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For Opus Akoben member Black Indian, rhyming is a very simple matter. “It’s all about being a bitch or being a real muthafucka with it,” says Black matter-of-factly. As blunt as that statement may be, Black’s definition of rhyming is pretty much to the point. There’s nothing pretty about MCing: It celebrates raw, competitive testosterone and moreover finds its beauty in society’s ugliness. There’s nothing pretty about watching Black Indian, or any member of Opus Akoben, freestyle. Each member has his own style and approach, but eachBlack Indian, Sub-Z, and Kokayiroutinely clutches a mike with the intent to blow speakers and slash jugulars.
It’s an approach that has been honed by years of live performances, touring around the world, and sparring in the ciphers of D.C.’s Freestyle Union. “When it’s time to rhyme, it’s time to rhyme,” says Kokayi. “We learned that in Europe. Ain’t no time to be sitting around intellectualizing shit. People be sayin’, ‘Well, we have to make sure the notes fit in the exact universal structure.’ Nigger, whatever! Just rhyme! Just get out there and rhyme!”
“What it is,” interjects the normally stoic Sub-Z, “is people use all this high intellectualizing to cover up the fact that they’re scared to rhyme. When we was touring with Steve [Coleman, jazz saxophonist], wasn’t no time for that. He’d come up to us and be like, ‘Black, I want you and the drummer to start the show.’ And that’d be it. You go out there and you rhyme.”
For the past couple of years, Opus has been gracing D.C. stages with its no-nonsense approach. At an Opus show, there are no hordes of miscellaneous fools roaming the stage and leering out at the crowd. Similarly, there’s no throng of ruffnecks accompanying the group whose sole responsibility is to rush the front of the stage and hype the MCs.
Opus is about as modest as it gets when it comes to hiphop; the group simply walks onstage, sets up its equipment, and controls the crowd. There are no lavish dressing rooms or wild after-parties. On any night, any of the members can be seen mingling with the crowd, before or after the show. That attitude, along with some ill lyrical acumen, has made the group a fixture on D.C.’s burgeoning hiphop scene, which, having no real home of its own, is trying to make one at spots like the 9:30 Club, the Metro Cafe, and State of the Union.
A modest degree of success has also allowed the trio to release two jazz-influenced CDs, The Way of the Cipher and The Art of War; neither is a masterpiece, but both are bold and creative forays into hiphop’s new world. “We know we ain’t no big stars. We ain’t tripping,” says Black. “You see us walking through the ‘hood, and it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ We ain’t like, ‘Dammit, I ordered a Coke with my meal.’”
Even more than modesty, Opus’ most noticeable feature is the diversity of its members’ lyrical stylings. The youngest third of Opus Akoben, Black is also the most outgoing and energetic. On a Tuesday afternoon at Sub-Z’s modest Bryant Street crib, Black is peering through the vinelike dreads that hang over his forehead and offering blunt and precise slices from his MC files. “I came up battling,” he says with the look of a natural-born competitor. “Everywhere I went, it was just battle, battle, battle. That’s all it’s about. See, I don’t play thatman, I’m a battle you. We from D.C., so joanin’ is in effect. We can joan all daytalk about each other’s mother, food, you stink, shoes, whatever. I just put that in my rhymes.
“So if you step in a cipher with me, I’m like, ‘Why you breaking the rules/Running up in here with them run-over shoes?’ That’s what a battle is. It’s full hand-to-hand combat, just using your voice.” Black is the raw, profane, irreverent element of Opus; on one song he brags that he’s “already condemned to hell for taking His only begotten son,” and that he “drinks St. Ides out of holy grails.”
As sacrilegious and brazen as Black is, Sub-Z matches his fury with arcane, encyclopedic allusions and a flow that couldn’t miss a beat if it tried. Sub-Z is a literary MC very similar to OC, the Gza, or even Biggie or Jay-Z at their best, but his flow makes him sound like a vicious cross between CL Smooth and Rakim. Yet despite the academic approach, Sub-Z scorns elitism. Opus’ most recent creation is a revamping of “Vibe and Emotion,” off the Art of War album. Over a moaning harp and a sparse drum track, Sub-Z eschews the role of poet laureate and instead claims the title “blacktop valedictorian.” He lucidly sums up his cloak-and-dagger role in the group: “Sub, the clandestine bringer of black noise, planting decoys/Watching these sitting ducks fall for the ploy.”
Somewhere between Black and Sub-Z’s extremes, Kokayi sits wickedly, injecting his flow with Southern melody and singsong. What’s most exciting about Kokayi’s style is how he deftly wraps his voice around the rhythm. Furthermore, when he is performing live, his raw energy is usually enough to capture the crowd. But the perceptive lucky fan can look past Kokayi’s flash and song and see how tight he packs his lyrics.
Unfortunately, most hiphopheads around the country have never heard the group, because Art of War has been released only in Europe on BMG-France and the group has not yet been able to secure distribution stateside. Europe’s love for hiphop is nothing new, and old-schoolers have for years bemoaned the fact that white kids from Haarlem, Holland, can probably tell you more about hiphop than black kids from Harlem, N.Y.
But Kokayi doesn’t let domestic obscurity get to him. “I can’t get mad,” he says. “I’d love to rock RFK. But we just gotta do what we gonna do.” It is perhaps the ultimate irony that groups like Opuscliques that pride themselves on their lyricsfind love in the arms of people who probably only barely understand what they’re saying.
Perhaps even more bizarre is the emergence of an amorphous category of hiphop called “alternative rap”a catch-all moniker that has been used to classify the Roots, the Fugees, and now, in the District, Opus. It is an offensive classification, since usually only those who aren’t spouting gun talk receive the tag. “It’s amazing how the commercial stuff has become what is known as ‘hiphop,’” says Sub-Z, “and the original innovative music is now ‘alternative hiphop.’”
Any Opus show reveals that the group is not an “alternative.” Opus treasures the art of house-rocking and routinely invokes call-and-response or high-voltage freestyles to entice the crowd. It’s hiphop in its purest form, since the MC’s original purpose was not so much to philosophize as to tear down the house. Opus specializes in simultaneously building and tearing down the house, in invigorating fashion. Just don’t call them pretty.CP