Serengeti is a man of many faces and probably the most exciting rap artist I’ve come across since The Streets. It started some time ago when my good friend Sonny emailed me a track named Dennehy. I listened to it at the wrong time, immersed in distractions and most of it went in one ear and out the other. Then a couple of months later I threw the song on one of my mix discs and within a day found that I was abandoning everything else on the disc to listen to Dennehy over and over and over again. I can’t quite sum up how I felt without being verbally clumsy so I’ll relate another friend’s (also former Chicagoan) reaction: “At first I thought it was cool but a gimmick, then I realized that NO! People write love songs to NY and LA all the time and they become absorbed into popular culture, this isn’t a gimmick, it’s just the first time I’ve been on this end of a song like that.”
And yeah, Dennehy is a love song – to the city of Chicago. Atop a beautiful string arrangement that reminds me of the near-transcendental peace of Funkdoobiest’s classic Brothas Doobie album Serengeti adopts the character of Kenny. Kenny is, for all practical purposes, one of my Dad’s friends back when I was a kid in the mid-to-late 80’s. He’s thinking about WCKG, Brats, Chops, Ditka – the whole nine yards. If you grew up in Chi town and you’re reading this, you’ll probably be able to relate. Why? Because just like any other big city, Chicago has it’s own culture – it’s own collective unconscious, and on Dennehy Serengeti taps it perfectly.
This is not a blog about Chicago and Serengeti is not a one trick pony. No, in fact he is quite possibly the most versatile rapper I’ve found flowing these days, changing characters, styles, music and Modus Operandi seemingly at the drop of a hat and moving on to the next idea. And underline that last word, idea, because that’s what a lot of rappers, a lot of musicians in general it sometimes seems, have given up on unless it pertains to how to better market themselves or expand their clothing and accessories empire.
What Serengeti expands is music first, Hip Hop second.
Serengeti has a lot going on and here’s the thing – it’s all good. After that first track I found the Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) album on itunes and mainlined it. In between bouts with that I began poking around on the web for Mr. Serengeti and was blown away by the sheer volume of his output. He’s the type of artist that works well on his own or in the many collaborative albums he’s done. I found this page: http://fridaynight.bandcamp.com/ and began listening. You know those artists that when you find them you latch onto one album and beat it to death, all the while expecting none of their other stuff will ever be able to capture your heart the same way? And then you start going through each subsequent thing you find and each one owns you for a time?
Yep, that’s what I’m talking about with Serengeti.
Next album I tapped was Friday Night, a collaboration with Hi-Fidel (among others) that tells the story of two friends and a lot of Friday night debauchery. It’s the kind of album that moves more like a movie than a record, telling its story in what The Psycho Realm once upon a time called ‘full audio-visualization’*. Vignettes, dialogue and a lot of gorgeous sound design throughout helps to walk us through Chicago on the cusp of the weekend, from the El to a Gold Coast Suite complete with ornery security to the clubs that thrive in those first crazy and sometimes apocalyptic hours of the weekend. The music pounds and buzzes with a healthy fusion of classic hip hop and raw synth-laden IDM, anthemic choruses and introspective quiet passages that all illustrate a truly engaging tale of sex, drugs and murder that turns the tracks like pages in a taut and revelatory chemical romance** novel a la Irvine Welsh.
Next was the follow-up album Saturday Night, a continuation of the story several years later that is every bit as musically and conceptually/lyrically enthralling. Don’t want to say too much, once you get going on the story for Friday Night, you’ll want to avoid spoilers.
Grimm Teachaz – HOLY CRAP!!! If you’ve read my pages for a while you know every now and then I pine for old school 90’s Hip Hop and how, despite the vitality and room for growth that yawned in the maw of its path, the hip became more important than the hop and everyone started playing to the lowest common denominator – marketing. Well, the Grimm Teachaz album is one of two things; either an undiscovered demo from a 90’s Hip Hop group called Grimm Teachaz and a stunning example of the sound that was so hot back in the day or a brilliant tribute to that old school ethic where Serengeti and Hi-Fidel adopt the personas of KDz and PMDF and fashion a throw-back/look ahead venture into furthering that bass-heavy, idea-rich, bling-low meat and potatoes kind of hip hop that Cypress Hill and Funkdoobie made famous before it all but disappeared.
Add to this already impressive list Yoome, a (according to their myspace) now defunct collaboration with multi-instrumentalist/ Anthony Kim (aka Tony Trimm or Haiku) and female vocalist Renee-Louise Carafice that stretches the boundaries of hip hop in music even further; eight solo albums (no ink here, just open itunes and search Serengeti, they all come up); and three albums with Polyphonic on the Anticon label and you see this is one very busy guy. But not too busy to not answer some questions for me, so tomorrow, part two: The interview. Until then, enjoy:
* Remember that? Psycho Realm‘s debut album, first two tracks on the second side of the cassette, La Connecta Parts 1&2. Awesome, and Friday Night is kinda like that but movie-length.
** Welsh’s stuff was dubbed ‘modern chemical romance’ back in the 90’s by some journalist or reviewer or other and nothing fits his stuff better. As for that milquetoast band that adopted this for their name, sorry, sounds like family ties rock to me.