said, “If I don’t make this change, do I want to go to the doctor, get news from a doctor that makes you change? No, I want to do this now.” And I decided to change.
DX: If you don’t mind me asking, how much weight did you lose since you changed your lifestyle?
Joell Ortiz: It’s funny, because I learned a lot about weight loss, what weighs and what doesn’t. Muscle is heavy. At first, I took off like 50 to 60 pounds, scale-wise. When you are training and changing your body, you lose everything fast, because your body is reacting. It’s like, “Oh man, I guess this guy wants me to shred,” so it’s eating up fat. As soon as you start weight training, you put on weight because of muscle mass, but you look the same as you did when you took that drastic weight off. I look exactly how I did 20 pounds ago, but it’s in muscle definition and muscle weight. Initially, I took off like 50 to 60 pounds, but now I may only be 30 pounds from where I started, but I look like a different person.
DX: That’s crazy.
Joell Ortiz: It is crazy…it’s crazy.
DX: So now that you have made this change to a healthier lifestyle, what do you feel is the biggest obstacle? You are on the road, in the studio, doing press and running around.
Joell Ortiz: Yeah, it’s just those things you are talking about. These are things I used to do under the influence of alcohol. You know, you just try to have fun a different way now. Partying included that unhealthy lifestyle for me for so long. I was trying to get reacclimated to the way it was before I did these things. A little over a year later, I am in a different place. I can go and hang out with friends, hit the bowling alley, have a chicken finger platter and not feel to bad about it. I know I worked hard, and it’s a way of life now. In the beginning, I was Like, “What can I do? This is not as fun.” I was standing around in bars with my boys like, “Ugh.” I got past it now, and it’s a little easier. But in the beginning, it was really hard. Even in the booth, I used to hear beats differently. Beats used to feel different with that alcohol buzz, and it was just the scene in the studio for so long for me. Now, instead of a bottle sitting there and an ashtray with eight cigarette butts sitting in it, it’s a chicken salad and 10 cold bottles of water.
That’s a little bit different of a creative atmosphere. It’s affecting my music. I am seeing so clear on many levels that my music is maturing. I like what it is doing for me overall. It’s not just the physical health, but also the mental health. It is making my songs and my vision so much more intellectual and personal. I’m just in a good place right now, and it all stems from healthy living.
What’s funny though is alcohol, cigarettes and things of that nature are a high. Today, I can say those things can’t match up to a natural high. I’m actually higher now, if that makes sense, and it is incredible. I’m not trying to be that friend that is the preacher now….
DX: [Laughs] True.
Joell Ortiz: [Laughs] To all my boys, I just want to be like, “Hey guys, the grass is a little greener on this side. You may want to come over here with me.” Everyone has his or her time; I had my time on September 3, 2012. I am proof, because for so long—whether it was managers, friends or anyone in general—people were telling me I should slow down and take off a little weight. These obstacles that you talk about, you are in control of them. But it is a you thing, and it’s not going to happen until you are ready. I want to be like, “Man, you should cut it out or try it for a little bit,” but people had been preaching the same thing to me for so many years.
DX: You actually bring up a very good point. You said, “I don’t want to be that guy who is the preacher,” but 50 Cent has the Formula 50 book. stic.man of dead prez has RBG Fit Club, and Lil Cease has Hardbody Fitness. Do you envision yourself doing something showing people how you succeeded?
Joell Ortiz: Yes, I actually do. My team and me are working on that now. I can’t really speak on it now, but there has been some things we have spoke about on how we want to make people aware without it being cheesy. We want it to be real and tell people exactly how I did it. I got a record coming out where I talk about it. It has been so life changing that it’s so hard to not talk about. People ask me questions all the time that have nothing to do with healthy living, and I always end up down that road like, “Yeah, it’s all about healthy living” [laughs].
We talked about a tour, and while I am onstage addressing the fans, I let them know what it is. A few companies have come to me, but I don’t want to check chase and give my story to someone who I know isn’t deserving. They had nothing to do with it; I want to keep it in house and personal.
DX: How do you think the images of emcees like Big Pun, Biggie, Heavy D and even the Fat Boys play into how we view emcees being healthy?
Joell Ortiz: First of all, those people you named are legends. R.I.P. to those dudes. You know, Hip Hop is in a different time. The music business is in a different time. Let’s take Biggie for example. I am from Brooklyn; he’s who I idolized. I have been a fan since I was a really young kid. When Biggie and Puff came together, Puff saw something. He saw a dude from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn who could rap his ass off. That’s all Puff needed at that moment to develop a star. Now that’s not saying B.I.G. didn’t walk in well-dressed, or didn’t have a haircut or things or that nature. I am not saying he didn’t look like a star, but back then they developed stars. They put it together; you didn’t have to come in already a star. Of course, you had to have some star quality, but you had to be talented, and that is what they looked for.
You would go in, play records and get a record deal off that. It’s a whole different ball game now. You have to walk in as a self-sufficient team they are willing to invest in. You have to be doing things on your own that make these big labels—these big machines—say, “This looks like an investment that will land us in the green.” Now you have to come in with your black and white up to par—meaning your sales numbers. You have to show ticket sales, and you have to look the part. You have to walk in these offices and look like, “If you don’t cut the check, the next person will.”
That is why we have fashion-driven, flamboyant looking Rap people now, because the money is outside the music. It is in endorsements, it’s in fashion, it’s in alcohol; it’s in all these different avenues. Music is like the beginning now, it’s like the platform for other checks. Now when labels are listening to number three on your demo, they are looking at you as the business. [They’re wondering], “Can this guy land on the cover of GQ? Can this guy sell other things besides music?” It’s not the same, as far as how rappers look. Looks didn’t matter as much before as it does now. Looks are generating money now. When I first tried to get my record deal, I couldn’t because of my looks. [I heard], “You are overweight. You’re Spanish.” I was like, “Wow,” and it took me so long to not be bitter and not be discouraged. The look has changed because the money opportunities have changed, and the music industry has changed.
DX: It seems like Hip Hop embraces overweight emcees to a certain extent. You’ve got Action Bronson who’s a big guy and is into cooking. Would fans still perceive him the same way if he lost 150 pounds? What about Biggie and other big dudes?
Joell Ortiz: OK, I can still tie in that last answer. Hip Hop felt rough, and bigger dudes came off rough—big beard, skully hats in the winter. It was a rough aura that surrounded Hip Hop. It wasn’t healthy. It was Hennessy, blunts and who the hell cares about a fucking treadmill. There’s loud music, Hennessy, blunts and bitches sucking you off who didn’t care how your balls smelled. That’s what Hip Hop was, and that’s what I grew up to. But the business is interfering with the creative, and people are becoming conscious of the money that is outside and how people perceive them. But not Action Bronson. He owns himself like, “I’m Action Bronson, and I don’t give a fuck about this weight thing. I have a blast on stage. Some people look at me like I’m a fucking wrestler, and I’m a great cook and I rap how I want to rap.”
It works, because while at the same time, some people are realizing checks are being viewed, some people don’t give a fuck about it. They just want to connect with their fans; they use social media outlets to connect with their fans. Action Bronson is one of those people. It works both ways. You can ignore the machine and still be successful, but I was talking about that other place you could end up. Grammy’s, GQ and covers of magazines outside of music…just broadening the spectrum for your brand. That’s where you have to look the part. It’s Hollywood. I am talking about things outside of music, because they don’t get it. It works if you are trying to build a cult following, but the minute you try to venture out in other fields, they look at you and not your music.
DX: Do you believe people with a smaller budget have a tougher time living a healthy lifestyle? Do you have any recommendations for people who feel that way?
Joell Ortiz: To be honest, the largest part is the mindset. I don’t agree with that mindset. I don’t believe in excuses. I know what you are saying, people think, “I can’t afford this, and I can’t afford that.” But there is always a way, especially if you want to do something. Even if it means shaving funds off other things you do, it’s all about how much you want to become healthy. You don’t have to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Were talking about curbing diet. You know, diet is cool, but running is free. You don’t have to have a gym membership to go running. I ran this morning outdoors because it was nice enough. You can ride a bike. You can do things. You have to stop defeating yourself. I defeated myself for years with excuses. Money wasn’t the excuse, God bless me, but there was other things. Fruits and vegetables are in bodegas, as well as in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. It does cost a little more, but so does the unhealthy living. Hanging out at bars or that pack of cigarettes—everything costs money. If you are going to make the shift, then make the shift. It can happen, but the first part of healthy living is a healthy mindset. That day, September 3, 2012, I woke up, and I changed my mindset, and that is when things started happening.
DX: That’s a great point. You mentioned that you ran this morning. So what does a daily workout look like for you, and how does your daily diet look?
Joell Ortiz: To be honest, I don’t drastically diet anymore because I work out everyday. I don’t work out as hard everyday now, because I work out everyday, if that makes sense. I am in a maintenance mode. I just want to maintain. I make sure I do no less than two-and-a-half miles, whether it’s outdoors or on a treadmill…whether it’s in the morning before I wake up—which is like 90% of the time—or I’ll do it before bed. It’s like brushing my teeth now. As far as diet, I just watch things now. I’ll say, “OK, you had rice on Tuesday, let’s cut out the carbs for a few days.” It’s just curbing. I try to avoid the whites. Whites ain’t right. And that’s not a racial remark [laughs].
DX: Yeah, that’s the headline of the article, “Joell Ortiz Doesn’t Dig Whites” [laughs].
Joell Ortiz: [Laughs] But avoid those breads, potatoes, rice, and starches. Minimize those, eat your proteins and work out. I don’t touch any weight right now; I do push ups, pull-ups and dips. I do light stuff to maintain my frame. I avoid those whites as much as I can, because those things aren’t good for what I’m trying to do.
DX: Do you take part in a supplement or vitamin regimen? The supplement industry is huge, and a lot of people think as soon as they start working out they need to get supplements.
Joell Ortiz: Yeah, I take a multivitamin from Vitamin Shoppe—B12 for energy and B3 for bone maintenance. They have fat burners, but it’s all over the counter stuff. I’m not taking HGH; I’m not Alex Rodriguez [laughs]. I went up in Vitamin Shoppe and told them what I want to do, and they walked me around. Ask questions. I am still learning as I go, but I make sure to put in those vitamins, because when you are curbing your diet, you want to make sure you are putting in the right things.
DX: So what is your go to healthy food and beverage?
Joell Ortiz: My go to is grilled chicken or baked chicken. I always put broccoli or some type of green on the side. You can eat as much of that as you want. I am going to be corny with the drink and say water. If I want to cheat, I will use Crystal Light. Occasionally, I’ll have a coffee, and that feels like a treat. There are days where I’m not on it as heavy. I’ll be out with my lady, and I’ll ask for a dessert menu. She will look at me like “What?” I’ll do the carrot cake in a jar, but it beats me up the next day because I am conscious of what I did. I will be on the treadmill for an extra two miles. I’m in a good place, and I want to stay here. Anything I do, I am still conscious, but my go to is brown and green—brown being the chicken, green being the vegetable, and white being the water.
DX: While you’re working out, running or lifting weights, what are the artists you listen to?
Joell Ortiz: You want to know what is so crazy? I’m not the type of guy that listens to stuff that pumps me up. I listen to stuff that soothes me. No matter how much you work out, how many results you see, it’s still not fun. I do whatever I can do to make it go by as fast it can. Pump records last longer to me in my head than R&B or soft records. I’ll do two-and-a-half or three miles on the treadmill, and I’ll listen to Donnell Jones. It’s just easy on me, and I get lost in the songs. I just got the R. Kelly album, and I’m on the treadmill, and I’m trying to think about anything but working out. Pump records make me feel like I’m working out, so I usually go with soft records like R. Kelly’s album or Adele’s 21. I listen to me, because I’m soft [laughs]. I just listened to Jagged Edge. I go totally against the grain.