Danny Swain—or Danny! to most of us—has watched his career bounce around considerably since dropping his true-to-life debut album, The College Kicked-Out, in 2004. Since then, the tack-sharp rapper/producer has experienced some huge ups and downs.
Even though he had planned to call it a day following the release of 2006’s widely acclaimed Charm, the album made the shortlist for the ’07 Grammy Awards and landed him a deal with Definitive Jux. But before Swain could release a full-length project, the label went on hiatus in early 2010, leaving him wondering what to do next.
All these trials and tribulations would lead to the aptly titled Where Is Danny?, a Madvillain-inspired album that would, again, bring loads of praise Swain’s way. But by the time it saw a proper release, the album had been bootlegged to death online and he ran into issues with the record’s original co-producer.
As that beef cooled, Where Is Danny? got the second chance it deserved when Interscope released the album digitally May 24 with completely reworked production and arrangements. Everything seemed to be going Swain’s way at that point as he readied a follow-up, Payback.
Judging by its title you might assume the new album is a middle finger-of-sorts to the industry that's caused him so many headaches. But instead of throwing an angst-fueled musical Molotov cocktail , Swain dipped into his resources and pulled off an epic album that finds him collaborating with everyone from Janelle Monae and Jim Jones to Tyler, the Creator and Bruno Mars.
With those huge names in tow, you would imagine nothing but loads of hype and interest, right? Wrong. As he tells it, publications have only started catching on after seeing a tweet from the Roots’ Questlove, who learned that Swain was in fact Jay-Z’s new favorite rapper. What exactly this means for the college kicked-out kid remains to be seen, but it looks like the right ears have finally heard Swain’s work.
Written By Andrew Martin (@andrew_j_martin)
What's the concept of Payback? Getting back at the industry for screwing you over?
Whoa! That is a huge misconception, and I'm glad you asked me so that I can clear it up. I definitely don't feel as if the industry "screwed me over." As much as I may gripe, I don't believe anyone's out to get me or intentionally making things hard for Danny Swain. I do, however, think that the "rules" to the "game" are extremely jacked-up nowadays for everyone.
I've watched countless artists release stellar albums, put on incredible live shows—you know, just be dope overall. But because they weren't releasing twenty songs a week on blogs, or weren't being courted by some big name artist, they weren't able to get the recognition they earned. Or because they didn't collaborate with Rapper X and Producer Z, their song can't get any love from the blogs or radio.
Rappers emerge from nowhere with a modest budget, inflate their YouTube views and all of a sudden they're overnight stars. Hell, I got TWO major co-signs, one from the biggest rapper in the universe, and people still don't give a damn. They'd rather report about rappers being pelted with lemons as fucking news.
This is the state of the industry as we know it but it's one of those hush-hush things that people are aware of, and won't ever speak about. It disillusions a lot of well-meaning artists, myself included, and makes efforts to succeed in music seem futile. Plus a few assholes here and there will say "Oh he mad, don't nobody owe him nothing" when that's not even the statement I'm trying to make, that I'm owed something or whatever.
Hell, I got TWO major co-signs, one from the biggest rapper in the universe, and people still don't give a damn. They'd rather report about rappers being pelted with lemons as news.
So what I decided to do, right after Where Is Danny? was re-released with the production re-done by me, was devise a plan to expose all of these flaws by way of a new album.
The concept of Payback, therefore, is to play by the "rules" in order to prove a point and exploit the way the hip-hop industry operates. I talk to Lil B all the time, it's no different than what he does with his music.
If this is what it takes to achieve success as an artist, to get knob-slobbed by the Pitchforks and the Rolling Stones or whatever, then I decided I'd do it. It goes against everything I believe in and stand for, but if the end result is making a mockery of the state of the rap game and the people who are dumb enough to help keep it running that way, then so be it.
The concept behind the album and the overall inner battle with my moral conscience was fused together to give Payback its storyline: a criminal who did a lot of bad deeds in the name of good now facing the consequences. I risked professional relationships, my reputation...like, so much stuff just to make a bold artistic statement.
Underhanded shit goes on in the industry on an everyday basis, so I'm not trippin' too much off of having to play by the "rules," but no one has ever been able to pull off what I pulled off with Payback. And with the Questo/Jay shout-out and other behind-the-scenes ventures that have developed in the past few weeks, it looks as if sticking my neck out the way that I did may be paying off in the long run.
How the hell were you able to get all those artists—from Janelle Monae to Toro Y Moi to El-P—on the same album?
Details, schmetails. [Laughs.] That'd spoil the fun, wouldn't it? At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many cows the chef personally slaughtered to prepare my steak, so long as that motherfucker is seasoned the way I want and lightly brushed with garlic.
But seriously, I'm currently working with someone to help create a behind-the-scenes documentary that'll shed some light on how Payback was put together. It won't be for the faint-hearted, I can promise you that.
Did Bruno Mars and/or Tyler, the Creator have any idea they're on the same project?
You have no idea how much of an understatement that question is. [Laughs.] No, neither one of them are aware yet. I'm still waiting to tell them.
Tell me about putting together "Shit Starters" with Swizz Beatz, Jim Jones, DJ Kay Slay and your former boss El-P.
Dude. So I'm like the biggest Dipset nerd, well at least I was up until about 2003 or 2004 when they switched their beats up. Back then I'd always wanted to do a tribute to them for being awesome and for helping me get through a tough time—I had just got kicked out of college so all I would play is Cam, Jimmy and Juelz—and their beats used to get me crunk. Hell, other than Just Blaze it was their production that got me into sampling in my beats in the first place. Say what you will about the lyrics but those beats? Jeebus.
So anyway, I wanted to pay homage to that whole era a while ago but it would've been ill-timed at a point in my career where people didn't even know who I was, plus I wasn't that dope with the beats yet. Fast-forward seven years later and I stumble on this glam metal sample that Juelz had used for his song "Crack (Y'all Must Be Stupid)," an obscure track from some mixtape he did with DJ Kay Slay in 2003 or so. I had been looking for [the sample] for almost ten years because I'm a sample encyclopedia, I know almost every sample for every hip-hop song. I finally found it and was like "this is it."
I flipped the beat identically to the one Juelz used, knowing it's so obscure of a song that only Dipset stans would even recognize it; everyone else would just be like "This is dope, yo." Getting Jimmy on it was a dream come true 'cause it's an homage to him in the first place, then of course Swizz has to open it up since he's the hypest dude in rap right now, so he also got contacted.
It's crazy 'cause I'm doing my verse and even though it's clearly a tribute to that whole over-the-top super-hype posse cut, my lyrics are cartoonishly ignorant ("Y'all hoes can't find me, man I'm hob-nobbing at Basquiat's / I'll beat you up, then beat my chest then beat Bob Hoskins at hopscotch.") But I'm really just trying to keep up with these dudes! Much love to both of them. The whole song is just a wink-and-nod kinda thing honestly.
I still needed my WTF factor, the last component that would make everyone's head explode. Then it hit me: who better than El-P?
But for it to be a bloated guest list I couldn't stop at just Swizz and Jim, so I reached out to DJ Kay Slay. I swear every time I called him, it sounded like he was just waking up but it'd be like 1:00 in the afternoon and shit. [Laughs.] Like I could hear him rolling around in the bed with his girl in the background or something.
But no, Kay Slay is cool as shit; much love to him. I'm hitting him for a drop constantly 'cause he keeps telling me "I'm gonna send it, I'm gonna send it" so I have to keep reminding him. Finally I hit him with the ol' reverse psychology.
I'm like "hey Kay Slay, it's cool if you're too busy and whatnot. I appreciate you anyway. I'll just hit up DJ Khaled instead. God bless." He immediately hits me back like "CHILL NIGGA! IF KAY SLAY SAYS HE'S GONNA DO SOMETHING HE'S GONNA DO IT! MY WORD IS MY BOND LIL NIGGA!" I got my drop that same day.
After that I still needed my WTF factor, the last component that would make everyone's head explode. Then it hit me: who better than El-P? If you google "danny def jux" now there's a ton of dorky message board posters who think I hate Def Jux after they signed me and nothing happened with the deal. In reality, me and El talk fairly regularly and are on great terms.
He told me years ago to reach out to him if I ever needed him for anything, much love to him for that. I figure, not only would getting him on the track blow people's minds for that reason but shit dude, that line-up? You'll NEVER see that type of thing again, and posse cuts in 2012 are pretty damn random as it is.
Ultimately it's one big troll move because it gets me and El-P, two underground kings who could benefit well from the exposure, rotation on a Hot 97 or a Power 105. This shit sounds right at home after a "Stay Schemin'" or something. What are they gonna do, cut our verses out 'cause they haven't heard of us? It's my song! [Laughs.] So "Shit Starters," basically, is one big exercise in trolling. But the song's still hot!
When is the album dropping? We've been hearing tracks and seeing videos for the past few months but where's the album at?
It's a beautiful thing really, that the lack of initial hype delayed Payback and it became this mythical creature that some people don't even believe exists. I fucking love it. Only a few cats have even heard it at this point and I've been blessed that having a good judgment of character—and technology that makes audio watermarks discreet—has made this an airtight effort.
The album was done at the top of January and was probably sent out to press literally the next day. At this point I had dropped two singles and two videos. There was no Questlove shout-out, no co-sign from Jay yet. We were exploiting the fact that, with all the guest features, some of the mainstream sites like Pitchfork or Rolling Stone would approve reviews whereas they may have passed in the past.
Like, Where Is Danny? got passed over by Pitchfork and that was a classic! So we're like, "oh they'll be dickriding now, it's inevitable." But despite the initial interest from most of the major sites and magazines, they all fell off the face of the fucking earth. Now with the co-signs, those same major sites are claiming that they lost Payback and are asking us to send another copy but I'm like "fuck y'all."
Now with the co-signs, those same major sites are claiming that they lost Payback and are asking us to send another copy but I'm like "f*ck y'all."
Some artists don't understand that nowadays you need a certain level of visibility and public perception before people that back you are willing to advance you to the next stage, and you need a steady progression of it.
It's like a board game and you've gotta keep circling the board until you have a certain number of chips. Your profile needs to keep getting bigger, not smaller. How's Pitchfork gonna review my album as an unsigned artist in 2008 but not 2012?
Like, rap consumers and the media continue to sleep on me and that's fine and all, but behind the scenes, people are losing faith. They're looking at my track record and saying, "Maybe he isn't this golden child we thought he was." So projects get held up, or shelved altogether. It's not my fault that we got a shitload of commitment from the press to give coverage to my album and they pulled out at the last minute when they realized I was Danny Swain, not Danny Brown. [Laughs.]
Quiet as it's kept, Payback was actually set to be released in Japan next week but you'd literally have to be over there to purchase it, plus the distribution got screwed up on the back end. I have a bigger and far more proactive following over there and in certain parts of the UK. The only thing stopping me from moving overseas and just doing hologram shows for the rest of my life is the visa process is too lengthy, and I hate paperwork. [Laughs.]
As far as a U.S. release, I'm currently tying up some loose ends so that I can put out a modified version of it via Okayplayer Records—which would be huge considering the recent circumstances plus the fact they've been supporting me for year—but I'm not formally announcing it until I finalize it with the homies over there. They hinted at it on their most recent blog post about me so I hope I didn't ruin the surprise. [Laughs.]
When you did manage to get reviews, it stirred up a plagiarism controversy over on HipHopDX. What happened?
Poor, poor Navani. How's that phrase go, "you'll never work in this town again"? That chick shot herself in the foot, the face, everything. I've been fortunate up until a certain point that all of the reviews for Payback that have been published so far have been written by actual Danny! fans, but I understand you can't request that as an artist.
Eventually you're gonna run into people who just don't give a shit about you. Case in point, SPIN reviewed it but the writer has had a personal vendetta against me for a while so even though I got the standard we-reviewed-your-album-are-you-happy "7" score, his piece was very backhanded.
So I'm cool if someone doesn't like me, but it's something totally different when someone doesn't even like writing at all. One of HipHopDX's hired "writers" was assigned Payback and straight plagiarized two different reviews that had already been posted because, according to an apology she later posted, she got tired of the pressures to write. The fuck? In the words of one of the victims, "what unmitigated gall."
First off, one of the sites she stole from is one of the oldest and most reputable sites for hip-hop album reviews of all time. I used to read that shit in high school in the 90s! That's like robbing Bank of America and cheesing at the security camera on the way out. If your intent is to not get caught, that's pretty stupid.
Not only does she plagiarize reviews for her own monetary benefit and cheat me out of legitimate publicity for Payback, but the victims happen to be two people in the journalism world that I've become close with. So I'm like "hell naw!" [Laughs.]
I rally up the Team Danny troop, most of which post on KanyeToThe.com, and other supporters and everyone pretty much flamed the hell out of Navani Otero on Twitter. I appreciate when people aren't afraid to call someone out on their bullshit 'cause I do it all the time. It was overwhelming to see much support, even from people that hadn't heard of me up 'til that point.
In the aftermath of that big debacle Byron Crawford caught wind of it and blogged about it, HipHopDX retracted the text and issued an apology to its readers, Navani got fired from her post there and started working in real estate, and one of the victims of the plagiarism wound up being offered a position there. Where's my restitution though? [Laughs.]
I assumed that I had a decent rapport with HipHopDX built up over the years but I guess that goes to show you how fake people can be. I'm thrilled that there was a silver lining for some people, but I don't know...they could at least have someone do a new review, or post the songs I've been sending them. They haven't posted shit since it happened.
They're probably salty that I called them out but I think it's petty to hold a grudge. I fault only Navani for the plagiarism, but now they're on my bad side for not trying to make it up to me outside of an apology that a label rep coerced them into doing. I'll probably put them in a song or something. [Laughs.]
What was it like seeing that tweet from Questlove? What's it been like since then?
Before the tweet, the closest I had to a relationship with Questlove was by way of Femi & Dan over at Okayplayer, who've been featuring me and my music for over six years now. Questo joked to me that if someone is featured on Okayplayer.com, people think that he co-signs it by default. [Laughs.]
But anyway, until then I was under no impression that he was aware of who I was, or that I was even on his radar, whatever. But I actually got an introductory email from him a few hours before the tweet, so it wasn't like seeing his shout-out on Twitter took me by surprise or anything. I mean, I was surprised that he put it out there for the world to see, but the news about Hov was already a few hours old to me. I was ecstatic then and I'm ecstatic now.
[Questlove]'s looked out for me within two months more than some people have in eight years, and it means a lot to me.
Since being e-introduced we'll text each other every now and then or e-mail back and forth. As the liaison between me and Hov he'll hit me if there's anything new to report, and I'll hit him if it's been a while since I've heard any news. [Laughs.]
But Ahmir is a real cool dude, like you don't understand. First off he's a music nerd, which I am too, so we click. Second, he's looked out for me within two months more than some people have in eight years, and it means a lot to me. He even helped get one of my songs placed in an upcoming TV commercial that he's in.
You've gotta figure: this guy has a million and one different things he's involved in right now but is still willing to help me out. I've even flown up to New York to meet him backstage on the Jimmy Fallon set. I also ran into Black Thought, dude is real chill. He dapped me up and asked me to send him beats; I'm waiting to hear if he likes anything I've sent. [Laughs.]
Whatever happens with Jay, or Questo, whomever...like, he's already done so much off the strength. I can't thank him enough, no matter what direction things go in.
I heard you, Jay and Questlove were working on something together? Anything you can reveal about that or is it still under wraps?
Man I already gave you the exclusive scoop with the Okayplayer Records thing, you want more? [Laughs.] I'm afraid I can't divulge too much at the moment. I'd love to, really, but rather than jinx the situation or spill the beans too soon, I'll let the world leave Questlove's sporadic tweets to their imagination. It's definitely gonna be huge though, believe me.
What else are you working on?
I got into 'mad scientist' mode and detoured into Payback roughly 40 percent into working on PeaSwain, my collaboration album with Von Pea [of Tanya Morgan]. Now that Payback is over and done with I'm knocking out the rest of PeaSwain so that we can have it out by the summer. It's gonna be a double EP where I produce his whole side and he produces mine.
It's a very fun record and as an artist, I'm thankful for it at a time where I'm struggling with remembering why it is I rap in the first place. I enjoy Payback and it's a personal favorite for a slew of reasons, but admittedly it was a chore to put together. PeaSwain will let me have some fun again, which I honestly haven't had since putting Where Is Danny? together.
Other than that and this indie-pop project I'm producing for this band from Sweden, that's about it.
Besides PeaSwain I can't say that I'm committed to working on any more projects at this time, opting instead to focus heavily on trying to get my music licensed more. The money is fantastic and the exposure is priceless, plus it's always surreal hearing your tunes on television.
A couple of weekends ago someone on Twitter hit me up and was like "yoo, I just heard 'The Groove' playing on NBC!" I turn to it and sure enough, the Red Bull Signature Series is running a snowboarding segment. I listen for a few more minutes and just as I'm about to change the channel the instrumental for "Cafe Surreal" starts playing! So that's two of my songs on a nationally-syndicated program.
I figure this: if people still aren't checking for me on a large scale, I don't ever have to put out another album. I'm already eating off sales from my back catalogue, but if I can get more licensing/sync placements I'd be super straight. For any Bandcamp producers reading this, I just gave you a nugget of information.
There's more I'd love to say about the Jay situation but rather than jinx myself or put the business out there too soon, I'm gonna wait until word gets out officially. Oh, and me and Amber Tamblyn are BFFs now. She heard my Tyrese prank call and wants to go into business together. We may come up with some pro-feminist songs that I'll produce for her, or we may continue pranking poor fools. We're still working out the kinks but for now she went ahead and registered spapranks.com so stay tuned.
Rhymefest and I have been talking back and forth as well. He's supposed to be sending me samples that he wants me to flip for his next project. He's working on two projects, one where S1 produces the whole thing and one other one, but he wants me to help with both. Licensing my music and producing for other artists are definitely on the agenda for 2012.
Are you going to keep doing the prank calls? How about releasing them as a zip file?
If you've noticed, there's been a slight decrease in those lately. Part of that is due to people probably being hip to my hijinks by now and not answering their phone. [Laughs.] But the other part is Questlove himself warning me to be careful about who I prank because you never know what bridges you could burn from people not being able to take a joke.
The Childish Gambino prank took off way more than I anticipated, and an irate Donald Glover hit up Questlove complaining about me. I kinda feel bad 'cause [the prank] was less a dig toward him and more toward Pitchfork but it was a sensitive issue so I can see why he got mad.
I'll continue to do [prank calls] 'cause a part of that ties into the whole "making a mockery of the industry" thing that helped me come up with the Payback album, plus it's my way of exploiting the fact that I'm so under the radar that I can do damn near anything I want, good or bad, and no one will give a shit either way. But I may be choosy on who my victims are from here on out.
I'm trying to get Action Bronson next. I have enough prank calls to compile an album, some of which I haven't even posted on my Tumblr yet, and if there's a demand I'll certainly consider releasing them.