If you meet David Cohn, he won't tell you he's a rapper. Should you ask him what he does for a living, he'll answer that he's unemployed. He used to drive a Budweiser truck around Chicago, delivering beer to every liquor store south of the Loop. Then he got a job working in a shaman shop owned by a former producer for the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. He sold DMT, ayahuasca, salvia and enough esoteric psychedelics to make William Burroughs bug out. But only until 11 a.m. Then he'd go play pingpong.
The downside of working in a hallucinogenic Wonkaland is that there's always someone with Day-Glo hair and a Kombucha tea addiction willing to work for soy milk and scrip. So two years ago, Cohn was axed and his personal life pinwheeled into tragedy: withering substance-abuse addictions among family members, crippling debt, a severe case of pneumonia that left him temporarily incapacitated and scarred by a pair of minor strokes.
Several months ago, Cohn fled the trauma — and the backbreaking Second City wind — to relocate to L.A., the home of his new label, the appropriately eccentric Anticon. Last week, he released Family & Friends, a bleak, melancholic and wry art-rap record that ranks as the most searing and powerful of his dozen-plus disc catalog. But unless you knew better, you would never know that Cohn was really Serengeti, his primary musical alter ego.
Serengeti emerged more than a dozen years ago, during a year Cohn spent studying abroad in Sweden, watching nature videos and teaching himself how to make music — a predilection that, like depression, runs in his blood. His great-uncle Sonny Cohn was a world-famous trumpeter in Count Basie's band, but the younger Cohn was raised during the Golden Age and grew transfixed by KMD and MF Doom. So he started rapping, got weirder, turned semipro.
"I'd get offers to headline in Chicago, but as the 10th rapper on a bill of 10. By the time I performed, the only people left were the rappers," Cohn says, speaking from his small and sparsely furnished apartment in Glassell Park — his furniture having been hocked on Craigslist to help finance the move.
After all, the contemporary indie hip-hop world is a war of attrition, especially for those with obtuse sensibilities. Rap fans prefer their cult artists as cartoons, while Serengeti eschews self-promotion and contrived mythology. The latest trend is to name rap songs after SEO-friendly icons like Donald Trump, Miley Cyrus and Michael Jordan. By contrast, Serengeti's most popular song is "Dennehy" (from the 2006 album of the same name), a paean to the gruff actor best known to the sub-30 set as Big Tom Callahan in Tommy Boy.
But Serengeti isn't rapping as himself on "Dennehy." Instead, the song is performed by one of his alter egos, Kenny Dennis, a 48-year-old white guy besotted with bratwurst, Buicks, onions, softball, Richard Daley, actors Dennehy and Tom Berenger, and his wife, Jueles — not to mention the Bulls, White Sox, Blackhawks and da Bears. Kenny has a mustache the size of Mike Ditka's forehead and an affinity for O'Doul's — not because he's a recovering alcoholic but because he finds it delicious.
Why would a black/Jewish rapper adopt the pug-nosed Polish slang of a Bill Swerski Super Fan? It all started when Cohn was watching the Little League World Series on TV one year, and the announcers were asking the kids about their favorite actors and athletes. "I wondered what it would be like if someone's favorite actor was Brian Dennehy," Cohn says, sipping coffee and wearing pajama pants at 5 p.m.
But Kenny Dennis is neither SNL sketch nor satire. Cohn's genius lies in his three-dimensional commitment to his creations — a worldview bounded by regional chains, Windy City intonation and tribal loyalty. Nagged by the willful suspension of belief required to accept a middle-aged, blue-collar man rapping, Cohn cultivated the elaborate backstory.
"Serengeti explores the medium's potential as art. Not in the self-indulgent or abstract-for-the-sake-of sense, but in the sense of a real person exploring the range of their experiences, emotional and otherwise," says Mike Eagle, a friend of Cohn's since their days at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and a gifted art rapper in his own right. "Serengeti is vulnerable, and makes his work valuable in a way that economics or popularity can't define."
Serengeti is the rap Sam Beckett, quantum leaping into different spirits, including a different, 1993 iteration of Kenny — who was, in this telling, then known as KD, Tha Killa Deacon.
"It's fun for me to be Kenny because he's just a simple guy who's happy all the time. All he wants is his wife, Jueles, sports, and some brats and chops," Cohn says. "I'm usually depressed. When I'm not Kenny, everything I write draws back to my real life, which has often been really fucked up." To wit: His first girlfriend, of a decade, died in a car accident, folks close to him have had drug problems, and he still has to deal with the spatial problems caused by his strokes.
Family & Friends navigates similarly complex terrain: the reinvention of self ("California"), deadbeat dads ("Long Ears") and the ravages of heroin ("Tracks").
Its offbeat pop production was handled by Advanced Base (formerly known for the lo-fi electronic project Casiotone for the Painfully Alone) and Yoni Wolf of Why?
"He originally came in with more silly, funny lyrics, but I told him to write something from the heart," Wolf says, discussing the recording process last summer in Oakland, when he and Cohn cut six tracks in as many days. "On the spot, he wrote lines about sleeping on a pool table with his keys and wallet in his jeans to avoid getting them stolen. He's raw and honest and has a quirky dark sense of humor."
Kenny Dennis could never leave the Second City, but Serengeti's keeping his spot in L.A., at least for the time being. In a simultaneous attempt to shed the burdens of the past and avoid paying airline baggage fees, he dumped eight notebooks full of lyrics prior to boarding his one-way flight to LAX.
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"I wish I hadn't thrown away all those notebooks. I had a lot of songs in there, but they felt like they were weighing me down," Cohn says. "It seemed like I needed to toss them before coming here."
Since landing in California, Cohn has cut an EP with ambient-experimentalist beat producer Matthewdavid. There also are upcoming albums from his side project Tha Grimm Teachaz and a full-length collaboration with Advance Base, plus a yet-to-be-announced work coming next year with one of the most famous and acclaimed songwriters in indie rock. (Unfortunately his identity can't be revealed, due to a press embargo from one of the labels involved.)
Despite his misfortunes, and his habit of being perennially overlooked, Cohn has carved out a modest but fiercely devoted following, made up of those who like their reality rap based on immutable realities: transformations, temptations and all points of psychic unrest. He's a writer who happens to rap and not the inverse.
"I could never stop. I hear words in my head or overhear something on the street and I have to write it down or else it will be lost forever," Cohn says. "It's a curse. Write, write, write, edit, edit, and then go back over it. It's not about sitting down to write, it's about being open to the ideas."