He’s a druggy, he’s crazy, his voice sounds weird, his hair looks funny.
And they miss “the old Danny Brown.”
Well Danny Brown’s got something to say:
As told to Lauren Nostro | Photography by Andrew Cutraro
DANNY BROWN / SKY HIGH 0%
Gravity is a bitch. It works in the obvious, apple-falling-on-Isaac-Newton’s-head way, of course: If you’re a kid riding a bike in the street and you get hit by a car, gravity is the thing that’s slamming your little ass on the hard concrete. Gravity works in less obvious ways, though, too. It can tear down families, and lure kids into the streets. The gravitational pull of life brings people into and out of your circle with a brutal quickness. Sometimes it can make you feel like you’re in a free fall.
It can also keep you grounded, a reminder that the best way to make the world come to you is by staying true to yourself. Danny Brown’s in no danger of falling these days. He’s just completed a world tour and drops his debut album, Old, next week. Coming on the heels of his breakthrough release XXX, Old is the biggest record of Danny Brown’s long-time-coming career in hip-hop—the culmination of an arduous trek through depression, doubt, and despair.
Over the course of a decade making mixtapes in both Detroit and New York, he’s taken his time perfecting a sound—aggressively high-pitched vocals over hypnotic electro beats—unlike anything ever heard in hip-hop. His persona—the voracious sexual appetite, the fond friendship with molly and Adderall—is a part of his art. Yet he never seems to be putting on a show. (Has anybody in rap ever been more comfortable in his own skin?) Danny‘s signature pose—tongue sticking out between a wide gap in his front teeth, conked hair slid over his forehead—has become iconic because it embodies what he’s all about: being himself.
“I’m just a dirty old man, with a pill in my mouth and my dick in my hand,” he says on his recent single, “ODB.” That title—not merely a nod to Danny’s wild-style predecessor Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but also an acronym for Old Danny Brown—works on two levels. First, he’s 32 years old, an elder statesman by rap standards. Second, fans are always telling him they want “the old Danny Brown.”
“When you change, everybody else doesn’t always change with you,” he says with a touch of irritation in his voice. “There’s people that don’t want to hear me do double-time over electronic beats. They want me to rap over J. Dilla beats about selling dope. I haven’t sold drugs in over 10 years. I’m not about to be rapping about that shit no more.”
If the criticism fazes him, it doesn’t show. He’s supporting himself and his loved ones doing what he’s been dreaming about since he was able to talk. Old is a testament to that—a body of work looking back at every step of his life.
Art imitates life, but it works the other way, too. Old is a trip down the rabbit hole of one man’s memories, a mission to quash all the erroneous assumptions about his life. On songs like “Torture,” the album’s most personal moment, Danny describes the terrifying life of an ’80s baby from Detroit who grew up seeing his uncle smoking rocks over the kitchen stove.
“No matter where you’re at in your life, your past can still haunt you and make it hard for you to sleep,” says Danny. “‘Torture’ is about how I can’t sleep at the end of the day because of all the shit I’ve been through. No matter where I’m at, I can still close my eyes and see baseheads.”
So here, in Danny’s own words, is the story of his life. Ready to take a trip down the rabbit hole? As he says on “Kush Coma”:
“Close my eyes, feel like I’m going down in an elevator 90 miles an hour.”
On March 16, 1981, Daniel Dewan Sewell was born in the Linwood neighborhood of Detroit. His parents were teenagers who never got married. His grandmother supported the entire family on the income from her job at Chrysler. Danny was raised with two brothers and two sisters, along with a child named Girly whom his mother adopted.
“As a kid, I was totally sheltered. It was like Little House on the Prairie. I thought everything was all good. I thought my family had money. I remember being the one kid on the block that had more than all the other kids. My dad had me when he was 16 and he gave me all the music that influenced me.
“My mom never had a job either. She was a housewife type. My dad did what he had to do and that’s how she got a little money in her pocket. He was selling dope. My grandmother worked on the assembly line at Chrysler, and took care of the whole family off that job.
“On ‘Torture,’ I rap about seeing my uncle smoke rocks off a stove when I was 7. I was at my grandmom’s house. My whole family, one way or another, had something to do with drugs. Whether they were using them, selling them—everybody in my family had some type of encounter with drugs, prescription or illegal.
“When I was younger everyone would tell me, ‘You can do whatever you want in life, just don’t smoke crack.’ Crack and heroin are two drugs I would never fuck with. I’m black. White people can do certain shit and maintain they life. White people do drugs to party; we do drugs out of depression.”
“My start in rap goes back to my mom reading me Dr. Seuss books. Green Eggs and Ham was probably my favorite. I’m the new Dr. Seuss; I want to take his spot one day. On ‘Wonder Bread,’ I wanted to make a fairy tale. The story is my mom sending me to the store to get some bread and a pop. I rhyme like, ‘Hickory, dickory, doc/The mice went up the clock.’ When I heard the beat, that’s what I thought of. My new album—it’s not necessarily me or the songs or the raps; it’s really about the beats. Who could rap on that beat? Probably not too many people. I want to do shit that you can’t put your finger on.
“When I was in kindergarten, my mom used to send my cousin’s cousin to babysit us. He was maybe 19, and he knew I liked rap so he fucked with me. One day he came to pick me up from school. It was raining like a motherfucker and he was like, ‘You gotta run ’cause it’s raining hard. Plus I just got this new record and I’m trying to bump this shit man.’ We ran home. We went in the basement. He ain’t even cracked the plastic off the record yet. He got a razor blade and took the plastic off. I was looking at the cover, reading the credits—I could nearly read them. It was LL Cool J’s Radio. He threw that shit on and from the first beat, I knew that was what I wanted to be.”
Danny’s famous missing front tooth, now a vital part of his image, was knocked out when he was hit by a car while riding his friend’s bike.
“I chipped my tooth in sixth grade. I was on my homeboy’s bike and he was like, ‘Bring me my bike.’
I just ran into the street without looking both ways.
It was like a ’91 IROC. Two dope boys in the car. I didn’t cry because I thought my arm was broke. My arm was just stuck. It was locked. It wouldn’t move.
“When they got out the car they were like, ‘You all right, man?’ I said, ‘No, I think my arm’s broke.’ They had FILA tracksuits and Kangols. They were like, ‘Where you live at, man?’ They gave my momma some money. They had a bankroll on them. They could’ve easily just left me right there and drove off. I got the front tooth replaced, and then I was playing with my cousin one time and broke it. I broke it, then chipped it again, so I just leave it like that now. Girls love it. I can fit a whole nipple in there.”
At 13, Danny’s home life was changing. His dad was no longer around. Danny dropped out of high school, started having sex, and began selling crack in his neighborhood.
“When I was a teenager I just started to see that my pops wasn’t home as much as he used to be. My mom wasn’t watching me as much. I was eating pussy at 14. It was all about experimenting. I was banging everybody but I wasn’t going around telling nobody. I’d keep the shit to myself. I pretty much banged the whole school, just because I was the only one eating pussy. But I had to hold that secret to the death. It was not cool. If somebody told on me at the time, I probably would have transferred schools.
“I got my high school sweetheart pregnant a few times and she had abortions. We broke up a few times and she got pregnant by somebody else. I felt really bad. Then when she had the baby I just took care of it like it was mine, because the guy that got her pregnant got locked up for murder. Her name is Arianna. She’s around 12 years old now.”
“My parents sheltered me a lot growing up, and didn’t let us out of the house that much. They did whatever they could possibly do to keep me in. I had all the best video game systems. Once I got to the age where I started hanging out in the streets, I would just disappear for weeks.”
“All my homies were selling drugs at that time. In a day I could make $10,000 dealing drugs. I got scared when we started to go out of town. From 19 to 21 I didn’t leave my house without having a gun on me. You know how hard it is to make $10,000 a day? You know what type of shit you have to do? It taught me that $10,000 is not that much money.
“We were being niggas, smoking weed all day, eating at Benihana’s, and all that weirdo shit. A lot of money went into the strip clubs. That’s why I don’t like strip clubs and strippers now because in my teenage years I gave them a lot. Niggas just now getting money are going to make it rain. Niggas was making it rain in the ’90s. The whole ‘make it rain’ thing comes from Atlanta, right? Started from Big Meech, right? He’s a Detroit nigga. Where do you think he learned that from? That was some Detroit shit! We didn’t have nowhere else to spend our money. Detroit is a fucked-up place. It’s not like you could go get a Ferrari or some shit. You could throw $20,000 to $30,000 in the club. All them niggas are mimicking Detroit drug dealers. It’s rap music. Everybody has to have their gimmick and their character, but it’s fake.
“At 18, I was selling dope. At that time it was good. I was supporting my family. But once it got bad, it was all downhill from there.”
At 19, Danny caught his first case for drug distribution and manufacturing, and possession with intent to distribute. He eventually got arrested again for loitering with possession of weed, a violation of his probation. He ran for five years before getting caught, but with warrants out for his arrest, he stopped making money.
“I was in my early 20s, broke as fuck, like ‘Loserville.’ I’m out of school, begging people for cigarettes. I smoke weed so I can’t get no job. My early 20s were the worst years of my life. I’m telling everybody I’m going to be a rapper. They’re looking at me like, ‘Pshhh—whatever.’
“In Detroit we have some of the illest rave scenes. The first time I ever saw molly, it was when ecstasy started to fade out. It was something new. There was this one guy, a drug dealer, a white boy. We called him Stacks. He had these big-ass bags of powder. He would just feed it to the party. He’d be walking around the party with the bag and his credit card and was just giving everybody molly. You would see girls walking up like birds.
“In 2003 when I first started going up to New York, my homie that used to help me put out my projects—like printing up my CDs and shit like that—brought my shit to Def Jam. We ended up meeting this A&R named Travis Cummings from Roc-A-Fella around 2005. He fucked with us. We got a meeting the next day but during the meeting we said some dumb shit. Homie told them we wanted a distribution deal.
“I used to read Blender magazine all the time. I study music, I want to try and figure out why you did what you did. I read an article on Dizzee Rascal and it seemed like something I would get into. I saw his video on MTV2, ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’. They were always talking about grime and garage music and drum and bass when they talked about him. That changed my life. If I didn’t know about Dizzee Rascal I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
Danny avoided jail for years, but eventually his past caught up with him and he had to serve eight months. While doing his time, he wrote rhymes all day long.
“When I was in jail, my job was to help when new prisoners got registered. People would give me cigarettes all the time. Most people that have that job would sell the cigarettes; I just kept them to myself. I wasn’t letting them go. But at the end of the day people fucked with me, too.
“My dad was the only one that came to see me, so that’s where our relationship started. My grandmom ain’t coming to no jail. My grandmom is going to water the grass.
“In jail, it was me writing raps and doing that shit for really no reason. I didn’t have a notebook in jail, I just had random notepads. I didn’t go recording nowhere. I couldn’t do nothing.”
After all that time writing rhymes behind bars, Danny became more focused on his music career. Following his release from jail he began catching the Greyhound bus to New York City on a regular basis. He was working at the same Queens studio as a young Nicki Minaj and forging links with G-Unit. His rap dreams were starting to become a reality.
“I got out of jail and just didn’t take no for an answer. Once I stopped selling drugs I was just fucked up. I would get like $300 and take a Greyhound to New York. It’s 12 hours. I’d leave Detroit on Thursday, record Friday and Saturday, and be back on the Greyhound bus on Sunday.
“I was recording at Fire & Ice studios in Queens. That’s how I met Doughboy from G-Unit. That’s how I met Tony Yayo and did the Hawaiian Snow mixtape. Yayo got cast to be in some movie in Detroit. I showed him the ‘Re-Up’ video and he went crazy. He flew me out to New York. I was Yayo’s homeboy so Yayo took me to 50 Cent. 50 was with the music, he just didn’t fuck with the look. I don’t want that to be coming out wrong, 50’s a good nigga.
“At a certain point, I told myself, ‘Fuck all this New York shit. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I’m just going to make music for myself to listen to. If people don’t think I can rap, maybe one day someone might discover this shit when I’m dead and gone.’ I had got up on Love and Arthur Lee and started listening to cult music. I’d rather be like that than some one-hit wonder anyway.”
“I started recording in Black Milk’s studio in Detroit. We were working on a project and I came up with the song ‘The Hybrid.’ That was the first time I ever took Adderall. That whole voice and everything—that came from Adderall. It was just a new style in my chamber. The first time I took it, I thought I wrote the best rap I ever wrote in my life.
“Adderall is different for me. Molly is to party—you’re having fun. You’re not even thinking about none of your problems. I hate when I see a video on WorldStar of some dude running in the street naked and they’re talking about he’s on molly. Even the Kendrick ‘Death to Molly’ thing, it’s just like, Why? I’m not about to be no drug junkie for molly. I’m tired of defending it at this point. We’re having fun. We’re having a good time. Why are you so mad? I’m not a molly rapper. Molly is just my alter ego; it brings out the person that wants to have fun.”
The success of The Hybrid led to Danny’s deal with Fool’s Gold Records. Danny’s style changed, his hair changed, and he started working on XXX—the mixtape that brought him to the world’s attention.
“Not even Fool’s Gold was trying to sign me. I came at them. I’m not on no crazy major label that’s breathing down my neck. Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s where I want to be at. It was like, ‘Who do I want to sign to?’ It was Fool’s Gold, XL, and labels like that.
“My manager knew people at Fool’s Gold, and then Q-Tip and A-Trak had lunch. A-Trak told Q-Tip he was thinking about signing me and Q-Tip told him to do it. So he called me and signed me up.
“At Fool’s Gold, I just did what I wanted to do. I cut my hair because I was tired of it to be honest. I planned on cutting it for a long time; I just never figured out what to do with it. I didn’t want to go back to having all this hair and then having a fade or some shit and looking like everybody else. I had no maintenance on it. You can tell the person that doesn’t wash their hair for months.
“I wrote all the songs for XXX from January to March 2011. I started recording and was done by August. I think XXX was the first time I was seasoned in making music. It wasn’t a hard process because I’d been doing this a long time.”
At a show in Minnesota last April, a female fan approached Danny while he was performing on stage and began felating him. The incident blew up on Twitter, and Kitty Pryde, who was then on tour with Danny, seized the moment by penning an online story about the incident.
“I gave up on trying to be a dad to Kitty Pryde. I didn’t want her to write that piece. People get their dicks sucked every day, B. It shouldn’t be a big deal. I just felt embarrassed because I wasn’t all the way hard yet. With a little more time she could have got the full power.
“I really don’t care about it. Shit like that happens all the time. It happened at a rap show now. That’s what I hate about rap music right now: We’re supposed to be all gangsta, but soon as some little shit happen we turn into little bitches and gossip all day about it. Rappers, the fans, the journalists—everybody that’s involved with rap music. We act like we so cool and so this and that, but we really just act like high-school girls.
“No other musical genre is like that. As soon as that shit happened niggas is trying to top it! Niggas sucking titties on stage and shit. I don’t pull girls on stage and have them twerk. I don’t have dance competitions in the middle of my shows. I don’t do none of that weird, creepy shit. Everybody mind their own business. We need to mature as a genre for us to go anywhere.”
After the breakthrough that was XXX, Danny set to work on a debut album. He didn't overthink anything, just let his mind wander—and took a little trip down memory lane.
“On Old, I let the pen walk. I would start stuff and let it happen. I didn’t envision anything. Anybody that know me from Detroit, I’ve always been a weirdo to them. I never had no chance to grow up. I stopped going to school when I was 15 years old. I was doing the same shit that I’m doing now. Nothing has changed. Everything I do today I’ve done for 15 years.
“If I wasn’t here, I would be a loser in the hood, smoking a cigarette, trying to figure out how I’m going to get some lean. I probably would’ve had a lean addiction for sure. We would be figuring out how we going to ante up on some lean or find some lean. That would’ve been my everyday mission: getting lean so I could go to sleep at night because I’m a loser.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t live with myself, so I might as well do something to make me pass out.
“I don’t want to grow up; I just don’t want to be a joke. At this point in my life I just want to have fun and party. I put that out so that’s what I get back. People think I always want to be cool, but that’s not the case. I’m a loner. I can have a better time by myself than I can being around a whole lot of people. I have no character—since I’ve been around, I’ve just been me. Everybody has different sides to their personality. Twelve-year-old me is just waiting on Old to come out.
“When I’m 50, I’ll still be doing music. I would be doing whatever I have to do for rap music. That’s my baby and my heart. Like, I don’t know nothing else. Or I’ll be trying to help the next person, and still making albums myself. I want to be the 50-year-old that can rap better than the 20-year-old.”