ABOVE: DANNY BROWN, PHOTO COURTESY OF FOOL’S GOLD .
When Danny Brown tells us that he raps for his inner 12-year-old, we believe him. Brown delivers his lyrics in an aggressive, almost menacing tone, accompanied by addictive beats and baselines. The content of his rap ranges from mischievous, sly jokes—in the song “Baseline,” Danny describes his “red-haired ho, I call Molly Ringwald, she likes to do a lot of molly and bring adderall”—to the occasional social commentary (on his song “Juno” Danny raps about pregnant teenage girls, “Nobody else care, ‘cause 2Pac ain’t there”). With songs such as “Die Like a Rockstar,” Danny Brown is a welcome alternative to today’s cheesy, dance-floor pop-rap. Just a man going his own way with a sense of humor and flat-ironed, Flock of Seagulls hair.
Interview caught Brown before embarked on tour to talk about Detroit, parents, misogyny, and grime music.
EMMA BROWN: Hi Danny. So, why do you rap?
DANNY: That’s a good question. [laughs] I don’t know, it was something I just knew how to do, ever since I was a little kid. I used to do it as a kid and people were impressed by it, so it gave me the drive to keep going. Everybody has at least one talent. I guess this is my talent. But just knowing how to rap doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a good songwriter. I still had to take these gradual steps to learn how to do shit music-wise.
EMMA: You’ve been getting a lot of press recently, even though you’ve been doing this for a while. How does it feel to have the world “discover” you?
DANNY: Well, even though I’ve been doing it a while, I don’t feel like I’ve been doing it professionally. I was just making mix tapes, whatever you want to call them. I was just making songs—me and my brothers would make CDs out of it and put them on the internet. I never really count that even though you can still go and download that music. It feels amazing, though. To be acknowledged outside of my city is amazing to me, because I don’t really feel like I did nothing distasteful. I made the music I want to make, and people started to like it.
EMMA: How has rap changed since you were young?
DANNY: I guess right now, the biggest change [is that], as fans of it, we have options. More so than I remember as a kid coming up—there weren’t so many rappers. Now, with the internet, there’s thousands of rappers. There’s a free album every day. You really have more so of a choice of what you want to listen to now.
EMMA: You’re on a pretty exciting indie label, Fool’s Gold, but is there a particular reason why you didn’t sign with a major label?
DANNY: The reason I never wanted to sign with a big label was because I didn’t want no one telling me how to make my music. I just want 100 percent creative control—I want to be able to do what I want to do. A lot of times, the major labels, they can’t see the vision, they can only see the dollar signs. So, it doesn’t really work out like that.
EMMA: They want you to have a “radio song.”
DANNY: Yeah, pretty much.
EMMA: Do you carry around a notebook with you to write songs?
DANNY: I carry around my MacBook. I used to [carry a notebook]. Every time I would think of something, a new idea, I’d write it. I don’t really do that anymore. I really just look at it like a job: every day, 10 o’clock, start writing. If I get one song a day, one song out of that, then that’s it. I can get Adderall to write more songs. [laughs]
EMMA: I want to talk about specific songs on your current album, XXX. On “Outer Space,” there’s the line “No apologies for the misogyny.” Is that something that you get criticized for?
DANNY: That’s just because I’m not misogynistic, but growing up as a kid that was the music I was the most entertained by, and I think that’s the only reason why that’s in [my music]. The whole concept behind me doing that in my music [is] because that’s what I was into [growing up]. That shit made me laugh. At the end of the day, I think that I’m making music for me as that 12-year-old kid in front of my boombox every day. I try to think about, if I’m that little kid, what would he like? That’s why I do everything that I do. I do it for the 12-year-old me, [and] I feel like he would be broken out about this shit.
EMMA: You said that your dad was a house DJ.
DANNY: Yeah. I mean, not in the sense that he was doing big clubs and shit, but he DJ’d parties in the neighborhood. His preference of music was house music, and ghettotech, stuff of that nature, more than just playing the Top 40 or whatever else was going on. I mean, I was still a little kid, so I can’t really remember that stuff. I guess that was a thing that was popping up at the time and a lot of people were doing that. He was just involved in that scene.
EMMA: Do you talk about music together?
DANNY: Not really. That’s the weirdest thing. My dad doesn’t talk much. He’s super shy. He’s just quiet; we have conversations [only] when we need to. When I was locked up, he’s the only person who came to visit, but just growing up as a kid, he just didn’t talk much. My mom talked a lot.
EMMA: Which one do you feel that you’re more like?
DANNY: I’ve got both of them in me. My mom talks a lot, my mom can be a bitch, she can go off at me in a heartbeat. My pops, he’s super quiet, super passive, but once he do talk, that means some shit is about to go down.
EMMA: You’ve been compared to Dizzee Rascal. Do you listen to UK hip-hop, ever?
DANNY: Yeah, Dizzee Rascal is a huge influence on what I’m doing. I learnt a lot from him even though he’s younger than me. Boy in da Corner—that music taught me to experiment and be creative even though [Dizzee] was just doing what they were doing in his hood. Being from Detroit, nobody was listening to grime. The way I got into the album was because I was reading Blender magazine, and I just read his story, and it was great. It seemed like it would be tight. I bought his CD, I was blown away. That was a hard time in my life, he was talking about everything I was feeling at the time.
EMMA: I’m glad you like him. I grew up in London, but I feel like most people in America don’t know who he is.
DANNY: Yeah. When I think about it, maybe my pops being a house DJ and being from Detroit, growing up in ghettotech and hearing exotic sounds and dance-oriented things, shit wasn’t too much far from my world. It makes sense to me that a person from Detroit would pick up Dizzee Rascal and get influenced by it. The UK is always ahead of their time in music, and America always follows them five years later.
EMMA: You’re going on the Childish Gambino tour. Can you tell me about that?
DANNY: I’m excited. I guess I start next week, so I’m really relaxing, just chilling, taking downtime and shit.
EMMA: Do you like touring?
DANNY: Yeah, I like making money. [laughs] And I like seeing people that are into my music, it shows me that it don’t matter, you can’t judge a person [based] on how they look, and that’s just how my music is. I’ll be getting all types of crazy fans, from the hoodest dude to the straight-up dude in a business suit. It’s dope. I have a crazy wide-range fan base.
EMMA: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
DANNY: I would try to tell him, “Don’t never get caught up in being trendy, just do whatever you want to do. Don’t ever just do shit to be cool for your friends, the only [people] you should do shit to be cool [for] is for girls! [laughs] If girls like it, then that’s cool. Other than that, don’t worry about nothing else, man, don’t worry about what anybody else says.” There was a long time in my life where I made music that I thought my friends would like, or that I thought would get me a record deal, or what I thought I was supposed to make because that’s what I was seeing in mainstream. I didn’t know myself; I didn’t find myself musically or, in real life. At 30 years old, I’ve found myself and I know what I want to do with my life. And I could’ve probably done that at 20.
EMMA: When did you decide that you were going to pursue rap regardless of what other people said?
DANNY: Just being in jail. Before I got locked up I had mad warrants and shit, so I couldn’t go out and party, I was paranoid of being pulled over. I wasn’t even going out of the house much, I was just chilling, trying to make music, but I had no studio situation, [so] it was just me writing a lot of raps, keeping my pen sharp. I would make beats, but I wasn’t trying to be a beatnik or a producer but I guess it taught me a lot about melodies. Learning how to make beats helped me with my rap.
EMMA: You have great beats.
DANNY: Thanks. See, that’s the thing, I don’t make my own beats. If I made ’em, they’d probably suck. [laughs] But I guess me rapping to my sucky beats, helped me learn how to rap to any beat. Before [I went to jail,] I was going to New York to record in studios. But like I was saying, New York is so trendy and caught up in their shit, to them, I sounded like country—I probably have a little twang on my shit, but they were expecting me to sound like Young Jeezy. I’m like, “I’m from Detroit, we listen to J Dilla and shit, man!”
EMMA: Do you still live in Detroit?
DANNY: I live in Royal Oaks now, which is like 15 minutes out of Detroit. It’s a little suburb. It’s cool.
EMMA: People often lament about the decay of Detroit—the mass exodus of the population over the last couple of decades, the empty houses, city debt, etc. Do you feel sad about what’s happening to the city, or was it sort of like that from the time you were little?
DANNY: To be honest, the last three or four years in my life, I have been kind of blind to it, because I’ve been living in Royal Oaks. You can live [in Detroit], and all the shit that you see on TV and all the bullshit, what people are saying about how fucked up it is, you can feel that, being here, but you can live your life here and have no troubles. It’s just all about being smart—in any city, you don’t go to certain places. Once I started to live my life like that, and I had to in some sense—I’m from my hood, and everybody knows me in my neighborhood, and that’s cool, I can do what I want over there, but in other people’s neighborhoods, I [can’t]. Once I started going crazy with the fashion, [wearing] crazy clothes, I couldn’t go certain places. And I knew that. And I would go to those places, and I would get in a little bit of trouble. Nothing really crazy happened, but it got to the point where I was like, “Why even go through that?” So, stopped going to those places, and I just hang out where I know that the things I want to do and the way I want to look is accepted. And I have no troubles. I love Michigan, to be honest. I don’t think I’d live nowhere else. It’s cheap! If I had real money, I’d go to L.A. That would be just average. Or New York or something. This is Detroit. A little bit of nothing gets you a lot of something.
DANNY BROWN IS CURRENTLY ON THE CHILDISH GAMBINO TOUR AND IS PERFORMING AT THE BEST BUY THEATRE IN NEW YORK CITY TONIGHT. HIS MOST RECENT ALBUM, XXX, IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE NOW.