Joell Ortiz's writing and rhyming has been the only constant in his life. His safety, his source of cash, and his means of transportation, however, have been quite the opposite. Growing up in Brooklyn, Joell came from nothing, and when things didn't turn out like he expected at his graveyard shift with UPS, he walked away from day jobs forever.
From there, he turned to the guys riding down the block in shiny Mustangs, seeking a less legal and more simple means to make his money. During his time running the streets, he owned the only two cars he's ever had: a Plymouth and a Mercury. Part of the reason he hasn't had a whip since is because he's careful with his money. But the main reason stems from a car accident, in which the wreckage was so twisted, he had to be cut out of the car.
Not until about three years ago was he finally able to ride around with his buddies. Today, Joell's nerves still get the best of him on the road, though with lines like, "They dribble on my balls in the whip, now that's a sports car" you wouldn't think so. After moving to Jersey, he's finally shopping around for a new set of wheels with hopes that he can once again put his foot to the gas pedal with the same confidence that he puts his pen to his notepad. Joell sat down with Complex Rides to discuss his job at UPS, his haunting accident, and his search for a new vehicle.
We heard you’re looking for some new wheels?
Yeah, I’m actually lookin’ for a car right now. I haven’t driven in a long time.
What are you looking at?
I was looking at the G-Wagon Benz, the squared-off one. I was also looking at the Wrangler. I like the square ones, that trucker-on-the-road type thing. So, those are two of my favorites right now. And the Land Rover, the LR4.
What are you looking for in your car?
There’s such a wide range of prices. You got the G-Wagon as the upper echelon, you have the Rover in the middle, and you have the Wrangler at the bottom. I like the Wrangler, because it has my personality all over it. It’s fun, but it’s broad. You can take the roof and doors off, if you want to play around. Or you could own the road, and do whatever you want to do as far as traction.
I’m leaning toward that, plus I’m really, really, really, really conservative with money. I got to give myself a lot of excuses to spend money, because I come from nothin’. And that never leaves the back of my mind. I think, “Would I do this if I were back in the projects?” If I was in front of the wild sneakers that were $200 or the $50 ones that I know I could freak anyways, I would get the $50 ones and keep the $150. Whatever I do decide to get won’t make me. It won’t make who’s driving it. I feel like I’m bigger than whatever else happens. I don’t do jewelry and that shit either. I’m on my own little glow. I’m leaning towards the Wrangler. I think my lady will respect me a little more if I get the G-Wagon [Laughs]
His girl: Or we could just go in the middle!
Joell: Yeah, or we could go with the Land Rover, and I could look like a dentist. Whatever she wants is fine. [Laughs]. It’s between those three.
Why haven’t you driven in so long?
I was a passenger in a horrible accident a few years back, and it really had me scared. They had to cut me out of the car.
We came back from a barbecue, my boy was twisted and I fell asleep. He went head on into a divider.
Yeah, it was really nasty. We were coming from Rockaway, Queens.
How long after the accident did it take you to get back in a car?
I was stayin’ away from cars for a while. I was getting in taxis, because I had to move around, but I just felt like a taxi is a more responsible person than somebody you hop in with in the hood. So, I had to do that, but I used to still be on eggshells when we went over the W.P. bridge. Or if they took the outer lane, I’m like, “Fuck, sir, can you move in?” I would just explain my concerns, but I started warming up to riding around here and there.
I got comfortable about three years ago with just being in a car again. Being in New York, you don’t really have to own a car. So, I had that excuse. I was falling back on that, plus, I was like, “I don’t need one.” In New York you can get around in a heartbeat. It might be faster on the subway if you want to be real. The streets suck, traffic is horrible. I just moved to Jersey, where it’s a little calmer. I can move around a bit, so I’m going to get some wheels.
How many cars have you owned?
I’ve only owned two cars in my entire life: a Plymouth Sundance during the UPS days, and a Mercury Sable, that was it. Then I got in that accident.
A Mercury and Plymouth, huh?
[Laughs] Yeah, me and my lady went to the dealer the other day, and the guy was like, “Okay, you can spin it around the block,” and I was like, “No! You spin it.” I was in the back seat like, “Yeah, this feels good [Laughs].” So, I’m still warming up to it, but I gotta do it.
How’d you come to own the Plymouth and the Mercury?
The Plymouth was sellin’ weed [Laughs]. That was the first car I ever bought for hustlin’ in the street. And the Mercury was from other hustles as well. Both were from illegitimate means. I’ve had a job for one week in my life. I worked for UPS for a week, and I took that check and invested it into the streets. Hip-hop definitely saved my life. Being able to write about the things I was doing, the things I was seein’ and all that stuff, putting that on paper and coming into my own as Joell Ortiz. That’s why I don’t have a stage name, because I chose to talk about everything under the sun that happened to me or next to me in my music. So, no stage name if there’s no stage person. Lights on, me, lights off, same guy.
Were there cars you liked or wanted as a kid?
When somebody used to come across the block in a Mustang, I used to just stare. The loud engine, the screeching of the tires, the whole big build. That was one of my definite favorites. As a little kid, if you came through with a Mustang, I thought you were a superhero. 5.0, that was it.
What was it like doing UPS for a week?
It sucked! [Laughs]. But this is why it sucked: Because I was told by my mom as a youngin’ that you do your best and you excel and you will be rewarded. So, my first dose of it was when I got my first job. Of course high school was, too. I got my diploma and I got scholarship offers for athletic and academic reasons, but I elected to stay home, because my mom was on drugs. So, I made that decision. I was not going to leave my mom behind and be at this Division 1 school playing ball and doing everything and get a call that she OD’ed or something. So, I elected to stay home. When I stayed home, I was a bum. I needed something to earn money. I didn’t turn to the streets first, I went to UPS.
I had this supervisor named Mark, and day one was showing me the ropes, day two was actually starting the job. He’s like, “Okay, here’s what you got to do: This is your trailer. I need minimum 800 boxes scanned and packed.” I was working the graveyard shift from 11 p.m - 7 a.m. So, I wanted to impress this dude. It’s three in the morning now, I still have four hours left. I got 900 and some boxes in, there’s no more room on the trailer. So I show Mark, and he goes, “Already? It’s only 3 a.m. Wow. Come with me.” He brought me to an empty trailer and said, “Do that again.”
I never wanted to lift anything or do that ever again. That was my reward: more work. I thought he’d be like, “That’s awesome.” I’m not cut out for that. I didn’t feel good loading. I didn’t feel good scanning. I didn’t feel good about anything, but I was trying to do the right thing. I gutted it out for a week, got my check and then spoke to the dudes that were rolling around in the nice whips without having a job. And they showed me a different way and different boxes to package [Laughs].
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