Danny Brown, an unlikely Anglo audiophile
It’s a good time to be Danny Brown. There’s an amazing online buzz about his presence in the UK
and his Twitter game is reaching the heights of Tyler, the Creator’s (albeit with less caps). He’s a streak of individualism in a sea of pretenders, and he knows it.
“Maybe I was British in a past life,” reflects Danny Brown, sat smoking a blunt on a wall in a Cheshire courtyard. It’s a sunny afternoon, and the elderly couple sat on a bench outside the hotel bar are smirking at the hint of weed in the air.
Out of all the US cats, Danny, are you perhaps the most at home in the English countryside, considering your love of British music?
“Yeah, I do feel like that! Every time I come here I say that. Like I lived here in a previous life or sum’n,” he chuckles. “There’s only two places I feel like that. Oakland and London. I don’t know why Oakland, probably for the same reasons, I’m such a fan of they music too. Maybe I listen to they music so much it’s like you can kind of, get the vibe of how people live out there maybe?
I study everything. Whatever was considered to be great… more so I like to study the shit that people didn’t really talk too much about when it came out and then twenty years later it’s a classic album. I like to find those albums, like that. “ What about the reported influence of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust? That guy was a trailblazer too. “Yeah, as far him and what he was doing performance wise, I think I learned something from that. I watched a documentary about it and he was saying he played a lot of shows where people didn’t get it. Once when he started playing for the audience that got him, that’s when shit started working, you know? I felt like I’d done that on my come up, played a lot of gigs and played with a lot of people that was not really my type of shit, but at the end of the day it seasoned me.”
Lessons from the late, great Ziggy, and he’s not the only influence on Brown.
What I learned from Larry David is how to make improv seem like it was written. Like a lot of the songs on this album.
“I just didn’t know what I was doing starting them out, then by the end of it ended up being a concept song. Just writing, let the pen take it where it go, then before you know it you wrote a story when you was just sitting here writing a rap. So I think I just let the pen do the talking instead of me sitting down and saying, ‘I’m gonna write a song about this or that’, y’know? I just sit down and shit just start happening. Almost like it came from another… a higher power or something, I don’t know. It’s the exact same thing (with Larry). He don’t know when he gonna be funny, they create a scenario, the dialogue happens, and that’s pretty much how I wanna make my music. I got a beat but I don’t know what the fuck’s gonna happen. I just start, I don’t sit there and think too hard on it, (and) try to write a script.”
There’s an ever-growing argument that hip-hop is entering a new golden age, but does that mean originality is a necessity?
“Nothing under the sun is new to me. Y’see how people come out, hype ‘em up how this is ‘new’ – and I can always think of someone they remind me of, which is not always a good thing ‘cos people try to do that to me. I wouldn’t be able to act the way I act at 25, the way I act at 35. I know I care about the music more now than I probably did at that age.”
What about Joey Bada$$, he’s around that age and seems to care about the music?
“I feel like he study what he want to study. He’s not about reinventing the wheel, he doing something that’s regional to him. I feel like he makin’ the music he makin’ cos he feel like that’s the type of music he supposed to be makin’. I’m the total opposite of that. I’m from Detroit. I’m not gonna make Detroit music ‘cos I feel that what’s I’m supposed to be doing. But I don’t think we have a Detroit rap – I mean, we have a sound. But you can’t really pinpoint and say how a Detroit rapper sounds. We have a sound, production style, maybe, but as far as rappers everybody kinda different. It’s maybe areas. I’m not from (open mic event) The Hip-Hop Shop, so I can’t rap like Royce da 5’9”. I’m not from the street, Cheddar Boyz crowd, so I can’t rap like them. I’m in the middle of that shit ‘cos I live there, but at the end of the day I was always looking on the outside. Just because someone was from my city didn’t mean I thought they was a great rapper. You know a lot of people just rep for they city, I always knew there are better rappers outside of the city, so I studied them.
I don’t really feel like a team player. Joey Bada$$ is a team player, he wants to bring back that old New York sound and rep it right and get people to follow that. Me, I’m all about progressing.”
I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel I’m trying to do something ain’t nobody did before. I don’t know if I’m doing it but I’m trying.
Is it a difficult thing for you to open up to new producers?
“No, because I think they’re the easier guys to work with. People from other countries, they love to work with American artists. Somebody like Paul White, working with me, I think that’s a good look for him rather than working with someone down the street. It shows that no matter where you at, there’s somebody that’s gonna connect with that sound. For me, Paul White’s beats are not necessarily beats that someone pro’lly should be rapping off of, these beats he making for himself on some artistic shit. That’s what I like about him. I like producers with personality, I don’t want someone making a beat thinking this is what I’m gonna like, ‘I’m gonna make a Danny Brown beat’. Paul White just makes shit that he like. And it’s pro’lly with energy, it’s an energy he puts into those tracks… He pro’lly was upset one day, he made that beat, you feel that energy with him being upset, that makes me upset and I come up with something, it’s like an energy thing more so than a thought.”
In the past you’ve mentioned seeing what you do as documentation, leaving something behind. Have you always been that melancholic?
“I think that come with age. I didn’t think like that in my early twenties. But that’s just growing up and seeing different artists. Somebody like Joy Division. He (Ian Curtis) did that with Closer, that’s what he was doing, and we still listen to that album to this day. It wasn’t necessarily, I think, the music. It was the energy, you could feel the energy with that. I’m a firm believer that you can put energy into music and people that feel that energy, gravitate towards it, it gets them. There’s a lot of songs that I hear, I might not like it, but for some reason it leaves something there for me to return to. Something triggers me to say, ‘Listen to it again’, and eventually I’m gonna like that song. There was a energy that was put in that, and I get that energy every time I hear that song and I get the feeling, more so than the sound or the words.”
XXX, the album that announced Danny Brown to the world, despite being far from your first recorded work, was released as a free download. Was that a big decision?
“That’s what I wanted to do. Its like any other job, you don’t make money until you deserve to. At that time I wasn’t deserving to make money off my music. Now I’ve put the work in, I’ve grinded and paid my dues so I can make money off it. At that point in time, I didn’t do nothin’, there was no reason for you to give me money to listen to my shit, so I had to prove myself to you, to the listeners.
It was a slow burn, but it was supposed to be because I don’t make music that you hear first time and like. Like I said, it was that energy – it might take you three or four listens to get it, and then you like it. It’s on you to return to it. Months and months went by, more people talked about it, and they went back and say ‘I get it now!’ and they liked it. It’s not something you supposed to get (straight off). I don’t wanna make music like that. I don’t want to make music you can understand. The free thing is probably overdone at this point – there’s a new mixtape on the Internet everyday. It becomes oversaturated. So if someone was to put out a good ass product and it was, ‘Yo, I can’t find a link to download this for free? It costs $10? I’m a go buy it!’ Someone can get a lick, being a new artist, if they believe in themselves.”
You seem full of patience, with a perpetual awareness of yourself in the game. Is this something you learned from hanging with Ali Shaheed Muhammad?
“I haven’t talked to him in a long time. He has real strong, Islamic beliefs and shit. I guess the biggest thing he was telling me at that time – I used to, I still do, say a lot of crazy shit that other people wouldn’t say. I don’t have no filter in what I’m saying, and his big deal was always like – ‘you can say whatever you want, it’s just about how you say it, learning ways to say it’.* Even though I never (he throws out a quick chuckle). He was like, ‘I get what you doing, you like a Richard Pryor or some such – but eventually you can’t be just saying ‘bitch suck my dick’’ – but, I still do (he laughs, shaking his head). So I don’t know if I took his advice but I get what he was tryna tell me, you know?”
What are your other influences, in music and closer to home?
“Probably that inner voice in my head, my daughter and my moms. That’s it. [Pause] It all boils down to the music so I gotta go back who I learnt from too. If it wasn’t for Nas, would I be doing this? If it wasn’t for Dizzee Rascal would I be doing this? If I didn’t care about music, I wouldn’t be here. A lot of people just care about money, but you gotta care about the music first.”
Is there still time to chase up that new UK music you love so much?
“Not like I used to, but I still know what going on. Something crack off I’m gonna know that song!”
Anyone who meets you tends to comment that you come off as a true fan of music, is this how you see yourself?
“I think I’m a fan first and I always look at myself out of body, looking at myself what would I think about me? That’s how I make my moves and do the shit I wanna do. It’s me looking on the outside and saying, ‘Alright, as a fan, what I want Danny Brown to do is…’”
Words: James Ernesto Lang
Photos: Jimmy Mould