“Concrete Techniques” is the second album from Portland MC Serge Severe. His 2006 debut, “Walk In My Shoes,” generated positive reviews, and was declared one of the top ten albums of 2006 by at least one critic. Like a lot of Portland MCs, Serge is on the more conscious end of the hip hop spectrum. After listening to “Concrete Techniques,” you will still be unsure what kind of car he drives, what jewelry he likes to wear, his favorite drink, what kinds of shoes he wears, or whether or not he has ever been to a strip club. Musically, he leans more towards golden age sounds (DJ Premier is one of his Myspace friends) rather than mainstream rap or hipster rap. Strippers will probably not be dancing to this while they shake their g-string at johns, and the shady dude at the back of the bus will probably not be bumping this through the shitty speakers on his MP3 player. (Of course, there was a guy on the back of the 6 Parnassus yesterday banging M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” so anything is possible). In short, Serge Severe makes clever, heartfelt hip hop that picks up where classic 90s artists left off, and continues on the trail blazed by labels like Fat Beats and Rhymesayers.
Severe has a rapid, steady flow, and peppers his verses with similes, metaphors, and wordplay. He gets that hip hop is about saying things in a creative, clever way, and he nails it in that respect. He is reminiscent of Atmosphere both in his delivery and in the content of his rhymes, which combine humor and pathos into a compelling mix. He gets things started right on “Here I Come,” rapping:
“Quick like a deer’s sprint
Gotta make moves a lot
Really wanna know?
Type my name in the Google box
Let’s work it out like a Bowflex
Shower clean verse when I flow fresh
Let’s get busy like kangaroos jumping
I switched up my lingo
My verbal’s all custom”
There are a lot of old school party raps on here, with Serge reiterating his skills on the mic both through his lyrics and his flow. He also details the struggles of being an MC on several tracks, and on “Break Dream” details his history with hip hop, from a kid breakdancing and collecting stacks of vinyl. He takes a serious turn on “Slow Down Baby,” in which he and Mic Crenshaw describe the perils of a life of crime with sympathy and honesty.
Serge holds his own on the mic, but the real star here is Universal DJ Sect, who produced all the tracks on the album. Universal mines old soul, jazz, and funk records for his beats, and the result is 12 tracks of the kind of sample-based hip hop that has been an endangered species ever since De La Soul and Biz Markie got their asses sued. There’s the bounce of “Here I Come,” the chopped up Al Green of “Concrete Techniques,” the jazzy funk of “Ain’t It Funky,” the horns on the aptly titled “Bring the Horns,” and the nasty bass and guitar on “Classic Ish.” “Operatin’ Correctly” has a four-on-the-floor beat reminiscent of Eric B. and Rakim, and the KRS One sample makes it seem like it was recorded in ’88, not ’08. Universal also offers up some slower, more pensive beats on “This Path” and “Slow Down Baby,” which are matched by Serge Severe’s pensive rhymes. It’s rare that one producer handles the boards for an entire album, and Universal mixes it up enough so that it never gets boring.
What with the old school sampled beats, and the old school battle rhymes, “Concrete Techniques” seems in some ways like a product of another era, when rappers where dreaming about going gold, not platinum, and were more concerned with being the fiercest MC on the block than on shifting product and moving units. Serge Severe looks back to a simpler time, when rappers were judged by the strength of their flow and not the length of their rap sheet or whether or not they had a vodka line. Put “Concrete Techniques” on and imagine an alternate universe where Diddy never happened, where Eric B. was still president, and where hip hop stayed true to its roots.