Apart from the overcrowding and cost of living, subway ads are one of the most depressing things about New York City. But now, next to the usual ads offering escape in vacation destinations and self-realization in a pair of shoes, you’ll find a glimmer of hope in a Uniqlo ad featuring 32-year-old Detroit rapper Danny Brown.
See also: The Many Faces of Danny Brown: His Five Defining Songs
With his tongue sticking out between one-and-a-half missing front teeth and hands flashing devil horns, Brown, positioned next to a cast of forgettable characters, stands out. That’s how he’s achieved success in hip-hop as well.
Though he’s been releasing music since 2003 and was vetted by both G-Unit and Roc-A-Fella, 2011’s XXX, Brown’s first release on Brooklyn label Fools Gold, was his breakout moment. The album is a brutally honest snapshot of an aging rapper struggling to achieve his dream, set against the backdrop of Detroit’s fast-decaying urban landscape.
“The songs that I perform from XXX get the biggest response, and those songs are two years old,” Brown says on the phone from Palm Springs, California, where he is preparing for his performance at Coachella. “I’m starting to see more and more people get up on XXX every day. I guess that’s what’s considered a classic.”
This is more a statement of fact than bragging from a self-involved rapper. Forget hip-hop; XXX is one of the few albums in recent years that’s helped an artist retain relevance in the fickle world of blog hype and buzz cycles that currently controls the music industry. SPIN named it the No. 1 hip-hop album of the year, and in March, Brown was picked up by Goliath Management, who guided the career of another successful Detroit rapper named Eminem.
Brown’s distinct delivery alternates between menacingly gruff and playfully nasal, a signature style that earned him the nickname “The Hybrid.” His drug-fueled rhymes, often over beats from grime and EDM producers, make him one of the only rappers expected to survive the changeover from hip-hop to electronic music as the party soundtrack for America’s youth.
But six years ago, before he began flashing his missing teeth in press photos and became the first rapper with a Hitler Youth haircut, you wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a gangster rap lineup.
Born Daniel Sewell, Brown grew up with two teenage parents and began rapping in kindergarten. His father was a drug dealer and local DJ who introduced his young son to hip-hop and dance music. Though Brown lucked out with two loving parents, he says he was also sheltered, which led him to trouble in his teens.
“We didn’t go outside much,” Brown explains, “until I was able to go outside, and then I’d leave for whole weekends because they couldn’t find me.”
After his parents split up in his late teens, he began selling crack to provide for his family. He would later spent eight months in jail for drug possession.
Hearing Brown talk about his upbringing is like a history lesson on the deterioration of Detroit’s inner city. Though he spent his early years on the west side in the Dexter-Linwood area, in first grade he moved to the east side, which he explains is a much tougher neighborhood.
“The whole vibe and mentality is totally different,” he says. “On the west side, a lot of the parents worked at the Big Three [Ford, GM, and Chrysler]. The neighborhoods were a little better, so it was all about who dressed the best, who had the nicest car, who had the most money in their pocket. Then on the east side, there’s no money circulating, so it’s more about who’s the toughest, who’s shootin’ the most niggas.”
Brown explains that, as he got older, he witnessed the rapid decay of both areas. Auto factories began closing in the mid-’90s, leaving people on the west side desperate for income. They started illegally scrapping copper and aluminum piping, gutting homes in the once-flourishing neighborhood. On the east side, homes were abandoned, and either burned by vandals or torn down by the city.
On tracks like “Fields” and “Scrap or Die” from XXX, Brown describes both phenomena in vivid detail. This all happened within a decade, he says.
“As a kid, it didn’t look that bad,” he reflects. “Now, as a grown man, it looks worse than you could ever imagine.”
In 2003, Brown started a hip-hop group called the Reservoir Dogs with his cousin Dopehead and a friend, Chip$. Though Brown had been attending rap battles and open mics in his teens and performing under “Danny,” he took the name Danny Brown from a retired pimp turned blues musician in the documentary American Pimp. He would later release a series of four acclaimed mixtapes called Detroit State of Mind, with influences ranging from Spice 1 to Eminem to Dizzee Rascal.
After Brown was released from jail in 2007, his taste expanded to indie rock acts like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. He began shopping at thrift stores in an attempt to court “hipster bitches.” The haircut came later, inspired by David Bowie and the idea of adopting a new character.
Brown also started taking Adderall, and says his work improved as a result. He says Adderall, used to treat attention-deficit disorders and commonly used as a study drug by college kids, made him more focused, and he started obsessing over every word. He released The Hybrid and Detroit State of Mind Part 4 in 2010, and came in contact with G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo, with whom he collaborated on a mixtape titled Hawaiian Snow.
Brown was later courted by G-Unit and met with 50 Cent, who rejected him because of his skinny jeans. This didn’t come as a shock.
“I’ve been hearing that ever since I started rapping, that I didn’t look how they wanted me to look, so it wasn’t a big thing,” he says.
Journalists and DJs started taking interest around the same time, and his music eventually got into the hands of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip through bandmate Ali Shaheed, whose manager was also courting Brown. In March 2010, Fools Gold owner DJ A-Trak had lunch with Q-Tip, who recommended signing the buzzed-about rapper. Fools Gold released XXX in 2011 to rave reviews, and OLD, Brown’s second album on the label, will be released in August.
Music journalist Jeff Weiss of our sister paper LA Weekly first picked up on Brown through the Dilla dedication album Jay Stay Paid. “He’s blowing up now because everything is right–the music, the cosigns, humor, the aesthetic,” he says about why it took so long for Brown to pop. “But it’s the honesty that allows him to connect. Most rappers are one step away from forging birth certificates, but Danny was so upfront about his age that he put it in his album title. There’s no gimmick, no pandering toward one crowd.”
Brown agrees. He says that hip-hop has fragmented in recent years due to an expanding audience, which has finally made room for rappers like Macklemore, Mykki Blanco, and himself.
“When I was a kid, there wasn’t a [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based white rapper] Mac Miller, so that kid didn’t have a rapper to listen to, so he listened to Pearl Jam or some shit,” Brown says. “Now if you’re a kid, there’s somebody speaking for you in this music, so you have something to relate to.”
This is all to say that Danny Brown got to where he’s at without compromising, which is rare whenever art and business intersect. He says the last thing he expected was to be modeling for brands like Adidas, Mark McNairy, and Uniqlo, and he isn’t worried about signing with a major label.
“At the end of the day, being on a major would just be me wanting money,” he explains. “As far as what I want to do musically, I feel like I’m already on a good path without them.”
Danny Brown performs with Kitty Pryde at Irving Plaza on May 7. 8 p.m., $17