David Cohn, better known as Serengeti, has a lot of characters living in his head. "Kenny," a northwest-sider with a mustache as big as Mike Ditka's forehead, likes to lounge around the house in Zubaz pants and owns all of Brian Dennehy's and Tom Berenger's movies on laser disc. When he's not playing softball with the guys he's cruising around town looking for a decent Pontiac Fiero with a for sale sign.
"Derek," on the other hand, is a competitive tanner who dates Paris Hilton and hangs out in Buenos Aires. He'll be quite upset if you serve him cabernet in a glass that isn't specifically for red wine.
Like the wacky bit players in a sitcom, Kenny and Derek inhabit the slightly bent parallel reality of the 28-year-old MC's rapidly expanding body of work. Cohn has already released two full-length albums, Dirty Flamingo and Noodle-Arm Whimsy, which I'm convinced would've provoked a torrent of critical praise if anyone had heard them, and last year he signed a five-record deal with Day by Day Entertainment, an up-and-coming New York City indie whose catalog already includes an album from Rob Swift of the X-ecutioners and a full-length collaboration between MF Grimm and MF Doom. Cohn claims he's sitting on a dozen discs' worth of unreleased material, and he plans to put out five albums within the next year or so--four on Day by Day and one on F5 Records, the regional Saint Louis label that released Dirty Flamingo. Day by Day will release the first of the bunch, Gasoline Rainbows, on April 5.
"I'm starting a new genre," Cohn says. "It's called black emo. Or negro emo rap." He pauses. "Negro thug street emo? I don't know, something about something emo. All this started when people kept asking me who I sounded like. Ja Rule? I'm like, 'No. I think emo is what I sound like.' It started off as a joke, but I'm gonna run with it."
Calling Cohn "emo" only makes any sense at all because rappers like Slug from Atmosphere have already been saddled with the term--Cohn, like Slug, covers his share of personal and emotional material (that is, between all the clowning and surrealistic rambling). His lyrics can make a political statement and a vulgar joke in the same line, but on the whole Cohn is neither thug nor activist--with his tendency toward introspection and his equally ingrained habit of self-doubt, he's probably more existentialist than anything. It sometimes takes a while for what he's really saying to sink in, but his sound is immediately accessible, with poppy hooks sampled from all over--soul standards, Phish jams, indie folkie Mike Ill, even the sound track from the Orson Welles vehicle The Third Man.
The first hip-hop Cohn really got into was 3rd Bass, and among his influences he also lists Cat Stevens, new wave, Billie Holiday, and Prince. His ethnic makeup is just as confused, and he's obviously tired of people asking about it: on the upcoming album Noticeably Negro he says, "Yeah, man, I'm like, half Korean / And half camel / I got some zebra, and a small part reptile / And the rest is Native American." If politely pressed, he'll say he's part black, part ethnically Jewish, and beyond that isn't entirely sure. "I come from a long line of race trading," he says.
When he's not writing or recording, Cohn works odd jobs--usually he bartends or helps cater parties on the North Shore. He doesn't put in very many hours--"sometimes zero," he says--and at most averages just a couple days a week. He says the Day by Day contract paid him enough to sustain his lifestyle for the time being, given that he rents a room in a friend's house in Rogers Park for 200 bucks a month. He doesn't own a car--he's a big advocate of public transit, where he does a lot of his writing. He sometimes shows up for gigs in worn-out clothes, with grime caked under his fingernails--in one of his songs he refers to himself as "the dirtiest man alive."
Cohn spends a lot of his free time with Larissa Poluchowicz, 25, who recently dropped out of Southern Illinois University and moved back to Chicago to be with him. Cohn graduated from SIU in 2001 with a degree in history, but didn't meet Poluchowicz till he went back to Carbondale for a hip-hop show at Hangar 9 last summer. She's his girlfriend, not his wife, though he's done his best to keep people guessing on that front.
In October Cohn was performing in Carbondale, and the organizer, he says, "announced to this crowd that we were married. . . . We danced onstage like we were married, even though we had just met." The couple hung onto the joke and had a wedding announcement printed in a local paper. Cohn's so guarded about his personal life that even close friends and collaborators--like Jonathon Toth and Tucker Booth, of Saint Louis production team the Frozen Foods Section--weren't sure if they were being taken for a ride. "Every one of us were like, 'What is 'Geti doing now?'" says Toth. "Everyone was confused."
Cohn is all about the nonsense, and lots of it--off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness rhymes that, although meaningless on their face ("I wear big watches / I looked in my bedroom, all I saw were Sasquatches"), hang together to create a more or less coherent context. Cohn's second release, Noodle-Arm Whimsy, reissued by Day by Day on January 25, is the best case in point so far--it feels so effortlessly tossed off that it's hard to imagine how it came together at all, but the longer you listen to it the more inevitable it seems that the album turned out exactly the way it did.
Cohn recorded Noodle-Arm Whimsy with his friend Dave Kindernay, aka Dirty Heat, who helped with production (alongside a slew of guests) and raps on many of the tracks. "He lived by the lake at the time, and we would come in and record after playing tennis or riding bikes," Cohn says. All his vocal tracks were done in one or two takes, giving them a pell-mell, seat-of-the-pants feel, and there are stretches where it sounds like he was winging it completely. From "Outta My Way":
Used to know a woman that reminded me of crow's cackles
Like the kind that hang out in cemeteries
And when you see a murder of 'em boy is that shit scary
Sorta like the career of Luke Perry
Or sneaking on cargo trains that carry grapes and cherries
Cohn's younger brother Elliot, aka Extra Credit, produced two of the songs. He was 11 years old at the time. Cohn himself is still learning production--his contributions have often been limited to bringing in samples or singing lines to give the musicians an idea what to do. Fortunately there are plenty of producers willing to step in at that stage.
"Dave is a rock star's rock star," says Tucker Booth. "He's so far ahead of the trends it's ridiculous. Everyone is constantly biting his style."
Cohn has a low profile in Chicago, though, in part because he hasn't got a local label pulling for him. His next performance, at HotHouse on Tuesday, is part of a showcase for Evanston-based Gravel Records, but Gravel hasn't released any of his music and has no plans to do so. After that he's headlining at tiny Bar Vertigo, near Chicago and Western, on Friday, March 11. He doesn't do much to promote his gigs, often just showing up for an open mike at the last minute. Local freestyler Juice guests on Noticeably Negro, but Cohn doesn't go looking for celebrity cameos to burnish his albums. He doesn't care about running with a crew like the Molemen or the All Natural Family either. "I don't want to have to rap and then be a rapper," he says.
Cohn's also hard to market because he doesn't fit into any of the prefab identities out there for MCs. He detests both the gangsta roots of mainstream hip-hop and the battle-rap roots of old-school hip-hop. He makes fun of self-styled thugs who rap about gats, and he makes fun of backpackers and conscious hip-hoppers who rap against them.
"Life is already enough of a battle," he says. "Too much to have to take your music and say, 'Hey man, I'm better than you.' It's just not fun. I don't like all that nostalgia stuff, because it keeps all the rap shows the same. Everyone's like, 'Who out there hates Bush?' All these cliche-ass questions. 'Throw your hands in the air! When I say this, you say that!' I hate that stuff.
"And those documentaries? They make it seem like a closed music. But it's not," he says, finally taking a breath. "Rap is so young."
Ben Westhoff is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times in Saint Louis.
When: Tue 3/8, 9 PM
Where: Hothouse, 31 E. Balbo
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.