Thanks go to Bonafide Magazine Assistant Editor Lev Harris for this great interview. Check it out below!
There is nothing remotely cryptic about Danny Brown. Rarely seen without a big goofy grin plastered on his face and rarely heard without his trademark cackle, Brown proudly lays all his cards on the table, leaving little to interpretation. Divisive, yes, marmite, definitely, but does he care? Not a chance.
His candour is just as refreshing in an age of bland interviewees as it is likely to stir up headlines and controversy. A recent ‘meltdown’ on Twitter is testament to that. But with hip-hop either preoccupied with its glamorization of the high life or violence, shouldn’t we be thankful that we have Brown who, for better or worse, injects a bit of harmless fun into a genre that is known for all too readily slipping into its own tired clichés?
You seem to have a special connection with the UK, including Rustie, Paul White and Darq E Freaker on Old. Is there a specific reason for that?
I don’t even think it’s me, I think it’s Detroit in general. The love of techno music, I feel like a person like Juan Atkins; he’s probably way bigger here (London) than he was at home. Even with J Dilla it’s the same thing. That was like a pipedream for us, at one point in time it was all I wanted. If I could just sign to an indie label and maybe tour Europe then that would be cool. That was my dream at first.
So Atkins and Dilla weren’t a big deal back home?
People knew of them but they weren’t a big deal. Even with me. I’m not a big deal at home. They were coming to Europe, that’s where people were listening to the music at. Slum Village you know, and Black Milk. He came over here and toured like crazy.
What is it about London specifically? You recently tweeted that it’s your favourite place in the world.
It’s the place that influenced the most musically. If it wasn’t for the grime stuff that was coming out in 2002 then I for sure wouldn’t make the type of music I make now.
You’ve said how Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’ changed your life.
I wouldn’t say the actual song but that was the introduction. I got up on Dizzee Rascal reading Blender magazine and I was just captivated by the article, it was a great article ya know? And he was getting rave reviews for the album but in Detroit it was a question of where the fuck was I gonna find that album? They ended up having it at like a Best Buy. I remember seeing the video on MTV2 and I was like ‘ahh that’s tight!’ But you buy the album and that song is the sore thumb. He didn’t need that song or ‘Just A Rascal’, those are him trying to be the American crossover type. Those two songs don’t have anything to do with the album. But the other stuff is what got me into it.
Did you think about getting Dizzee on Old? You have Scrufizzer on it.
That’s why Scrufizzer’s there. It was supposed to be Dizzee but he wanted to give a look to an up and coming guy. You can do nothing but respect someone with that mentality. Of course we’ll probably end up doing music one day, but he’s in a different place right now, musically. We did a song before and it was hard as fuck and he was just like ‘hmmm I just don’t wanna…’ you know?
Right now, whatever it is with him, I look at it like this, whatever you put into music, you get back. And he’s one of those people who realized that, so he’s putting out things that he wants back. We wanna hear him talk that grime hoody shit, but that ain’t the life he’s living now. He’s riding Ferrari’s n shit, hanging out in LA. He’s just talking about having fun, live life and relax. That’s what I get from Dizzee Rascal now. He ain’t the boy in the corner no more!
He’s an interesting case because he’s the only grime artist who’s achieved proper mainstream success, but a lot of hip-hop over in America has become quite chart-friendly. What do you make of that?
I don’t know if that’s true. I mean you’ve got people who cater to the mainstream but they don’t necessarily make it. The label might push it on the radio and this and that, but it doesn’t always translate well. Most of the time it’s some hood-ass song that’s just some gangster shit that doesn’t even need to be played on the radio but it ends up getting a buzz so crazy that they have to play it on the radio. Like Gucci Mane for example, he got so strong in the streets that the basically had to start playing him on the radio.
Do you think it removes from what the song was originally intended for if it’s played on daytime radio?
I don’t think it loses anything; you as an artist, people playing something doesn’t change what you are. If he’s street talking some street shit, just cos some motherfuckers playing it around doesn’t mean he isn’t street anymore! Okay Rick Ross can make a song that’s radio-friendly, and he may get his burn, but he won’t get his burn like the street shit he made. When a million cuss words are blanked, you can’t even listen to your song properly on the radio! I don’t look at it like that’s the street going to the mainstream, I think the streets is mainstream right now.
Would you be happy for Old to be played on the radio?
That wasn’t my intention when I made it. People are happy to have one song that they can get played and then they hurry up and finish their project, and that’s why you get all these albums that are so copy and paste. I make projects. I don’t think about making one hit song, everything I make is contributed to a full body of work. If one song sticks out, then it is what it is, but me making that song was because of everything else I was doing prior to that song.
Going back to Detroit, to what extent did the house and techno scenes have an impact on your formative musical tastes?
It gave me a more open mind. Everybody listened to house and techno, that’s what we danced to. When you went to clubs or parties, you didn’t hear any top 40 radio or the hot song that was out, we put on DJ Assault mixtapes and we rocked out to that. We were a lot more ourselves at that time. It’s kind of lost now. But now it’s starting to get kind of cool in the sense that the kids are starting to realize that now. So now they’re starting to try and do it now, you have kids trying to make ghettotech beats, playing Chicago juke, kids are coming and they’re jitting, it’s tight, they’re wiling out. There’s nothing like that. They’re starting the scene up again. I actually just missed a juke night, I would’ve gone but I was leaving the next day, I try to chill at home as much as I can but I’m glad they’re starting it again because nothing but positivity can come out of that.
Jeff Mills and Carl Craig have said how their techno was a reaction to their surroundings in Detroit - would you say that your music does the same thing?
The only thing my surroundings did was made me patient. Being in Detroit, you didn’t even want to go outside. You were always isolated in a sense. That gave me the chance to work on music a lot, craft and hone my skills. At that point, someone like at Juan Atkins, him probably being trapped in a house on a cold winter day is how he created ghettotech. I think a lot of stuff happening to us is coming out of boredom; we have nothing else to do! We entertain ourselves by making music.
Rappers like Killer Mike have been open about their disdain towards Obama - has your opinion on him changed in light of what’s happened to your hometown?
I’ll keep it one hunna with you, I just watch cartoons. I have no idea what’s going on in politics and in that other world. I‘m 33 years old but I’m still thirteen. I don’t give a fuck about Obama. I’m a rapper, I don’t have any say in that shit. I don’t care about it. Keep the drug laws, that’s all I care about. As far as politics goes, that shit is out of my hands. The only change I’ve seen in Detroit is things get worse.
Is watching cartoons what you do in your downtime?
When I’m sitting in my house at home, I’m watching cartoons, playing video games or listening to music or trying to work on music. The same things I did at sixteen years old, I still do now. I haven’t changed because of rap music. I always knew I was going to be a rapper, I always wanted to be a rapper. I had no care about going to college or getting a regular job or trying to do anything, so I don’t think I ever had the chance to grow up! I never grew up. I’m like Tom Hanks in Big! I’m a thirteen year old in a 30-year-old body.
I’m intrigued that you said in the past that you see interviews as a sort of therapy, a chance to talk about things – is that still the case? You do a lot of interviews these days.
It depends on the connection with the person. The first cut is the deepest (laughs).
Does music serve the same purpose for you?
I wouldn’t say therapeutic; I just write what I feel from my heart. But there are certain instances when I can write those kinds of songs, and I could be with someone from my family or one of my homies. I could be having a good time and just kicking it, and one of those emo songs come on. I can just see the whole vibe of people change. I’m not here to bum people out; I don’t want to make music to make people feel sad. With my family, they know what I go through so they can hear it and take it a different way than someone who doesn’t know who the hell I am and they’re just hearing one of my songs.
The names of your two albums are open concessions about your age – what is it in particular that preoccupies you so much about it?
Old has nothing to do with my age. That was a double entendre. Whereas with XXX was about my age, Old is a metaphor in the sense that I’m talking about all my past and all the old shit, and doing music back to my old style. Also for me, I think this album will never get old.
On ‘Thirty’ and ‘Clean Up’, you say that you’re feeling really stressed. The way you expressed it, it seemed as though you’re consumed by it and you can’t get rid of it.
How could I escape that? I started taking drugs and then that becomes an even bigger problem than what I started with. That’s just something I had to deal with growing up and dealing with my life. Everybody’s depressed, everybody’s stressed out at some point of time in their life. At the end of the day, I’m at the best point of my life, I’ve been through way more fucked up shit than what I’m going through now, so I really don’t have anything to be stressed about.
You’ve said how you don’t want to grow up but also that you think rap music needs to mature. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?
Like the Lost Boys. I wouldn’t say mature in the sense that you can’t tell a positive without telling a negative. And vice versa. I don’t want to hear a rapper just sit there and tell me about how much dope they sell, how many girls they fuck, how much money they make and how they’re never going to jail. Something bad has to happen, and I feel like when I was growing up, and all the rappers who were like that, they told you the pros and cons, almost to the point that they scared you from living that lifestyle. If you go back and listen to Scarface or Geto Boys, they’re telling you what it is out there, not glorifying it.
Whereas rappers nowadays they make it seem as though it’s fun, and to be completely honest, nobody sells drugs anymore! That’s just old. There’s no new crack smokers in America, no one’s going to pick up crack tomorrow and go ‘I wanna try crack’, and with heroin you get too much time (in prison) for selling that shit so no one sells it. You can’t really sell weed because you have a dispensary popping up every time you look up, only drug now you’ve got left to sell now is syrup and it’s so hard to sell that shit. So it’s almost like they’ve taken selling drugs from the community in some sense. You have to do other shit to get money. There’s no use even talking about selling drugs at this point. That shit is a wrap, unless you own a dispensary. It’s not like the 80s no more! We cleaned that up in the 90s and 2000s. You could sell molly but people only do that on the weekends. So that’s like a slow week and you could have a boom on the weekend. People want to make money every day, every hour. That’s what crack did. Someone spent some money, smoked the crack then came right back!
So how can you justify rapping about similar subjects but also try and progress hip-hop as a genre?
I do it over different soundscapes, trying to push the boundaries of what you can rap to. I like rapping on things that I think no one else would rap over. You hear a beat and know others wouldn’t be able to work a flow to that shit. We’re on the highest level of beats. You can hear some beats and think ‘that’s an easy beat, I could rap over that in my sleep!’ but I want a beat that will challenge me as a rapper. That’s why I do a lot with Paul White, he has that psychedelic mentality of producing.
Are there any American producers working a similar vibe at the moment?
Not so much, they try but it’s not as good as these guys out here. They’re late on it, trying to do that shit.
What about British guys, are there any you have your eye on?
Kahn and Neek. When I get my time off, I OD and do my research. Skepta was actually telling me about a grime night over here. I’ve never been to a grime party ever in my life. I have to!
Have you reached out to Kahn and Neek yet?
I don’t know them, I’ve just been listening to their mixes on Soundcloud, this is my first time ever speaking of them in public.
How do you see yourself and your music in relation to these younger artists like Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$?
Like an OG! But if you don’t look at me like that then I can’t be like that. I’m here to teach you the right way to go. SD from Chief Keef’s crew, he always hit me up and wants to talk and ask questions, I think he probably looks at me like a big homie.