Bridging the gap between hipster and hood rap without ever compromising his integrity, Danny Brown, the Hybrid of Hip Hop is on the brink of hitting the big time. His hometown, the once thriving city of Detroit and it’s current hardships are a strong influence on his lyrics.
With five mixtapes and two albums under his belt, Danny Brown has built up a diverse fan base over the last six years. He made the decision to release all of his music for free, explaining, “If I’m not being paid to make music, then I shouldn’t be selling music. Producers give me the beats for free; engineers give me studio time for free. I don’t pay to write these raps, so why should I charge people? I want people to hear it more so than I want to profit from it anyway.”
The rapper has had close brushes with mainstream success, most significantly when Roc-A-Fella Records showed interest in him back in 2004. For those that don’t know what happened next, the record label disbanded, leaving Brown with little choice but to move back to Detroit. With his first mixtape, Browntown completed under Roc-A-Fella, he began work on the first in the Detroit State Of Mind mixtape series. Unfortunately the law came knocking and Brown was sentenced to a year in jail. He spent his time wisely, writing rhymes every day to J Dilla’s Donuts, which played on repeat in his head.
On his release, Brown made three records within a year, including his first album, Hot Soup, which was released when he was still sleeping on his grandma’s floor. “I was just getting out of jail so I didn’t have nowhere else to go, I’ve got my own apartment now so I’m climbing up a little bit.” After a two-year rest, Brown came back with his second album, The Hybrid, released in March this year.
“Ain’t shit to do but play target practice on each other out here.”
From an early age Brown knew what he wanted to do in life. “When I was five I would get asked what I wanted to be when I was older, I used to say a rapper and the whole class would laugh.” Eventually becoming embarrassed by his classmates’ reactions, Brown expressed a desire to become a comedian. He took his new career choice seriously, and learnt how to set up jokes for stand up, something that has obviously crossed over into his rapping. He admits that his comedic side is probably his reaction towards anger. “For the most part I’m kind of funny, I like to have fun. I’m a stoner, so I’m too high to be angry.” Brown is a funny guy and his dry humour is present throughout the interview. When asked if he is an angry person, he responds, “Uh, I have emotions like normal human beings.” Even his ad-libs are amusing, in particular his trademark high-pitched laugh.
On some songs, Brown’s voice seems to be filled with anger, but he explains that it is simply due to his desire to express emotion. “I’m just trying to prove that I can make good music. I don’t think I’m angry, maybe hunger’s the right word for it, I just really want people to understand what I’m doing.” The raw, scratchy tones on Greatest Rapper Ever, an example of this hunger, are enough to convince you that the title is true. The same tones can be heard on Re-Up in which he documents a life of crack dealing, in which a former Motown singer became a customer.
Seeing the tragic transformation of the once flourishing city of Detroit has obviously affected those old enough to remember the days of Motown. “We used to walk past Motown every day, the actual recording studio and didn’t feel nothing. In some sense it’s bitter sweet. We made all this good music here, but they took it away from us and it’s never been back again.” Brown explains that the former glory of Motown has been left to crumble. “In the sixties, Detroit was the most thriving economy for black people; it built a lot of shit. When we had the Motown shit popping off, they were buying mansions in the hood, building them from scratch. Forty years later, that mansion is boarded up.” Shockingly, the younger generation cares little about the glamorous past life of their city. “I don’t think a thirteen-year-old would know how big it was. They wouldn’t give a damn.”
Growing up in Detroit has caused the rapper to feel anger towards the situations his peers face. “When you walk out of your house everyday and see the living conditions we have, it wouldn’t makes too many people happy.” Having seen the collapse of the motor industry and the effect it had on lives, issues involving money frustrate him the most. “Why have you got casinos in the brokest city in America? That’s like kicking people when they’re down. Selling people this dream that they can put a dollar on a slot machine and become a millionaire. So you’re trying to take our last?” His own grandmother was personally affected, “Someone like my grandma, who worked her whole life to retire and be able to live good the rest of her life is broke now because of a casino.” On Hot Soup, a track called Succeed features a sample quote that claims six out of ten teenagers are unable to get a job upon leaving school. When asked if that is still the case, Brown responds, “Six out of ten? I would say it’s more like eight out of ten now.”
Changes are taking place in Detroit however, although they may not improve the living conditions of all Detroit natives. A number of big budget Hollywood movies have been shot in the city over the last three years, something that looks set to become a trend. “What they’re gonna do eventually is take Detroit back and regentrify it. All the broke people here are gonna be moved out to a suburb on the outskirts. It’s changing in some sense but it’s not changing for the better, they’re just kicking the broke people out. In a minute, it’s gonna be too expensive to live in Detroit, especially with them shooting all these movies out here. It’s gon’ change.” But for now Brown is making the most of Detroit’s appeal. “I just saw a million dollar movie being shot on my corner, I ate well off them yesterday, thanks to the movie budget. I stole mad sodas! I got soda in my refrigerator thanks to that movie. Good looking SWAT 2.”
His music has brought opportunities to travel around America leaving him with a perspective that is different to his peers. “There’s a lot of people that feel that Detroit is a great city and they love living here and it’s fun but then I’m like, ‘You never been nowhere then. Ain’t shit to do but play target practice on each other out here’.” He goes on to add, “To be honest with you, I don’t think I knew how bad Detroit was until I was an adult. It let me know how bad my city was when I went to a place like New York which they say is bad.” Despite the city’s influence on his music, Brown expresses a desire to escape. “I just wanna get out of Detroit, because me being here, the only possibilities are bad ones.” Elaborating on this point, he explains, “Before this whole situation that’s just come up, I was ready to start back selling weed. I’m not about to start selling weed. Shows weren’t coming like I figured they would and I still gotta pay bills, man.” Though his life is improving through his music, the changes have come through his own hard work. Brown once said in an interview that Obama’s presence in the White House would never change his life and he confirms that he still feels this way, “I’m still sitting in Detroit with the same living conditions I did before. My life ain’t changed, I mean besides me not sleeping on my mom’s floor no more.” With a laugh he reveals the only difference in his life has been linked to sexual appeal, “Interracial has been popping. I wasn’t getting this many white girls before so thanks, shout out to Obama for that.”
By Lily Mercer.
Originally published May 2010.