[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Serengeti is wisecracking at Rex's Batting Cages in Inglewood, while hacking at 90 mph heaters. The Chicago-raised, Mount Washington-based rapper is riffing on a character in his raps, the 45-year-old, Ditka-mustached Super Fan Kenny Dennis, who writes hymns to Windy City baseball legends Andre Dawson and Ozzie Guillen. Depending on your interpretation, Dennis is either eternally optimistic or mildly delusional.
“Kenny would ask the attendant to crank the speed to 110 or 120 mph,” Serengeti notes. Released this month on Anticon, his latest album, The Kenny Dennis EP, weaves an alternative history of the Steve Bartman Incident, the fan-interference fiasco that may have cost the long-suffering Chicago Cubs a spot in the 2003 World Series. Dennis is perhaps the lone Windy City denizen to believe Bartman deserves to be let off the hook. Instead, he raps that everyone from ex-Cubs Eric Karros and Damon Berryhill to team management deserves equal blame.
Dozens of rappers equate themselves to superior athletes. Serengeti, né David Cohn, is the rarity, going beyond easy allusion. His songs are crammed with as much inside-baseball knowledge, regional pride and civic history as a Vin Scully telecast. He hit leadoff and patrolled center field for Morgan Park High in Chicago.
Since it's April, the week before Opening Day, the sensible option is the cage.
“Sports is the realest thing on TV. There's no acting involved,” Serengeti says after stepping out of the nylon mesh nets, where he has valiantly fought fastballs with quick wrists. The cage is an artifact of the Pedro Guerrero era. The Coke machine is empty. The “Vs. Baseball” arcade game is dark. Just across the street, Southwest College no longer fields a hardball squad. “Certain players fit into a city's identity, others don't. Sports tie into municipal hopes. Everyone becomes invested in the game.”
Serengeti is far from the first musician to double as a sports encyclopedia. Ice Cube directed an ESPN documentary about the Raiders. Master P had an NBA tryout. Lil Wayne is a regular guest on ESPN's Around the Horn. Bob Dylan dedicated tunes to flamethrowing mustache man Catfish Hunter and incarcerated prizefighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. But not even Robert Zimmerman can match the athletic diversity of the Illinois native. Serengeti has written odes to broken-down UFC fighters, and a forthcoming EP offers votives to bearded '80s wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan. But his favorite sport is boxing.
“The beauty about boxing is that you find out about a fight months in advance, and it's always in the back of your mind, a fixed point in the future to look forward to and wonder where you'll be when it finally happens,” Serengeti says, putting June's Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen fight in that category.
Over the last two years, Serengeti has expanded his repertoire far beyond mere sports-obsessed curio. Last year's Family & Friends sketched 11 vignettes about the despondencies of drug addiction, the delusions created by moving to California and a bizarre tale of bigamy. Ever prolific, he also recently dropped another EP, Beak & Claw, featuring beats and hooks supplied by angel-winged indie icon Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux. Topics covered include Octomom, addiction, museums and the George Brett pine-tar incident.
“Music and sports are the great escapes,” Serengeti says. “Hope always springs eternal. This season didn't work out, but we always have next year, the next album, the next project. The next idea could be the big one. And then you stop to realize that just being in the game is the real victory anyway.”