With more than 20 projects to his name, Detroit producer Apollo Brown has been a staple in the hip-hop underground for close to a decade. As a mainstay of indie rap label Mello Music Group, Brown has worked with many notable and proven rappers from Detroit and elsewhere, including Guilty Simpson, Chris Orrick, Rass Kass, O.C., and Rapper Big Pooh, among others. It's now time to add veteran MC Joell Ortiz to the list.
On Friday, Brown and Ortiz will release their first collaborative album, Mona Lisa. At 11 tracks, the album wastes no time and gets right down to business. Brown's signature boom bap style is present throughout the album and creates a vast soundscape for Ortiz to do what he does best. On Mona Lisa, Ortiz is as candid as he's likely ever been on wax.
"Joell's just a dope MC," says Brown. "He's somebody who's wholesome. He talks about his life. He talks about relatable subjects. He talks about things that make a good record. It's not a bunch of bullshit or gimmicky stuff. It's real life and it's stuff that people can relate to."
Ortiz — a Nuyorican from Brooklyn — came up in the thick of New York's boom bap era, successfully navigating the music industry for 20 years. He's also part of the oft-discussed rap supergroup Slaughterhouse. Drawing from a rich set of experiences, Ortiz offers his take on growing up in the streets of New York, the music business, fatherhood, and some of life's inevitable highs and lows.
On "Reflection," the album's second track, Ortiz thinks about his career in relation to the state of hip-hop. Anybody with a traumatic hospital memory will find solace on "That Place," the album's sixth song. "Cocaine Fingertips," the album's grimy joint, is a reminder of Brown's willingness to flip a sample with minimalism in mind. On the B-side, "Timberland'd Up" is an adrenaline-inducing standout that features Detroit rapper and fellow Slaughterhouse member Royce Da 5'9". From start to finish, Mona Lisa is an album with a strong sense of story.
"I didn't need to show people or necessarily prove to anyone that I'm a wordsmith that knows how to use similes and metaphors," explains Ortiz. "It was more like, 'This is what's going on right now. These are the things that I want to talk about.' Of course I still inject moments of complex lyricism and bars, but it's not about that. This album is more so about me getting some things off my chest and expressing how I felt in the moment. I really let the songs write themselves. There was so much going on when I was writing this album. It's almost like a 'Joell Ortiz therapy album,'" he laughs.
Brown and Ortiz first met in New York City in 2016 on the set of the music video for "A Couple Dollars" — a song from an album Brown did with Skyzoo, another well-known MC from Brooklyn. Brown and Ortiz kept in touch while also pursuing other music ventures. After some time had passed, Brown reached out with the idea of making an album together. Ortiz was down, and the rest is history.
For Brown, a producer who has steadily built an international fanbase, making an album with Ortiz was an opportunity to work with an artist who's been inside and out of the mainstream music industry.
"[Ortiz] brings a wisdom and an experience from an underground level and a commercial level," Brown says. "He can voice certain things and he brings a certain understanding of the music industry to the table. He can do both, but I love him in the underground and the heartfelt music that he makes."
For Ortiz, doing a project with Apollo Brown was a chance to work with an established producer and take a step back from being in complete creative control.
"After we met in New York, Apollo reached back out and sent me a batch of beats. I had to call him and was like, 'These beats are speaking to my soul right now.' I knew we had to get going on a project like he had been saying," says Ortiz emphatically. "I'm a universe guy. I just feel like certain things happen for a reason. Apollo was actually very, very important in this chapter of my life because his music fit right in the pocket with my story at the moment. All my other solo projects have always been super thought out. This was the first project where it was someone else's idea, so that was kind of nice."
With how well Brown and Ortiz vibe on the album, it's almost unbelievable that this is the first time they've worked together. Despite speaking with them separately, there is a shared sense of excitement for the release of the record. What's especially clear is that Mona Lisa is the end result of two artists that have stayed true to themselves and have done a lot of living.
"The music on this album is really grown," says Brown. "We wanted songs that were a little more down-tempo that spoke on some experiences." Needless to say, for anyone who's been around for a bit, Mona Lisa will resonate.
Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.