David Cohn is lucky enough to have his own personal psychologist, but his doctor isn’t licensed. Hell, his doctor isn’t even a doctor—or even a real person at all. It’s an alter ego, pulling double duty. Cohn mentally bounces his issues off Kenny Dennis, a full- mustachioed, blue-collar man’s man in his late 40s. Kenny hails from Cohn’s hometown of Chicago and has the ultra-Chicago accent to match.
Cohn—who is professionally best known as Serengeti—often channels the character in his raps. He’ll dress up as the creation for music videos, too, and occasionally even respond to interviews as Dennis. “I’ve been depressed a lot in life. Doing the music is like an escape for me,” says the 30-something Cohn. “I always used to try to [say], ‘Well, if I write these problems down and if I execute ’em, then maybe it’ll help me feel happy.’ But it didn’t really work. It’s bigger than that.
“With the Kenny stuff, it’s just someone I always dreamed to be: the fella with a lot of friends, the guy whose house that you go over to to have a barbecue, the guy who has a solid foundation with his wife [and] his good buds,” he continues. “He loves his little brother. Aspects of that are true to me, but it’s just taking all my positive aspects but exemplifying ’em in, like, Superman. Yeah, he’s solid. He’s just real solid.”
What makes Cohn’s relationship with his character more touching and distinctive, then, is that Dennis started life as a predominantly goofy character. Cohn first appeared as the character on the title track of Serengeti’s 2006 record Dennehy. The opening lines of “Dennehy” sketch Mr. Dennis with economical haste. “Favorite actor: Dennehy, favorite drink: O’Doul’s/ Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls,” Kenny raps, referencing, in order, the Cocoon and First Blood character actor, the nonalcoholic beer and four major Chicago sports teams. (Notably, Cohn got the idea for the character after picturing what kind of person would pick Brian Dennehy as their favorite actor.)
In “Dennehy,” Dennis also reveals his affection for character actors Tom Berenger and Dennis Farina; chopped peppers, tomatoes and onions; daytime TV celeb Judge Mathis; defunct department store Zayre; Willis Tower; “The Super Bowl Shuffle”; and Wisconsin (as a vacation destination). About half of the items on that list are Chicago references, so it’s easy to get an idea of what kind of person Cohn is trying to paint.
Seven years after his debut, Kenny Dennis is still a huge part of Serengeti’s discography. On Tha Grimm Teachaz’ 2010 record There’s a Situation on the Homefront, KDz (Dennis’ rapping alter ego; if you’re keeping score, that qualifies as an alias of an alias of an alias of a real person) revealed his history in 1990s rap and as a member of the metafictional hip-hop outfit behind the album. Next came Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis EP in 2012 and then the Kenny Dennis LP this past June.
Dennis’ world is becoming increasingly fleshed out: He’ll be the center of a hyped-up track, but he’s also not afraid to explore serious issues, like his deep devotion to his wife, Jueles. The Kenny Dennis LP also features Kenny’s friend Ders (played by Workaholics’ Anders Holm) on spoken-word sketches. As a rapper, Cohn possesses the finesse and attention to detail that allows him to expand the Dennis mythology while making good on a palette of warped, alt-hip-hop-rooted beats. Cohn counts the work of Native Tongues—a collective of feel-good ’90s MCs that included A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul—as a key inspiration early on, and their reverberations resonate here.
Cohn has been trying to bring his protagonist to new mediums—namely, the sitcom and the mockumentary—but encountered “a lot of false starts.” Hip-hop provides the simplest and quickest outlet for Cohn’s work, and the rapper still has no problems using it. “It’s just fun to do it, [adding] my honest take to rap,” he says. “I’m not a street dude. I don’t do that angle, but I’ve traveled around. I just try to be honest and try to make stuff that tickles me.”
w/Jel, DJ Abilities, Tony Trimm
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Wednesday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m.