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Opio Brings New Album, ‘Sempervirens,’ to BackBar

In Music
BETTER WITH AGE: Opio (left) has been rapping for decades and says he wants to continue 
pushing the boundaries with producer Free the Robots (right).

BETTER WITH AGE: Opio (left) has been rapping for decades and says he wants to continue pushing the boundaries with producer Free the Robots (right).

East bay rapper Opio has gray hairs winding through his twisty locks. The tenured spitter has been a pillar in the Bay Area underground since the early ’90s, operating on his own and with the Souls of Mischief as part of the hallowed indie hip-hop collective, Hieroglyphics.

With his most recent project, Sempervirens, Opio is announcing he isn’t content with retreading the same old path. The record finds him teaming with progressive producer, Free the Robots, to blend his vintage flow with vanguarding beats.

“There is just an infinite amount of cool shit going on,” Opio says. “But I’m trying to go beyond that, beyond the plethora of artists, and step outside of anything that anyone is doing. I’m trying to be futuristic and retro.”

The album’s title comes from a species of atmosphere-brushing sequoia. It means “always flourishing.” These woodland giants surrounded the studio in the gut of the NorCal mountains where Opio’s silky bars blended with Free the Robot’s astral synths, pregnant 808s and slinking snares. The duo sought the woodsy air for the monastic clarity it provides.

“It was just a way for us to decompress and really get re-energized and into that creative spiritual space,” he says. “Watching the waves roll in, or being in the middle of the forest or right next to the river, that shit has always been something that I’ve grown up with and been around. But the canvas doesn’t reflect that. It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Yo check out the ill redwood tree.’”

Opio first heard hip-hop in kindergarten. In 5th grade, he started rapping at local battles of the bands, eating pizza backstage with musicians twice his age. In Oakland, a hub for the burgeoning genre, Opio spent Christmas money on studio time, but also DJ-ed, sprayed graffiti and joined in breakdancing circles with supportive elders.

“Everybody that I looked up to in my neighborhood was into hip-hop,” he says. “The culture itself had just this magnetic aura about it. It was also purely youth culture at that time. It was just for the kids. Your parents didn’t have any idea what the hell all this hippity-hoppity stuff was.”

In high school, the Souls of Mischief congealed. On the title single of their first album “93 ’til Infinity,” Tajai, Phesto, A-Plus and Opio trade verses. It’s like a million smiles laid over crackly boom-baps and early electro echoes. The sage teenage crew stretched the West Coast sound in new dimensions, forsaking the gangsta mojo of N.W.A., et al, and pioneering a pot-mellowed hippie vibe. They toured with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, breaking ground for the experimental, subterranean West Coast scene.

“We were just being ourselves and articulating that naturally in our environment,” he says. “We had a very universal ear for the history of black music. We were really into Miles Davis, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, the list goes on and on. It was a combination of all those experiences that helped us create something original.”

Souls of Mischief is a subset of the broader Hiero crew—which also functions as a record label and is home to Del the Funky Homosapien, who joined the collective after chafing under the limited scope of his cousin Ice Cube’s production team. To Opio, group recordings magnify creativity as ideas ricochet from brain to brain, but the surplus of creativity can lead to a glut, which is why, he says, it’s nice to work solo.

“The vibes can be thick and it’s a good feeling,” he says. “But that means ideas that I have are not able to come into full view without everyone else’s approval. There’s just not enough time in the day to do everything that we might think of. So it’s good to step outside of that.”

Over his prolific career, Opio has burrowed into many niches within his genre. He can be silly like on Mark It Zero, a mixtape built from quips and soundtrack snippets from The Big Lebowski—or contemplative, like on the latest Souls of Mischief project, There is Only Now, a layered narrative that sprawls from a near-death experience. He peppers all his acrobatic stanzas with calm wokeness that never veers into sheeple-preaching.

“Music just has to sound good,” he says. “I’ve heard conscious music that sucks. I’m just being realistic. Shit could be fucked up all around you, but you still want to have fun. You can still enjoy yourself without being blind to what goes on in the world.”

Opio plays on Dec 16, 9pm for $10 at BackBar SoFa, San Jose.

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