Serengeti “Here you are, the house is burning down, and you’re just writing about how the lights are in the fire and the smell of the fire. No! Get up, get some water, put it out.”

Turns out it’s not always rib tips, rib sandwiches, and chicken wings for the KDz. Kenny Dennis III, out now on Joyful Noise Recordings, finds David Cohn’s usually happy-go-lucky alter ego in the midst of a Midwest mall tour and drug relapse. A tragicomic travelogue, KDIII combines the hometown humor of the Kenny Dennis persona with the emotional baggage of a Serengeti record. The result is both a trip and “a time,” not so much a tour de farce as a tour story to end all tour stories.

I caught up with David (a.k.a. Serengeti a.k.a. Kenny Dennis) at Brooklyn’s Glasslands after his first performance of The Michael & David Tour, and we agreed to speak over the phone within a few weeks. The following conversation provides perhaps the most in-depth exploration of the ‘Geti/Kenny dichotomy of any interview to date.

You just finished The Michael & David Tour with Open Mike Eagle. I heard that you two had met in college, and I know that you appeared together on “Universe Man” from Animal Hospital and on “Four Days” from the Extended Nightmare Getdown, but had you guys rapped together aside from that, on record or even just casually?

“Universe Man” was something that we actually did in the same room together, but I did something else for one of his projects [wherein] I just mailed in a verse. It was called “Easter Surgery.” Hopefully, we’ll get together and do some more stuff.

What about when you guys were in college? Did you ever rap together at that time?

No, I didn’t rap in college much. I didn’t have “a time” too much. I remember Mike rapping, [but] by the time he came down there I was pretty secluded … It’s a blur, I don’t really remember.

Are there any memorable experiences from this tour that you’d like to share?

It was all in all just a nice, pleasant time, just a couple of fellas driving town to town like a couple of traveling businessmen, like a couple of traveling salesmen selling our wares from town to town. It was just the two of us. I had done another one of those with Yoni Wolf prior to that, and it was the same… Mike really schooled me on wrestling and The Ron and Fez Show. Mike is a wrestling scholar.

When we first met I proposed the idea of interviewing both you and Kenny Dennis, and you were concerned about one or both of you coming across as a caricature. Afterward, I was thinking about our exchange and it struck me as kind of similar to how on Kenny Dennis III Kenny’s friend Ders [played again by Workaholics’ Anders Holm] is continually calling Kenny’s ideas funny, and Kenny keeps saying “What’s funny?” Is Kenny’s inability to see humor in himself a reflection of something more than a lack of introspection, and along the same lines, to what degree are you being humorous when you write and record Kenny Dennis songs?

No, it’s all for real, man. It all comes from a place of loneliness, the reason I made Kenny. So, to me it’s not just a guy with a mustache. Everyone says he’s like a white guy. It’s not a white guy in a mustache really for me. It’s more. It’s not just like, “Aw, this is some comedy.” It’s more.

But you realize of course that there’s humor in that.

Oh, for sure… But if I start to put on the stash and talk [in character], there’s this pressure to keep up the voice and somebody is recording you. It’s just too much at that point. It would probably make [the interview] better, but I’m not the right guy for the job.

Nah, that’s OK. The question was less about the act of caricature-izing Kenny than it was about Kenny’s personality itself. You’ve called him, “Somebody who I always want to be like, a real happy guy, the guy who loves his wife and everything’s going great,” but then on KDIII it seems like all that’s unraveling. We find out he’s addicted to bennies, Jules is upset, his brother is a snitch, and we even find out Kenny had the chance to battle Shaq, but he was too afraid to go through with it. On the other hand, on last year’s C.A.B. record, the non-KDz Serengeti seemed happier than we’d ever heard. Are you successfully writing Kenny Dennis into your own existence, or perhaps vice versa?

Yeah, especially on the [KDIII], life shit [bled over], so unfortunately or fortunately, Dave came out more in the Kenny, whereas before he was just like this guy [who] could express my hopes and dreams, like a superhero-type guy, and then all of a sudden I’ve got Kenny going through all this darkness.

So that wasn’t at all planned before, that wasn’t part of the Kenny Dennis story arc you had plotted out previously?

No, it sort of just comes as it goes, but once it started coming I was like, “Oh, definitely, this is where this next one has to go,” instead of just doing the jovial shit all the time.

When I go out and I’m really having a good time, I’m sort of like Kenny, the life of the party, good times, laughing, and then when that’s done, it’s back to myself, looking at other people and just observing the fire.

Would you care to elaborate at all on any of those experiences that bled over into the record?

Not in particular, aside from traveling and thinking, “Is this the right thing to be doing?” constantly.

Back onto the plot of the record, all of Kenny’s drug problems and marital problems seem to come to a head on the song “Shidoshi.” Kenny’s dancing with this strange woman, his buddy/benny hook-up is on the phone, and some guy starts screaming at Kenny, demanding he take off his sunglasses. As I was listening to this, I realized this is the scene that’s illustrated on the cover of the album. What can you tell me about writing and recording that song and the genesis of that scene in particular?

That was great, man. I really enjoyed that. Kenny walks into his own intervention. His phone is blowing up, because he’s supposed to bring home the cake for little Dennis’s birthday party. He forgot it yesterday, so now he’s coming back and all these people are around him. Julie’s there, Curtis [is there], and Joji is on the phone, blowing up his beeper. It’s this whole scene, this whole intervention. I really enjoyed writing that. I wondered if people could follow it like a tale, because it is a tale about him kicking it in all these Southeast suburban towns, like Riverdale and Oak Forest. I’ve been to an intervention before, and that was that manifesting itself. Seeing people hanging out with new friends, that’s Joji.

[Recording] was good times, one of those one-takers. The whole record was sort of half freestyles with little plot points to hit. Me and Odd Nosdam did KDIII in about 13 days in Berkeley, [with] the concept and raw materials.

I was actually going to ask you how much of it was purely improvised, because you get that feeling [when listening to it]. I’ve heard you say before that you try to write in a stream of conscious style, but there’s writing in a stream-of-conscious style and then there’s going off altogether.

Yeah, sort of just getting into character. [It sounds] more rough, because Kenny’s going through it. It’s just his feeling. His voice is all scratchy, and you know, he’s going through some things, so I wanted to keep it sort of raw.

In a previous interview you said, “Years of rap make you mentally ill and semi-unemployable.” Is that what we’re seeing manifest in Kenny’s latest music? And if so, could we call Kenny’s downward spiral a commentary on the self-destructive force of ego-centric rap?

No, I wouldn’t say that it’s from that place. The whole semi-unemployable thing, that’s some other shit, Geti life.

I tend to read into shit, but I was thinking his ego gets in the way, and again he has this inability to look at himself…

I like that. I mean, that goes hand-in-hand with him being hooked on drugs and not being able to look at himself in the mirror. Rap could be the drug he’s hooked on too. He’s out for one more shot. When you’re a rapper, you think this next one is going to be “the one.” He’s always worried about missing out. He wants to have another time again from his old glory days.

Right, he’s reliving the Grimm Teachaz days on the road.

Yeah, when everything was popping for that little short period of time, and that little short period of time can dominate your whole life, a time you had when you were 22 years old. Here you are, you haven’t worked in years, but still you’re getting just enough interest and just enough emails to keep you going; thus, the semi-unemployable thing. You’re like too good to work.

I love that you opted to put out the Grimm Teachaz record [There’s a Situation on the Homefront] on Chopped Herring. That’s the perfect vehicle for an album like this, when you’re saying, “This is an unreleased gem from the 90s,” and this guy who puts out unreleased 90s records says, “Hey, let me put out your record.”

Yeah, it’s perfect. We have another one too, the Grimm Teachaz record that broke the camel’s back, The End Is Near. That’s the follow-up Grimm Teachaz record.

This is the one that laid the group to rest?

You can definitely tell that there are some problems brewing. It’s fun, man. I really enjoy the whole Kenny universe. It’s fun, but also I can get some stuff done for myself, too. I have this whole plan for the next two Kenny records. I might not do another one, but if I do, I know how to finish it all. I’ve got the whole thing all sorted out, from 1979 when Kenny starts rapping under the name DiscoKen — all one word, so it has disco, it has coke in it, and it has Ken in it. He signed this deal, and that’s when he was really on the bennies, from the 70s to the 90s, but then the Teachaz group sort of cleaned him up a bit. Then after that, he’s retired again, because it was tough. He really got into his wife, Jules, and that’s when he did that Dennehy thing, and from there, now we’re at KDIII and he’s back. He drinks the O’Doul’s not because he was an alcoholic; he drinks the Doul’s to curb his bennies addiction. I like that better.

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