The Demise of Kenny Dennis: An Interview with Serengeti

Jack Riedy chats with Serengeti about the PEOPLE Festival, recording with Justin Vernon and the end of the Kenny Dennis saga.
By    September 10, 2018

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Jack Riedy prefers Red Stripe to O’Douls.

When Serengeti picks up my call, it takes him a few minutes to find a place to talk. It’s the early hours of the morning in Germany, and the Chicago-born rapper doesn’t want to wake up anyone else in his hotel. He’s in Berlin a few days after the conclusion of PEOPLE Festival, where he was billed by his birth name, David Cohn, for Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s festival. Serengeti was left with a few days to kill between the fest’s end and the start of his European tour, and a few hours to talk before catching the next train out of the city.

Serengeti’s most famous creation is Kenny Dennis, a mustachioed Chicagoan who raps in a flat Midwestern bluster. When he debuted on 2006’s “Dennehy,” Kenny was a playful near-stereotype, the hip-hop Chicago Party Aunt. In the ensuing twelve years, Serengeti developed the character across multiple albums and EPs. Kenny drinks O’Douls for the taste. The mustache is a tribute to the only photo he ever saw of his father, wearing a fake mustache on Halloween. Seeking to explain his character’s rap skills, ‘Geti created an entire 1993 pastiche album for Kenny’s fictional group, Tha Grimm Teachaz. Kenny’s dance group, Perfecto, also garnered an album-length collaboration, with comedian Anders Holm as Kenny’s collaborator DERS.

Like lingering too long after the party’s over, the melancholy of the real world slowly seeped into the Kenny Dennis character. The middle-aged regret hinted at in “Dennehy” came into uncomfortably clear focus. On Dennis 6E, Serengeti’s new album from last month, the warm string samples have been replaced with producer Andrew Broder’s cold synths. Kenny perseveres through work and neighborhood softball, but he’s plagued by regrets and memories of his deceased wife Jueles. It feels like watching Adam West’s Batman morph into Ben Affleck. Serengeti has said this is the last Kenny Dennis album. If so, it will bookend a unique musical opus, a sprawling meta-story previously unseen in hip-hop. From across the Atlantic, Serengeti talked about home studios, Chicago baseball, and why he’s finished writing Kenny Dennis.

How would you introduce Kenny Dennis to someone who’s never heard of him?

Serengeti: I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t try to pitch anyone anything. It’s just something that I do. Either you’re with it or you’re not. I can’t try to explain it in a few sentences. It’s just a character that I’ve done over eight records, this thing that just lived in me. I’m not trying to sell anybody.

Especially for this album, there’s so much context that goes into getting it. Is that something you think about as your writing, knowing that there has to be background knowledge present?

Serengeti: I don’t wanna make it so inward that you have no shot, so I try to have the language be common-y. Within that common-y stuff, there’s the details. The style of it, “it’s a guy rapping, who talks this,” you know. If you listen closely, there’s a whole world behind it.

Is it strenuous to do that voice?

Serengeti: No, I’ve done it so much, it just happens all the time, even when I’m just talking.

Is there any preparation you have to do to write, in order to get into that mindset?

Serengeti: It’s behind the surface, kinda like the Hulk. I don’t try to write the Kenny stuff, it just comes out. I know, “This is where this needs to go.” Hopefully I can get there a little more flavorly, but if not I’ll just get there plainly.

You’ve said in the past he started out as this sort of wish fulfillment figure of contentment. Obviously, 6E is very dark. Was there a turning point for you where the darkness started creeping into the character?

Serengeti: My personal life came into Kenny, unfortunately or fortunately. I couldn’t hold it at bay that long, just doing this guy that was my retreat. Dave came in. As I look back at it, I’m tripped out. It wasn’t really conscious either. When I step back, it’s like “Jeepers. That’s dark.”

When you say Dave became part of the Kenny character, do you think it’s only negative elements? Or have there been more positive parts of you that have crept in?

Serengeti: It started as therapy, and it transformed into therapy in many different forms. This guy came out of a place where I was just trying to solve some issues. Whatever turns that happened, it’s still part of me trying to work through life. I could be in a situation and Kenny’s voice will come into my head. I use Kenny. He’s like “No, Dave. Come on, fella.” So then Dave was like “You want to come into my head and tell me how everything is so simple? Well, let me complicate things for you.” [laughs]

A lot of this album is about regrets. Do you feel like you and Kenny have similar regrets?

Serengeti: Yeah, I got regrets. Everybody does, right?

Sure. But do you think you and Kenny regret some of the same things?

Serengeti: With that Jueles shit, I can think about things that happened in my real life. So dark and unresolved, maybe that’s why it came up with Kenny. Maybe feigning her life for so long was to deal with some things that I am selfishly trying to get through with public work. That’s not the best way to go about a music career. [laughs]

Not that I have a career, I’m just out here in Europe because people ask me to do it. This PEOPLE thing, I’m telling you, it was insane. All these artists in one hotel, for like eight days, and they’ve been gone, and I’ve been here. It’s totally night and day. Imagine a hotel being taken over by a who’s who of artists. It was amazing. It was quite challenging.

How did that turn into creating music?

Serengeti: We all went to the Funkhaus everyday. It’s a studio in eastern Berlin. Big Soviet building. Everyone collaborated on this new type of show, where people don’t even know what they’re going to see. You might walk in a room and see Woodkid and Bryce Dessner. There’s no headliners. You just go check out tunes. Nobody took pictures, nobody even knew who was playing. Quite the experience. I did some stuff with the Stargaze Orchestra, and we did a reinterpretation of “Rhythm of Devotion” with Andrew Broder and Mike Lewis. It was like the Stargaze mixtape. I did a song, Justin Vernon did a song. It was like six songs in twenty minutes, and that was the show.

What drew you to work with Andrew Broder for the entire 6E project?

Serengeti: I’ve known Broder for the longest time, ever since a WHY? tour. He’s been a cool, interesting cat. We became friends, first of all, then we tried to do music that just didn’t flow. This time, he sent me some music, and I just recorded it at my house. I sent him some demos of rap stuff, and then it clicked to do Kenny over it. He liked it too, so we just went with it! Went up to that studio, April Base, and did it in like three days. I’m just glad that it’s done. To stick a fork in the music side of this Kenny stuff. I’ve done enough.

How did you realize that you wanted to be done?

Serengeti: Creatively, it feels complete. It’s not like it took off like gangbusters, where I’ll do a Kenny album then go do a Kenny tour. I always wanted to go out on the road as Kenny and do all these Kenny songs. I’m not gonna bang my head against the wall, I just don’t have the gumption or infrastructure to make that stuff happen. You know, you can’t do Jason Part 23. They stopped Jason at like, 9.

I’m working on a graphic novel for the character with a fella named Owen Cornish. I would like more people to read this film script, to see if the idea’s even valid. I think it’s a great flick. A lot of movies these days are very metaphorical. I want you to walk out of this and feel like you lived with these characters. It has heart, it’s funny, it’s sad. As far as the tunes? That would be foolish. Just call it one.

If you’re writing this script, are you picturing yourself as Kenny forever? Or do you think there’s room for someone else to assume it?

Serengeti: Obviously, I could play Kenny. I’d have to try out for whoever the director is. The one dude I can picture, and it makes me laugh when I Google his face, is Eric Griffin. Montez from Workaholics. Totally looks like Kenny. I thought about emailing him “I’ve been developing this character for you for 12 years.” [laughs]

How did you get connected with Justin Vernon?

Serengeti: That was through Broder. That guy’s a really sharp fella. He sounds great on the thing.

How did his studio compare to places you’ve recorded before?

Serengeti: That place is amazing. It’s a whole compound. These people do music, and it’s not in an isolated way. The whole time, I’ve been so isolated. When you’re around that, it’s intimidating and it’s good. It’s nice to experience other types of hangs that aren’t you in a shell, and you’re poking out for a week, and then going back.

Was your delivery different recording at home compared to in this collaborative space?

Serengeti: Well, I just did this record called To The Max, and that was the first time I ever recorded myself. Boy, I tell you, that feels great. To have an idea, and go right there and do it. And you don’t have to do it for anybody or explain anything. I was just really slow to the game. [laughs]

What did you mean when you said earlier it’s selfish to work things out in public art?

Serengeti: Life problems, man. You look at them and create stuff from them, instead of solving the issues and living a normal life.

Has turning it into art not been a solution itself?

Serengeti: It’s been overwhelming because there’s no end to it. If you were doing it properly, there would be an end of an album cycle. That art shit, man, you gotta nip it in the bud.

Now that you’re putting an end to the project, does it feel like anything’s been solved?

Serengeti: I’m gonna find out soon. I’m gonna look at everything when it’s all said and done in November, and see what the next move is.

Is your career still a one-man show?

Serengeti: Yeah, I don’t have a manager or booking. All this Europe stuff is at the whim of an email. I’ll take myself if it makes sense. They get my iPod, because the pay probably won’t be enough to get a band and rehearse. How do you get grown adults to rehearse for one show and split it up between three people? That’s always been the case with me. All the people that are doing this correctly have a team. A boxer can’t train himself, and after every fight they always thank their team.

How did it feel when Open Mike Eagle called “Dennehy” the “Chicago national anthem” at Pitchfork Festival this year?

Serengeti: It’s a fine song. That thing’s lasted a long time, I’m really proud of that. It’s funny, I get more pop from that song outside of Chicago. I feel good about the song because people still like it and still quote it. That whole song just came in one fell swoop. I remember the day I wrote the whole thing. Years later, people still say “Hey, Dennehy!” I was in Minneapolis and these cops came up to the show, that was something. I got all these tweets during the Super Bowl HQ Trivia because “Dennehy” was on it. I used to play that game! I wish I would have been playing it when Kenny was referenced.

Was there something that triggered you that day you wrote it to say, “I have a song now?”

Serengeti: Well, creating the character and writing the song were two different days. I remember the character being formed and living with him, and I remember writing the song and emailing it to my guy Dirty Heat. It just spread! It didn’t need any explanation. I did my first show, I played “Dennehy,” and people knew the damn song. “Oh, that’s what being popular feels like. If you’re popular, people don’t just like what you represent, they like a song of yours.” I’ve had people bring sausages to me. People buy me O’Douls, people buy me beers. It’s great. You know, “it’s KD.”

Back in 2005, before you had even done anything with this character, you told the Chicago Reader that rap was still a very young genre. Does it still feel like that thirteen years later?

Serengeti: Hip-hop is pop. Hip-hop is in country. Hip-hop is everything now. There really is no underground anymore, in my opinion. They used to have rock bands back then. I don’t know if rock bands still exist anymore. I know they exist, but hip-hop is everything. I don’t know, I’m not too dialed in. I’m just out of the loop.

So what are you listening to recently?

Serengeti: I get stuck on one song and listen to that over and over again. I bought the Quelle Chris and Jean Grae record off of Bandcamp. I bought that Caroline Rose song “More of the Same.” Not much, man. I just listen to boxing podcasts. A lot of them are saying the same things, but it puts me to sleep every night.

Have you ever considered boxing yourself?

Serengeti: No! I mean, I’d like to do it for fitness, but doing it for real, it’s like tennis. You have to start doing it when you’re 8.

Do you have a lot of allegiance to Chicago sports?

Serengeti: I watched the Cubs growing up, and I love those teams, but I never had an uncle that sat me down like “Hey, you see these colors? You don’t like the Sox.” I was a lonely kid, and the Cubs were on WGN. I fell in love with Harry [Caray] and Steve [Stone]. Following the whole season was like the podcasts. These are my friends. You listen to it, it’s soothing. I never watched the Sox, but I didn’t hate the Sox. The damn Cubs and Sox both hadn’t won for 90 years, and they’re talking about “I hate the Sox.” It’s just stupid conversations that don’t mean anything. I watch shit for enjoyment. I don’t like going to games. I don’t like going to Wrigleyville. That shit feels awkward as hell.

It’s like going to Navy Pier.

Serengeti: It’s like Trumpville. [laughs] I’d rather watch the games in the comfort of my own life.

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