A WORK OF EPIC PROPORTIONS
THE OPUS' 'BREATHING LESSONS' MARKS 10 YEARS OF MUSICAL COLLABORATIONS
A sampler brought them together, an EPS+16 by Esoniq, to be specific. Kevin Johnson and Aaron Smith were fresh out of high school and just getting to know each other when Johnson purchased the latest in sampling technology; Smith was eager to compare the EPS+16 to other products on the market. Discovering a shared passion for electronic music and its tools, the two began a long-standing friendship and partnership.
In a few years, they'd formed the Chicago experimental hip-hop group Rubberoom with another producer and three vocal MCs, but by 2002 they were back to a duo, with a debut album, 'First Contact' released as the trip-hop production pair The Opus.
"The Rubberoom MCs were basically the front line, and we were behind the scenes," Smith says of his and Johnson's split from the group. "We wanted to take our own destiny in our hands." This year The Opus released a second full-length, 'Breathing Lessons', the culmination of a collaborative process almost 10 years in the making.
It's also The Opus' most evolved work yet. Smith and Johnson departed from their earlier approach featuring a brat pack of underground MCs (Slug, Aesop Rock, Murs, IselfDivine, Lord 360) over grinding, industrial-influenced beats. 'Breathing Lessons' includes far fewer guest appearances and establishes a smooth, ambient, melancholy tone, full of layered, indiscernible samples, heavy with futuristic soundscapes and penetrating, intricately programmed drum patterns.
Johnson and Smith both credit as a seminal influence Public Enemy's early production team the Bomb Squad, producers who relied on avant-garde techniques to reorganize unrecognizable samples and piercing sirens into incisive, revolutionary beats. "That's always been my model," Johnson says. "My number-one goal is to use sampling for what it is. Instead of using huge chunks of music, I would take a chunk of a bass line and a chunk of a string and form my own melody out of it."
In addition to hip-hop, drum & bass and trip-hop are readily identifiable in The Opus' palette of sounds, as well as a few genres fans and critics are not so quick to reference, like Chicago house, funk, rock and soul.
"Even though we're sampling artists, we create collages of sound, and I still consider myself a musician in that sense," Smith says. "When I was coming up, the most powerful artists were those who were original and whose skills were intact, so we've always tried to consider how we can set ourselves apart and be original without being weird for the sake of being weird."