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 this 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.”