This interview with Danny Brown was conducted in May 2010 and formed the basis of an article written for my university project Viper Magazine. A lot of interesting information wasn’t relevant to the article so rather than leave it to go to waste, I thought I’d publish the interview in full.
LM. When did you first realise you wanted to make music?
DB. I was like 5 years old. I knew what I wanted to do early.
LM. Is it important for you to include humour in your music?
DB. Yeah, when I was a kid and was asked what I wanted to be when I was older, I used to say a rapper and the whole class would laugh. It got to the point when I’d get embarrassed so I started to say a comedian. I was trying to learn how to set up jokes and I think that came into my rapping. Plus I’m a big fan of stand up comedy, that’s the illest job in the world, to stand on stage with no music and entertain people.
LM. Who’s your favourite stand up?
DB. Richard Pryor hands down. Also Chris Rock, George Carlin, Sam Kinison is a real huge influence on my voice and the way I scream and shit.
LM. What’s the best thing about what you do?
DB. I guess having a job that doesn’t require drug testing. A lot of people think I’m the greatest rapper ever and a lot think I’m the worst. I always try and stay humble about it. As many people that think I’m good, a lot think I suck.
LM. What inspires you most when you’re writing lyrics?
DB. My life and what’s going on in it. Detroit its not the easiest place to grow up. So my life in general and being here are big inspirations.
LM. Which MCs have inspired the most you growing up?
DB. Eminem of course, before him Nas and Wu Tang, At 5 it was LL Cool J, the first record I held was Radio. The UK’s Grime scene changed my outlook on music. In Detroit we have a big Techno scene, a big rave, Dance scene. My pops was a house DJ so I didn’t grow up just listening to Hip Hop or Motown. I got exposed to the Dance scene real early in my life so when I saw what the UK was doing, rapping over Grime tracks, it was like what we were doing here. I was flattered to see someone on the other side of the map get our music and be creative with it too.
LM. You’ve named Dizzee Rascal as inspiration. How did you come across him?
DB. I came across him in Blender then saw a video on MTV, I bought the album and was a big fan. I went back and bought all the Wiley stuff, doing my homework. I started listening to The Streets and then I was Grime crazy for two years straight. Dizzee Rascal is one of my favourite musicians period.
LM. Would you ever consider doing a Grime track?
DB. I was planning on doing a Grime mixtape but I think I’ll hold off on it. The UK is always cutting edge with what they do. Its almost like your faster than America so I’m always checking out your scene.
LM. Detroit has a rich musical history. Does this make it easier to make music there?
DB. No, it makes it harder because everybody makes music. When you talented in Detroit, you don’t really get appreciated because there’s 20 other people doing something too. I get more love from other cities, like I’m talking to you in London, but there are people in my own city that don’t understand what’s going on with me. I think the people out here don’t believe that the music I make can be commercially successful. They’re trying to be carbon copies of what’s going on in commercial Hip Hop today. If I was rapping off young Jeezy beats, I think people would recognise. But my subject matter is no different to what he’s talking about, I just do it differently and encode it in a way that if you’re not from the streets, you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.
LM. Do you think that it’s Detroit’s turn in the limelight?
DB. It’s a possibility but if we’re not making big records like other places were making, then I don’t see it happening. On the West Coast they were charting Billboard Number 1’s, The Chronic was Number 1 for how many weeks? I don’t think our music is that big commercially, it’s way underground now. I’m not saying I don’t have the chance to make that kind of music and do those things because I know I do, but my city isn’t getting behind me and encouraging me.
LM. Do you think that you can achieve mainstream status without losing your underground sound?
DB. I’m not going to change who I am, maybe the sound will change but the lyrical content and subject matter will never change. Regardless of what the beat sounds like, you’re still gonna get that Danny Brown Detroit shit. I’m not gonna be like ‘I’m a backpack guy’ and not make commercial music, I wanna make big hit songs too. I’ve conquered what I needed to on the underground scene.
LM. Who’s your favourite producer?
DB. My all time favourite would have to be the RZA but J Dilla is obviously up there.
LM. Did Wu Tang influence the direction you’ve taken musically?
DB. Growing up listening to Wu Tang you wanted to be Wu Tang! They made big records but they were underground records. A song like C.R.EA.M would never get played on the radio today, but it’ still gets played today. I’m trying to figure out how to do songs like that and get on the radio. I look at Wu Tang as my inspiration; they sell millions of records doing underground Hip Hop. It has to happen again.
LM. What made you release 5 mixtapes and 2 albums for free?
DB. 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 than I want to profit from it. This rap shit is what’s gonna be around after I go, I’m not gonna be able to take money with me. I look at it as getting my clientele up.
LM. What’s Hex Murda really like?
DB. Hex is hilarious. He’s like one of my best friends in life, he taught me a lot.
LM. Where does your interest in fashion come from?
DB. In some sense I was raised to be trendy. Since I was a little kid, my pops would buy us the newest, hottest trends. As I got older, instead of wearing what all the kids thought was hot that year, I was trying to figure out what was gon’ be for hot next year, always trying to do what was next and not what was going on at the time.
LM. What projects are you currently working on?
DB. I don’t wanna leak too much but Tony Yayo has been filming SWAT 2 in Detroit and I’ve been hanging out with him every day. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be meeting with 50 Cent this week. You’re the first person to know, I haven’t even told anyone in Detroit. I met him when I recorded Detroit State of Mind 1-3 in New York. I went to the hotel, played a few joints and before I knew it, Tony Yayo’s my number one fan.
LM. You were in the process of hooking up with Roc-A-Fella before the label disbanded. How did you react when it fell apart?
DB. I was younger so I was a little more excited and expecting a lot more to happen. Right now I’m so burnt out and I’ve been through so many false promises and dreams that I really don’t give a damn what happens, I just wanna make music.
LM. How do you manage to appeal to fans of both hood and hipster Rap?
DB. I’m The Hybrid, you can put me into any genre of music you want to put me in. I can do a song with Rick Ross or K’Naan, I can do a song with Wale or Gucci Mane, I listen to all different types of Hip Hop. I was a skater kid and started to look at Hip Hop like skating, where you see someone do a trick, you wanna learn how to do that too. In Hip Hop they call it biting, but it’s just like skateboarding. You see someone do a kick flip, you wanna do a kick flip, but yours won’t look like homeboy’s who just invented it, it’s gon’ look a little different cos you doing it. I took shit from my favourite artists and I mixed it up in a melting pot until it became my own shit. I was never one of those guys that hated on the other side of Hip Hop, like a Jay Electronica fan right now would probably shit on a Jeezy fan. Like, ‘I listen to Hip Hop’ and vice versa, it’s segregation in Hip Hop.
LM. It’s like snobbery.
DB. Yeah, the Hip Hop guys think they can rap better and the Rap guys think they got more money, so it’s this big divide. I’m just trying to be in the middle of that. I’ll rap better than whoever I gotta rap better than and make more money than whoever I gotta get more money than.
LM. Do you think that being influenced by the West Coast gave you a more unique sound than your peers in Detroit?
DB. Maybe you’re right, I never thought of it like that. I didn’t start listening to East Coast rap until Wu Tang and Nas. From the time I was buying tapes on my own, I was buying Eazy-E and Ice-T. It was more entertaining to me at that time. Listening to KRS 1 or Gang Starr, it was just rapping. Then I listened to Ice-T and he was talking about fucking bitches or selling dope, it was so far-fetched from my reality as a child. Hearing someone talk about two turntables and a microphone when I was a kid, I didn’t give a shit.
LM. Most of the West coast artists weren’t that great at rapping, it was the lifestyle they represented.
DB. Yeah. Now you got down South trying to be what the West was and the Midwest is slowly becoming what the East Coast once was. But the Midwest is so diverse and big, you can’t define the Midwest sound like you can the East Coast sound because Chicago doesn’t sound like Detroit, Detroit doesn’t sound like Indiana, Ohio doesn’t sound like Kansas City.
LM. Detroit was destroyed by the collapse of the motor industry. How has this affected your life?
DB. There’s just not any money generated out here, we’re all broke at the end of the day. Why have you got casinos in the brokest city in America? That’s like kicking people when they’re down, because your 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.
LM. How old were you when you started to see the bad effects happening?
DB. I didn’t know 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. In the sixties this was the most thriving economy for black people, Motown was popping off and they were buying mansions in the hood. Forty years later that mansion is boarded up in the middle of the hood. I don’t think a thirteen-year-old kid would give a damn about Motown.
LM. That’s sad, I was raised on Motown.
DB. We were too, but the kids coming up didn’t know shit about that. The Motown museum is right around the corner from the neighbourhood I grew up in. We used to pass the actual recording studio every day and didn’t feel nothing because in some sense it’s bittersweet. We made all this good music here, but they took it away from us and it’s never been back again. Even with Eminem, as much as I’m a fan, there ain’t a big presence walking around Detroit.
LM. For my generation, if you don’t know about Motown, all we’ve seen of Detroit is 8 Mile.
DB. I love 8 Mile for the scenes in it, if you’ve never been to Detroit, watch it. Not for the film and the script, but the scenes. That really is how the real Detroit looks. I don’t know about the movie and the actors but the actual environment.
LM. What makes you angry about the city?
DB. A lot of Detroit is closed-minded, they ain’t been nowhere, all they’ve seen is Detroit. I’ve been privileged to be able to travel and be in other cities. There’s a lot of people that feel that Detroit is a great city and they love living here but then I’m like ‘My n****, you never been nowhere then’. Ain’t shit to do but play target practice on each other out here.
LM. You said in an interview that Obama becoming president would never change your life. Do you still feel the same way?
DB. I’m still sitting in Detroit with the same living conditions I did before. The only difference is that I’m able to support myself now through music. When I first put out Hot Soup, I was living on my Grandma’s floor in an overcrowded house. 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. Detroit is so fucked up; it’s the same old shit. Before this whole situation that’s just come up, I was ready to start back selling weed. Detroit’s pretty segregated; I’ve never been around a lot of different races. Since Obama became president interracial has been popping. I wasn’t getting this many white girls before so thanks, shout out to Obama for that.
LM. Can it be bittersweet when fans worldwide contact you but your situation doesn’t change?
DB. Nah, that’s the illest shit in the world! For a person that has no situation to be able to record something and fans all over the world listen to it, that’s real shit. There wasn’t a label gimmicking you to like this shit or a marketing plan, you discovered this music organically and you liked it. That’s real Hip Hop to me and that’s what it’s about, that’s what I do this shit for.
LM. How long have you been working on all your music?
DB. When I first had the Roc-A-Fella situation and did Browntown, that was 2004. I made Detroit State of Mind 1 in 2006, then I got locked up, then I made DSOM 2 and 3 and Hot Soup all in one year in 2008. I chilled for two years then made DSOM 4 and The Hybrid in 2010. It’s been a long road of recording and making music for free. It’s about time I got paid for it.
LM. You must have a crazy work rate to make three albums in one year?
DB. I’m not one of those guys that writes raps constantly, like the perception of Lil Wayne. I rap about what’s going on around me so I have to take breaks to live life so I have something to write about.
LM. Any plans to come to London?
DB. I’d love to come to London, that’s my dream city. Like Jack White and Madonna the way they just moved from Detroit to London, I’m trying be the first rap guy to do it. I’ve been a fan of y’all scene and what y’all been doing. It’s probably how you feel about Detroit, the way you’ve been following the music and you wanna know what it’s really like. I’ve been listening to Dizzee and them since ’03 and really wanna see what inspired the music. When I first listened to Illmatic as a teenager, when I closed my eyes it put me in the middle of Queensbridge projects. I didn’t get that again ‘til 2003 when I heard Boy In Da Corner and it put me smack bang in the middle of London. I don’t know if you feel it, but when I made Hot Soup and The Hybrid, it was to put people in the middle of Detroit. I think the UK are bigger fans of Detroit Hip Hop than Detroit is, which is crazy to me. Of course J Dilla had a lot to do with that, but I find it crazy that a whole country on the other side of the world appreciate this music more than it’s own city.
LM. When did you become aware of Detroit’s Hip Hop scene?
DB. As a kid that was backpack nerdy rap to me. I was 15 and selling rocks; it was the same reason I didn’t get into early 90s East coast Hip Hop, they was rapping about shit that I wasn’t into. They was rapping about rapping and I was in the streets so I wanted to hear some street shit. I didn’t really start appreciating J Dilla and Slum Village til’ about 2006 or 2007. I was into Grime before I was even into Detroit Hip Hop. I’m not gonna lie about it and be a poser. I’m not gonna front like I was listening to Fantastic on tape when it first came out, I wasn’t. It was over my head because I was young and my ears weren’t mature enough for that music. Once I got old enough, I got it I dived head first into Detroit Hip Hop and was proud of it. I wanted to be on the front lines and rep for it but I learnt that Detroit Hip Hop don’t rep for you. I’m glad that London is fucking with me, but I’m tryna get around the corner to fuck with me too.
LM. You’ve gotta stay true to who you are.
DB. I thought Dizzee Rascal did it well because he went straight commercial, some people stick their toe in the water and then jump back and people are like, ‘N**** you just did that weak ass party anthem, what the fuck was that shit?’ Dizzee Rascal did it and it worked. That’s why I respect him so much. I like Tongue N Cheek better than Maths & English. Boy In Da Corner is a classic, that’s his first album so it took a lifetime to make but I felt that to turn around and do a record like Showtime showed how good he was. Showtime is gangsta as fuck, like Graftin’. That shit like is like, ‘Wow’.
LM. Graftin’ is London to me.
DB. You see? I felt that vibe from that song. Because a lot of the shit he’s talking about goes on in Detroit too. We’re worlds apart, but obviously Detroit and London are on the same wavelength, our ears are tuned into the same shit, even with our love for Dance music. It’s crazy to me that you rock trainers and shit too, y’all don’t give a fuck what America’s doing, y’all gon rock your Nike trainers and Adidas track jackets and keep it London. I really respect y’all for that because a lot of people are trying to be just like America. I remember when Dizzee Rascal was doing a lot of press and I’d see him rocking Levi’s and I was like ‘Damn that’s kinda cool n***”s wearing Levi’s out there?’ This is in 03, so I started wearing Levi’s. Now it’s 2010, the whole city wearing Levi’s. Even in New York, now the whole of the US is wearing Levi’s.
LM. You don’t conform to the hood style of most rappers.
DB. The thing with hood style is that, you mean to tell me that I can be the pussiest n**** in the world and I can put this outfit on and that makes me gangsta? That don’t make sense to me. I don’t care what a person wears, you see me in my patterned skinny jeans and my 10 Deep shit, you think I’m pussy cus I’m not rocking a certain uniform, then you gon get your head blew off. It’s gon’ fuck your whole world up. Don’t get it twisted. I love dressing the way I dress now, because it seems like I weed out the weird ones. Any n**** that don’t wanna fuck with me because of the way I dress, you ain’t a motherfucker that I wanna fuck with anyway. I don’t wanna be caught in a uniform looking like The Matrix. It’s just a bunch of Agent Smith’s and nobody know how to be a Neo. You gotta be yourself out here.