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Serengeti on His Hip-Hop Metafiction Therapy Session ‘Kenny Dennis EP’

Serengeti / Photo by Chloe Aftel

Chicago rapper Serengeti is one of the most emotionally wrenching MCs working today, his raw, confessional, slow-flowing intensity a marvel on works of fiction and non-fiction alike. His upcoming C.A.R. LP, due July 31 via Anticon, picks at scabs (the rigors of touring life, the anxiety of social interaction, dashed dreams) while his recent Kenny Dennis EP is a the best chapter in an ongoing work of fiction that doubles as therapy session (wherein he’s a white forty-something sports-and-sausage enthusiast who was briefly a rapper in the Shaq-Fu ’90s). Both records, and the promised Kenny Dennis full-length, are produced to a kitschy, fuzzy, samplecentric, old-school crisp by Anticon beatmakers Jel and Odd Nosdam. SPIN talked to ‘Geti about the speed bumps that prompted this creative hot streak.

You were crashing on Jel’s couch a bunch to make these records. Why were you in California?
I got laid off, so I had unemployment. So it was like the perfect time just to get out there and do a whole bunch of stuff. I would just go out to Berkeley and Jel and I and [Odd Nosdam]… We just started messin’ around and it turned into like four albums.

What were you doin’ for work before this?
I was working at this psychoactive seeds and herbs shop over the internet. Like all that salvia stuff before that got banned. And kratom. All these like psychoactive things that I had never even heard of. But then everything must come to an end. And I had this whole plan that I would do all these records and then hopefully tour them to, like, make some income. But that didn’t work out so well… so now it’s back trying to get a job again.

You haven’t found a job yet?
I’m tryin’ to go back to the trucks — the job I used to do on the beer truck. It’s like, aw man, here I am. It’s like a full circle. Like, I used to be a young whipper-snapper on the trucks thinkin’ like, “Oh man, what happened to these people.” And now I see, I was just naïve. This is life, you need to work.

Well songs like “Geti Life” on C.A.R. are really explicit about the reality of the indie-rap hustle versus employment.
Yeah…it’s like you get gas by getting some press and stuff. Like, I thought that once you get some press and everything, then you got some opportunity to tour and make some bread. But then I realize — or I was told that — you’ve got to have your Twitter game up and your Facebook game up. You basically have to do all that crap. But I’m just not that versed in all that type of business, man. Much to my detriment, but the stuff that I would say would say would just hit a little to close to home.

It’s a lot like what’s in the J-Zone book.
Yes, I read it. I had, like, a slight hope when I got some licensing stuff, and I thought that that was going to be my refuge. And it worked out really well at first, and then just as soon as it worked out, it sort of dried up. I was like, man I’m going to do this licensing stuff, and then I can do these weirdo little artsy-fartsy rap albums. And then that will supplement that and then it will be good…. but no, no, no…

Where were you licensing your stuff?
I did some stuff for this TV show called Chuck. The song got on Suburgatory on ABC. And then, uh, it was supposed to be in this really big movie, and I wasn’t sure if it was in. So then I saw it — I went to the theater to watch it with bated breath. But the moment that the movie opened, I knew that it wasn’t going to be in there, because it was a whole ’60s type of rock feel. And I just knew that the song, it wasn’t going to be in there. Oh well… maybe next time.

Yeah, I mean, you can’t really count on anything anymore.
Yeah except if you have a job, you know? Then you just wake up and you go to your job. And I did that for years, you know? I always worked and worked and worked. And then getting’ laid off I was like, OK, this is the new chance. And now that I’ve seen that that sort of passed, it just makes me sort of… just take a step back and realize, like, do I really want to set up my own tours? Do I really want to do this? You know, like drive eight hours to have a $400 guarantee? I can’t really sleep on floors anymore. You spend like, let’s say 10 hours in the car. And then come back — if it’s a bad show — with net of like two hundred dollars. Is this what I really want to do?

Well the, Kenny Dennis EP really channels the pathos of the working man.
Yeah I mean I been depressed for a long time…and just the thought of that guy Kenny as like, man if everything could be this simple, you know? Like, this guy has just total confidence in himself. He doesn’t live his work. He does his work, but he doesn’t have any qualms about his work because there’s no other big pipe dreams. He has his friends come over for cookouts…and I always dreamed of being that dude who had friends comin’ over — “Oh let’s see what Dave’s up to. Hey Dave, you want to come outside and play some football? We got all the guys, we got some steaks.” Aww, you got the steaks? And you know, you cook ’em out back, you just have a really good time. I’ve always been like…a very insular and a loner type of dude. But always wanted to be that type of fella. That character was sort of me sort of trying to write that into my own existence.

So how did you come up with the character?
“Dennehy” was the first song. It was just a matter of workin’ on those trucks for such a long time. And, you know, spanning the whole city as far as like every different neighborhood, droppin’ off beer in like the hoods to the nice parts to downtown places… Every day just a lot of traveling throughout the city, seeing a lot characters and people… I had a girlfriend who passed away… and I was in her basement and watchin’ the Little League World Series, and that’s when they ask the kids who your favorite actors were And it just clicked to me like, man, what if somebody’s favorite actor was Brian Dennehey? And then the lights went on and boom boom boom… Like right there I knew his name was Kenny Dennis and I knew his wife’s name was Jules. And Kenny had a job repairing telephone booths. And at the time they still had the telephone booths, so it was perfect ’cause now there’s no telephone booths so I can really write them into the future.

And when that came out and people started to notice… it always bugged me like, why is this Kenny Dennis character rapping? You know the cat’s like 48 years old, so why can he even rap and why would he rap? Me and Frohawk Two Feathers were talking doing an old throwback album, and then the other lightbulb hit that boom, yes, I’ll put Kenny Dennis in the group. He was K.D. back then, but he was a little more tough and… but not like robbin’-you tough, more like a he’s like a guardian angel where like he carries a gun but to like protect the community. And now with the new Kenny Dennis EP like, some of those songs now are from when Kenny sort of…you know, he got the fame from the “Dennehy” so he, uh, he’s a little more… he thinks he’s the best rapper ever. Kenny… he’ll battle rap anybody. He doesn’t care about none of that stuff.

So Kenny’s just like, for you, just this kind of dude who’s… always happy about the path his life is taking, no matter what happens.
Yeah, yeah. There’s no “why me” stuff, there’s no analyzing, “Oh if only this would’ve happened.” It gives me a chance to really say some stuff. I never really grew up in that battle rap era. Rap for me was more like, “Oh, I have to get these feelings off of my chest.”

Have you battle-rapped as Kenny?
No, no, I was thinkin’ about doing something like that, but I was thinking that might be a little too much.