The first voice you hear on Phoenix hip-duo Catharsis’ new album isn’t that of veteran MCs Brad B. or Optimal.
Instead, it’s the voice of the late comedian and counterculture icon George Carlin introducing the record on opening track “They Own You.” “You have no choice, you have owners,” Carlin growls, his voice ragged over a break beat. “They own you … they own everything … they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls.”
The sample comes from Carlin’s HBO special and album Life Is Worth Losing, which was recorded in 2005 and released the following year. But with its political verve and barely restrained rage, the screed feels like it could have been broadcast yesterday. It sets the tone for the album, Out of the Vault from the Rib Cage. Carlin was a master of getting where he needed to go, his routines and observations unfiltered, direct from his brain and heart. That style pairs well with Catharsis.
Reclining on a couch at The Womack in Central Phoenix, Brad and Optimal explain the sample was actually put to tape by producer Ianfluence. He thought the iconic Carlin bit reflected their takes on corruption, societal frustration, and ultimately, via Optimal’s verse, the art of transcending a broken system. Though they hadn’t even heard the sample before recording their verses, the quotes felt synchronized with their message.
“We didn’t really know we were going for a political statement,” Optimal says, sipping his beer, dressed in a black polo and baggy jeans. But things got political — or at least “anti-establishment,” Brad suggests — quickly. That sample illustrated “what we were talking about,” Brad says.
Catharsis wasn’t built to make any specific statement. Out of the Vault from the Rib Cage came together in a supremely casual way. Brad’s project the Insects had joined his longtime crew Drunken Immortals in hiatus/limbo. Optimal was winding down from a pair of projects, including The Landmind Frescos and Drive, released by Murs’ 3:16 label in 2014. Hanging out on Brad’s couch in Tempe, they started kicking ideas back and forth, tapping into their shared freestyle roots, which stretch back to nearly two decades to the late ’90s Phoenix hip-hop scene. Brad was a transplant from Indiana, Optimal a kid who grew up “on the Salt River rez,” but they gravitated toward each other.
“We’ve been doing songs together [with individual projects] for a long time, and we figured let’s do this,” Brad says, adjusting his vintage Diamondbacks hat as Steely Dan plays over the bar’s sound system.
The timing felt right. His roommate, rapper and producer Ianfluence, had spare beats. Their mutual friend Just Chris could DJ. The duo had Earsweat Records lined up to release whatever they created. So without much forethought, they began recording.
“We wanted to make a classic hip-hop album,” Optimal says, noting the vocal distortion that will immediately remind heads of vintage Beastie Boys and the soul-, jazz-, and funk-inflected beats. “We wanted to bring back that old-school hip-hop style; we’re doing it for everyone else who grew up in our generation, and also the younger generation … we’re doing it for those cats, too.”
“We were just styling out,” Brad says. “We just both go for it. We love the art of it, the mathematics, and the poetry of it. A lot of times we don’t premeditate what we’re going to do — we’re just in the moment.”
At the risk of resorting to cliché, it’s worth nothing that the pair often finishes each other’s sentences in conversation, following up each other’s thoughts with a clarifying statements and context. They do it over and over again over their beers at The Womack, and they do it consistently on the record.
“They’ve got unique styles — everything about them is very different, but it’s a great clash of different things,” MC Rashenal of Earsweat Records, Catharsis’ label, says setting down a fresh round of drinks for the rappers.
He’s right. Like famous duos that came before them — OutKast, Black Star, or modern reference point Run the Jewels — their differing brands add to the depth of the project. It’s tempting to divide them neatly into opposite camps: Optimal the starry-eyed dreamer; Brad the aggressive realist. But neither conforms entirely to that reduction. Both are nuanced storytellers and in possession of varied attacks, demonstrating layered approaches throughout.
On “Ghost Stories,” they both open up, sharing near-death stories over a jazzy, ambient beat. On “We On,” the duo climb over each other, upping the intensity over a beat that recalls Cypress Hill, their rapid verses veering from sci-fi abstraction to metaphysical reflection. On “Run,” featuring Very G. and Mouse Powell, the two trade verses over funk guitar, extolling the virtue of living — and creating — in the moment. “Don’t worry about the future, see I’m all about today,” Optimal raps.
“This is completely different from what you’ve ever heard them rapping on,” Just Chris says. He’s observed their evolution as lyricists firsthand, coming up with Optimal in Mesa and serving as one of Drunken Immortals’ DJs. “They’re making [the record] for any hip-hop fan who loves dope beats and rhymes. And that’s why I buy records.”
But the album is the result of their friendship as much as their mastery of craft. Any rapper can match another skilled MC, but these two achieve something more akin to musical telepathy. Both have been aware of each other’s work for close to two decades, but in 1999 they began linking up more consciously, talking at rapper Volume 10’s freestyle competition at Majerle’s. Their collaboration is instinctual, equally rooted in personality and respective ability. The two come off as admirers of each other as much as musical partners. When they reflect on their respective flows, they sound like genuine fans.
“He doesn’t [circle] a lot of verses around … he’s very blunt, forward, real quick,” Optimal says, pointing his thumb at Brad. “He’ll say it to you real quick and move on to the next one. He’s really dope about that. I love that he does that.”
“I love the fluidity of his lyrics and his flow,” Brad replies. “This guy, a lot of times he doesn’t’ write his stuff down. He’s got this crazy memory where he memorizes this shit. This dude just goes. It’s almost like there’s a freestyle element in his verse — it’s just fluid.”
Working together, they end up with something distinct from their individual bodies of work, something they wouldn’t have created on their own. And because this is hip-hop, there’s something about the challenge that appeals to them both.
“Sometimes he’ll come to me with a verse and I’m like, whoa, I better come with it,” Brad says. “We feed off each other and make each other better. I don’t wanna come off like a punk after this crazy verse he just did, I better come with it. We push each other.”
Optimal grins and offers a low chuckle. “Yeah, exactly.”
Catharsis is scheduled to perform Friday, April 28, at Tempe Tavern.