Unlike a lot of hip-hop—Wu-Tang, for example—Serengeti doesn’t really use an alternate stage name. He’s got no Snowman to his Jeezy, no Genius to his GZA, no second filter through which to channel his personality. So instead of simply offering altered takes of himself, the Chicago rapper (born David Cohn) often becomes characters in his music. Serengeti’s most well known creation is Kenny Dennis, a white, forty-something Chicago sports superfan.
Kenny first appeared on 2006’s Dennehy album, which was revised and released again two years later as Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!). Through these albums, those listening have learned a great deal about this one character—from his love of bratwurst to his adoration of Jueles, his wife, whose dark blue eyes he once likened to Bears jerseys on “Juelie and Me.”
In 2009, on Conversations with Kenny/Legacy of Lee, Serengeti ripened the plot by having Kenny find Jueles cheating on him. The hard news came with seemingly real consequences, too; Kenny ends Conversations with “Back On Your Feet,” a track delivered from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that begins, “I totally understand why my little Jueles would leave me.”
What immediately follow are details of Kenny’s addiction and drug abuse. “I was in a dark place called cocaine nose face,” he says in a thick Chicago accent, his tone given an added weight coming from underneath his enormous mustache. Before entering this troubled period, Kenny starts attending hip-hop shows, where his problems with partying ignite.
Given the backstory and its context, it’d be understandable to grow a little confused here. A quick recap: Chicago artist David Cohn raps under the name Serengeti, who, in turn (though not always) raps as detailed-to-the-point-of-tangible characters such as Kenny Dennis. This is important because Serengeti’s gift is not only in developing these characters, but also in not rushing through their stories; we have been running into Kenny on and off for about six years now.
A recently “unearthed” album by rap group Tha Grimm Teachaz, of which Kenny—then known as KDz, or Killa Deacon—was a part, even brought the story back to the early nineties. The Teachaz’s previously unreleased 1993 album, There’s a Situation on the Homefront, imaginatively preceded Serengeti’s own history by almost a decade, and established Kenny as a person independent of his creator. If you were a new listener in mid-2010 (when Situation actually dropped), Kenny’s entire existence could have appeared completely legit.
“Shazam,” the lead single from the Kenny Dennis EP, even sees Serengeti’s protagonist recall his Teachaz days when he fires belated shots at ex-rapper/magic genie/former NBA center Shaquille O’Neal, who once mocked Kenny’s mustache during a ’93 Jive Records gig. On “Don’t Blame Steve,” he defends a sorry Cubs fan against playoff-ending ridicule, citing “errors managerial and major mistakes,” among other things, as more worthy of contention.
Supplying a string of six fuzzy, rockish backdrops, producers Jel & Odd Nosdam give Serengeti plenty of room to stretch his personality. On the self-titled track he raps, “I drink 40s, don’t need sippy cups,” over a crawling beat complete with gun sound effects and boasts about being “in your town like jails.” Other songs like “Top That” and “Flat Pop” go to new heights, and Kenny lays his cards out in the former: “I’m hot, and you’re not/ And if you wanna mess with me I’ll give it one shot.” And one shot is all Kenny Dennis needs–he’s the Killa Deacon, a hip-hop veteran.