Q&A: Serengeti

Serengeti: Friends and FamilySerengeti: Family and Friends (Anticon, 7/19/11)

Serengeti: “Ha-Ha” (f. Otouto)

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In July, Chicago local David Cohn, better known as independent hip-hop artist Serengeti, dropped his first solo album on Anticon. The record, titled Family and Friends, showcases Cohn’s informal rapping style, which gives the impression that he’s just chillin’ with you in a bar, rattling off stories about somebody’s junkie dad or a failed UFC fighter.

A follow-up to Cohn’s 2009 release with Illinois native Polyphonic, Family and Friends also explores new sonic territory with producers Owen Ashworth of Advance Base and Yoni Wolf of Why?. The washed-out breakbeats on tracks like “PMDD” and “Ha-Ha” complement the more experimental electro-pop mixes of “ARP” and “The Whip.”

Cohn recently took some time to chat with us about his solo release, his current collaborative projects, and his future in film-making.

How do different producers’ styles and strengths complement the many sides of Serengeti?

Well, I have many sides, so working with great guys helps with that. I like to see what each producer does and work within what they do. I used to rap over beats that were already done. Advance Base, Yoni Wolf, the Breakfast Kings, Polyphonic, Jel, and Odd Nosdam are really the only cats I’ve actually sat down to work with. I definitely prefer that way.

What were the biggest differences or adjustments in working with Owen and Yoni for the new album?

With Yoni, I went out to his pad in Oakland, and we did our tunes in a week. With Owen, I’d take the El to his house and work once or twice a week on stuff. No real difference, really — both fellas were very easy to work with. I’d been trying to get it up with Owen for a while, so once we had our first session booked, I was a tad anxious, like, “Don’t blow it.” We did “Flutes,” “PMDD,” and “Kenny vs. Spring” in about two hours.

Shaun Koplow from Anticon hooked up the Yoni thing, so I was again feeling anxious when I flew out there, although we’d done some shows together on a tour. This was different, staying in a pad and such. We had a goal of a song a day, and we did it. Both fellas were great to hang out with, and I’d liked them for a long time, so it felt like a step in the right direction. Thanks, Owen, Yoni, and Shaun.

Some of your outlandish characters and narratives might lend themselves to theater, sketch comedy, or fictional memoirs. Have you ever thought about another type of stage career?

Yes. I’d love to. That’s a whole different game; I’d have to do just as much hustling around as I do with tunes. I wish it were just as easy as having the desire, [but] just like everything, you gotta work for it. Last summer, in about a week’s time, I got hit up to do a Kenny Dennis sitcom, a Kenny mockumentary, and a feature-length about Kenny trying to get Jueles back by reuniting Tha Grimm Teachaz. I was very excited; [I] even told my father. I normally keep this shit to myself for fear of being a clown, as most stuff doesn’t work out, and sure enough, one by one, they all fell off. That’s why I let my people just stumble on the stuff.

The best was when they played the “Dennehy” on the WGN morning news. I got a call: “Son, saw you on TV with a mustache. What is this?” I thought that was funny. I’d love to do some film work. I haven’t given up. Paul Matian and I have some thoughts, as do Alex Beh and I. Hopefully one day.

Can you give a headcount of how many characters you have? How many are biographical/autobiographical vs. fictional?

I had Lee, Kenny Dennis, and Derek. The only one I really mess with is Kenny, though. None of the characters are biographical.

Can you explain the “Kenny” character a bit for non-Chicagoans? How much Kenny is there in David?

[He’s a] family guy, loves his sports, loves his wife, Jueles, [his] buds, and brother, Tanya. Not too many hangups, except for with Shaq (who dissed Kenny in the ’90s, when he used to be a rapper in a group called the Tha Grimm Teachaz), and [he’s] a generally great guy. I want to be like Kenny, a guy whose neighborhood loves him, has cookouts, loves his wife — an insider. I always felt like an outsider — dreamed of being an insider.

You have a crazy discography. Are you constantly brainstorming and writing new material?

I have a problem of checking out of life and living in my head. Instead enjoying or dealing with situations, I look at them and internalize them. Not too good.

What else is in the works?

I have this Grimm Teachaz about to drop on wax, an album I did with Jel and Odd Nosdam, a tape with Matthewdavid, an album with Advance Base, Josiah Wolf in the works, some tunes for movies (Sadermania is being shown at the Chicago International Film Festival in October), and other things.