The third installment of 110 percent, a series in which I talk to musicians about sports, features Serengeti (born David Cohn), a Chicago-bred MC whose 2011 album, Family & Friends, was met with well-deserved critical praise (read a great LA Weekly feature).
Serengeti is true-blue Windy City, epitomized by his alter ego Kenny Dennis – the O’Douls-chugging, softball-playing relative anyone from Chicago has (trust me, I know). Kenny loves brats, Brian Dennehy, Ditka and Da Bears. Not necessarily in that order. Check the video for “Dennehy” and I strongly encourage you to check out the powerful and deeply personal Family & Friends, produced by Yoni Wolf of WHY? and Owen Ashworth (formerly known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone).
Like life in Chicago, sports references are an integral part of Serengeti’s raps (check the song “Ozzie Guillen” for an example).
You grew up in Chicago. Are you a South Sider?
I grew up on the South Side. But I lived on the North Side since I was, like, 17, so I’ve been in both places.
Are your allegiances to the White Sox?
I grew up watching the Cubs because we didn’t have cable and the Cubs were on WGN, so I really fell in love with those ’87 Cubs – Hawk Dawson, Sandberg, that whole era. I’m a really big Cubs fan. But I was never one of those people that liked the Cubs, so you have to hate the Sox. It’s silly. Why not pull for both teams? Is it that much of a pain to do that? It seems like a waste of energy.
Will the Cubs ever win a World Series in our lifetime?
Yeah, I mean, we got like 50 years left in our life. Odds are that it is gonna happen. Everybody wins. They have to win. They have to. They got Theo (Epstein, president of baseball operations), the boy genius. He’s gonna turn it around. It has to happen.
But I guess if it doesn’t happen, that would be really cool. Like, one team hasn’t one a world series in 400 years. It would be, like, 600 years and counting … (laughs)
I was gonna try to count the number of sports references in your songs, but that seemed like an impossible task. Do you feel like your fans get most of them? Or do you even care?
I don’t really care. To me, it makes it one of those things where you listen to it and one day you’re watching a TV show or something and, “Oh, they talked about (Alonzo) Spellman or about Mike Singletary calming down Spellman.” They might just catch that and be like, “Oh, man, that was real.” I like it to be subtle like that. It’s funny to me.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past year or so. Do you feel like sports define a city like Chicago more so than L.A.?
I don’t really know that much about L.A. sports culture. It seems like people really love the Dodgers. But I don’t know much about L.A. sports, aside from watching sports on TV. … I don’t know the whole culture. But Chicago is extreme sports. It’s so cold, and it’s like when spring comes and baseball is here – what a feeling. All this hope and everything is changing.
What’s your greatest moment as a Chicago sports fan?
When Jordan hit that shot over Bryon Russell to win the championship in ’98. That was a great thing.
Did Jordan push off?
Yeah, he did. But it wasn’t called, so he didn’t.
Man, I still have my original pair of Air Jordans
I had the Jordan 5s back when I was in junior high or something like that. My sister got ‘em for me. It was the greatest gift ever and I was so proud of them. I never had all the shoes like all the kids had. Some kids had every shoe whenever it came out.
But for some reason, I didn’t wear the Jordans to school that day. And my cousin was staying at our house – I don’t know why because it was a school day. And my damn cousin took my damn Jordans. They were size 9. He didn’t even fit the shoes. To this day I still harbor this resentment. You went in my closet and packed ‘em up in your bag?
It was crushing. Shit’s gone … fucking Jordans. My life could have gone differently for a period of a month. I’d be the dude with the new Jordans. It was special. I really missed out. I could have had some confidence and that confidence could have led to something else – a whole chain reaction. But my cousin foiled me. It was a good lesson learned.
Never not wear your Jordans.
(Laughs) That’s right. That’s gonna be a Kenny Dennis rap.
I moved from Chicago to Arizona when I was 8, so I witnessed the Jordan dynasty from afar. What was it like in Chicago during the Jordan years?
It was so great, them winning … it was almost boring. “The Bulls are gonna win again.” Why even watch? They were so dominant. For me, I didn’t really appreciate them until the second three-peat (1996-98). The 72-win season (in 1995-96) was incredible. I wish they would have went 73-9, but they lost the final game to Seattle or something like that. … It was incredible.
What about the most disappointing moment as a Chicago sports fan?
That 2003 Cubs season. They were so close. Then they just sorta choked. That was pretty brutal. I remember watching that, thinking ‘They’re about to really do this.’ To watch that thing collapse, that was pretty rough.
And last season with the Bulls losing to bastardly Heat. That was a tough, tough thing to see. These damn Heat. I really don’t like those guys. They made me pull for the Lakers. I didn’t really like Lakers, but I thought that the only team that could beat them is the Lakers.
What do you think about the Bulls this year?
They started out a little shaky and it was like, ‘Was last year lightning in a bottle?’ They turned on the defense. They looked a little slow initially. Carlos Boozer lost all that weight, but didn’t seem like he got any better. He looks very thin now, but didn’t serve him very well.
Who’s your favorite Chicago athlete of all-time?
Hawk. Something about Hawk Dawson and his curl. I loved it, man. I love the Hawk, man.
I’m trying to think of a Bears player … sort of. I was really into the Lions because I loved Barry Sanders. I’d always root for those damn Lions teams. They would have one terrible season and then get the soft schedule and be, like, 12-4 and you just know they’re not gonna beat the Redskins or someone like that in the playoffs. It was a smokescreen … you just know they’re not gonna win. But I really loved Barry Sanders, man.
You gotta respect him and how he went out on top.
It wasn’t all about football. But all-time it’s the Hawk. Those games on WGN, it was great. It really drew me into baseball. I, too, played baseball all my life. But just those games, man. Being in my room by myself late at night, those 9:30 p.m. games … that was just beautiful, man. I was up so late watching the Cubs games. I never liked to go to games. I’m not into that. I’d much rather watch stuff at home.
You’re a video-game guy, right?
Just the Black Ops. The Call of Duty game.
So you’re not into the sports games?
I can’t really do all that stuff. I don’t enjoy playing the Madden too much. It doesn’t float my boat. They had this Madden tournament on ESPN, like a documentary sorta deal. Man, these guys are really serious. They know all the defenses.
My favorite sports is boxing. And I can’t even get into those games because it’s hard.
You’re a boxing guy?
Oh, man. I love boxing and combat sports – the MMA stuff. It’s my guilty pleasure.
So you’re not buying into the whole “boxing is dying” line of thinking?
Those guys are fools. Boxing is not dying. When a boxing match happens, it captivates the nation in a way that MMA never will because MMA lacks the elegance and history that boxing has. There’s just way too many variables.
I love boxing, but I do like MMA. What they do in MMA is when a fight is supposed to happen, it happens. There’s not all these mega-purses involved.
I don’t mean to change subjects abruptly, but I heard you on the Knocksteady podcast and you had some thoughts on how to save the WNBA, like lowering the height on the rims?
That was just a fleeting thought. Men’s basketball was really boring and it wasn’t viewed that much until people started dunking. The average height of a male ballplayer is like 6-7 and women is like 5-11. It would make more watchable if a point guard could dribble down, feed the ball in the low post and power forward does a pump fake and goes for a two-handed dunk. Or some little guard gets a fast break and gets a nice dunk. There could be a women’s slam-dunk contest. I don’t know if that’s sexist. College women fans say it’s like art to watch that style of basketball. But in women’s golf, tees are moved up. The basketball in women’s hoops is already smaller, too. It would make it a more vibrant sport. But I don’t know anything about the WNBA. I’m just pullin’ shit outta my ass.