I’m not claiming this obscure Chicago rapper with a load of albums in his kit is an undiscovered genius. Genius is a suspect concept, and rarely these days does anything like it go undiscovered — especially in pop music, so formally antithetical to the extreme privacy undiscovery requires. Still, you’d think Serengeti would’ve been noticed by a few of the thousands of volunteer gatekeepers who monitor a linked-in, hyped-up media environment that feeds on novelty the way HIV feeds on white blood cells. So as a public service and orientation device, let me begin with a briefly annotated discography, Serengeti’s first. Dates that diverge from CD booklets reflect deferred releases as per the artist, who advised me via cellphone on a break from his job as a fulfillment clerk at an online dealer in “psychoactive weeds and plants.” In the key year of 2006, ordering is approximate.
- Dirty Flamingo (F5, 2003). Cockeyed, freewheeling debut.
- Noodle-Arm Whimsy (Day by Day, 2005). One-take goofs from a fun summer.
- Gasoline Rainbows (Day by Day, 2006). Serengeti sinks 10 grand into a band record he thinks will put him on the map. Depression looms.
- Race Trading (audio8.com, 2006). Free download-only reflections on multiculturalism, let’s say, from an African-American whose government name is David Cohn.
- Thunder Valley (audio8.com, 2006). Free download-only tokens of either subcultural normality or normal deviance.
- Dennehy (Bonafyde, 2006). Starring white fortysomething telephone booth repairman Kenny Dennis, who loves sports, Brian Dennehy, and his wife Jueles.
- Noticeably Negro (Audio 8, 2006). Quizzically race-conscious, adamantly class-conscious.
- Don’t Give Up (Audio 8, 2007). Half autobiographical, half abstract collab with electronic composer and Audio 8 headman Polyphonic.
- Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) (audio8.com, 2008). Restructured download-only Dennehy, seven new songs.
- The Boredom of Me (Audio 8, 2008). Romantic ennui as imagined by Yoome, a band comprising Serengeti, New Zealander Renee-Louise Carafice, and producer Tony Trimm.
- Friday Night (Breakfast, 2009). Serengeti and his buddy Hi- Fidel get wrecked on found cocaine. People die.
- Terradactyl (Anticon, 2009). Second Serengeti & Polyphonic title marks Chicago indie-rapper’s belated elevation to national indie-rap label.
- Human to Human (radiobelly.com/Put Out or Get Out, 2009). “Here’s an album we did on LSD one time,” Serengeti writes. I believe him. I also believe it’ll be out in July and/or September.
- Conversations With Kenny & The Legacy of Lee (Goldenfloyd, 2009). Tribulations of old white guy and new black guy, due in late August.
Between partnerships here and revisions there, that’s 14 albums, 12 in the past three and a half years — phenomenal production for anybody not named Ryan Adams. And though my big reason for writing about Serengeti is the Kenny records — his one true grandstand play, much subtler than first appears — I enjoy most of them. Since the brand new Terradactyl is a career shot for the guy — Anticon, the artiest of a tiny constellation of major-minor alt-rap labels that includes Def Jux, Rhymesayers, Quannum, and Stones Throw, is setting up a tour and retaining a publicist — it chagrins me to note that the main exception is the two Polyphonic albums. Blame my old-fartness if you like — I’ve resisted electronic hip-hop since Mantronix had name recognition. But this bias doesn’t turn me off Tony Trimm’s atmospherics on The Boredom of Me, which stands unexpectedly as one of indie-rock’s warmer and wittier evocations of affluent anomie, because Trimm knows his place. Polyphonic doesn’t, and his off-kilter busy-busy, all-over synth palette, and odd musette flourishes very nearly undermine the songs on Don’t Give Up and overwhelm the more associative Terradactyl. Serengeti has collaborated fruitfully with many other rappers and beatmakers. But he doesn’t need a partner, he needs helpers.
Serengeti’s great outpouring began the year he turned 30, an age when most impecunious independent musicians start wondering where their lives are going. He was the final son of a Jewish father and African-American mother, only race in America is seldom that simple — his mother is biracial herself, his dad a quarter Irish. His father is a small businessman in electronics and real estate, his mother a committed leftist who, according to “My Mom’s a Commie,” marched him in anti-KKK protests in Skokie. His parents split when he was three or four after 13 years of marriage. He has six siblings full and half, two of whom attended Columbia, and was raised by his father, moving to the southern suburb of Olympia Fields for fifth grade. First day, his classmates yelled “See you later coon” out the school bus window, and he thought they were saying “See you later Cohn.”
The Cohns were the first “colored” family in Olympia Fields, which Serengeti says was in full-scale white flight just months after they arrived. His dad was strict, so young Dave spent his last year of high school on the South Side with his mom. He’d been a rap fan since his brother gave him a 3rd Bass album featuring Columbia’s Pete Nice, but that didn’t play much better in the ‘hood than in Olympia Fields — as the capital of house music, Chicago came late to hip-hop. What played great, and would prove crucial in his music, was the multi-character skits he’d make up and act out to amuse his friends. Never much of a student, Cohn enrolled in the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, where he joined the tiny hip-hop clique and took terms abroad in Japan and Sweden before dropping out in 2000. Back in Chicago, he supported himself with a beer delivery job that ultimately inspired Kenny. He has two kids under four with a wife from whom he’s separated twice.
Chicago’s few name MCs — Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco — are by chart standards intellectuals. But Serengeti is strictly underground — and therefore, it should be added, sketchier musically. One reason he’s obscure is that underground hip-hop is obscure. In the online age, indie-rock attracts thousands of champions and rumormongers, most of them so clueless about hip-hop that the critical counter-response promotes the commercial stuff, which unlike commercial rock deserves it. Even in this crap-rap moment, the spine-twisting Timbaland beats on the Keri Hilson album and the general sonic exuberance of second-string warhorse Busta Rhymes’s Back on My B.S. offer satisfactions unknown to 2009′s sole indie-rap breakthrough, P.O.S.’s not-bad Never Better. Generalizations being the frail vessels they are, I’ll take veteran underground mushmouth Doom’s Born Like This over any of these. But Doom is a great rapper-qua-rapper whose own beats roll with the J Dilla and Jake One tracks his renown buys him. In his weirdo way, he major. The vast preponderance of independent hip-hop is minor, fitting all too readily into the anti-backpacker stereotype of young white males shaking their unhardened fists to rhymes about personal frustration, political malfeasance, and the lameness of competing hip-hop.
It is in this context that Serengeti’s albums stand out. Musically, quality indie-rap tends to favor the predictably propulsive or the willfully eccentric. Serengeti comes down somewhere else. Poorly financed, not all that skilled, and riding local beats from Chicago and Carbondale, his music is too hookless and lo-fi for its own good; his creaky, changeable, conversational flow lacks the physical magnetism commanded by most commercial rappers and a fair complement of indie luminaries. Yet put five of Serengeti’s CDs on shuffle and they cohere — shambolically, but that’s the idea. Serengeti tries not to rap about rap, that loop to nowhere, but a couplet on Noticeably Negro illuminates his charm: “Serengeti’s very ill very understated/Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated.” He doesn’t impose himself. There’s a vertiginousness about him that has no pretensions to poetry, honoring thoughtfulness and hence distraction instead. He’ll go from “I’m kind of square like a Chinese city” to “I reached in my Afro and grabbed a can of Mace” as circumstances require. His sexual impulses run the normal male gamut from horny to respectful, and he knows more about race than me or probably you. Hardly the first second-generation leftist to abjure hectoring, he nonetheless offers this pointed gentrification analysis: “So what do caucs do? Paint their face and go to Cubs games/Buy a nice house by the lake and make their ‘hoods change/Then in five years, no more groids/Everyone’s puffy, everyone’s employed/Roaches turn into kittens/Crackhouses be made very fancy kitchens.” Caucs versus groids — bring it.
All of which is to explain that this apparently low-def indie rapper has fashioned his own distinct and complex musical persona. But though only an ignoramus would prefer the indie-rock maunderer of the month, Serengeti’s signal strength harks back to those skits. He’s a bit of a sad sack in his unassuming way, and when he dissed the 2006 Dennehy album where his greatest creation first surfaced, I was skeptical. But he has a right — jettisoning a rich white character named Derek so Serengeti can convert a hodgepodge of raps and impersonations into a dialogue between aspiring hip-hopper Scotty and bratwurst-loving Kenny Dennis, the revised, through-conceived 2008 Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) is both richer and more listenable.
You guffaw in astonishment the first 10 times you hear this distracted African-American rapper assume the voice of one of Bill Swerski’s Superfans to rhyme “Favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O’Doul’s/Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls” over a generic quiet-storm loop that will soon buoy multiple accounts of trips to the grocery store. But it doesn’t take long to notice that this isn’t a cheap shot — it’s caricature as characterization. No racist (“Favorite Jackson Jesse”), Kenny adores his Mexican-American wife Jueles (“Her taste really moves me”). His cultural enthusiasms and brand loyalties are thought through and numerous — Judge Mathis, Springsteen, Eddie Murphy, “Sausage, Johnson’s/Chicken, Swanson’s,” “Stanley makes great tools” — and Serengeti knows enough about sports himself to detail Kenny and Jueles’s mythologies with relish. Often sly, here he’s freed up to aim for the funnybone, and because BTO fan Kenny does most of the songs, Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) is easily his hookiest album.
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. “Skits” too are commonplace. But role-playing where a rapper alternates between characters that aren’t himself has no precedent I can think of — even Prince Paul and Dan the Automator’s Handsome Boy Modeling School is traditional concept-album stuff, with guest rappers assigned parts. Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) isn’t airtight. But it’s at least as consistent as Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves, not to mention the Who’s Tommy. Characters intertwine and develop; Scotty hooks up with Kenny’s sister-in-law Stacy.
The forthcoming Conversations With Kenny & the Legacy of Lee continues the story, but with less attention to music — Tony Trimm’s functional electro beats tend toward readymades to dramatize over. The new character is Lee Gibbs, a nervous, high-voiced, well-meaning black sanitation worker whose life is ruined when thugs transform his laundromat into a crack mart and then, after he sublets a room from Scotty, ended when his white vegan girlfriend Pottery invites him on a fuzzy drug “journey.” Heartbreakingly, Kenny, who begins the record trying to find Scotty a real job, catches Jueles cheating with his buddy Curtis and bottoms out. He ends the record at an AA meeting detailing the cocaine, reefer, and Bud Lite abuse that ensued when he started going to hip-hop shows. Both Kenny and Lee make hip-hop demos full of disgusting sexual boasts — mild-mannered Lee thinks bestiality might go over with the kids.
When I interviewed him, Serengeti cited the inspiration of Buck 65, the prolific Canadian rhymer and beatmaker whose remix with Serengeti on Red Hot + Blue’s Dark Was the Night was where I first encountered him. Buck 65, Serengeti marveled, had managed to make a living at independent hip-hop for 15 years. Buck 65 emailed me recently to brag that one of his productions had gone No. 1 in France. But he seemed almost as glad about his new gig DJing a CBC show in Toronto. Art is hard. Serengeti deserves more than he’s gotten from it so far.