In David Cohn’s fantasy world, he is Kenny “KDz” Dennis, a Chicago rapper who loves O’Douls and chicken wings, idolizes character actor Brian Dennehy of Tommy Boy and Rambo: First Blood fame, and nurses a grudge with Shaquille O’Neal for clowning his thick, Burt-Reynolds-style mustache. In real life, he is Serengeti, an underground artist who has quietly assembled an impressive catalog of incisive character sketches and leftfield hip hop. Launching his career with 2002’s Dirty Flamingo, he recorded in virtual obscurity for years until indie label Anticon Records signed him to a deal in 2008. His subsequent releases, including 2011’s Family & Friends, have made him something of a critic’s darling and his quirky vignettes of marginal, slightly depressive figures have brought increasing acclaim. Take, for example, “The Whip,” a biography of disgraced MMA wrestler Gary “The Whip” Warsh, and “Long Ears,” a tale of a rap star and his son who bond by doing heroin together.
Cohn has released two projects this year. The Kenny Dennis EP revisits his alter ego, a former member of fake ’90s hip hop group Tha Grimm Teachaz (who dropped the Onyx-styled There’s a Situation on the Homefront in 2010). The highlight is “Shazam,” where Dennis fires back at Shaq-Fu with lines like “As far as acting go, I’m Marlon Brando/ Don’t make the Dz set up shop in Orlando!” Cohn’s new album as Serengeti, C.A.R., is alternately more sardonic and tragic, as he turns his poison pen on himself with songs like “Amnesia” and “Uncle Traum,” the latter on which he describes a near-death experience. C.A.R. is produced by Anticon co-founders Jel and Odd Nosdam; a companion album, C.A.B., is due out in the fall.
Who is Kenny?
Kenny Dennis is this guy who’s somebody who I always wanted to be like, so I wrote him into existence. He’s a real happy guy, has a lot of friends, and holds the party at his house. The guy who really loves his wife and everything’s going great. He has his friends and family. He has a rival, but it’s a friendly rival. He’s just a real happy fella. He was part of the Grimm Teachaz back in the day, so he was part of the golden era [of hip hop].
He sounds pissed on the Kenny Dennis EP.
Two of those songs were from his Grimm Teachaz era, when KDz was the name he went by. So he was a little more aggro then. The Shaq song, “Shazam” was from 1993, after Shaq had dissed him. “Top That” was another one from that early era.
The Grimm Teachaz album [There’s a Situation on the Homefront] is this album that was unearthed, and it was made in 1993. After that, Kenny came home and did the “Shazam” song, because he was really pissed, and the “Top That” song. Then he didn’t think about rapping for a long time, and in the interim he recorded the Dennehy. His brother moved into his garage, and that’s when he unearthed the Grimm Teachaz album. So they put it out through a label, Chopped Herring Records, in 2010. Then Kenny started doing his current recordings.
Where does 2009’s Conversations with Kenny/Legacy of Lee fit in?
That’s just a whole different universe. It’s a strand of the Kenny Dennis universe with this character named Tony Trimm (played by rapper Anthony “Haiku” Kim).
How did Shaq diss Kenny Dennis?
The Grimm Teachaz were on Jive Records, and they were doing a label showcase in Philadelphia in 1993. The Teachaz went on, and they did well. They went backstage, and they were real happy. KDz and PMDF (aka rapper Umar “Hi-Fidel” Rashid) were celebrating, and then they noticed that the crowd was still laughing. Kenny said, “Oh man, this is great.” So he looks out front on stage, and Shaq was holding court about Kenny’s mustache, and had the whole audience laughing. Since then, Kenny’s had it out for Shaquille O’Neal.
Does this have anything to do with the Fu-Schnickens?
No. Shaq was on the Fu-Schnickens song “Can We Rock (What’s Up Doc)?” But Kenny’s beef doesn’t have anything to do with them.
What are your thoughts about Shaq’s rap career — Shaq Diesel, Shaq Fu: The Return, et cetera?
I don’t follow his rap career. He’s had a great career. He just retired [from basketball] as a Hall of Famer, so he’s done great.
Are these songs meant to be satirical? Or are you just telling stories?
I don’t trivialize the Kenny stuff. It’s some of my hopes and dreams to be like a guy like that. My other songs are little oddball tales and vignettes.
Do you have any literary inspirations for your songs?
I watch a lot of movies. I used to read a lot of stuff, like Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut.
On 2011’s Family & Friends, you wrote about different characters. But on the new album C.A.R., the songs are about you.
Yeah, especially “Uncle Traum.” It’s about a real experience where I was in the hospital two years ago, and I was under Propofol for about a week. When I came out, I was in a half-dream, half-reality world. In my dream, I met Uncle Traum, and he was this speed metal guy. But when I was not in the dream, I thought he was real. … He got killed in a car accident, and I called the house to find out when the funeral was. But it was all in my head. I was waiting for the news to come on to talk about the death. It was Sunday, so there was no morning news. I called these people to find out when the funeral was. It turned out it wasn’t true. It was very strange, very intense.
I found out later that “traum” in German means “dream.” I wrote “Uncle Traum” about it.
Why were you in the hospital?
I had walking pneumonia, and I couldn’t hear. So they took me to the hospital, and all my organs were collapsing. So that’s when they put me under [with Propofol], and all those dreams happened. I was out for a week. They brought me out when my organs started to respond again.
Have you had any medical issues since?
No. It was a total shocker. I had breathing tubes in me. I was all messed up. The only side effect is that I have this constant ringing [in my ears]. It involved these antibiotics that cause ringing, and it was supposed to go away after a week. But I still have it. And I have problems as far as getting lost. My sense of direction is messed up, and I keep forgetting things that happened in the past, like not remembering certain things.
You’ve put out over a dozen albums during the past ten years, but it’s only been recently that you’ve been heard by a wide audience. Do you have any plans to reissue your earlier material?
I was thinking about that — picking out the best songs from Dirty Flamingo, Noticeably Negro, and doing a little something on wax. If there is anybody who wants to reissue some stuff, I’d probably be up for doing a combo [of old material]. I’d like to do a pared-down version of Dirty Flamingo, because that’s the one that started me off.
Do you have any nostalgia for your older material?
I don’t listen to anything I’ve made when it’s done. I’ll go back and listen to it maybe a couple of times. But when I start to hear it I’m, like, “Oh no, that’s embarrassing.” So I occasionally look back, but not too often.
Did you hear about the first Fat Boys album being reissued in a pizza box? Maybe you could do a Kenny Dennis box set using a Chicago deep-dish pizza box.
Yeah, I thought about something like that, where it could come with a mustache. That’d be real cool.
Serengeti’s C.A.R. is out now via Anticon.