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Local Q&A: Serengeti

Chicago rapper Serengeti has always had an active imagination.

Growing up, he invented different characters as a means of coping with his nomadic existence (he split his time between his mother's South Side apartment and his father's house in suburban Olympia Park), and his breakout album, "Dennehy," is populated by imagined people. One of these, Kenny Dennis, a proudly mustached Brian Dennehy devotee who could have sprung directly from "Saturday Night Live's" Da Bears sketch, has even become his own cottage industry of sorts--inspiring a follow-up 2012 EP (simply titled "Kenny Dennis") and a still-in-the-works full-length.

In a recent phone interview, Serengeti, born David Cohn 35 years ago, opened up about his imagination, why he doesn't put much stock in press and the thrill he got seeing one Atlanta concertgoer dressed as Kenny Dennis.

On "Geti Life" you open by talking about getting drunk and pretending to be someone else, which seems like a pretty nice synopsis of your career to this point.

[Laughs] For real.

Why do you think you're so drawn to writing from the point-of-view of different characters?

I've always been like, "This person has it so good. I wish I was like so-and-so. They seem like they have it figured out." My own stuff can be so dark.

That's definitely true on your latest, "C.A.R." It might be the darkest record you've put out.

Well, dark times produce dark art. Or maybe not. Sometimes dark times can produce some fun [bleep], too.

The song "Uncle Traum" was actually inspired by a near-death experience, right?

Yeah. They had me in a [medically induced] coma for like a week, and for the next week or so after I was in this phase where I couldn't tell what was real. I woke up at one point and I was hearing everybody talking like a Speak & Spell. I had pneumonia and just full organ collapse. It was a trip, man.

Do you think that's why mortality crops up a handful of times on the record?

Possibly so. I did another record that's coming out soon and there's a song on there that deals with mortality, too. It's like catharsis. I'm dealing with a lot of [bleep] from the past six years or so, so hopefully once I put this out I'll be able to move on. I've always made music, but when I got laid off from my job it really kicked into overdrive.

On "Chill" you actually mention dozens of potential careers. How many different jobs have you held down over the years?

I did the catering thing, drove a Budweiser truck and then I worked for a psychoactive seeds and herbs company. I've always had a job. This has been my longest stretch without a normal gig.

On this record it sounds like you're really trying to figure out who you are both as an artist and a person. Does that just stem from getting into your 30s and going, "What is it I really want to accomplish?"

Yeah, for real, man. You spend all this time doing this music, and then all of a sudden the people you wrote off for just having regular jobs are like partners or they have a 401K and tenure and everything seems so nice. And you're here, like, "Damn. I should have done that." But in reality no one is that content. Everybody has their issues.

When you opened up the latest Rolling Stone and saw a positive review of "C.A.R." did it give you some hope you'd taken the right path?

It was cool for a second, but then I sank back into, "Oh, it doesn't matter. The next issue it'll be someone else." I don't make a big stink out of any press, but that's probably the wrong way to look at it. It's definitely a plus. Still, it's not like when I go to buy some shoes instead of pulling out cash I can pull out this article, like, "Have you heard of RedEye? Well, here you go." It'd be cool if press could be used as currency. Like if I had a car loan and they said, "Ok, we're going to finance this very cheap for you because we saw you were on NPR."

Halloween is only a few weeks away. How many Chicagoans do you think we'll see out dressed as Kenny this year?

[Laughs] I don't know. When I was in Atlanta a cat came to the show dressed as Kenny Dennis, and it was amazing. He had on the Kenny outfit from the "Dennehy" video. He had the 'stache and the glasses and the shirt, everything. It was like, "This is great!"

Serengeti, 8:30 p.m. Wed. at Subterranean, $10

Serengeti personality test
What's the last album you bought? "I bought Ka's 'Grief Pedigree.'"
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? Neneh Cherry: "Dream, Baby, Dream"
Song you never want to hear again? "That's a weird one. I learned my lesson because I was living abroad and I swore I didn't want to hear this Black Eyed Peas song, but then I was at this Swedish place and this Black Eyed Peas song came on and it was like, 'Yes!'"
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "I was part of the show, but it was last year in Philadelphia at the First Unitarian Church with Why? It was a great, great show."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? The Young Fathers
Favorite movie ever? "Ever, huh? That's a tough one, too. I love 'Bloodsport,' but when it's so definitive...I don't know. I love that movie. I love 'The Royal Tenenbaums.' I love a lot of flicks."
Chicago's best music venue? "I really like Sub-T."

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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