People out of Objects: Serengeti & Characters

Hip-hop is a genre caught in a crisis of identity, an art perpetually torn between an unquenchable thirst for swagger and age-old truisms like keep it real and don’t front. Rap demands self-assured confidence, but it also demands honesty, and striking a balance between these two poles is perhaps the single greatest challenge there is. Still, there are artists hard at work doing just that. Serengeti is one of those artists. To figure out how he’s doing it, we might start with the following question:

Who is the “I” in a rap song? And as a follow up: does that “I” have to be real?

There was a time when the answer to the second question was a resounding yes, when your rhymes had to reflect your life, and although that purist philosophy still definitely exists, the answer is no longer so definitive.

Probably the most infamous character in hip-hop is the masked man himself, MF DOOM, who raps and makes beats under a variety of aliases, each more villainous than the last. DOOM’s mask is an acknowledgement of the act, an identity constructed in comic book fashion which serves to separate the supervillain from the mild-mannered alter ego of the artist, Daniel Dumile.

DOOM uses his mask to traverse the realms of pulpy sci-fi and repurposed Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but while his exploits are always entertaining, often containing hilariously poignant observations woven into incredibly complex rhyme schemes, there’s a degree of removal that comes with styling yourself after a fantastic four villain, an abstraction from reality that can be limiting in its own right.

Enter Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis, the mustachioed chicagoan who is too absurd to be real and too real to be fake. Kenny raps in short, simple utterances about grilling brats with his wife Jueles, his damn buick, his brother Tanya’s struggles holding down a job, and his deep and abiding love for Chicago sports. Kenny’s story unfolds across a musical trilogy that includes one EP and two LPs, all “self” titled.

Serengeti, the man behind Kenny Dennis, wears Kenny’s mustache like a mask. You don’t know me without my ‘stache, he insists on “Lose Big,” a track towards the end of Kenny Dennis III. Like Doom’s mask and its supervillainous connotations, Kenny’s facial hair is a disguise designed to draw attention to the absurdity of its construction, a caricature of midwestern normality and the simple poetics of a local hero.

Kenny’s reality is constructed out of objects and locations, sports figures and obscure movie stars, and through this referential constellation, a person begins to emerge. It’s a classic way to create a character. One might even argue that it’s the only way to create a character, at least from a literary standpoint. You put together a collection of sound-objects (words) and depending on the intricacy and nuance of your composition, that collection might take on a life of its own. All that’s left is to give it a face, or in Kenny’s case, a big mustache.

So if Doom writes pulpy sci-fi, then Serengeti’s Kenny Dennis trilogy is more akin to the dark comedy of postmodern literary fiction. And if Kenny Dennis has been an experiment in using characters as a device in his raps, Serengeti has only doubled down over the course of his latest projects.

The first of these projects is Cavanaugh, his collaboration with Hellfyre alum Open Mike Eagle. Their album, Time and Materials is a series of vignettes in which they play a pair of maintenance workers in the loosely metaphorical Cavanaugh apartment complex. Located in the fictional city of Detroit, Florida, the building is, according to the album’s press release:

A new housing structure…that has both luxury condominium units available for private ownership and section 7 housing in the same building. Via separate entrances, the Cavanaugh building services two very different populations. And though the lifestyles of the residents vary, each unit relies on the same set of pipes and wiring and [is] serviced by the same crew.”

Time and Materials conjures a twisted modern brand of Americana, a relationship sitcom filmed on a grainy webcam, streaming through porn popups, bubbling out of a busted synthesizer and echoing into the digital ether. The construct of the apartment building becomes a studio set on which little dramas of identity unfold–we witness Cavanaugh’s various inhabitants try to navigate the inscrutable eddies of class, culture, and entertainment, attempting to answer questions of what it means to be alive, now, connected yet isolated as we are. On “Church,” Serengeti’s opens with an interrogation of that isolation:

Bipolar, or are you missing out on Miami beach?

There’s beautiful people on blogs,

Why you sittin’ around and microwave hotdogs? (dog, dog)

And though we get bits of stories here and there, the overall sense of the album is one of atemporality. Time and Materials is as circular in its narrative as it is recursive in its rhyme schemes–the context shifting around though the words remain unchanged. Life spins flat like a record on a platter, spiraling inwards, but always coming back around again. Ideas and themes are loosely connected, moving in loops and circuits like so much pipe and wiring behind the walls.

Serengeti and Open Mike Eagle as Cavanaugh use their setting as a grounding structure–the fictional building stands as an edifice out of time, ironically so, since the whole thing is sustained by the dedication of their own artistic time and materials. The takeaway metaphor here is the image of art as inhabitable space which the artist maintains. Time and Materials presents the metaphor by literalizing that space as the Cavanaugh apartment building. Characters move through it, the world flows around it, but it’s space is held in singular focus.

In contrast, Serengeti’s newest project with Yoni Wolf, Testarossa, is an album that never settles down. It’s focus is a pair of lovers, Davy and Maddy, who grow apart as Davy’s music takes him on the road and Maddy stays at home raising their kids. It’s an ambitious character-driven album about living and loving, growing and changing. That change is reflected not only lyrically but musically as well–Testarossa is one of Serengeti’s most sonically eclectic projects–a rap album about a garage alt-rocker that straddles the two genres, using each to comment on the other.

On “Frank,” one of the more rap-leaning tracks, and one concerned with identity and appearance, Serengeti-as-Davy makes what very well could be an allusion to the Kenny Dennis days:

On the lam I shave

Shaved off the ‘stache and told her my name’s Gabe

Tell her my name’s Blade

Shaved off the stache and tell her my name’s Wade

A little mascara, look like a total babe

Yeah, tell her my name’s Paige

Testarossa is a concept album, a character piece, but it also contains interesting autobiographical undertones. It’s worth noting here that Serengeti’s real name is David. The portrait he paints of Davy as a touring musician is a portrait of a man who is free to be anyone he wants to be, traveling from city to city, stage to stage, genre to genre, appearing to us however he chooses to appear.

But this freedom is not without cost. Along the way, Davy ends up losing the woman he loves and sacrificing his relationship with his children. They cut bangs into my daughter/she don’t recognize her father, he says on the album’s penultimate track, “I, Testarossa.” The Ferrari in question is a reference to a toy car Davy gives to his kids on the album’s second track, “Allegheny,” a gift meant to make up for the time he’s spent away:

I bought kids a couple posters

and a model testarossa

maybe this will bring us closer

His speculation betrays its own wishful thinking. Don’t all this shit bring us closer? He asks again, and of course the answer is no, it doesn’t, because toy cars aren’t the same as a real relationship. Objects aren’t the same as people, and this comes to be Davy’s tragic realization on “I, Testarossa,” when his daughter doesn’t recognize him anymore. His personhood is reduced to a toy sports car.

You say I’m a ghost, well yeah, not quite, I’m a poltergeist, sings Yoni on the hook of “Allegheny.” And what is the difference between a ghost and a poltergeist? Well, a poltergeist is a subset of ghost, specifically a restless soul that haunts objects. Davy becomes the numinous cloud of dust pouring from the car door on the album cover, a memory embodied, the lingering emotional resonance clinging to an object which reminds us of someone we once knew. 

So Testarossa is an album about a musician who can become anybody, but to do so he must sever his ties with his family, becoming an unmoored spirit, a man with many identities, none of which are quite real. And that narrative hints at Serengeti’s own role as the creator of all these characters, a meta-commentary on the relationship between art and artist and the death of the ego, which poses an answer to our original question: who is the “I” in a rap song?

The “I” can be anybody, says Serengeti, but to do that, I must be nobody at all.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson