Born in Chicago as David Cohn, Serengeti’s revolving, renegade sound, left-field humor, creative and investigational rhyme schemes and lyrical wordplay have made him one of the most fascinating and imaginative artists in Alternative Hip Hop or Art Rap or whatever you choose to call the more avant-garde faction of the underground Hip Hop universe. Logically, he eventually hooked up with Anticon, which operated like experimental Hip Hop’s version of Roc-a-Fella in the ’00s, putting out mind-mending music by musical misfits like Doseone, Why?, Buck 65 and Sage Francis. Serengeti’s solo debut for the imprint, 2011’s Family & Friends, is among the cornerstone releases from the label.
The most high profile of Serengeti’s side-projects released its first music, Beak & Claw, on Anticon in 2012. Originally called S/S/S, the project with Son Lux and Indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens became Sisyphus a year later, releasing a self-titled full-length in 2014. Another well-received collaboration was with Anticon co-founder, Why? frontman and Cincinnati native Yoni Wolf. Last year’s Yoni & Geti album Testarossa earned positive reviews for the duo’s mix of Indie Pop and Hip Hop, as well as the thematic device threaded through the lyrics.
Testarossa’s lyrics revolved around one larger story, and the use of characters and conceptual storytelling is one of Serengeti’s unique gifts. With almost Andy Kaufman-like flair, one particular story has actually spanned multiple releases. In 2006, Serengeti created the character Kenny Dennis, a middle-aged blue-collar Chicagoan who loves Windy City sports, bratwurst, O’Doul’s beer and the actor Brian Dennehy. A joke that began in 2006 with the EP Dennehy (later expanded to an LP) has now lasted more than a decade.
But the gag isn’t limited to funny rhymes — Serengeti has taken the story to cinematic heights, diving deep into the details of Dennis’ personal life and backstory and even creating music as the character. Followers have gotten to hear music from Dennis’ once-promising but derailed Rap career, and Dennis’ beloved wife Jueles continued the story with her own recently released solo album, Butterflies. Featuring mostly chill R&B/Pop songs delivered by a vocalist named Jade, Jueles’ album doesn’t only show a different view of Dennis’ story, it also reveals unknown plot points and twists.
Taking a one-note character and turning him into a heartfelt, 3-D, movie-like franchise is the perfect example of Serengeti’s talent. He’s funny, but no joke. His lyrics have explored other realms — 2013’s brilliant Saal album (recorded in Germany with an experimental Classical musician and featuring prominent singing from the MC) is a heavy and dark exploration of emotional tumult, yet it is still spun with the same sublime ingenuity that makes all of Serengeti’s work so consistently intriguing.