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The half-Greek kid from north Phoenix who once jumped onstage with The Roots and commandeered a mic as a freestylin' fan is now rolling in a big, black 2007 Honda Ridgeline, decked out with a slick, full-body, custom art wrap, 22-inch custom rims, and a pimped-out sound system that's so smooth it vibrates the leather seats but doesn't rattle the windows or truck frame. The vehicle's featured in the video for his first single, "Get Your A'z Up," which was directed by Todd Angkasuwan (KRS-One, Styles P., Jin). Hell, he's even getting radio play, as Power 98 has been playing "A'z Up" frequently on its Friday Night Flavaz program.
The hip-hop group he co-founded 12 years ago, Cut Throat Logic, recently was signed to Rawkus Records (early home of acts such as Talib Kweli and Mos Def) and has a new CD coming out this summer. Justus also has his first solo CD, Born Justus, set for release next month (an EP containing three songs from the album comes out this week). And he got none other than the legendary KRS-One to join him on a track, "Hip-Hop Today & Forever."
But Justus laughs at the idea that he's "an O.G." ("original gangster," a term used for pioneers and veterans of hip-hop). Even after a decade spent battling on the streets, in clubs, and on the radio, the 26-year-old MC waves off the O.G. label. "I'm young! We've barely been around 10 years," Justus says. "I wouldn't quite say I've made it yet. We're just barely getting our feet wet. They say it takes 10 years to make it in music overnight. "
There's another saying in hip-hop: "Put in work." Basically, that means if you're not willing to bust your chops on the streets and grind it out promoting your music and your shows, then don't expect any respect — especially not in Phoenix, where everybody's a rapper, everybody claims to have a big record deal, and none of the local MCs who've actually nabbed big record deals over the past few years (Pokafase, Juice, Hot Rod, Willy Northpole) has broken on a national scale yet.
But Justus doesn't have any illusions. He just knows he's been working his ass off. He's been around the Valley hip-hop scene for more than a decade with Cut Throat Logic, and he knows everybody who's anybody in the local scene. He's seen the way talented Phoenix MCs have been picked up and dropped by labels over the years because they're not getting local support and radio play. And he knows all about putting in work, whether he's freestyle battling at shows and on the radio, distributing fliers for his shows and networking at every hip-hop club night in the Valley, or personally giving the Cut Throat Logic Web site a complete overhaul. He's persistent, and after years of turmoil — which included the deaths of his two closest friends, a temporary split with his wife, and a custody battle for his children — good things are happening.
Justus carved out a place for himself in the Phire City scene with Cut Throat Logic, a band he founded in 1996 with his best friend, Kamau Jahi Rabouin, and MC Deonte "Plague" Perry. "Kamau taught me how to rap," Justus says. "He gave me my rhythm, he gave me my cadence, and the way I carry myself."
Kamau's siblings — older brother Tunde and younger sister Asha — were also part of CTL. The group's first gig was opening for Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, and their hard-slicing rhymes and volatile, survivalist demeanor garnered interest from record labels. But weeks after CTL's first gig, in February of 2000, Kamau fatally shot himself after an argument with his girlfriend.
Over the next four years, CTL opened for Jurassic-5, Paul Wall, Common, and many other national acts, and collaborated with metal band Soulfly on the song "In Memory Of . . ." (on Soulfly's Primitive album), dedicated to Kamau and Soulfly frontman Max Cavalera's late stepson, Dana Wells.
Now, Justus and Deonte are the only remaining members of CTL, but Kamau's memory is still present in their music, and certainly on Justus' solo record. "[The song] 'Shattered Dreams' is a dedication to my two best friends who passed away — Kamau, and Dan Boring, who passed away from cancer at age 24. Kamau died when he was 19," Justus says. "They got kids . . . and I know they have questions they wanna ask about their dads. And how do I tell [Kamau's son] about his dad if I'm not around him every day? So I wrote a song. I just wanted to be like, 'Look, little man, this is what your dad was — real cool.' They went young. I don't know a lot of people who had people pass away that young."
Kamau's sister Asha also appears on Born Justus, as does Deonte. "Yes, it's my first solo record, but CTL's on 60 percent of the album," Justus says. "So it's a Cut Throat Logic record, just marked by the direction of Justus."
There are other guest appearances as well — Power 98 deejay Karlie Hustle, R&B singer King David, and NB Ridaz founder MC Magic appear on "Lovely," which Justus calls "a very happy, summer jam." 5Fith Coast Records founder Rocadolla contributed to the production, as did Mr. Twisto, beatmaker Zak Trax, and Rob "Reef" Tewlow of Sirius satellite station Shade 45, who also produced "What Up Gangsta" for 50 Cent.
And, of course, there's the KRS-One collaboration, "Hip-Hop Today & Forever." Justus had opened a show for KRS-One in Phoenix, and asked the MC to appear on his record. "He was like, 'I'm not Sony. Make me an offer. What you got?' And I said, 'I have this much,' and he said, 'All right, we'll make it happen,' Justus recalls. "And the first time we gave him the beat, we didn't hear back for, like, six months. And we were just like little kids, all waiting and excited. And he came back for a second performance and we asked him again, and he was, like, 'All right, you really do wanna do this, don't you? Send me the song again.' And so I e-mailed it to him, and we got it within a week."
Justus pauses to reflect on the first time he heard the track. "It was just cool to hear my name come out of his mouth — Jus-tus! KRS-One! It was crazy! I was like, oh, my God!"
"He's the godfather of hip-hop," Justus continues. "Any MC who says they didn't grow up on KRS-One is probably fucking garbage."
Justus says "Hip-Hop Today & Forever" is "my way of paying homage to hip-hop. Shouts-out to [local hip-hop artist] Melanin on that. Melanin was a large part of the process on that song. He wrote the chorus. Deonte and Melanin put that song together, and then KRS did his verse. We just came lyrical with it. It's a very poetic, punch-you-in-your-face type-song."
Other tracks on the album are much more personal. The song "Sagai Po," for example, chronicles an old rift between Justus and his wife, and includes recordings of his daughters saying, "Daddy, I miss you. I want you to live in my house again," and samples of actual, vitriol-filled voice mails his wife left for him. They've since reconciled, but Justus decided to leave the samples on the track. "That's not her," he says, dismissively.
The song being pushed to radio right now, though, is "Get Your A'z Up," and that's all about Justus' pride in his home state. The song references a hand gesture that's come to symbolize the Arizona hip-hop scene — two peace signs placed together sideways to form a triangular "A" shape. Just like the Atlanta hip-hop scene has its "A-town down" symbol, the West Coast has its "W" hand symbol, and Houston has its "fork" ("rock on" symbol), so Arizona's got the "A'z Up." Seemingly every local hip-hop artist from Attlas to Woodpile to Tha Formula has been flashing the sign onstage and in videos and photos.
Justus says he invented the "A" sign 10 years ago, after watching his cousins throw up gangster signs. "A'z up means Arizona love, Arizona pride. That's where I'm from — A'z Up," Justus says. "It's for everyone to show those motherfuckers, 'Hey, don't throw up that dub [W, for West Coast].' You know that's whack — little white kids throw their dub up for no reason. Make it mean something. It's Arizona. Rep your shit, don't rep something else, some imaginary shit — rep where you're from."
Part of Justus' plan for representing Phoenix is to host showcases "to find more acts that might be a good fit with the Rawkus brand." The first will be this Friday at Chasers, which also serves as an EP release party for Justus. Phoenix MC Kavy, also on the Rawkus roster, will be performing at the show, as will Fetti Profoun, Black1, and many more. "Rawkus lives in Arizona," Justus says.
"We're trying to represent AZ like it's never been repped before."