While their paths may have been mired in controversy, struggle and the pressure to succeed in a challenging and shifting industry, the members of Slaughterhouse agree on one thing: everybody wins.

Words: MC
Images: Ernest Estime

It’s a bit warm for this time of year in New York City. The humidity and the electricity in the air have the hip-hop faithful and industry heads turning flyers for tonight’s sold-out “Crooked I” show; they abuzz about the possibility of Crook’s cross country counterparts joining him on stage. And while the arrivals of Eminem’s manager Paul “Bunyan” and Jersey mainstay Lady Luck add fuel to the fire out front, downstairs in the back office of the S.O.B.’s nightclub Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz and Royce Da 5’9 are huddled together, displaying the kind of camaraderie that the lyric lovers have depended on even before they signed with Shady Records. They are cracking jokes, going over song ideas and maneuvering between perspective entourages with a familiar ease of childhood friends. But appearances can be deceiving. What may seem like just-add-lyrics chemistry from the outside is actually a series of conscience decisions and adjustments made to make Slaughterhouse what it is. And much like tonight, although they may have come from four different places, they’re all here to rock together.

Crooked I is the first to take the stage. Having just released his Million Dollar Story EP in preparation of the upcoming LP of the same name, the Long Beach, CA native is happily lighting the place up, much to the fans enjoyment. “Man the doors are open,” he’ll explain after the show. “I’m taking my shot ‘cause it’s been a long time coming, so I’m going!” Back during the South by Southwest festival, while sharing a stage with the likes of EPMD, DJ Quick and DJ Premiere, Crook took advantage of another opportunity when he presented a special hoodie with the words “Do Not Cock-Block” to Bun-B for his birthday. It’s one of many pieces on the way from his Circle of Bosses clothing line.

“It started off family and friends, and it spread to different parts of the world,” he explains. “I decided to bring the movement to the clothing culture because I’ve always been fascinated by that.” Numerous trips to the MAGIC Tradeshow in Vegas over the years have helped him sharpen his vision. “It’s not a rapper trying to have a clothing line,” he says to avoid any confusion, “it’s a movement with a clothing line.” Of course, as a member of a group, Crooked has had to bring his movement into the Slaughterhouse machine. A process that he feels has no downside.

“I’ve always been the leader of COB, but in Slaughterhouse I have had to share that role,” he says of his new outlook. “A lot of times I have to compromise how I would handle a situation for how we should handle it. It takes patience and thought but it’s a learning experience.”

Much like his left coast partner, Royce Da 5’9, the second to hit the stage during the group’s performance of “Sound Off” has also had a fairly easy transition into life as a member of a group.

“You know it’s funny, I haven’t made a lot of adjustments,” he explained early from a couch in the lounge area of Headquarterz studio in midtown Manhattan. “I walked into this situation with such an open mind—it didn’t require a lot. It wasn’t going to be what I’m used to, but I’m very good at maintaining.”

While in New York, Royce is putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming album, Success Is Certain, with DJ Premiere who’s en route. With a release date of July 26, it will be his final album on an indie, and while all signs point to Shady, he claims not to have any idea as to where his next solo recording home will be.

“I don’t know,” he says with his best poker face. “I’ll be a free agent. I’m gonna take my talents somewhere.”

As the de facto leader of a group that really doesn’t need one, Royce focuses on where his talents are now. “I automatically commanded some leadership because I knew I was one of the older cats in the group and I had been through more than a lot with my brothers.” He leans forward in his chair to make his point clear.

“When you got four guys who are so good at what they do, nobody is a role player. Everybody has equal say, nobody gets bossed down,” he says. “But in the same token, Joell might take my advice because there might be some shit that I’ve been through that he hasn’t. And everybody in the group is so smart, there’s never no problems. We move together like a family.”

Royce’s experience with family feuds is key to the group’s current status on Shady Records. Once thick as thieves, Em and Royce had a falling out that seemed to have no resolution in sight. But somewhere between Em’s road to recovery and Royce’s travels with Slaughterhouse, the old friends managed to put the past behind them for a reconciliation that opened the doors for a major label deal for the group and a new life for Shady records.

“A lot of meetings had to get had about that because it was gon[na] take so much involvement from Em and they just don’t let him get involved in anything,” he says flatly. “They needed to make sure everyone’s head was screwed on straight, mainly mine.”

With a fresh patch on the friendship, it was only a matter of time before the Bad Meets Evil project got started. After randomly recording with each other over the last few months, the two realized they were sitting on 11 new tracks.

“We’re like ‘Well, we can’t just throw all these songs away. What the fuck [are] we gonna do with all these songs? How the fuck did we even end up with all these songs?!’”

When asked if there will be another, the usually serious Royce 5’9 can’t stop himself from smirking. “I didn’t even know we were doing this one. I never would have been able to tell you two years ago that me and Em would be this tight again. [What] I’ve learned is that you can’t predict the future and God has a sense of humor,” he says shaking his head. “He really has turned my life into a movie. The ending is already mapped out, so I’m just going through the script.”

I gotta raw flow/and I stay hungry more-so/guess that’s why I’m the torso.”

Right in line with the script, the NYC crowd goes bananas over the appearance of the Brooklyn native Joell Ortiz. Hitting the stage for his verse in “Sound Off,” the native son personifies every word of his verse. Between his weight-loss, gym-toned physique and new album, Yaowa, being recorded between tour stops, the group’s new deal has put Joell in a state of overdrive.

“I know how important the group is to my career,” he says over the phone from LA days before the S.O.B.’s performance. “But at the end of the day, I am a solo artist too and I don’t want to background that.”

Where someone in his position might relax and get overly comfortable and confident, Joell knows that nothing is a given and everything must be earned.

“I continue to do Joell Ortiz because it only makes sense that I’m a member of Slaughterhouse because of what I’ve done as Joell.” But for all the ruckus he’s causing on this stage (and many others), Joell Ortiz is pretty much the quiet guy in the group. A naturally private person outside of music, his Twitter is a happy place full of shout outs and freestyles, not controversy and fuckery. Out of the four, Joell is the least likely of his crew to get shot at, get into online beef or to air dirty laundry.

So how does the cool kid in the family deal with the non-stop talk generated by his crazy cousins?

“Work is the king in music; work will get you out of anything,” he says with a laugh. “You had Chris Brown in a crazy situation a little while ago and he sung his way out of there, you feel me?” Though it may not be his style, Joell has come to appreciate his boys for all they bring to the table, the same way they do with him. “When we get up, we family but everybody is doing their own thing. That’s what makes the group so dynamic and dope, so I don’t get caught up.”

While he can always ignore the comments, he can’t avoid the interviews, which may be the few times we may see Joell speechless. After all he’s an emcee, not a mind reader.

“When Joe is doing ‘OLS 3’ and they ask me a question about that, I gotta become corny and say ‘that’s a question for Joe,’” he says frankly. “When they say, ‘How’s Royce and Em’s relationship?’ I can only comment from a distance because when we[‘re] not doing Slaughterhouse, that’s a question for Royce or Em.” Although his adjustment to the group dynamic has been a simple one, for the only child, it hasn’t been easy.

“Every now and then I have to follow a lead,” he explains. “But I learned how to lead and to follow for myself. Like this is Royce Da 5’9’s idea, but that doesn’t mean Joell Ortiz doesn’t bring Joell to it, feel me?”

Last, but not least on the track is Joe Budden.

Ironic that the last verse on the track should go to the first name in controversy. The often outspoken and brutally blunt, Jersey native may be responsible for 25 percent of the music, but he usually manages to provide 75 percent of the Internet talk. He is the opposite of Joell in that almost nothing he thinks or feels is off limits for a song, regardless of the consequences. It’s something that he’s attempted to get under control after a verbal back-and-forth with Method Man in August of 2009 led him to being punched by an associate of the Clan during the Rock the Bells tour. It was the first time he realized his words affect more than him.

“Royce is my brother outside of music. Crook had 300 Crips on the scene in a matter of seconds and Joell supported in his own way,” he says, remembering the hours that followed the incident. “I never expected anything from anybody. Anything that does happen is a plus, but for the greater good, not only was it not worth it, I didn’t need to put anybody that I loved in that predicament. That situation got so much realer than people know.”

Joe not only sees that situation as a solidification of his crew, but also as the starting point of things to come.

“Sometimes you get too in the moment, but if you just put all of your faith in a higher power you’ll ultimately be led to the right path,” he says earnestly. “We‘re on the Rock the Bells tour again, then the Shady deal… like so many blessings are happening and I think it all stems from that Wu Tang situation.”

The maturation of Joe Budden isn’t strong enough to quell his need to vent on wax. And although he’s working on a solo album for an unannounced label and has Mood Muzik 4.5 making noise, the net came to a halt when he dropped “Ordinary Love Shit Pt. 3,” a song that documents his side of the break-up between him and model Esther Baxter. What followed was a firestorm of accusations from abuse, to lying, to miscarriages and cheating, all dragged into the open via “OLS 3” and the interviews from both sides that followed.

Having been through the fire once before, Joe has taken the whole situation much better than most would think. “Oh my God, that’s a win all around the board!” he says with excitement. “I mean naturally you have your feminists that believe anything a woman says and your people that are just not in the know. But my moms summed it up perfectly for me. That situation was nothing but God saving my ass.”

It’s hard to hide the relief in his voice as he continues.

“When you start talking about marriage and children… that’s for life. And you don’t want to get into a life situation with somebody that is just extremely unhealthy for you,” he says with an upbeat tone. “So that’s a win personally. As far as my career goes, I honestly haven’t even thought about it.”

It’s been said that some artists are known more for what they do, rather than what they spit. But even with “OLS 3” getting all the attention, Joe isn’t worried. “I’m that confident in my talent, number one. Number two: my fans have been through this process with me. I haven’t always been shed in the best light,” he says frankly. “It’s kind of a gift and a curse ‘cause it does nothing but help the music and I’d rather have 20 fans that accept Joe Budden for who he is then a million frauds.”

Though they have different backgrounds, stories and struggles, what’s held them together is a respect for emceeing and a will to win. And if they can also make friends out of the deal… all the better.

Images by Ernest Estime.

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