We spent time with Danny Brown on the cusp of his debut record 'Old,' finding the dark edges to his hedonism.
Danny Brown holds a double-stacked Solo cup of Hennessy on a bumpy golf cart ride to his performance at the Los Angeles leg of the Rock the Bells festival. He bounds out when we reach the stage, declaring he didn’t spill a drop. “Rockstar shit,” he mutters. At 6’3,” with a mess of frizzy hair and jagged, missing front teeth, you can’t help but notice the guy. Other rappers walk with anger or with their chests out like they have something to prove, but Danny swings his long arms and receives daps from everyone he passes with ease.
Before he takes the stage, he’s pacing. When I ask a manager if he’s nervous, the guy assures me he’s not, citing hundreds of shows this year alone, around the world and back again. I ask how he keeps his energy up, and he tells me it’s a good question. Danny sits staring into the audience as his slot approaches and thousands gather around. He sips from his cup, walks out, unfurls his tongue, and the kids lose it.
He jumps from one side of the stage to the other, that untamed hair bouncing along with him. He kicks his legs out and whips his head, and if he played a guitar, he’d be smashing it. The crowd chants along: “What she won’t do / BITCH I WILL.” A chubby white kid screams, “Don’t let me into my zone” as he dives into a mosh pit. After “Blunt After Blunt,” a single from 2011’s XXX, he turns to Skywlkr, his DJ, and rolls his eyes as he sips more Hennessy.
He rips his shirt off and chugs water afterward. Long-sleeved black leather was an impractical choice. In the van back to his trailer, someone mentions the energy of the crowd. “That’s just Danny Brown,” he tells us. “Ain’t no middle of the road Danny Brown fans. You either love him or you hate him. That’s just how it is.”
This is the story of Danny’s career to date: his twenties saw a mixtape series called Detroit State of Mind, released to little fanfare. He flirted with Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit. He went to jail in 2006 for a probation violation, giving him eight months to pen verses. Despite swearing off dealing, he sold weed after his release to fund Hot Soup, the 2008 album that lit a spark under his career. He then went on to release The Hybrid in 2010, his first studio album, then signed to Fool’s Gold Records to release XXX.
It took him eight years of false starts, but XXX was the album that propelled him from a local Detroit rapper to international fame. SPIN ranked it the top hip-hop album of 2011, and Pitchfork said it was better than Watch The Throne. It’s been a dazzling rise, and this year alone, he styled his own fashion spread for GQ, toured nonstop, and signed with the management agency of Eminem and Blink-182.
XXX’s frenetic, Adderall-fueled energy and frequent punchlines are part of what took him there: there is no question about the strength of his lyrics, but songs like “Blunt After Blunt,” the single he’s apparently so tired of, drive crowds wild. Its hook is simple: “I smoke blunt after blunt after blunt.”
That album had its share of stories from Detroit too, a hallmark of Danny’s work—like “Scrap or Die,” about stripping houses for copper just to eat. They were easy to ignore next to the jokes and the sex. But Danny’s done with that. He wants us to know the truth: there are things he saw growing up in Detroit that he can’t unsee. The two people he loves more than anyone, his daughter and mother, are stuck in that hellish poverty of his hometown while he parties around the world. We’re not chanting about blunts anymore. On Old, streaming on Spotify today, he throws these issues front and center, and they’re downright haunting.
The album is named Old because people kept asking for “that old Danny Brown,” pre-XXX. What they received was an exorcism of tortured memories and family guilt. To illustrate the difference: XXX featured an entire song about cunnilinguis. On Old, he raps about seeing a dog perform cunnilingus at the behest of a drug lord. He raps about seeing people get shot point-blank in the head, about seeing, at the age of seven, a man burn off his top lip smoking crack from a stovetop.
“I have nightmares all the time,” he tells me. “Dreams where I’m on the block. It’s 1999, not even a bad day, where someone’s shooting at me or I go to jail. Just a normal day on the block. I’m serving, figuring out how I’m gonna eat, smoke, hustling. Then I wake up and my bed is fucking drenched with sweat, my heart’s racing, I smoke a million blunts to calm down, drink some lean. Terrified. And it’s just like, damn. I’m Danny Brown.”
On “Clean Up,” he relates the family distance fueling his stress, with depictions of binging on pills and hotel room sex while his daughter sends messages saying she misses him. He talks about buying shirts that could feed his nephew for a week, and tells me he can send his mother $20,000 at the drop of a hat, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing if he’s not there. But if he doesn’t personally remove his mother from the hood and buy her a house, she’s not leaving. That’s his goal: to give his entire family the life they deserve. But his family is complicated, as they always are.
“Detroit’s a struggle,” he tells me. “My brother’s a barber, he cuts my hair, he’s a nurse too. My other brother’s where I was in my twenties—smartest kid in the family, went to college, but we sheltered him and he got out wild. He has a son now and he’s figuring his life out. My sister, same thing, had a baby real young. My older sister has seven kids, not my biological sister, but my mom babysat her all the time when her mom was selling drugs, then her mom and dad got killed selling drugs, so my mom took her in. So I have seven nieces and nephews. My oldest niece just had a baby at 14. My oldest nephew at 13 is in jail for a year.”
Do they keep up with his music? “They don’t know shit about my music,” he says, shaking his head. “Ain’t no internet in the hood.” Does he want them to? He hesitates. “I mean, it’s like a—no,” he says. “I don’t care about that.”
He mentions repeatedly on Old that he needs a therapist, that the stress of his fame is spiraling into depression, how nobody understands him. But rap is his therapy, and drugs are his self-medication. He says his intake is moderated, that, “Drugs don’t affect me the way they affect other people.” Both Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane have sought treatment for codeine use this year. It’s an addictive substance. Danny’s memories aren’t going anywhere soon. With how much he’s around it, he knows.
Old, and Danny’s life in general, is underscored by the presence and use of drugs: they were always around him growing up, he sold them throughout his twenties, he now uses them to cope, perform and deal with his past. When I ask if his drug use is a problem, he doesn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, of course,” he says.
Old’s A-side (it is divided like vinyl, a mark of his dedication to tradition and cohesion) is his Illmatic, he tells me, and the B-Side a celebration to that. The comparison is telling. Nas courted mystique at his peak, releasing albums every two years. Illmatic rendered tales of growing up in New York, writing letters to friends in jail and the day-to-day life he strived to escape.
Danny has worked on Old for two years, as selective with its beats as he was with his words. With XXX, he says he would write songs in 15 minutes, but on Old, he spent months. It is his finest and most personal album yet, and will undoubtedly see critical acclaim, but it will divide his fans. He tells me it will be the test of his career’s staying power. “If people don’t like this, it’s over,” he says. “It’s like a prizefighter. Once I get knocked out, it’s a wrap. I’ll get up and fight again, but you’ll know I got knocked out.”
He often cites his father as his earliest influence, introducing him to A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan when he was young. He began rhyming when he began speaking. It’s a gift. And hard work led him here, with the struggle of his twenties fueling his dedication to the craft. He has survived hellish depths of Detroit poverty. Dealing with the aftereffects of it, however, will take a lifetime.
“I believe in God,” he says. “That’s what I pray to when I get in trouble, and I’ve been praying for this album. Every night before I go to sleep, like, please, God, let people like it.”
We’ve been talking for over an hour on a picnic bench outside his trailer. Freddie Gibbs approaches, places a pill of ecstasy in his hand, and Danny washes it down with Hennessy. He’s still shirtless and sweating.
“Drugs have a purpose in life,” he says. “Everything has a purpose.”
I ask what the greatest moment of his life has been, or will be.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “That lets you know how sad of a person I am, because I can’t think of a happiest thing.”
“What about when your mom is set, and you can look back on all that you’ve done?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s tight,” he says. “But that’s the minimum. That’s what I was put on Earth to do.”
He stares off. Skywlkr is smoking the second blunt they’ve shared since we began talking. “I really do not think I’ve experienced a happiest moment in my life,” he tells me. “Ain’t that crazy?”
Tyler Trykowski is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter - @tylertry
Here are some other long things about rap music that will make you think things and feel feelings: "Grand Theft Aubrey: Drake Is Running for President of the Universe;" "Shopping for the Soul of A$AP Ferg;" "Meet Young Dirty Bastard: Son of Ol' Dirty Bastard."