Serengeti: Family & Friends

Family & Friends

Rap Fan — may I call you “Rap Fan”?

Rap Fan, I hear you’ve become disillusioned with your prospects for finding a compatible hip-hop artist. What’s the problem? Have you been looking for an artist who shares your taste in beats? Someone who makes pop culture references you recognize? An interesting artist who can flow nicely over a smooth beat, maybe even hook up a good story or two? The type of artist you can relate to. Someone who will entertain you, without preaching.

I heard you’ve had some bad experiences with hip-hop artists. Trap Rapper droned on and on with a seemingly endless supply of survivalist drug tales (variations of the “I do what I gotta do” motif). Although some of those tales were peppered with remorse and regret, you knew Trap Rapper wouldn’t change.

All Club Rapper wanted to do was show off a new dance. That turned out to be a better situation than you found with Weed Rapper, who either wanted to lay on the couch and smoke all day or drive around in a purposeless haze.

Emo Rapper didn’t have a backbone, constantly whined in your ear and complained of being marginalized and misunderstood. On the other hand, you felt as though Mainstream Rapper had no soul. And Ringtone Rapper…well, let’s just say that situation was short-lived.

Why’s it so hard to find a “good” rapper? Your friends tell you all the good ones either get shot, go to prison, or start looking to “crossover”. The pundits would have you believe there are more rappers in prison than in regular radio rotation. Personally, I think you’ve been looking for good listening in all the wrong places. So you had some issues with a kid named Tyler? Maybe he just wasn’t the right fit for you. Disillusioned by the emcee who didn’t completely like his own album and blamed label politics for the outcome? I get it. But that’s no reason to give up. There are still more links in the blogosphere. You just need to get back out there.

Speaking of which, have you met David Cohn? Hailing from Chicago, Illinois, he goes by the rap name “Serengeti”, and he’s difficult to categorize. There’s too much of that anyway, reviewers putting artists in categories. However…

If I had to categorize him, I’d probably place him in the same area of the hip-hop spectrum as Kool Keith, MF Doom, MF Grimm (with whom Serengeti has collaborated), Aesop Rock, El-P, and Atmosphere. Some of Serengeti’s work might sit well next to Shabazz Palaces. (By the way, have you met Shabazz Palaces? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend some time with Black Up). You’re thinking, “Oh, hell no. Not another Underground Rapper. All they do is throw dirt on the mainstream, and overcompensate with gimmicks because they’re paranoid that no one’s listening to them.”

Give Serengeti a chance first. If you haven’t already, have a listen to a few of his solo releases — Dirty Flamingo (2002) and Noodle Arm Whimsy (2005) — and you’ll find him a unique listen, sometimes silly, often insightful, but always entertaining. He’s prolific too, dropping Gasoline Rainbows, Dennehy, Race Trading, and Noticeably Negro all in 2006. That’s a good thing, I’d say — you don’t want to start digging an artist, only to find out that your “new favorite ” has gotten a bad case of rapper’s block and ends up not releasing any new material. Bummer.

Serengeti’s style is fresh and unexpected, not solely because of his range of subject matter but also regarding the variety in his vocal delivery. He uses accents, dialects, slurred speech, energetic bursts, muttering, and all other manner of musing. Musically, he travels an expansive field, including folk, boom bap, dance, disco, rock, and indie pop. His work demonstrates a grab bag of lyrical styles, from brag rap to introspective rhymes and storytelling.

Perhaps you’ve heard Serengeti’s concept album, the aforementioned Dennehy (as in the actor Brian Dennehy). It was re-released (or, more like “revised”) in 2008. If you’ve heard either version of it, you know how intriguing it is. If not, it’s built around a series of fictional characters living in Chicago. Main character “Kenny” speaks with a thick Midwestern United States accent and spends the title track exploring his passions (“favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O’Douls”) and obsessing over his girlfriend Jueles. He expands on his possessive nature in the stalker-ish “Don’t Talk to Jueles” and “Juelie & Me”. Serengeti is especially talented at turning these sorts of character sketches into realistic portrayals, complete with flaws, habits, and idiosyncrasies. The follow-up, Conversations with Kenny/Legacy of Lee (2009) finds Kenny and a new character, Lee, facing loss and depression and using hip-hop as a way to cope — with bizarre results, of course.

With Polyphonic, Serengeti crafted two albums of lush and experimental abstract rap in Don’t Give Up (2007), Terradactyl (2009), and Bells & a Floating World (2010). Off-kilter and glitchy, these albums offer expansive soundscapes juxtaposed with Serengeti’s brooding but supremely self-aware rhymes. He is earnest and descriptive, a combination that reveals how well his songwriting deals in the details of life and relationships. Yoome — a collective effort between Serengeti, Renee Louise Carafice, and Tony Trimm — offers a moody vibe for 2008’s The Boredom of Me LP, albeit with more of an electro-folk lean in certain places compared to the energetic atmospherics of Serengeti’s collaborations with Polyphonic. In all of these projects, Serengeti has a tendency to veer into spoken word, free association, and, at times, confessional territory. You might be thinking, “Uh oh. I thought I told you I didn’t want to go back to Emo Rapper!”

Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. His releases with Polyphonic and Yoome are probably his least accessible, and since I’m trying to hook you up with this artist, I don’t suggest you start with these.

Luckily, Serengeti is versatile. Take, for instance, his work with Hi-Fidel on Friday Night (2008) and its companion piece Saturday Night (2010). On Friday Night, characters “Dave” (voiced by Serengeti, and referred to as “Geti”) and “Umar” (voiced by Hi-Fidel) get stood up by the same girl, obtain a “half a brick” of cocaine from a murdered dealer (who “knew how to bowl well and often did the Running Man”). They go out to a club and engage in one heck of an adventure. Interspersing songs with skits and dialogue, much like Prince Paul’s narrative concept album, 1999’s Prince Among Thieves, Friday Night is a serious parody, meaning that it makes fun of the party life, but it does so with attention to detail and the bounciest beats this side of techno. Saturday Night continues the story after a fictional gap of several years, and the plot gets a whole lot crazier.

I like both of the Night albums for their cinematic storytelling and scope. Also, here’s a cool tidbit about Saturday Night. Serengeti and Hi-Fidel create, within the narrative, a 1990s throwback rap group called “Tha Grimm Teachaz”. Apparently, the idea is to recreate the sound of early-1990s rap, and it’s pretty darn convincing. Serengeti and Hi-Fidel even completed a side project as Tha Grimm Teachaz, There’s a Situation on the Homefront (2010), and the result would fit in nicely with groups like Onyx, Das EFX, and Fu-Shnickens. The bass-heavy, lo-fi style is reminiscent of LL Cool J’s 14 Shots to the Dome (1993). A funny twist is that Serengeti voices the “Kenny Dennis” character from Dennehy as his half of the Grimm Teachaz. Even funnier is that the album was promoted as their unreleased 1993 debut that had been rescued from obscurity.

This brings me to 2011’s Family & Friends, which is probably Serengeti’s most accessible and straightforward record. It has less of an agenda than Serengeti’s decidedly lo-fi Noticeably Negro, it’s less experimental than the Polyphonic or Yoome recordings, and less conceptually and narratively expansive than Dennehy, Friday Night, and their respective sequels. It’s also a bit short, with 11 songs and a running time that barely clears the 31 minute mark. It’s a lean listen but it’s also a dynamo set with serious replay value. You can’t tell me you don’t have time to give it a shot!

What Family & Friends delivers is a cogent collection of tales ruminating on relationships. Serengeti has always done this well, in particular with the way he captures the honesty of a relationship cycle, the little odds and ends that undermine the adage that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Oh, he’s still cooking up wacky character sketches, but this time he’s also focused on crafting succinct, tightly wound bundles of irony. Even the title plays into this, as you’d think the “Family & Friends” title would be a section in a greeting card aisle, a title that connotes happiness and harmony. It would also be obvious, which Serengeti is so not.

To make the album work, he puts his wit to efficient use, taking the edge off of lyrics that might otherwise seem depressing. He’s not delivering his lines with a wink as much as a knowing nod, a subtle gesture that makes you relate to him even if you don’t relate to the speaker of his first person storylines.

Truthfully, I don’t expect you to relate to all of Serengeti’s characters. In “Long Ears”, he’s a son confronted with the return of an absentee father, a touring musician. “I thought it’d be romantic,” says the ambivalent son, “if we’d do drugs together.” The song ends on a cyclical (and maybe cynical) note, with the son’s own daughter opening a new chapter about his reemergence in her life. In “Godammit”, he inhabits a frazzled adulterer who’s intent upon leading a double life: one with the 17-year-old mistress who believes his lie that she is only seven years his junior (he was actually 29 when he met her) and the other with the wife he already had. “I bought college books and put ’em in a book bag,” he rhymes about deceiving his mistress. “Made some shit up about being post-grad.” There are some really random handclaps in the background of this song that I find strangely appealing, as if they are as oddly displaced as the narrator is in his duplicity. Similar to those handclaps, Serengeti’s narratives are quirky, like scenes from a Woody Allen film. “You never really know someone ’til you’re both ruined,” he opines in “Tracks”, the opener.

He’s mixing paint with a lady friend in “Ha Ha”, accompanied by a chorus of disarmingly charming pixies. He’s dutifully picking up, and paying for, his main squeeze’s “precious pills” in “PMDD”, despite his own physical ills. In “California”, over angelic crooning, he’s pointing out the silver linings of getting a divorce (“I’ve been riding a horse…relaxing, texting, sleeping”) and losing his job (“I started a blog”). The album’s five minute centerpiece, “The Whip”, takes a third person view to tell the story of a former UFC fighter. Despite the seemingly detached viewpoint, the account is poignant and heartfelt. Serengeti’s spoken word style returns for the jittery title track. Meanwhile, “Dwight”, described by its own lyrics as a “Byzantine ode”, closes the album with a flurry of lyrics exploring memories over a rising synth and a steady metallic tick. Coolly, it fades in, as memories are wont to do, and then it ends rather abruptly, like a pulse that has finally come to a stop.

The tie that binds is the consistently minimalist yet intriguing production from Why?’s Yoni Wolf and Advance Base (Owen Ashworth of “Casiotone For The Painfully Alone” fame). The beats pull from ’90s boom bap and electronic moodiness, combined with hooks reminiscent of indie rock and alternative. In this regard, a song like The Roots’s “Dear God 2.0” would give you an idea of what’s happening here, structurally, although these tracks aren’t quite as layered. High-end synths play a large part, especially with the melodies, at times contrasting with the lyrics, and at other time supplementing the mood. Small touches come across as big flourishes, like the scratches in “Godammit”. Instead of being “old school”, it adds a disruptive element that mirrors the discord in the speaker’s life (or double life, to be exact). My personal fave, as far as beats are concerned, is “Flutes”, with its hardboiled percussion juxtaposed against intermittent orchestral sprinkles. It recalls the clean, bare bones style DJ Premier might have employed for a Gang Starr track.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about you, Rap Fan, and whether or not you are finding happiness in hip-hop. Trust me, there’s someone out there for you, someone you’ll want to download, collect, and — who knows — maybe even introduce to your friends. Giving Serengeti’s Family & Friends a listen might be just what you needed to help you get your groove back.

RATING 8 / 10
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