Music News

Cutting Through

Lots of acts attract fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Reuben Khan wears his devotion to Cut Throat Logic on the back of his shaved head.

"Cut Throat Logic is a way of life. That's the only one I need," says an emphatic, enormous Khan, a childhood friend of several members of Cut Throat Logic and occasional bodyguard to the group. The band's name appears in scrawled calligraphy across the back of Khan's cranium

Khan's tribute to his childhood friends is an extreme example of the Valley hip-hop group's effect on its true believers. Cut Throat Logic's unpredictable self-titled debut album should be termed emo-rap for its euphoric bursts of rage, defiance, celebration and melody. It's an energy that's been attracting new fans for most of this decade. Close childhood friends from north central Phoenix and now parents of small children, the group has survived the jolting death of its founder -- the brother of two members -- to become a top local draw. At a time when Valley musicians are fortunate to draw more than 50 people, thanks to an apathetic current for live music, Cut Throat attracts sell-out, balls-out crowds.

"We've been selling out [Wednesday] nights at the Mason Jar for the past year," says Justus "Kated" Olbert, one of the group's three rappers and by far the most volatile. "And they were Thursday nights in the middle of fucking August when that place is like 140 degrees, yo. That shit is ridiculous. It's so stupid hot in there, you don't want to fucking be in there for five minutes. And people are sticking around for four hours." (Michael Manfredi, who owns the Mason Jar, calls Cut Throat as the only local act in town that can sell out his club these days.)

The group is now showing it can transcend the 300-person-capacity Mason Jar. It held a CD release party at the Old Brickhouse Grill in downtown Phoenix on January 24 that, according to that club's owners, attracted nearly 700 people of all stripes -- black, white, Latino, bikers, hippies, thug wanna-bes and nattily dressed yuppies.

"They grind! And they've been grinding for a while," says Ether Bunny, whose group Woodpile was among the Brickhouse show's supporting acts. He doesn't possess Khan's courage in the head-advertising department but wears the letters "CTL" in white paint across his forehead inside the Brickhouse. "Every rapper in this building knows they draw the biggest shows in town.

"This is their motherfuckin' night."

It truly was. At the cavernous club, the air a blend of smoke and heat, Cut Throat Logic performed a blistering set, backed for two-thirds of it by a live band featuring veterans of Dislocated Styles, Soulfly and other local rock bands. The rappers, dressed in tees and muscle shirts with Cut Throat Logic logos, jumped and paced the stage with a forceful energy. When the band closed with a crowd favorite, the spooky, slow-crawling "Battle Cry," a group of young Hispanic men closed their eyes and, like the chorus tells them to do, lifted their fists up to the sky, broken up when Olbert doused the crowd with water.

"We have motivation and passion in our music," says Deonte "Plague" Perry, Cut Throat's chief beatmaker and producer. "We're trying to be original, and they appreciate that. They recognize that."

Even if the results don't always work. Cut Throat Logic is an at-times-awkward 12-song rumble through alternating spiritual and thuggish undertones, out-of-left-field vocal samples and multiple shifts in theme. Starting with an agile scratch from 21-year-old whiz-kid DJ Megadef, album opener "Unexpected" is aptly named. Third rapper Babatunde "Babablunte" Rabouin extracts after-life metaphors out of club dress codes. Perry plays smooth in telling other rappers to "get off my dick," while Olbert grunts about learning from his past.

And that all happens before Patrick Swayze dialogue lifted from the 1989 flop Road House and an abrupt change from swinging strings to looming piano.

Throughout the album, Perry's R&B-influenced beats unite four personalities you might not expect to be part of the same band. Olbert is large, intimidating and white, raised by strict Christian parents -- no television for years, with "bullshit music" like the Beach Boys played regularly at home. After discovering hip-hop through a DC Talk tape bought for him at a Christian bookstore, he spent his adolescence rebelling.

"I was an asshole for a long time, but everyone goes through their phase," says Olbert, 22. Now, as the married father of a daughter named Angelica Faith, he wears his hair in corn rows and tattoos his right arm, chest and back with religious symbolism (the famed Last Supper painting, the words to Romans 6:23 and eventually, he says, part of the Sistine Chapel).

Perry, 23, is shorter, skinnier and much quieter than the others. He spent his high school years learning piano, trumpet, drums and trombone and prefers to keep to himself away from the stage, though on it he's a fedora-wearing, acid-tongued mack.

Tunde Rabouin, the oldest member at 27, hovers in between Olbert and Perry -- drawing from the same well of profane anger as Olbert but anchoring his verses in a professorial voice. He styles himself as a crusader, often talking at length about how he feels his music fights "negative forces" like racism and right-wing extremism.

Tunde's little sister Ashabunmi sings the choruses and bridges on the more melodic tunes. She's polite and shy but commands attention with a cool demeanor, tall, full-figured frame and booming gospel pipes. She's also sung on albums by prog-metal band Soulfly.

A mixed bag for sure, yet their chemistry, crafted from a bond that formed at Shadow Mountain High School, is unforced; they know who they are and play off each other's persona. Sample exchange:

Tunde: "I'm not influenced by who most people are influenced by. I'm not on Jay-Z's nuts or Tupac's nuts or Biggie's nuts. I appreciate everybody for what they are."

Justus: "Whose nuts are you on, then?"

Inside the Old Brickhouse Grill on January 24, as Cut Throat Logic performs, black scribbling on their yellow, graffiti-laced stage backdrop stands out. It reads "R.I.P. K-Rab." "K-Rab" refers to Kamau Rabouin, Tunde and Asha's brother who first suggested careers in hip-hop as a brash teen. Kamau fatally shot himself in the head following an argument with his girlfriend in February 2000, just weeks after Cut Throat's first real gig.

Friends describe the younger Rabouin brother as a talented writer and fighter who inspired shy types and reluctant performers -- like both his siblings -- to step out front.

"He was the heart of the group," says Perry, who met Kamau in ninth grade. "He's the reason I chose a career in music."

Olbert says he and Kamau both struggled with controlling their anger as teenagers, and for his next-door neighbor and best friend it ultimately resulted in tragedy. Since then, the group members have said they've worked to honor Kamau's spirit in the music. Justus refers to Kamau often in his rhymes. Tunde and Asha, meanwhile, say the death of their brother -- Tunde's the oldest, Asha's the youngest, while Kamau was in between -- has brought them closer together. For Asha, 21, the spiritual healing cuts even deeper. She suffered from stage fright for years and once regularly skipped out on gigs because of it.

"When he passed away, I sang at his funeral because I was like, you know, I've got to make my brother proud," she says. "After that, it seemed like it got easier for me."

Tunde, however, says he hasn't allowed himself to mourn, supporting his parents through their grief and caring for his three daughters. He dedicates his verse on the ballad "Pain in My Eyes" to the U.S. war on terrorism and a "Euro-egocentric God complex" when everyone around him clearly has Kamau in mind.

Even so, the elder Rabouin says he's effectively acquired dozens of surrogate younger brothers in Kamau's friends.

While Tunde's notebooks filled with verses inspired Kamau to start Cut Throat Logic, he joined only after years of prodding. He says he'd be happy making $40,000 a year off music, but for now worries about covering tuition for his daughters' private schooling. He talks passionately about how, unlike his brother, he's never carried a gun.

But he also says he knows he can't be too precious in talking about his lyrics. And in doing so, he puts a final stamp on Cut Throat Logic's thug-emo duality.

"I'm not judging anybody, because I might say bitch' the next rap or say something so vulgar that I wouldn't want my mom to hear it or my daughters to hear," Tunde says. "That's a part of me, and I accept responsibility for that. At the same time, I can't deny God, what he's done for me, what he's doing for me, just waking me up, letting me have my breath so I can smoke this cigarette."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-407-1715.

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Christopher O'Connor