David Cohn, aka Serengeti, is a local MC who has impressed critics with his intelligent yet hilariously satirical lyrics. He's released nine conceptually different albums over the past six years-including his latest collaborative work with Tony Trimm and Renee-Louise Carafice (as Yoome) titled The Boredom of Me (an introspective album about love and love lost). His perspective on life has resonated with a diverse range of local fans, and he continues to be one of the leading voices in Chicago hip-hop. With three highly anticipated albums coming out in the next few months, Geti looks to be making some moves, so Centerstage thought it would be a good idea to sit with him now, and learn a little bit more about the creative storm that's about to come. (We also spoke with him last year, shortly after the release of Dennehy, an album dedicated to his favorite actor.)
Tell me a little bit about where you grew up. I've lived in Olympia Fields, Beverly, in Lakeview on School and Clark. I've lived in Uptown on Magnolia; I've also lived in East and West Rogers Park and in the Ukrainian Village. My favorite place to live is East Rogers Park though. It's very close to the lake, tennis courts and movie theaters. A dream of mine is on a hot summer day, to go to the movies and catch about four flicks, stay all day inside in the nice air conditioning and exit in the beautiful night. However, my ultimate dream is to live above a gym. Imagine the phenomenal shape that you could be in if you lived above a gym.
When did you first start rhyming? I started really writing in Nakano, Japan, a very small rice farming village on the central part of the island, very close to Niigata City. In Japan, there were seven of us in the exchange program and everybody had a host family. When my host family showed up, there was no family; she was a 22-year-old woman, and a beautiful woman at that. I started to write tales about my life then. I wrote about going to Tokyo and to Kyoto and seeing the Ginkakuji Golden Palace; beautiful, breathtaking. I started to write a lot. The following year I lived in Jonkoping in a little subdivision called Raslaat. I did extensive traveling in Europe. Going to Christiana in Copenhagen spawned many raps. Being in Prague, visiting what I thought was a strip club and it turning out to be a brothel, inspired many raps. So, I have been writing for a while.
You have a pretty diverse background. How has that contributed to the way you make music? It's just terrible. I'm a guy that thrives on diversity and everything is so segregated. So it's better to thrive in segregation if you want to live a very happy, joyful, fulfilled life, instead of a constant yearning and want.
There's always a learning curve for MCs. When in your career did you truly feel comfortable on stage? It's case by case. The very first time I did a show I was nervous as hell. It was in Carbondale with my buddy Umar. The minute I stepped on stage I felt comfortable, and that was my first show. However years later I did a show at SW Missouri state and it was in the student center for some sorority party, and I never felt comfortable. We drove all the way from Boulder, Colorado to do that damn show. I'll never forgive Roo for that one. I did a show last Friday at the Cobra Lounge and I felt great. It's just a matter of circumstance. Back when I was in Japan, I got hired to sing Bette Midler's "The Rose" at a Japanese wedding. I was accompanied by a cellist and a harpist; once that spotlight came on my knees were literally knocking together for the whole song. That was extreme nervousness.
You show a lot of love for Chicago in your lyrics, yet there's a love/hate relationship as far as the city supporting its own. How do you deal with that as an artist? I go to work every day and I try not to really think about it because, I guess, it's sort of a fact that normal people don't go to local shows; maybe it's not the people's fault, maybe the art's not good. But that doesn't really make sense because Chicago is a giant city. I have heard out west in like SanFran that local people support local artists, and artists can make a living off of their local town support. But, that could be a myth, like saying my music could do better in Europe. But who knows. I'm just happy that other people put out my tunes, and speaking of tunes stay tuned for me and Polyphonic's second album, Terradactyl, which is outstanding. Also, The Friday Night with my good buddy Fidel, which is a fantastic tale, and Conversations with Kenny/Legacy of Lee made with my Korean friend Tony, due out on Audio 8 in two weeks.
You drove a beer truck for a while, how did that sculpt your view on the city? I didn't drive a truck, I rode. I was the 'helper' during college and after college. I worked for Budweiser. This is when I lived in West Rogers Park. I'd have to take the 290 bus east to Howard Street at 5:30 in the morning and then take the Red Line from Howard to 47th Street, and then take the 47th Street bus west to California. Whew...there and back, everyday...oh man. I'd write a lot during those daily journeys. I'm seeing the whole city basically. Then getting on the beer trucks we'd drive around the whole city, south of downtown. I've been to every liquor store south of downtown in the whole city. I don't know if that's an accomplishment, but it has to be something. Maybe not. What I did notice, is that Chicago is extremely segregated, and that references one of your earlier questions. You need to like it, or prepare for depression. Depression can last for years and just when you think it's gone, boom, it's right back on you like 'do I smell perfume on you? Are you cheating on me?' Enjoy segregation. Working on the beer trucks is very sad, because I'm basically pushing drugs. Drugs and alcohol are a very big problem. Drugs and alcohol destroy families. I continue to sell Kratom.
You worked with MF Grimm for a while, what happened to that relationship? Well, I had my first album, Gasoline Rainbows, which I worked on for years. I spent upward of $10,000 to record that stupid project. You know, the whole thing about when you first record and you think it's gonna be big, because you can't believe it's you...fool. You're basically delusional around your first project. So, I made that album and I sent it off to about 100 record companies. I waited by the phone, waited by the phone, every time the phone would ring, "Hello!...oh, hang on a second." During the Gasoline Rainbows project time I made two rap records, the Dirty Flamingo and the Noodle Arm Whimsy. Those albums actually came out before Gasoline Rainbows. I had forgotten all about the Rainbows, and I got a call from MF Grimm saying he loved the album and wanted to put it out. I was excited, 'that damn record is gonna see the light of day.' We had the press lined up, I had my manager, Summer Watson, things were looking up. However, things don't always work out as planned. Everything gets bungled, there was no tour, the album came out after the press, and everything fell apart. I haven't talked to Grimm since. I find solace in the fact that my delusional first project got picked up and put out. I guess that's something.
Most people know you for the work you did on Dennehy, but tell us a little bit about albums like Noticeably Negro and Race Trading I made the Neeg after the Noodles at the Elboratory; the album was totally produced by Midas Wells and I had my buddy Heater on the album. It was a fun time. The Race Trading was recorded at Polyphonic's Studio. I met Polyphonic through Pugslee Atomz. This was right after the time [my longtime friend and ex-girlfriend] Vanessa died. I heard the news of Vanessa's death on CLTV, how Chicago is that? That was a brutal winter. I made Race Trading a few months after her death. Two months later I was married. Marriages often dissolve.
Who is Vanessa and what was her relationship to you? Vanessa was my first love. We met very young and we stayed together for a decade. We grew apart, but couldn't let go, she died, forced the hand-boom. The last words I said to her were on the phone and were "I love you" she replied, "yeah right". One of the last nights we hung out, I was doing some bullshit at the [now-closed] Vertigo on Western, and she came all the way down from Rogers Park and picked me up. I remember seeing her headlights in the distance; what a lonely approach. We went back to the crib and she wanted to lie next to me on my couch, but I decided to stay in the basement. I was like "no" and she said "I just want to lie next to you" and I said "no" again. When I woke up she was sleeping on the couch next to mine, and she never did that before. That was the last time I saw her. That phone call happened that next day, she died later, if only I would've...
Weeks later I was doing some BS at the Vertigo again, only this time there were no headlights slowly approaching to pick me up. There was this pit in my stomach, and I started to cry. That was the last time I cried, the realization that my best fried, first love, was really gone.
What about Don't Give Up? It seems like a lot of personal tragedy went into that album. Oh yeah, that album was made in real dark times. Vanessa was dead, my marriage wasn't working out as I had envisioned. Yeah, it was very dark. But now, it worked out. Me and Will have the new album due out in March. I think it's fantastic.
Your latest project, Yoome, seems even further from the typical hip-hop realm. What are some of the ideas and thoughts behind this album? My marriage was done, it was last winter time, it was freezing outside. I'd go out to Tony Trimm's crib and the first song we made was called "Dubai" and it took off from there very easy. Me and Trimm recorded about six songs, and then I brought in the great Renee-Louise Carafice, she's great. The album was fun to make, extremely easy and some people have panned it. Oh well, I liked it. And, we are going to do another album. And I hope they won't pan it again. That album, my buddy High Fidel, Fro-Hawk Two Feathers, did all the artwork and some chump forgot to give him credit on the actual disc. That really stretched me and Fidel's relationship to proportions where I thought we weren't going to be able to be friends anymore. He actually struck me, right in the side. We have currently made up and have a new album out called Friday Night, which is available on iTunes and on thefridaynight.com.
You're living in Ukrainian Village, any favorite spots? I love to go to Bite, Feed. I like going to the Black Beetle. I like Flying Saucer. I like to go to Smith Park. I like to go to Chavas. There used to be a little coffee shop that sold sandwiches, but regretfully they have closed down. I like to go to Kasia's Deli. I also like to go to Dominick's. I like to go to the Empty Bottle for a show. I used to book shows at the Vertigo, but it closed down and turned into the Blind Robin. The Vertigo was a dark, dark place. Drugs, alcohol and the smell of failure.