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.

I know there was that eureka moment when you where watching the Little League World Series and all of a sudden you knew Kenny’s whole life story, so I was curious if KDIII was a chapter of the story you knew already.

There was definitely the bump in the road, which was supposed to be this, but it wasn’t supposed to be this whole bennies thing. I had a different bump in the road planned … I don’t want to ruin it.

Fair enough. What differentiates your processes between writing for Kenny and writing for Serengeti? Clearly, there’s a difference in character, but I’m interested in the moment when you actually sit down to write or record, and further, does one character inform the other?

I think that Kenny would definitely inform the Geti side more so, but Serengeti influenced Kenny on this one, so I don’t know. They’re both meeting more towards the middle, the more it goes. Maybe, [if I] just combine it all at once, it’d become a good rapper. [Laughs] The processes are different. [For] Kenny, I’ll be just be driving or something and with one little word, I’ll snap into Kenny for a second, like “Oh, OK, I got that one.” The Serengeti stuff is more pondering “What am I doing”-type things, and like, I don’t know, man. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know … I don’t know.

Do you ever feel when you’re writing for Serengeti that you’re also stepping into a character?

[Sighs] I mean, this whole Serengeti thing started with me trying to be my own shrink. Being depressed, I’m trying to write my own way out of depression. That gets a little tiring and old and boring, but man, I don’t know.

It just happens?

It sort of is what it is. You go through some shit and, you know, maybe instead of trying to solve problems I just look at them and jot down shit. It’s really foul, just looking at life and getting fodder and material from your life instead of trying to fix it up, if that makes any sense.

Yeah, I hear you. That’s how art’s made, though.

It’s sort of selfish then, you know?

In a way.

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, put it out, go get some sand! You know what I’m saying? Do something, don’t just look at it.

To be a rapper-rapper, you’ve really got to keep up on a lot of things, you’ve got to dress differently, you’ve got to be like Kenny, real confident, but how much can you say?

This is something you’ve been conscious of; I remember on one of your earlier records you said, “At least you write better the worse it gets.”

I know, that’s fucked up, right?

But do you ever worry that if you achieved happiness you’d run out of material?

No, I’d much rather have that. I’d much rather go for that instead of just being miserable and looking at the lives of others like, “Oh, man, they’ve got it all together, they’ve got it all figured out.” I’d rather be that guy instead of just looking at people. But I do have a 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.

How does your approach change from writing for one Serengeti project to the next? For example, how did writing for Yoome differ from writing for Sisyphus?

They’re all times. The Sisyphus [album] was [done] in a very short time. It was just us together for like two weeks. Yoome was from after [my girlfriend] Vanessa died, and I had all these writings. All these projects that I’ve been doing recently, they’ve all been done in a short period of time, where I go to a place and boom. Saal was done in two weeks or a week and a half in Bonn, Germany. I just try to catch a vibe. Saal was supposed to be my catharsis to get over shit. “I’m finally done feeling this way.”

You’re going back to Germany in the coming weeks, right?

Yeah, me and Tobias “Sicker Man” are doing another project. This time we’re doing it in Berlin and in Hamburg.

From projects like these, as well as some of your other albums like Family & Friends, it’s obvious electronic and indie rock aren’t outside your purview. Who are some artists from these or other genres who you listen to for inspiration or just for general enjoyment?

Like everyone, I love Bjork, Radiohead. It feels like a cliché for a rapper to be like, “Yeah, I like Bjork and Radiohead.” Everybody says that. I really love that Tricky album, that Pre-Millennium Tension. This group called Bows, I really like them. Micachu is really dope. I don’t have a computer, so I’m not really up on shit. I buy some CDs and I’ll get stuck on a disc for a long time.

What about rappers?

Like everyone, I love DOOM. Breeze Brewin.

Oh, legend.

He’s incredible, man.

My brother and I will go back and forth like he may be the greatest of all time.

Dude, I’m right there with you. I love Geechi Suede; I love Cool Calm Pete; Hellfyre Club and the Anticon cats; I like Jeremiah Jae; Earl, that kid is so good.

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.”

You brought up DOOM right off the bat. One of my all-time favorite DOOM recordings isn’t even musical; it’s this interview he did with Chairman Mao from ego trip, and he’s asking DOOM to break down all of the different characters, and he goes off, describing King Geedorah as this all-seeing overlord who’s in telepathic communication with DOOM and the other characters. You’ve got so many characters in your catalog, I wouldn’t ask you to describe them all, but would you give a rundown of a few of your recurring characters, and describe their relationships to one another? For example, you’ve said Kenny Dennis is someone you aspire to be like. How do you think Kenny would see you?

He’d be like, [switches to Kenny’s voice] “Dave, just don’t worry, just get yourself a job, just pull it all together. Everything’s going to be alright. Hey, Dave, just say it with me: ‘Everything is going to be great.’ Say it with me. OK? Look at me.” [Back to his regular voice] He’d get him on the softball team.

And then there’s Derek. This guy has everything, and he wants you to know it and to feel bad about it. He wants you to commit suicide, so if you’re hooked on something then he’ll give it to you, like Freddie in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, when he’s like, “Why are we fighting? We used to be old friends,” and then his hands turn into needles when he’s fighting the person that’s in recovery, and then her pores open up and they’re like, “Come on, feed me.” That’s Derek. He has everything he wants, and on the record, he’s like the devil. You know what I’m saying? Like, [switches to Derek’s voice] “I’m Derek, you’re not shit. You can never be Derek.”

And then Lee, Lee’s just like a total fucking sad sack. Nothing ever goes right for Lee. He tries hard and everything should go right, but [switches to Lee’s voice] “Damn, it’s sad, dude.” It never works out for Lee.

What about if we were to just zoom in on Kenny’s world? How do the other characters in Kenny’s world view him?

He’s just the best guy to be around, the guy who you want to be around. If there’s a barbecue [he’s throwing], you can come and you don’t even have to think about if you’re invited or not. It’s just a real solid, solid world. He only dislikes a few things, and that’s it. Everything else, it’s all copacetic, man, it’s going good. [In KDz’s voice] “It’s going great. You got the Jules, you got Stacy, you got LaMont, you got Tanya, you got Dennis, you got Curtis, Curtis has Maureen.” It’s going swell.

In preparing for this interview, I talked to John Bugbee, who is one of your biggest fans, and he gave me a few questions, so I’m going to throw them your way if you don’t mind.

Yeah, sure.

He asked about two of his favorite songs, “Jim Duggan” and “The Whip.” They’re both character studies, one of a retired pro wrestler, one of a retired MMA fighter. He wondered what sparks the creation of a song like “Jim Duggan,” and are songs like that in any way meant to serve as a metaphorical or allegorical representation of yourself?

Yeah, I mean Gary The Whip’s a fucking failure, man, a washout. Again, you get just enough twinkle, but generally it hasn’t gone well. It’s great you mention those two songs, because they both started from one line. “Jim Duggan” [stemmed from] “What up cousin? What ever happened to Jim Duggan?” And then from there, it’s like, “I remember his two-by-four…” but the story was [written] in one fell swoop, and it was the same thing with “The Whip.” My guy Hank said, “In UFC 3, he choked a man with his Gi,” and from that I was like, “OH!!!” I took that line, went home and just wrote it, but I remember when I wrote it, it was like the whole thing just came before my eyes, sort of like that “Dennehy” song too. As far as the detail, it’s just little fun things that I get a kick out of. I’m not trying to over-rap shit. Less is more. I try to get a scene across in a couple lines. Just try to keep it real simple and basic.

You ever see Beyond the Mat? Those songs immediately remind me of that film.

It’s fun but [there’s] darkness to it. “UFC 10, he fell in love with the Wren/ He built little cages so they could go out and in/ Around then he stopped going to the gym/ He said he had other priorities he’d like to get in.” I like it simple.

You’re not going for crazy multis. You’re just telling the story economically.

Yeah, I need to get into some more multis. Some multi-cultis. Someone said, “So what is he, multi-culti?” I’m like, “Multi-culti?! That’s a thing?” I guess it means some model-looking dude in Miami: olive skin, curly hair, dancing and shit. Some old Derek shit. [In character again] “I’m multi-culti, from Africa.” I gotta get on that Derek shit, man. I’ve got the whole thing outlined perfectly.

You’ve got a Derek storyline too?

There’s a Derek album. Yeah, man, I was going to drop all this shit, but I was like, “What am I doing all these fucking characters for?” I don’t want to be this dude just coming out with all this character shit. I’ll just stick with the damn Kenny shit. That’s enough.

I was reading the other day how there were several different authors who’ve written the John Constantine character for Vertigo’s Hellblazer comic, and several of them have reported seeing, speaking, or interacting with the character in real life. Since creating Kenny, Tanya, Jules, Joji, Derek, etc., have you ever bumped into somebody who so closely resembled your character that it freaked you out or maybe changed the way you thought about the character?

Well, I see those Kenny guys on the street sometimes. I never meet someone who’s 100 percent Kenny, but they’ll say some Kenny stuff, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s fresh.” And then, Derek, yes, I’ve met some little snakish-type people, people that spike drinks, but Derek wouldn’t have to spike the drink, because everything he has is like a spike. He’s so alluring with all his fragrances and his leather. He’s like a spawn, so evil. You see those guys all the time, slimy-type cats.

There are a lot of rappers out there who could be considered prolific just because to stay relevant today guys have to release a new record every couple months, but you actually release cohesive well-thought-out material on a regular basis—

Yeah, that’s sort of my thing. I [didn’t] want to do just an assortment of songs. But I want to do that now, I want to just have some really good beats and do some random songs, because I’ve been stuck on this whole theme shit.

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.

So you’re thinking about going back to rhyming just for the sake of rhyming?

It’s hard because I don’t even know what to rap about. I wish I could just rap. Come on, just rap! [As Kenny] “Yeah, OK, let’s do it.” I would have to be Kenny. I want to figure that out, but then it seems too much like work. To be a rapper-rapper, you’ve really got to keep up on a lot of things, you’ve got to dress differently, you’ve got to be like Kenny, real confident, but how much can you say? What do you rap about? You put people down, I guess. Or you big yourself up. Let’s go back to just having fun, being playful.

Is it a challenge for you to keep grinding out records the way you do? Or is it more of an emotional or a financial necessity?

It’s definitely not a financial thing. I’ll get an idea and I just want to see it through and complete it.

Another Bugbee question: “You have so many releases that even hardcore fans likely own only a fraction of your catalog. Is there one album in your discography that you feel has been unjustly overlooked and that you wish more people were up on?”

I like Saal and Family & Friends. It’s all overlooked, really. I’m more stoked on the new stuff I’ve got going on. It’s hard to listen to the older stuff, because I know what I would’ve done differently, like, “Aw man, we should’ve cut all these damn songs.” If we’d have trimmed the fat on it, it could’ve been something more enjoyable, so it’s tough to say.

Of your existing records, would you be able to pick out a favorite?

I would have to say I like the newest Kenny and other than that I like Family & Friends, because that was a good time to make. Also Sisyphus on a personal level, I had such a blast, an incredible time. It was the best, man. So many great times being in DUMBO. I didn’t even know there was an area called DUMBO. Dude, only in New York would you have some cool shit like that. It was fantastic. I’ll remember that time for a long time, probably forever.

What’s on the horizon? You said you were going to Germany to work on a record and to tour. What else can we expect from Serengeti?

Me and Yoni Wolf did a project, so that will probably come out after this Kenny stuff. And then I have about three or four other things in various states that I’ll be finishing up. I’m going to do all this stuff until January and see what’s up, hopefully do a Kenny tour if [the demand] is there.

Would you tell us a little bit about what’s coming next for Kenny Dennis?

Kenny goes under the knife. He gets plastic surgery.

[Laughs] Alright, I think we should leave it at that. One last thing, though: you named this most recent album Kenny Dennis III, so I take it that the Kenny Dennis EP is I and the Kenny Dennis LP is II.

No, because we have the KD LP II.

That exists?

Yeah, it’s not out.

Are you going to release it?

Probably not, I’ll probably just hold it forever. I don’t know… we’ll see.

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