The way Danny Brown raps isn’t identical to the way Danny Brown talks, but in conversation with the Michigan MC, a few similarities pop up: the wheezy hyena chuckles, the dry sense of humor, the easy confidence, the sense that he can murder this interview shit day or night, awake or asleep, braided or permed. Rapping, Brown works in two modes: a parody of a steroid-case bruiser spitting through and a strained, crazed yelp that’s half Eminem, half Ol’ Dirty Bastard, with the former’s ear for intricately structured rhymes and the latter’s willingness to play the ham.
A decade into Brown’s rocky rap career, the mean streets of Detroit are his inspiration; poverty, depravity, and how one fuels the other are as much his grand themes as exhibitionist cunnilingus or dreaming up funny nicknames for strains of marijuana. And if 2010’s The Hybrid, his first high-profile solo mix tape, established Brown’s urban diorama—abject gross-outs, debauched slice-of-life vignettes, thinly veiled PSAs, a brief history of his family’s history with illegal substances—last year’s XXX (Fool’s Gold) exploded it to feature-film dimensions with the no-holds barred hedonism of its first half giving way to a series of heart-scarring sequels and prequels: straw-woman party girls like the ones Brown’s been mounting emerging as broken souls, hard-knock childhood tales, gangs of metal-stripping marauders. XXX (which clocked in at No. 28 on the most recent Pazz & Jop poll) takes root and wraps its branches around the listener, the encyclopedic spiral of referents jibing with the devilishly psychedelic array of daring, wide-earred beats, the apparently endless, compressed strings of marvelous couplets. Brown has more winners in two songs than most rappers manage in an entire album. If you’ve only familiar with the 31-year old’s breast-beating, scene-stealing spots on Das Racist, Mister Muthafuckin’ eXquire, or Mach Five tracks, you haven’t heard the full Danny Brown.
Earlier this month, Brown filled SOTC in on his writing process, his love for Joy Division, and what it means to take “blunts to the face.”
Where are you at right now? What’s happening?
I’m in Michigan. I actually have a show tonight and I’m at sound check, outside smoking a cigarette. It’s a Metro Times blowout fest—they’re kind of like the Village Voice of Detroit—a big event with a lot of artists performing.
What brand are you smoking?
Newports, man. I’m black! The cigarettes my mom smoked.
Was it weird to be a part of XXL‘s 2012 freshman class, to even be asked, after the 2011 you just came off of and the age you’re at?
No. I feel that this was the first year of me being a professional artist. Before, it was me uploading music to The Internet; I wasn’t on a label. I look at it like an accolade, like “rookie of the year.” And, I mean, I was more excited about being on the Fader cover than on XXL.
When you put albums together, do you think in novelistic terms? I ask in part thinking of XXX, which did something most rap albums don’t do—it felt like the first half was a lure, then midway through you pivoted from a lot of gratuitous excess into an examination of root causes/morality tales for the debauchery that came before. It was maybe the cleverest album I’d ever heard in that sense.
For XXX, I wrote the whole thing before I recorded it. I’m not the guy to go to the studio to do random things. XXX, I didn’t have a direction for it [beforehand], it just came as I worked on it. I was a big fan of the Streets’ album, A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and I think that album really influenced the sequencing of XXX.
In a way, it’s like you took the ideas from The Hybrid and sharpened them.
Yeah. In general, I always have this problem of “Where do I take it next?” I just do what I do; I just do me. However it comes out, it comes out. But I was like, “How do I top The Hybrid?” So XXX was like trying to improve on what I was already doing.
At the end of XXX, you rap “I always tell myself ‘it’s gonna get better.'” Has it gotten better?
Yeah; of course. I’m talking to you guys, right? The movie had a happy ending.
Danny Brown, “Radio Song”
One of the XXX tracks I found most interesting was the Paul White-produced “Scrap or Die.”‘ Can you tell me about the genesis of this track? I have a theory about the production—that you’re presenting the scavenging of scrap metal from abandoned buildings like an Nintendo Entertainment System first-person shooter to simultaneously highlight it and sort of turn the tourism aspect of it back on the listener. Am I anywhere near the mark on that?
To be honest, that song, I was just writing about my uncle. I came up with the concept because of the beat; it reminded me of somebody sneaking around, like that N.W.A. song where somebody was trying to break into a house. So I can see where you’re coming from, how you would get that idea.
What did your uncle think? Did he like it?
Oh yeah. He’s cool. He heard XXX before anyone did. He was actually in the “Re-Up” video, sniffing coke and stripping pipes from a house. Art imitating life.
What does taking “blunts to the face” mean? You’ve used that line in a few songs.
It means you’re smoking blunts by yourself; you’re not sharing with anybody. I guess that’s some Detroit slang.
Do you have any interest in being on a major label at this point?
At the end of the day, I’m talking to a lot of people right now, but I’m not stressing that. At this point I haven’t hit the indie ceiling. Everybody has reached out, you know, and I’m humbled by that.
What do you have going on right now, in terms of albums, collaborations, and features?
I don’t really think about collaborations and stuff like that. If it happens, it happens. I mean, I’m writing songs. Right now, I’m just focusing on this tour.
Mach Five feat. Danny Brown, “Molly On My Tongue”
Is there any new music out that you’re excited about?
Chief Keef, a guy out of Chicago, he’s 16 or 17 years old. He’s gonna be the guy who brings gangsta rap back. Gangster is the kids. Us older rappers can say it, and we know the outcomes of the street, but the kids are living it.
A lot of rappers claim to be down with rock and roll; it’s become kind of a thing to be a rapper and do an interview and say something like “I’m down with Coldplay, I love Coldplay” to flash some sort of open-minded bona fides.
People really do that? That’s corny.
Listening to your raps, it’s really apparent that you really know and love rock inside and out, that it’s not an affectation. I love that line from “30”: “I feel like Billy Corgan, playing a church organ/ Covering Too $hort, smoking a Newport.”
[Laughs] That line was like “I’m an old emo Midwestern motherfucker.”
What are some of your favorite rock bands?
I think my favorite, the most amazing shit, would be Joy Division. But I think Korn was one of the first bands I got freaked out about. They had some hip-hop in their sound too, and from them I got into System of a Down and Incubus. But Joy Division is the number one influence for me right now. I could talk for hours about that.
Danny Brown, “DNA”
What’s your writing process like?
I write on my laptop. I write constantly, so when it’s time to record, I have tons of lyrics. There could be a song that I think is dope when I write it. But I come back two weeks later and it’s not so dope, you know what I’m saying? But there could be a song that sucked today but in a month, it’s ill.
Is there any subject you want to work into a lyric, but haven’t been able to yet?
I’m trying to find a place for a rhyme about Michael Jackson throwing his fedora out. I know I’ve got it in my head; it’s just stuck.
How long has it been stuck there?
It’s been about three days. If it’s been stuck that long, I know it’s gonna be good.
Danny Brown plays Santos Party House with World’s Fair tonight.