The new satirical show “Portlandia” claims that the Northwestern city of Portland is where the dream of the 90’s is still alive. If that’s true, than Serge Severe is a natural fit there. He may not have any tribal tattoos or be going to Clown College, but his ethic and music are unabashedly old-school. Mainstream rappers may be singing as much as rapping and mixing in pop music and dance music into their beats, but Severe is having none of it. He drops battle rhymes over sampled beats, and he does it well.
I first heard Severe a few years ago when I reviewed his album “Concrete Techniques.” For his third album, “Back On My Rhymes,” Severe doesn’t fix what ain’t broke. He sticks with the same producer, DJ Sect, the same sound, and the same delivery.
Severe covers some turf lyrically. Beyond the typical battle rhyme concerns of asserting the superiority of his microphone skills, Severe raps about the state of hip-hop and the struggles of being a rapper. He drops a lot of references to old school artists, and at times it sounds like he’s struggling to find his place in an industry and genre that doesn’t have much respect for the artistry and lyricism he brings to the game. On “Prepare for Sergery,” he raps:
“I won’t stop til I retire
Cuz they say hip-hop is slowly dying
I’m pissed off cuz I know they’re lying
Cuz if that’s so, then who am I then?
The MC like the only lion
Roaming through the jungle just to stay alive
I keep on, keep soul surviving”
He also switches things up, rapping about his friends who got caught up in a life of crime, and taking on the current state of the economy on several tracks. The bulk of the album, however, is Severe rapping about rapping. He even cops to it on “ClaSSic But So New,” admitting “they say I rap about rap too much, well guess what? Nowadays rap sucks, so hush…I’m here to carry on tradition with some vicious lyricism.”
As with his last album, DJ Sect is the secret weapon. He produced the entire album, supplying thirteen tracks of sample-driven hip-hop. He offers up funky beat after funky beat built around funk, soul, and jazz breaks. It’s the sound that got me to fall in love with hip-hop in the first place. Severe is also accompanied on the mic by fellow MCs Braille, Theory Hazit, Luck One, Destro, Gen. Erik, Cool Nutz, and Illmaculate.
I’m a fan of “Back On My Rhymes,” but I’m not sure if that’s because Serge Severe is doing something new and relevant, or because he makes the type of music I’m nostalgic for. I’d be interested to see how younger rap fans reacted to “Back On My Rhymes,” whether it still sounded fresh to their ears or hopelessly old fashioned. Even if he isn’t breaking any new ground, Severe is good at what he does, and “Back On My Rhymes” is a nice throwback to an era when hip-hop was grounded in DJs, breaks, and lyricism.