Detroit Will Be Better: Danny Brown Takes Us Inside the Magic of the Motor City
Read the heartfelt and extended interview with the Detroit rapper from 'NOISEY Detroit' on VICELAND.
Danny Brown in NOISEY Detroit
We met Danny Brown at a poetry class he was guest teaching near downtown Detroit. He was telling a classroom of high school students about his writing process, which he compared to making a pot roast. You can have McDonalds, scarf it down, and it'll be cool. "But if I sit around and prepare this long roast," he said, "it's going to be real fulfilling, you're going to get all the proteins you need, and it's going to be great on the reheat!" It's been almost three years since Danny dropped an album, and although he's hinted that a new one is complete, he's not in a rush to release it. He has, however, suggested it's going to be a quality roast.
While his music marinates, he's been busy at home in the suburbs of Detroit, raising his daughter and hanging with family in the Linwood area where he grew up. Danny will always be a kid trapped in a gangly adult frame, but he's also grown up and taken on a big brother role in the city. He's pushing his Bruiser Brigade label-mate ZelooperZ, whom I met at a loft party with a tank or two of nitrous and a few rappers trading bars on makeshift stages. That's kind of the joy of Detroit: formerly abandoned buildings have provided ample space to be weird. And to take your time being weird, which is exactly what Danny has always done and is continuing to do.
I talked to him outside his mom's house in Linwood about his hometown for tonight's episode of NOISEY, premiering at 10 PM EST on VICELAND.
Noisey: What’s this neighborhood like?
Danny Brown: Livable. It’s good. Shit. It’s like every neighborhood in Detroit, you know? It was good at one point in time, though, but now it’s all fucked up.
What was it like being a kid in Detroit?
I guess it was like the end of the 80s or early 90s, so there was still a lot of like drug activity. It was still like crack was in full fledge, like people ain’t around this motherfucker smoking. There ain’t crackheads tearing the TV out your house no more. You got to remember, that was the time when it was like that, you know what I‘m saying? It was a lot; it was sketchy. You just walk into the store, anything could happen. Over here, it’s more of tight-knit families. Everybody over here been over here forever. My momma was born in the 60s, so she been over here since the 60s. Right there all the neighbors that was around here was around here, too. Or they family or somebody over there, so this more like a family-oriented neighborhood more so than the east side was. So I could walk to the store over there and I might even know a person, but a motherfucker know that’s [Toya’s] son. You know?
What changed when crack went away?
What changed when crack—I ain’t saying crack really went away. [Laughs.] I mean, I was selling crack in the early 2000s, so you talking about the late 80s, early 90s, so. There wasn’t no change, no change, what you mean? Like I don’t get it.
It was an epidemic in the United States.
Oh, then people just really started smoking crack and shit? I mean, not necessarily smoking crack, but I guess then, for me, on the outside looking in, I guess I always look at it like the whole crack thing started as like a party aspect. People just got caught up into something. People that started doing crack knowing that crack was going to fuck ‘em up. It started out as dumb motherfuckers partying, having a good time, and they were sniffing coke and crack came out and they start doing crack. So then the crack generation happened and boom, boom, and then our whole generation was just raised on say no to drugs. Whatever you do in life, don’t do no fucking crack. I don’t care if you fucking go out and rob banks. I don’t care if you do this, I don’t do that, just don’t do motherfucking crack, or no one is gonna fucking even associate with you, you just gonna be like a piece of shit.
So our whole generation didn’t smoke crack and you got to think the whole weed thing came about. When Dr. Dre The Chronic came out, everything changed. Blunts is in everybody mouth, so. Blunts can be done, everybody don’t have to experiment with no crack because we knew to smoke weed.
Blunts are a lot more harmless.
I’m pretty sure they was smoking weed at the party too. But then crack came on with some new shit, just like the day we got now—today we got Molly, like Molly will come out or syrup. You know, people experimenting, they start doing that new shit and then we see the effects of the new shit, but the weed has stayed true and tested.
I’ve seen a lot of nitrous here, too.
It’s more like a social thing, that’s like a party social thing. I mean, Detroit, we always have that rave party social drug community type shit because you know you get ecstasy and molly and you do that, that’s just party drugs. So we always had that party drug culture here. And that just come from shit. When shit’s so boring and you know you fucked up, you don’t want to do nothing, you know, even if you go to a motherfucking party, it might not even be all that, but shit. Take some molly, do some ecstasy, then you motherfucking think you in Vegas with a motherfucking money falling from the ceiling.
Yeah, a little molly...
They know I’m telling the truth. Your party lit. In the party where is just normal. Your brain, you was at spring break. Everybody put their clothes, your mother be talking you see breath come out there, she smoke when they talk, you know what I’m saying? They call that bitch, but you think I’m gonna entertain you. You sweating and shit. You shaking ass all night, so I think that’s what Detroit, that’s what we got that. Plus with the music, it goes with the drugs—with the techno and fucking ghetto tech. All that shit goes with the music. So it’s a culture plus.
Did you come up listening to techno or ghetto tech?
Yeah. I remember one time, when “There’s Some Hoes in this House” came out, I only had like a 30-second snippet, I’m fucking, you know, you can take the tape and you can like dub on them like you do the loop situation like that. The tape loop? I made that motherfucker like three minutes long. From a nine-second bit, “There’s some hoes in this house!” I made that three minutes. Do-doo-do-do, like that. And I was like in the seventh grade or some shit
Did the hip-hop scene get down with the ghetto tech scene?
No, I think a lot of—see, I’m still young, so you got to remember, I’m not from the like hip-hop shop era and all that stuff. So I think with them, when that was around, it was like they was trying to like be like rebellious against that and that was like our culture and they wanted it to be like New York. They wanted it to be like A Tribe Called Quest and Open Mic and battle rapping and they didn’t really want to respect that you jitting, you was lame. They feel like the hip-hop gotta be, you know, buying DJ Assault mixtapes.
Why did you get down with guys like DJ Assault?
That wasn’t my era. The Hip-Hop Shop and stuff. My era was the DJ Assault and all that shit, because when we went to fucking house parties and shit, motherfucking school dances and shit, that’s the shit we were trying to dance to. We weren’t playing Top 40 radio. When you got in your car and heard a fucking three-way mix, they wasn’t playing fucking Billboard hits, they was playing—and if they did, they sped the shit up to 145 dpm. It was songs that I didn’t even know what they sounded like normal speed. Thought that was the normal speed. Like damn, that shit was slow as hell.
Where do you live now?
I live in Farmington Hills. I live in the suburbs. You should’ve looked at my house, it’s real shit. But they wanted the hood. I only want you to see the hood, but I really want to show the good part of Michigan sometimes, too.
I get that.
I got deers in my backyard. And I got walnut trees growing and shit. Real like outdoorsman type shit like log cabin fireplace always running. Nice and toasty. I got a horse-skin rug. Got a coyote blanket, you know what I‘m saying? I’m in a real, real outdoorsman. Yeah, that’s how I’m living.
Me and my bengals. I got my girl. My moms live with me, too. And my daughter just started school, so she live with me now.
How old is your daughter?
High school, right?
She just started ninth grade. And you know Detroit Public Schools suck, so I had to get her into a great school, so she go to school out where I live at. So it’s probably one of the best things to do for her life. Even though she fucking up the school right now, but I think that’s ‘cause she Danny Brown’s kid and everybody know it. Like imagine me walking in like this fucking teaching shit. I don’t know how to change, so when I go pick her up from school and I want to talk to teachers, I will wear this, and the kids be looking like, what the fuck? That’s her dad? So I think they be treating her a little funny maybe.
What did you think of the poetry class you teach we attended earlier today?
It’s great. I was jealous. When I was coming up, I wish I had something like that. For me, it’s just something that encouraged me being creative with writing. I didn’t have nothing like that. No one told me I was good at. I mean, people tell me I was a good rapper, but I wasn’t encouraged because it wasn’t like people didn’t think it could happen. It’s far-fetched kind of a goal in Detroit. And in Michigan in general. Ain’t like no record companies downtown, you know? We had the Motown and all that, but that was fucking 50 years ago.
It seems like a lot of kids aren’t necessarily encouraged to rap, and they don’t even know that the industry has more to offer than just rap. Like they don’t know that these creative avenues exist.
Yeah, so like I mean, as far as me like, I just didn’t know what I was to do. So it was just a hobby in some instances. If somebody tell you you good at something, it’s like you want to just—I don’t know, it makes you want to do it more. But then if it’s something I really loved a fucking lot. Everybody have they things. And rap music was my thing—that was my escape. It was like, the new tape came out or Source magazine came out, it would be like the world stopped if I didn’t have it. Like I would take my last three dollars to my name and fucking use my bus money and walk home and go buy Source magazine and read it the whole way.
What were you escaping?
Reality in general. Everybody has their way of escaping. If you watch a movie, that’s three hours of escape, you got locked into that story. You play video games, you know, that’s a way of escape. You get locked into the video game, so to me, rap music was my escape from reality in general. I would go to bed, I would play my favorite albums every night when I went to sleep and just listen to them on repeat and I would wake up still there like I start—more so not even I was living it and I still do. That’s what I think is the big difference. I live hip-hop. It’s a lifestyle more so than it’s just me fucking just writing raps. I really live the shit. Everything I do has become a rap.
You were saying at the poetry event earlier today that you even started smoking weed because of hip-hop. How did that happen?
Nas, my favorite rapper, and Nas used to always talk about smoking blunts and drinking Hennessey, you know, and this and that. Everybody around me smoked weed, of course. I tried weed a few times, but I couldn’t handle it. It was when I Am came out. The rollout was so big. I remember the day it came out, I bought me—I never really drank like that—I bought me a pint of Hennessy and I got me some weed and I’m a sit here and I’m gonna listen to it.
And I swear, this shit tasted fucking disgusting when I first tasted Hennessy. I couldn’t believe what the fuck it was. It tasted like ass, you know what I‘m saying? But I drunk it and I smoked and I listened to the album. And then I got high. I mean, I got high. But it was like, I heard the music. I didn’t never hear music like that before. Something clicked like this shit sound like I don’t know, it just did something, it made me rap in my head at the same time while I was listening to the songs and ideas was coming.
Do you think about your influence on kids, like Nas had on you?
No, because like I say, I’m still the kid that was 13 years old and listening to it, so I can’t go against the grain of what it was. I know the music that I liked was the music that was shock value to me and it was crazy. I couldn’t even fathom, hell, you couldn’t even understand what the fuck this guy was talking about. So that’s what intrigued me about it. So at the end of the day, I still want to keep the essence in it because that’s what rap music is. This ain’t fucking folk, this ain’t country, this ain’t jazz, it’s rap. It’s supposed to be abrasive, it’s supposed to be some shit you supposed to not listen to around your fucking mom and your grandma. They don’t supposed to like it. So I want to keep that because now if you don’t look at it, rap is starting to become that way where you can listen to it with your mom or your grandma might fucking like it. But me, I want to keep that element of it to where it’s like no, you don’t supposed to play this in public. This is real bad. It’s a lot of dirty language. That’s what rap music is to me.
It seems like that’s especially true in Detroit. The hip-hop that’s always come out of here is super dark. What do you think it is about the city that creates that sort of music?
I don’t know. I don’t think Big Sean is super dark.
Fair. It seems to be changing.
I guess. The best thing I would say is that when you make music, it’s kind of like a soundtrack to something. So I guess most of those guys, they make music and then they got to put it in their cars and they ride around in Detroit. Goddamn. And they ride around Detroit and they listening to that shit. That’s the soundtrack to the city. Like if you listen to that type of music, if you listen to the music, it go with how this look. We can’t make the palm tree California type shit when you out your window looking at that.
What is the spirit of the city?
Things are changing right in front of my face. I think everybody have hope. That’s what’s happening because we actually see it. Like me, I don’t be here as much, and when I do, like I said I’m in the ‘burbs so I don’t come to the city as often like I used to and I don’t party. So when I do come down and as much as I’m coming out, I always see something different, like that’s a new store or damn, that look nice or that’s just popped up so I can see it changing right in front of my face. From ten years ago to now, the progression that has been going has been coming at a rapid rate the last three years I’ve seen a lot of change as far as scenery-wise downtown. And I guess even the type of people you see even frequent down there. It used to be at any point in time, you could go to a nightclub downtown and start a fight and you could be fighting for 20 minutes. I don’t even think you can fight for three minutes downtown right now. You know ‘cause the police pop up or something.
Why do you think that change is happening now?
Because Detroit is kind of like, I guess we done had—I don’t know if it was like a cool thing, people talk about like the ruin porn and stuff like that. Detroit was always one of those cool spots for that. Even though we have so much culture with the Motown and that’s with the techno and all that, there’s so much culture, there’s so much stuff that we create here. So I think for a long time, we always had the sad things and it was always like, “Please help us. Please Detroit! We’re doing bad here, please help! We’re a big city; we started the automotive industry. If it wasn’t for us, America wouldn’t be what it is! Please look out!” So I think now it’s getting to the point where people are starting to be like, you know what? Detroit shouldn’t be like that. It’s a lot of cities in America that’s doing way better than fucking Detroit that didn’t contribute to America in some way. So lets reach back and look out for Detroit, so I think that’s what’s happening right now.
Some of the people we talked to have been skeptical of some of the changes. It seems like a lot of people come here from outside the city and changing it. Jobs are going to people that are coming in from outside the city. The gentrification of downtown. Are you skeptical of any of the changes that are happening?
Excuse me. Detroit’s been so fucked up for so long, I’m just happy to see it prosper in some type of way and progress. Shit. Motherfucker want to move here, motherfucker want to get a job. Do it. That’s how my family, that’s how I came here you know what I’m saying? My great-granddad was from like Arkansas and shit. He got a job at the factory. I’m here. So that’s the way the world works.
Do you think some of the aspects of Detroit that make it the grittier city are going by the wayside?
I wouldn’t mind that. I don’t care about being known as a gritty city. Who wants to live gritty? I want to live comfortable. So I want people to say Michigan is a comfortable place, because that’s where it is for me. It is what you make it. I always said that I always was like real appreciative of the place where I‘m from because Detroit is the type of city that’s gonna expose whoever you are. If you the type of guy, we gonna find out if you a punk, we gonna find out. Whatever you want to be in life, we gonna find out and just rock like that. So when you come here and you try to be fake, it always gonna end bad for you trying to be something you’re not. So that’s what I learned. That’s what you can see is in my personality, I guess, the way people perceive me in the industry is some sense is that, I’m a person you take it or leave it. That’s just the way it is over here because if it’s not, you’re gonna get exposed for it.
People have talked to me about that authenticity here, and what that means.
I guess that’s rap music in general. We just looking at it on, just certain situations, I mean, if you look at somebody like me. I guess, my whole shit has always been about drugs. My whole family been on drugs, sold drugs, this and that, but what my music’s like now, I make a lot of fucking money now and so now I do a lot of fucking—a lot more drugs. So that’s the downfall of it. That’s my story in that. So the double-edged sword of what you just said like that like it was all good when I was broke. I was making great music and I was happy, you know what I’m saying, but now it’s like I have so much pressure and stressed out now, and where drugs became a fun thing for me, now it’s just a way for me to cope to deal with your job.
Has it ever become a problem for you?
What you mean?
It is a problem. I mean, syrup was the biggest thing, and I quit that.
How bad was it when you were doing syrup?
It was bad as far as when it comes to being productive. But what I do, it’s not a smart thing. To be missing interviews and to be sitting when you on the road because you can’t drink. It’s little things like that, so that was something I just had to stop. That was the hardest thing. All the shit that I do is like I say—it’s for work purposes. You know what I’m saying? Adderall’s for writing. Xanax is sleeping on long flights. But I’m still doing drugs. But that started from working, doing this.
I get it.
It’s getting worse. So you feel like when you want to make it and escape all this and not be a part of that and then you make it and it’s way more full of pleasures and excess now. I don’t even have to buy it. It comes to me free. People just give it to me, so like even worse, you know what I’m saying? So it’s a double-edged sword, like I made all this music about drugs and all this and that and now I’m seeing what happens about that. Art imitates life.
Right. It catches up to you at some point.
If it’s real. I’m just old enough now and I have a lot of responsibilities, so now I know how to manage it. But I’m not saying it’s good. I wish it wasn’t like that.
The gun shit here is crazy to me. I’ve never seen so many guns in my life.
Man, and it’s easy to get see, the gun thing, let me tell you what really just happened when I feel like get your CCW now, you don’t get no license to carry. So what happens with that is that you got a lot of people—the people that’s most likely to get license to carry is the people that don’t have felonies and never really did anything in the street, and stuff like that. So you got people that’s like, I mean, scary people. Soft guys, where they got guns on them, so now it’s no situation by them being so scary and lame about it, they might shoot you and kill you. So you don’t have to worry about the gangsters no more. You got to worry about the average everyday looking citizen now, because a gangster got felonies. He ain’t gonna have no gun on him, but you can see the average-looking guy getting into a road rage incident with him and then he can just snap out and shoot you. You got to treat everybody—that’s the thing about Detroit. And I noticed that about other places. You go to like Europe or London, like people talk to each other crazy, just say anything crazy to them, you’re like, well, bro, you can’t talk like that to nobody. You know? You might die. So we treat everybody as if they got a gun on ‘em. If you live life like that you gonna make it.
I wouldn’t leave my house.
I’m not saying they gonna do something to you. Everybody got the right to be armed and protect theyself. If you respect every human being as if they have that on you and they would kill you in that second, then you would never have a problem with no one.
So you’re cool with everybody being strapped?
I’m not saying I’m cool with it. But because it’s a lot of people just reckless. Drinking. A lot of times people do shit they regret all the time. One argument can turn into a life in jail. So that’s what I’m not saying. My whole shit about having a gun is no, you don’t need a gun on you if you ain’t about to use it. People don’t have a license to kill. They just carry it just to go to Meijer’s. Go to Wal-Mart for no reason and some dumb shit. And next thing you know, fucking shit, they get into it at the motherfucking checkout line or some shit. And they’re shot your coals off in the parking lot, you know what I‘m saying? Shit like that happens because people got guns that they don’t really need to have them. People got guns, like you don’t even got a beef with nobody or nothing. You ain’t got nothing to worry about, no one starting to do nothing to you or nothing, but you got a gun on you.
People see stuff as problems in Detroit, the vacancies, the blight—but that also breeds the scene.
And at the end of the day like I said, it helps, too. I mean, it helped me because I wouldn’t be as good of a rapper I was if I lived in the New York or LA where I had a lot of things to do. So it’s like what do I got to do but stay in the house and figure out a way to entertain myself? And me entertaining myself was to listen to rap music and eventually started me trying to rap and learning how to rap. So I wanted to study. So it gave me a lot of time to just study to perfect my rap.
You had that focus, but how did you end up getting caught up in the stuff that got you in trouble and sent you to jail?
I mean, it’s just Detroit, where you going to school and who you hang around. One thing about me, I was always into clothes and fashion. I wanted to be fly. When you in high school and you fly, who else is got to be fly? Guys are selling drugs and got to just doing, you know, because most of their parents ain’t affording all that stuff and started to do stuff. Eventually I just started hanging out with the wrong crowd. That’s all it was. If it was a crowd—like I say, if it was a situation where I was put together and it was a crowd of people that was into writing and rapping and stuff like that, I probably would’ve gotten into that. I don’t know, though, because like I said, I still wanted to be fly, but now I love that stuff so much I could’ve been a fly nigga in that shit. But I just got caught up in the clothes.
What’s your night out normally?
I’m at home. Like I say, my daughter just started high school, she 14 years old, so right now I don’t party that much anyway, so to me, that is my fun, hanging out with her, go to the movies, going shopping, playing video games with her. Right now my best friend is my daughter, so I’m hanging out with her. I’m that daddy’s little girl. This man right her love you, so you ain’t never got to. I don’t want her around here. Don’t play with shit with my girl, so I’m making sure I’m there.
What is she trying to do? Does she make music?
I don’t know. Right now, she need to be worried about school. She just like every other teenager—want to be on the computer all day, talking on the phone with friends and shit. She really into Panic at the Disco. Her favorite rapper is Macklemore. And I pushed that to the fullest, like please I just don’t want to hear “Fight Night” come out your room. Listening to some nice Macklemore all day, you know. And that’s one of my best friends, too, so when Macklemore coming to D, he got to come to my crib and say what’s up to my daughter ‘cause she love him.
What do you love about Detroit?
What I love about Detroit? I love corned beef. I love the alligator voodoo at Fishbone’s. I’m just talking about food right now.
Do you think the city will ever get back to what it was in the past?
I think the chances are low than other shit. They ain’t never gonna be back to what it was in the 60s, ‘cause I think the 60s were like, we had a thriving industry, thriving automotive industry. People moved to the good jobs, there’s never gonna be back like that, but I will think what’s gonna happen is just like what’s gonna happen with a lot of other cities that’s in the same situation with Michigan, be like you know? Hopefully they’re gonna clear the weed. They gonna let us get the medical marijuana. Same thing that happened in Denver gonna have it in Detroit, we gonna be balling up the weed, we gonna be smoking good. A lot of money gonna go around. There we go, legalize marijuana, Detroit will be better.
Zach Goldman is the host of NOISEY on VICELAND. Follow him on Twitter.