Photography by Dan Wilton
The final months of 2016 saw Danny Brown perform across Europe and the US for an impressive 60-date tour in support of his latest album, Atrocity Exhibition. On a wet and miserable evening in Brighton, just before his 48th show of the tour, I sat down with the rapper, anticipating wild tales from the tour thus far delivered with zeal and off-the-wall humour. But after two months on the road, and little contact with his family, Danny’s exhausted. When asked if he’s enjoyed the touring experience, he wearily replies, “I mean, it’s work. Work is work”, his speaking voice markedly lower than his famous high-pitched rapping.
“I can't sit here and not be appreciative and humbled,” he continues. “There's a lot of people who wish they could do that type of thing. But at the end of the day, you still got your ups and downs, especially with something strenuous like this. After two months of that, you're like, ‘what the fuck, man?’”
Danny Brown, born Daniel Dewan Sewell, rose to fame following the release of his second studio album, XXX, in 2011 on Brooklyn-based label Fool’s Gold Records. The album received widespread critical acclaim for its gritty beats and hilarious yet prickly lyrics. In 2013, he followed up with Old, which smoothed the rough edges of its predecessor with slick EDM tracks and big name features including Schoolboy Q, A$AP Rocky and Charli XCX.
With a return to more experimental sounds, Atrocity Exhibition is unmistakably the work of Danny Brown, but it wasn’t the sequel people were expecting. “I just wanted to be unpredictable. Once you think I'm going this way, I'm gonna turn on you. I knew people wouldn't expect that, after what I just did. It didn't make any sense. So I take risks, and I like it,” he says, following up with his trademark cartoonish laugh.
Unpredictable he may be, but one consistent factor in Danny’s music is the eclectic production of Paul White. The Scottish producer is credited on Danny’s last three albums, including ten of fifteen tracks on Atrocity Exhibition. “He's progressive, he's experimental,” Danny says of Paul. “It fits my songwriting, ‘cos as progressive and experimental as he is, he's still simple and minimalist at the same time, and that's how I like it.” He continues, “[Paul] produced the majority of the last two albums. I usually just work with him then figure it out later. With this one, it was already figured out. I didn't really need to go to nobody else too much.”
Selecting the right beats for Danny’s vision required him to work closely only with producers he knew personally. “I worked with Alchemist and Black Milk on this album too - people I already have a relationship with. I played them the whole album, and they come with something they think would fit, more so than just sending me a beat. People just trying to send me beats - it will never fit. You wanna be on the album? You gotta come to my house and listen to it.”
Although his music sounds decidedly different from that of his peers, Danny isn’t averse to a little input from his circle of rapper friends. “I know what I am, and I know what I do is not what they do, and vice versa,” he replies when asked how he gets inspired by artists like Old collaborators Schoolboy Q and A$AP Rocky. “Pretty much everybody got up on me with XXX, and they became fans of what I was doing, like Q or Rocky. We all became friends around that time, so they know a ground basis of what I do. They know what's good and what's bad. But sometimes I know there's just some stuff they couldn't understand, because they don't where I'm coming from either.”
“When A$AP Ferg was at my house, I played him ‘Dance in the Water’, and he was like, ‘What the fuck is this?'. That's exactly the reaction I wanted! If you don't like it, I think I got it,” he laughs. “I don't like yes men, and I don't really like lying, so I could play you certain shit and you’ll say, 'I like this shit', and I'm like, 'Why you frontin'?' Like Q, he'll tell me for real, he don't give a fuck. He'll be like, 'That's trash, cuz'. But then he hit me back two months later like, 'You know that one though, that's kinda tight.'”
Having achieved breakout success in his thirties, Danny is often referred to as a ‘late bloomer’ in the media; his age – he’s currently 35 – a mark of ‘maturity’. “I'm immature,” he counters. “I'm still 13 years old. I still do the same shit at 35 that I did when I was 13, and that's because I became a rapper. I always wanted to be a rapper since I can remember, so I never really had a chance to grow up. I didn't have to get a job and worry about the rent money. I only just got a driver's licence this year. I was always like a kid, my whole life. I just stayed in the house and wrote songs.”
“Then I got on the street. That was different, I guess it was just like an experiment,” he says, alluding to his years of drug dealing and incarceration before turning his focus to music in the late 2000s. Would his career, or even his sound, have turned out differently had he achieved this level of success in his twenties? “Hell nah, I wouldn't have been ready. That's why it happened when it happened, because I'd have fucked it up in my 20s. Fact. I would've did something so dumb, so long ago. It wouldn't even been nothing that had to do with the music, it would've been me doing other shit outside of music. It took me so long to get here that I can't get delusional. This is what I wanted to do my entire life, so I take it with a grain of salt, you know? I can't say I thought it would be like this, but I wouldn't have it any other way.”
Producer and rapper KeithCharles, widely known as a former affiliate of Atlanta’s do-it-together label Awful Records, has cemented his spot as one of his generation’s most interesting multidisciplinary artists. His next EP, KEEF, is due this Spring.
What song reminds you the most of your childhood?
“Still Not a Player,” by Big Pun. “I don’t wanna be a player no moreeee.” Yeah. I have this real distinct memory of going to this lady's house, my then-babysitter. She was like an old ass lady. I’d just pull up to her house and it'd be hella lit, she had a blow up pool, everything. I remember one time when that song was playing in the back seat of her car. I just remember that so vividly. Whenever I think about when being a kid was cool and shit, I think of that song.
What was the first physical record you remember buying?
I don't know if this counts because I damn sure ain't had no money to buy it—but I remember being like, “Mom, buy me this.” It was Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, the box set. It came with a VHS tape and I would play the fuck out of that shit. That shit was amazing.
What song reminds you the most of home?
“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” by Bob Marley. “Woke up this morninggg.” Yeah, that was my jam. My mom used to sing that a lot. Shout out Alicia, she really that girl.
What song reminds you of traveling to a specific place?
“‘Vette Pass” by Gucci Mane reminds me of Dothan, Alabama. My first car was a 1991 Buick LeSabre, and my mom got it for me. It was her old car, and I had to drive it back from Dothan to Atlanta.
What is the song that you wish you had written?
Oh my God. I think the answer to this question is the actual telltale sign of an amazing song. Damn. And it's just like, even if I did write it, I don't even know if I could perform it in the way I would want to. It's “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” by Prince. That’s my shit. There is a drum track on there that I've been obsessed with for years now, and I really wish I programmed the drums on that. And I've spent a good amount of time trying to recreate it - I bought a LinnDrum synth emulator to try to reprogram those exact drums.
What is the best song to play at a house party?
“Stomp” by Kirk Franklin. That song is so Black. It's crazy. If you're sending the party up as a DJ, that shit hard. And it's like you can't - as a caveat - you can't just play it at a house party if you not killing the party. But when you really got niggas eating out the palm of your hand, play Kirk Franklin. You can’t play that for white people, though. They're going to be like, what is this? Even if they know, they're not going to start praising Jesus, and that's what you need. You need the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
I thought about this a lot because first off, not that I'm like morbid, but thinking about my funeral, I want to get “I'll Be Back” tatted across my chest and have a shirtless funeral. It’s kind of like those videos that are like, “If you're watching this, then I'm already dead.” Like a pre-recorded message. If I have any assets to give, I'm going to do like, an auction too. Like, “Bro. This is his printer. Do I hear that going for $150, $250?” Do one of those. Anyways. I'm trying to think. “Trial Time” by Mr. Bigg. “I started selling dope back in 1986 / I bought a Cadillac and put them thangs on that bitch / The brains blowed out with the white leather seats / Fienders screaming for that butter cause that other shit is weak.” Yeah, play that shit at my funeral, bro.
Describe one of your favorite songs without actually naming it or the artist who made it.
I don't want to be sexist or misogynistic. Put that in there too because I'm really scared of that. But this song reminds me of what pussy feels like. Pussy separates your existence from consciousness, and this artist got that feeling directly into this song. It's not about it being sexy. It's not a song I would want to have sex to, but when I listen to it... let's say you get on a magical elevator. One day an elevator door pops up out of the middle of nowhere and you get in the elevator and you press “Penthouse.” All right? And you go all the way up, and imagine like, you’re Osmosis Jones. Like you just, a cell, that’s inside of a vagina. That's what that song is.
You're abducted by aliens and when you wake up on the spaceship, they pass you the aux. What is the song that you're playing to convince them not to destroy Earth?
“Dick on Me” by Pollari. It's on SoundCloud. 102,000 plays on “Dick on Me.” That's a certified SoundCloud Classic. But if that’s not on Spotify or Apple Music, I'm trying to think what else aliens would be into. Okay so first off, they got us at gunpoint. Oh man, it can't be nothing chill. They gotta turn up. Yeah, these aliens gotta turn up. I'm gonna say “Birds Take a Bath” by Future. Because I'm like, “All right, don't shoot bro.” Damn. This question is the hardest one. Earth is in my hands. I'm kind of tired of living. I don't know, maybe I might sabotage this. Let's go “Codeine Crazy” by Future. Final answer. “We done went through too much, you hear me? … That ain't for you dawg / That's for them other niggas.” Yeah, we gonna go with “Codeine Crazy.”