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Serengeti: "Take a Shower, Take a Shave, Take a Walk"

On a muggy afternoon in 2007, David Cohn is walking to his neighborhood diamond for a game of 16-inch softball. He’s got all the necessities for Chicago’s true summer pastime –– the beer, the grill, the brats –– plus a few surprising items: a camcorder and enough stick-on mustaches for all his buddies who meet him there. In between swings and swigs, Cohn films the music video for “Dennehy,” his hit single that has racked up over half a million Youtube views. Unapologetically shaky, the film is as amateur as it is homegrown. Over the footage, Cohn, under his stage name Serengeti, raps the memorable hook: “Favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O’Doul’s/Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls!” 

Thirteen years later, after the April passing of actor Brian Dennehy – the song’s namesake – the lyric ripples in memoriam across social media. For Cohn, a Chicago native, it’s a reminder of his unique relationship to his hometown, and the reach of his music.   “I’ve gotten a lot of messages like ‘sorry for your loss,’” Cohn says. “Like, woah, that’s pretty heavy. That favorite actor line helped shape this whole universe.” This musical "universe" is an idiosyncratic concoction well-embodied by Dennehy’s blue-collar movie roles: a quintessential working-class Chicago. Across dozens of albums and EPs, Cohn has spent 20 years rapping about “driving down Western Ave” and shopping “at TJ Maxx.” He eats a “hot dog for lunch, hot dog for dinner,” and dedicates a whole song to former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. 

Cohn’s musical career tracks not so much as a discography, but a sonic comic book. At the center of each project is Kenny Dennis, Cohns’s fictional rap protagonist, the character he assumes. Caricature of the South Side everyman, Kenny balances relatability with unbelievable tangents. He drives beer trucks, feuds with Shaq, and kicks decades-long bennie addictions on a schedule: before ‘90s Bulls championship runs. He’s the frontman for hip-hop groups Tha Grimm Teachaz and Perfecto, spitting in a Chicawgo accent thicker than his Ditka ‘stache. Record label Anticon describes Kenny as “the missing link between Kool Keith, Common Sense and Bill Swerski’s Superfans." 

As Cohn has grown the saga of Kenny into an underground hip-hop sensation, he’s also cemented himself as an outlier in a genre traditionally based in nonfiction. 

“Hip-hop abounds in personas, and some MCs use different handles to represent different aspects of themselves –– RZA and Bobby Digital, even Eminem and Slim Shady,” writes famed music journalist Robert Christgau. “But role-playing where a rapper alternates between characters that aren't himself has no precedent I can think of.”

This musical role-playing is a product of Cohn’s childhood. He split time between Chicago’s racially segregated North and South Sides and navigated his identity by adapting to the status quo of the neighborhoods he lived in. Exposed to a breadth of Chicago culture, this upbringing forced a necessary consideration of who he was, and who he performed as. This dynamic is still on Cohn’s mind, and bleeds into his music.

“It’s so much to unpack, you sound like a crazy person trying to explain it,” Cohn says. “My stuff has always been a little wacky in terms of how it was organized. But for me, they all were my ideas, so it wasn’t always all over the place.”

Cohn thrives in his bubble of hometown eccentricity. Unlike Kenny, he tends away from the spotlight. He doesn’t run with a manager or perform many live shows. He keeps his occasional mainstream draws –– like his relation as the grand-nephew of jazz trumpeter Sonny Cohn, or collaborations with Sufjan Stevens –– on the down-low. He’s always prioritized the tight storytelling of Kenny over any commerciality, rarely departing from local inspiration or audiences –– so much so, that Christgau has been the only non-Chicago writer to consistently critique Cohn’s work. 

“Serengeti has more talent than success,” Christgau wrote for NPR in 2011. Two years earlier, in a Barnes and Noble review, he aptly encapsulated Cohn’s music library: “Put five of Serengeti’s CDs on shuffle and they cohere –– shambolically, but that’s the idea… In his weirdo way, he major.” 

This weirdo way –– like Kenny’s habit of driving around Chicago looking for a Pontiac Fiero for sale, or Cohn’s additional music releases under pseudonyms established within Kenny’s universe –– has been accepted and beloved in hometown circles big and small. Last fall, the Chicago Bulls worked with Cohn to remix the original “Dennehy” song into a Bulls promotional preseason music video. The new release sees Cohn grilling brats at half court and strutting around the United Center. He’s noticeably older than in the 2007 video, but the Kenny character remains just as exorbitant.

Updated lyrics cater to long-time Chicagoans with ridiculously niche references; Cohn raps about local auto dealer Bob Rohrman, attorney Peter Francis Geraci, and tries to convince his alderman to “pull strings” and get him a job as Benny the Bull, the Bulls mascot. 

“Those of you on here who are lifelong Chicagoans probably know Serengeti's 'Dennehy,' a true Chicago cult classic song about grilling chops and loving the city,” The Chicago Bulls Digital Team wrote. “We worked with Serengeti, a true legend, to remake the song with a special Bulls spin to it this time. This was one of the more fun and weird projects we've done in recent memory.”

The White Sox, whose ballpark makes an appearance in the video, also got in on the fun. 

“Bravo, everyone. So glad we could make a cameo in an instant classic,” they wrote on their Twitter feed

Before quarantine, Cohn admits that his schedule was haphazard for a middle-aged man. A flick buff, he shamelessly reminisces about trips to movie theaters, and the judgment he’d accrue. 

“Here I am, watching this movie in a completely empty theater, it’s like 10:45 on a Tuesday morning,” he says. “I must have seemed like a big creep. People must have been like ‘What is this guy’s problem? Doesn’t he have a job?’” 

Talking movies and documentaries with Cohn, frankly, is a bit maddening. It’s all he wants to do, and he’s quick to mention characters and actors, but can rarely remember the movie’s actual title. This affinity for roles and people clearly translates to his musical storytelling. As he spitballs, you can’t ignore that Cohn himself is a character, peppering staccato thoughts with “youknowwhatI’msaying?”s, occasionally slipping into his Kenny Dennis accent. You sometimes forget who’s actually the real person: Cohn or Kenny.

But if there’s been a silver-lining during quarantine for Cohn, it’s his rekindled love for the creative process. After he advertised his 2018 album, "Dennis 6e," as the “Final Dennis,” it appeared Kenny had been retired. And he was –– until a two week creative eruption this spring.

“The thing just struck, and boy was it so fun,” Cohn says. “You know when you have an idea, and then think: ooh, however am I going to do that? It wasn’t even like that. I was just doing it, living in the process. 

“That’s always my fear. Like, let me get it as close as I can to the idea, without messing it up. But with this one, the idea and the work were all one in the same.”

Cohn wrote and recorded "Ajai," the 16 track, two-part album, in 12 days. Normally recording in another city at a pre-booked locale, extended time at home allowed him to set up his own studio. This was the first time in 20 years that Cohn wasn’t saddled with the pressure of finishing the project, working against the clock.  

“It was a great joy, just an ultimate joy to live in it and have my art. The whole process was everything,” Cohn says. “This was for myself. Like, huh, that was really fun. I can’t wait to do that again.”

The allure of “Ajai” as Cohn’s most zany project stems from its satire of streetwear culture. Written in two acts, the album’s A-side introduces Ajai, a vain husband obsessed with limited-edition ‘drops’ and name-brand collaborations. 

These collabs quickly become the entrypoint for the album’s hyper-realistic surrealism. A “Häagen-Dasz collab with Baker’s Square and TFC,” “Steve Martin ‘Father of the Bride’ drop,” and “O’Douls X Portillos and Kools” are just a few realities Cohn concocts. On the song “Ajai’s Cool Stuff,” Ajai flaunts his collector’s items in a schizophrenic barrage of pop culture: “Garbage Pail Kids sealed from Japan,” “Shorts worn by Drago in the Rocky IV War”, a photo of “Jean-Claude Van Damme in Guess jeans.” 

“He’s just a fella who loves his wife totally, but he’s hooked on shopping,” Cohn says. “It’s sort of ruining his marriage, and he doesn’t even see it. I felt so bad for the wife. Ajai! Come out of the bathroom! He doesn’t even know what’s up.” 

Moments like these reveal the breadth and depth of Cohn’s world-sculpting. Even if he can’t rap all of it, Cohn knows his characters’ quirks, headspaces, sentiments, and hobbies. He talks about them as he would a close friend, joshing their wacky behavior as if he didn’t script it all himself. 

On “Company Softball Game,” Cohn laughs at Ajai’s athletic ineptitude: “He’s got everything Supreme, even a Supreme catcher’s mask. Why do you have a catcher’s mask playing 16-inch softball?”

The album’s midpoint interlude, “Intermission,” signals the anachronistic return of Kenny Dennis, who’s spending his birthday alone. It’s the first we’ve heard of Kenny in two years, and Cohn has been busy developing his dilapidated psyche. 

“He used to be passionate about a lot of things: cooking his brats, playing sports, his friends,” Cohn says. “Ever since he’s been living in this studio apartment and working on a food truck, it’s been a total solitude existence.”

But with a similar energy Cohn channeled in making the album, a happenstance series of events sparks a passion in Kenny’s life.

“One of Ajai’s pair of shoes gets accidentally drop-shipped to Kenny Dennis,” Cohn says, launching into another spiel of cutting-room-floor detail. 

“He happened to need some shoes too, cause his Brooks were devastatingly messed up, they had no traction or anything. So he puts them on, and walks outside, just going to the store, when he’s approached by another person, who asks to buy those shoes for $4,000 dollars cash. He sells them to him, and that’s how he got his whole introduction to the hypebeast world.”

Despite his frenzied music, Cohn’s been following a simple quarantine routine: “Take a shower, take a shave, take a walk.”

“I don’t know why it took (quarantine) to make me do this,” Cohn says. “To wake up at the crack of dawn. To take a shower every day. Like, I have pajamas now.”

It’s tough to say what’s next for Cohn. He’s been working on-and-off on a Kenny Dennis comic book, film script, and musical projects that help flush out his fictional backstory. According to Cohn, they’ll get done when they get done. 

“The worst I can do personally is make shit for the sake of making shit,” he says. “I don’t wanna pull out of thin air. At some point, I just gotta be cool with the fact that I did this last record.” 

Even after two decades of honing his art, he remains meticulously dedicated to ideation and experimentation. As if his dozens of albums and haphazard timelines aren’t proof enough of this iterative approach, Cohn says that if he could do it all over again, Kenny’s famed universe could be unrecognizable.

“I don’t really listen to my old stuff, but occasionally I’ll think, ‘I would have done that differently if I had more time.’ But, if I had more time, I would have done everything differently.” 

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