The musical catalog of Serengeti aka David Cohn is a dark but varied palette. Slice of life stories about ex-wives, or finding yourself in Europe, dealing with addiction, meeting your father, and being emotionally moved by television programs. Throughout a substantial catalog, he has honed a humble and distinct dark humor, and built his own small world, with its own rules and set of characters.
“I never really toured, you know what I’m saying? So, like, most people would do a record you do a record and then you tour it and then you sell it, I never really got tours so in lieu of that I would just finish one and then do another one you know just because I had like this deep desire to just record you know, so I just kept making records and now in retrospect I see as not really right. You know, maybe do one thing and try to sell it you know? Go on the road but I didn’t I never had a booking agent or manager type stuff so it was just like me just making stuff so that when I got all backed up with like, all those damn albums.” Said Cohn.
David Cohn has released nearly 30 albums in the last 16 years with a wide variety of collaborators, ranging from a who’s who of indie hip hop to European noise musicians, and has also built an immense narrative landscape featuring a cast of characters, the centerpiece of which is Kenny Dennis.
Kenny Dennis is a middle-aged Chicago man who likes O’Doul’s, bratwurst, Chicago sports, and the work of actor Brian Dennehy, as fairly thoroughly described in the character’s first hit single, “Dennehy.” Cohn says that several years of working on Chicago beer trucks earned him the character and from there the world began to build itself.
“It always bugged me like, why can’t can this guy rap and I started to give him a background start develop his wife’s character and his best friends and this whole just sort of universe.”
Over the last 13 years that universe has twisted and grown into a sprawling complex narrative, which has taken his audience back in time all the way to the 1970s releasing singles as Disco Ken (Kenny’s first musical endeavor, Cohn refers to it as an “ultra origin”) up through the early 90s where Kenny had a gangsta rap project known as Tha Grimm Teachaz (and a beef with Shaquille O’Neal) up through an unsuccessful mall tour 80s b-boy hip hop revival project with Anders Holm (of Workaholics fame).
These albums have been released with production and promotional materials of their respective eras. Tha Grimm Teachaz EP ‘There’s a Situation on the Homefront’ was released in 2011 with the production values and VHS filmed video of 1993. 2017 also saw the release of an album called Butterflies, which is a 90s pop album by Jueles, the love of Kenny Dennis’ life.
In 2012, the universe of Kenny Dennis began to take a significantly darker turn.
“He just started out just like a regular working guy who had who just likes what he likes; likes to play like outdoor activities like softball, likes to grill, that he loves his buddies. He always gets invited to the cookouts he’s a joy to be around and it was like an escape for me just to go inside this character,”
The Kenny Dennis EP
Many of Serengeti’s albums are filled with depressing stories of loneliness and loss, many in the first person, with some occasionally in the third. A particularly memorable song “The Whip” from 2011’s Family and Friends is about a retired professional fighter raising Wren’s and thinking back on his glory days while drinking cheap red wine and watching televised fights.
“I’ve always been like a darker sort of depressive cat. You know what I’m saying? So writing is always been like my way to try to be my own shrink. So some stuff is reality, some stuff is not. But it’s all pretty dark. Guess I’m like a darker person. I don’t want to be,” said Cohn.
Throughout all of these stories, there is always a humor and a sweetness To Cohn’s work. An attention to detail and in many cases a sort of goofiness. His catalog is filled with a variety of musical styles, some are more produced and floridly developed, while others have a one off, vaguely sketch comedy kind of feel.
“When I first started making music, my very first project was very isolated. And I was working on the beer trucks and no one knew I rapped, I would hire this studio. And I had this whole album I was doing called Gasoline Rainbows. And I spent so much money on it. And it was going to be like my Opus, you know, how you get wrapped up in your very first project and you think it’s going to sweep the world? And that’s when I did Dirty Flamingo, just a little one, and Whimsy was another one that just
go there was just like, a break from doing this uber-serious work, you know, ‘I need these great hooks in I need this to be my breakout debut album’ and the whimsy sort of came as like a reaction to doing the stuff that was costing me like $200 a session and instead to just go just go over my friend’s house, and just rap these little whimsy things.”
Over the years these parallel tracks have intertwined, and on any given album Serengeti might come across as a comedian, a tragic storyteller in the ancient tradition, or as though he is unpacking personal trauma; often he hits all of these buttons in one song.
His list of collaborators is extensive, featuring well-known names like Yoni Wolf, Open Mike Eagle, Sufjan Stevens. “I always make sure going into collaboration, I have a personal goal that I have with the series that I’m doing this session to make it all sort of cohesive. So that’s always something that I think about.”
Cohn has over the last several years collaborated on a great number of “destination albums” in which he flies to a studio for a period of a handful of weeks to do the bulk of work with his collaborative partners in a short stretch of time. “I might do like, some, some pre-planning a little bit. But other than that, I think it just, you know, it just goes according to how it’s going to go.”
Cohn wants to start writing happier music. The release of Kaleidoscope in 2017 certainly marks a movement towards a brighter cheerier sort of soundscape. He has a few albums currently in the works with prior collaborative partners Rob Kleiner, who he worked on Kaleidoscope with, as well with the European artist Sicker Man who he has released the very cinematic sounding albums Doctor my Own Patience and Saal.
Serengeti/Kenny Dennis released the album Dennis 6e in September which Cohn says is the last recording he will do as Kenny Dennis. “I don’t want it to be like how there are a thousand Freddy (Kruger) movies,” said Cohn. He has however been working on a graphic novel that outlines the whole Kenny Dennis saga as well as a potential Kenny Dennis television series: