[15 February 2007]
What if I told you a hip-hop artist had released an album called Dennehy in honor of prolific actor Brian Dennehy? Well, first, please don’t tell me you’d say, “Who’s Brian Dennehy?” and risk losing the entire stash of cool points you accumulated last year. I know you know Brian Dennehy—he played the father of Chris Farley’s character in the movie Tommy Boy (among his many roles) and has appeared in television shows ranging from nighttime soap opera powerhouse Dynasty to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) (not to be confused with Law & Order: Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV), in which an elite squad of agents from the Environmental Protection Agency clamp down on pollution from gas guzzlers—it comes on after Cheaters).
Anyway, here’s the point: when we’re thinking of source material for a hip-hop song, let alone an album, we’re not likely to think, “Okay, you could rap about expensive cars with huge rims… Ummmm… being a big shot on the streets… Yep, getting shot is always compelling… and, oh yeah, you can’t go wrong if you throw in a little Brian Dennehy.” Well, there’s one rapper who might’ve thought about it this way—the guy who made the Dennehy album. And that would be Chicago, Illinois based rapper David Cohn, known artistically as Serengeti.
It’s important to be aware of Serengeti’s previous work, especially the Dennehy release, because his discography makes it easier to understand where he’s coming from with Noticeably Negro. This album is a mishmash of vocal styles, freewheeling production, and abstract subject matter.
Now when I say “vocal styles”, I’m talking about: his broken flow in “South”; his conversational flow on the title track; his full throttle, Ghostface-like lyrical assault on the opener “Island Bozos”; and his pained, almost Swartzenegger-ish wailing on “Cauc’s Remix”. That’s right, there are times when Serengeti sounds a little like the Terminator, or at least like the Swartzenegger impressions you hear the comedians doing. That’s not me being a mean critic taking a potshot at the rapper; it’s just a description. In fact, I’m not even saying it’s bad to sound a little like Arnold on a couple of tracks. I’m just saying it’s…well, different.
And “different” is good, right? That’s what we keep hearing from hip-hoppers-in-the-know and the “hip-hop-is-destroying-the-community” contingent (that could be the premise for another hour length legal drama, Law & Order: Hip-Hop, in which rappers are prosecuted when listeners try to imitate the action depicted in the song lyrics). Often, though, we mistake “being different” as a proxy for “talent”, praising releases simply because they don’t fit into the “gangsta” category or because they contain lyrics that take swipes at the “mainstream”, sort of like “the enemy of the enemy genre is my friend”. That’s not happening with Serengeti, who has plenty of talent and doesn’t have to rely on mainstream bashing. That doesn’t mean he’s opposed to critiquing the genre, as he does on “Bubble Bath”:
Back when black folks used to work together
Now it’s only songs about what weapons to use on each other
It don’t sit right, it just seems funny
And I ain’t anti-“rich and havin’ money”
A lotta rappers seem like they’re in the Ku Klux Klan
Can’t get down wit’ sh*t that’s like anti-man
What separates Serengeti’s critiques from the usual “rap song about what’s wrong with rap songs” is (1) Serengeti spends the majority of his time performing the material he wants to hear, rather than talking about what others aren’t doing and (2) Serengeti’s critiques are woven into the overall fabric of his imagery, rather than operating as a one-dimensional complaint.
Last note about Serengeti’s vocal style, although it’s more along the lines of song structure: Serengeti’s not real big on hooks. He’s got hooks, yes, but their low readings on the catchiness scale imply that Serengeti’s not overly interested in them. Some are simple (like the titular chant in “Waiting All Night”); some are sing-songy (as in “Bubble Bath”). But when it comes right down to it, you’re out of luck if you’re looking for club-happy, radio-savvy hip-hop tunes—you must still be down with O.P.P. or spending too much time at the Candy Shop.
On the production end, the music is rendered in snazzy lo-fi audio, adding texture to the beats as much as it muffles them. The album features smooth scratches, hard beats, and disjointed rhythms. My CD has a sticker on the cover that calls the audio “crunchy”, which inspired my instant curiosity. Sure enough, during the first spin in the stereo, Serengeti had dense, bass-heavy hip-hop belting out of my speakers, to which I exclaimed, “Wow, it is crunchy!” It was as if Serengeti had rigged a bowl of Rice Krispies with a microphone and positioned it inside my speakers (anyone for MC Snap, LL Cool Crackle, and DJ Pop?). I like Noticeably Negro‘s gritty, third-generation-cassette-tape sound—it’s raw.
Finally, there’s the “abstract subject matter”. Serengeti builds his verses on descriptions, similes, and seemingly random cultural references, an amalgam that straddles the line between subconscious connections and utter incoherence. Much of the album veers into the “incoherence” end of the pool, which again is simply a means of describing why it’s different from other records. “Platinum Chains” is a good example, as it jumps thematically from the fakeness of other emcees (“Some rappers even have body doubles”), to paying respects to fallen hip-hop heroes (“R.I.P. Big Pun”), and offering a shout out to Serengeti’s enemies (“Spittin’ out bone chillin’ intel to my dearest enemies—yo, this one’s for you, f*ckers: I blame all of you for my shortcomings and poor record sales”).
But there are songs here that do more than compile references. Some are straightforward, like the political and socio-economic rap “Cauc’s Remix”. Guest rapper MF Grimm rhymes, “Bush is a drug dealer, Cheney is a criminal / White House, bloodthirsty, actin’ like animals” while another guest, Juice, raps, “The government is sideways / They’re sendin’ money to kids in Zimbabwe instead of those by my way”.
At the same time, songs like “Noticeably Negro”, the title track, make connections in unexpected ways. In the case of “Noticeably”, the song uses the title to generate an expectation that the subject matter pertains to race. Then it subverts that expectation with verses that have more in common with lady-watching than ethnicity. It’s more “Around the Way Girl” than “Fear of a Black Planet”. Between the verses, though, the hooks address and embrace the song’s title, grabbing the “What are you?!” sample from the Michael Keaton-Jackson Nicholson-helmed Batman movie, adding a pedestrian query (“Uh, what are you, like, Puerto Rican or Arab?”), and finishing with the name of the song, “Noticeably Negro”. But the song itself never expounds on issues of racial identity, which seems to be the point, as if to say, “It’s not that big of a deal,” all the while playing on Serengeti’s racial ambiguity; that is, ambiguous to onlookers. In interviews, he’s adamant that he’s “black”, amid questions of the gee-what-race-are-you variety that rarely yield prolonged and productive dialogue. Poking fun at this, Serengeti ends the title track, saying, “Yeah, man, I’m like half Korean and half Camel, and I got some Zebra, and um, a small, small part of Reptile, and the rest is Native American”. Now that’s hilarious.
By the end of the disc, Noticeably Negro may not impress you as hip-hop’s next big thing, particularly with a lackluster stretch from tracks four (“Dinosaur Junior”) through track seven (“T.R.I.U.M.P.H.”). Still, it’s important for artists to follow their visions to generate unique and personal statements. In this regard, Serengeti succeeds.