[THROWBACK HIP-HOP] Sergio de Barros doesn't bring his considerable onstage swagger to interviews. He is an imposing figure—with big hands, broad shoulders and an ever-furrowed brow—but he's soft-spoken and thoughtful in conversation, even a little shy. "I'm definitely more comfortable on stage than anywhere else," he says.
He's the kind of guy who sits quietly at the back of class all year, then shocks everyone with a next-level class presentation on the last day of school.
Back on My Rhymes, de Barros' latest release as Portland MC Serge Severe, is one hell of an A-plus presentation. Because while his classmates were out partying, Serge has been seeing a tutor—specifically, producer-DJ Universal Sect, a longtime vinyl junkie and music geek with whom Serge has built every track on Severe's last two records. Sect's straightforward, throwback beats—strewn with cracking jazz and funk samples that remind of Premier and Dilla—allow Severe the room to balance his rap-game gusto with an old-school party sensibility and a burgeoning social consciousness. In short, Sect's production has led Severe to find a voice.
That voice is inspired by past masters—LL's power, Guru's tactful restraint and Ghostface's breathless, chamber-emptying flow are all evident. But music was in Serge Severe's life long before he tripped out on Pete Rock and CL Smooth. His father, an immigrant from Nicaragua, fled to the U.S. to pursue a career in music. That's an inspiration, too. "He knew he wanted to be a musician when he was 15," Severe says. "So he saved up his money, and he left. He had to break into [the U.S.]." Severe laughs, in awe. "Hearing that, it's like, what's my excuse? What's my struggle?"
Still, Severe's journey to the forefront of Portland's hip-hop scene has been difficult. He admits to having underestimated the commitment it would take to get noticed in a city flush with MCs and lacking in resources. So he has played to his key strength—his old-school commitment to making complete records in the studio and his blue-collar work ethic on stage. In the latter setting, the low-key de Barros disappears and a commanding figure—Serge Severe—emerges. He takes stagecraft seriously, making demands of his audience and returning their energy at full force.
Skills or no, it takes a whole community to raise an MC. And after years in the wilderness, Severe has settled in with a crew over the past few years. Portland MC, producer and promoter Gen.Erik (a.k.a. Erik Abel) has proven to be a master networker of acts both local and national. Later this year, his group Animal Farm—of which Serge is the newest member—will release a full-length with guest appearances by hip-hop institutions like Rob Swift and Talib Kweli. Animal Farm has already garnered considerable college-radio airplay, giving the group some legs outside the Northwest. This year, it will again head to South By Southwest, where both Animal Farm and Serge Severe will push new albums. "It's good to have somebody like Erik speaking for me," Severe says. "If you're just promoting yourself, it's really hard to know who's listening."
The same goes for making hip-hop in Portland, a city defined by a wealth of talent and very few success stories. So it's no wonder Serge tempers his ambition with a little healthy skepticism. "I want to make it," Severe says. "Whatever that means."
SEE IT: Serge Severe plays the Ash Street Saloon (with live instrumentation) on Friday, Feb. 18. 9 pm. $5. 21+.