It might have taken him a while, but Danny Brown has found a way to win on his own terms. Things really took off for the Detroit rapper when he signed to Fool's Gold and dropped his excellent XXX album last year. Since then, he's become one of the faces for a new generation of brash, rebellious hip-hop, even though he's technically older than his perceived peers, at 31.
We got on the horn with Danny to talk about his recent rise in the music industry, but the conversation also wandered off to other topics like his relationship with Kitty Pryde, how dependent he is on Adderall, and why everyone respected him in jail. Trust, there were no dull moments.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
Complex: For a long time, you struggled with your music career, but in the last few years you’ve come up and found a winning strategy. What were the keys to your newfound success?
Danny Brown: I focused more on music. In the past, anything I did prior to signing with Fools Gold didn’t really count for nothing. I had to figure out a lot of shit.
Since I got with Fool’s Gold, they’ve helped a lot. With the clientele they have, we just figured out a way. At first, it was weird for me to be over there because I was just a punchline rapper on sample beats. [Laughs.]
I had to figure out a way to make music that their people would fuck with and still be true to myself. It was just music. I don’t really think of no type of crazy plans because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I make the fucking songs and then the songs become an album. That’s it.
On “XXX,” one of the parts I really like is when you’re like, “Guess what, bitch? I’m coming back.” You seem like a very determined guy. Someone who doesn’t quit.
I look at it like, I was never good at anything else. [Laughs.] I wasn’t athletic and shit. I knew how to rap ever since I was a little kid. That was what was cool about me, so I just stuck with that. They always ask a motherfucker, “If you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?” and niggas say some dumb shit like, “I’d be selling dope” or some crazy shit like that.
Hell naw, man. My ass would be making music. You just wouldn’t be listening to that shit or talking to me. [Laughs.] I’m a fan of this shit and it’s a hobby, still. I mean, I take it serious because it’s a job, but I still just love the art of it.
It seems like you have more passion about the art than most.
Yeah, I guess. It’s just like anything else. Fuck, I’m pretty sure Kobe Bryant was fucking watching basketball all his life. If that’s something you want to be, and you feel like it’s in your heart, you never had that conversation with yourself like, “I want to be a rapper.”
There’s somebody right now telling themselves, “I’m going to start rapping.” It’s the cool thing to do. I remember when I was the only guy rapping. I was the only guy in school that rapped. That shit was cool.
Rapping was just inherent to you.
Yeah, I tried it and off the reaction that I got from people, I knew I was kind of good, so I stuck with that shit. But learning how to rap is one thing. I still had to grow up and learn how to be a songwriter. That’s what we’re seeing now, me becoming a songwriter, regardless of if my songs are two minutes long. [Laughs.]
It’s still about that creative, ADD, ADHD, Adderall mentality of making music. I still feel like there’s so much I’ve got to learn from this shit. I’m still at the beginning stages of that. I just want to get better. I feel like I’m good, but I want to be iller. I want to be considered an artist, and not just a rapper, almost like Andre 3000 or something.
Right, you always want to be improving.
Yeah, and that’s one thing that I’m learning. There’s other things for me to learn, aside from the music part. So now it’s all about people going to shows, and I’ve got to learn how to perform instead of just rapping for a crowd of people.
That’s something I’m learning to adapt with. Even the fashion. I do a lot of shit on some performance-piece type shit. On some David Bowie type shit. All that shit is just showmanship.
Last time we spoke, you said that your hair is like a lame-detector. If someone doesn't want to be your friend because of your hair, then you don’t want to be friends with them anyway.
Yeah, I don’t need anybody like that. That’s the type of person you end up catching a case for or some shit. You can’t fuck with nobody like that. That’s the kind of dude that’ll have a strap under the seat and don’t say who it is like, “Aw, you hoe-ass nigga. That’s the type of nigga I’m fucking with?”
But it’s cool. I’m just being me, so I don’t really think about it. I’m happy with motherfuckers just letting me rap, bro. So I don’t really give a fuck. I’m more honored for that than anything.
Is rapping enough to make you happy?
Yeah. Even hearing it. I’m a fan of this shit. I look at myself on some out of body shit like, “What do I want to hear Danny Brown do?” I still think about my 13-year-old self that was buying tapes and shit. Hearing another artist do some dope shit inspires me to want to go harder.
I still like to study music, in general. I listen to all types of crazy psychedelic shit and shit that was pushing boundaries back in the day, and I try to figure out a way to incorporate that into what I’m doing now.
You’ve got to understand, rap music has only been around for so long. Like, Jay-Z remembers a time in his life when rap music didn’t exist. I was born in ‘81. I’m 31 years old, but I don’t remember a time in my life when rap music didn’t exist. So that’s all I know. I’m like, second generation of hip-hop.
I’m the first wave of hip-hop babies that had nothing but hip-hop. So, in some sense, I feel like I should be kind of like an OG, because I went through all the waves. You’ve got the other kids now that haven’t heard anything past ‘98 or something. I remember that summer of ‘95. That was the illest shit of my life. [Laughs.] They didn’t have the ‘95 summer. I don’t think it’s ever been like that ever again, but it’s cool.
Between you, Juicy J, 2 Chainz, and few others, it seems like old man rap, or relatively old rap, is thriving right now.
It makes sense. You’ve got to think, rap music is nothing but English language. It’s all about being experienced and living life. So I would think that an older person would be able to rap better.
It’s just like a pimp. A young pimp isn’t going to be able to have his hoes out there working the way an old one is because the old one is going to have that game. He’s going to know what the fuck is going on. He’s been doing this shit.
That’s how I look at rap, I think the OGs are always going to kill this shit. As long as I remember, it was always like that. You had the OGs killing shit and then you had the young niggas doing some cool shit. And every now and then, that shit be fads and the OGs just keep it moving. So I’m trying to be one of them OGs.
And you’re in a weird position, too, because you're an OG in your mindset, but for a lot of listeners, you’re a new guy.
Yeah, and plus, I don’t really look older. I don’t think. But I feel young. I’m only a 13-year-old boy inside. If you listen to the jokes I say, I say what makes me laugh. So if someone else laughs at it, they’re cool. I don’t give a fuck. When I wrote it, I laughed at it hysterically.
Somebody told me, shit’s so fucked up, we’ve always got to crack jokes to laugh and smile. In some sense, it’s my city. It’s being from here. Shit is so gangster. I can’t just be rapping gangster shit. I’m around that shit all day. That shit is kind of boring. It’s not really entertaining. Making people laugh is fun for me, or making myself laugh.
It’s good to see you have a sense of humor about it.
The way I look at all that shit is how it works. My voice, all that shit. It’s nothing that I planned. It’s just something that maybe found time for me to find myself as an artist. Like, I knew how to rap, but I wasn’t an artist yet. I was a rapper, and me being the rapper that I was, it was like 50 of the same rappers like that. Now, I’m one-of-one.
I’m glad you mention your voice. When I first heard you rap it took me a while to get used to it. Do you ever worry about your voice being too abrasive?
I always thought my voice sucked. That’s why I came up with that voice. I always wanted to find my voice. Rapping in my regular voice didn’t sound cool to me. It wasn’t entertaining to me. So I just wanted to figure out an entertaining voice. I kind of go into that voice, in general sometimes, like just in normal conversations. Even when I’m high. It’s almost like some dope fiend type shit.
I always notice it when you laugh.
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s like some dope fiend shit, for real. It’s from being around my uncle and all his friends. They’re like a big influence on my music.
What have you learned about songwriting in the past few years or so?
I mean, I don’t want to give away all the secrets. [Laughs.] With songwriting, just take your time. You’re not going anywhere any time soon. Everybody just wants to make a mixtape every month and hurry up. You might have three or four tight songs on your mixtape, and we get another mixtape, three months later, with the same thing.
If you just chilled for like six months, that was like eight songs, right there, that was classic shit. All you had to do was whip up some other shit, and you would’ve had a classic album, that year. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t let my music deteriorate for the sake of popularity.
We’re in the Internet generation. Everybody just feels like they’ve got to do shit to stay hot. If a lot of people notice, I put XXX out in August, and every month it still gets a little [more buzz], people still talk about it. I’ve done a lot of features to keep that momentum going.
But I don’t feel like I have to just release mad projects because my shit’s going to be epic when it do drop. When I take my time, man, I’m really going to put my all into it because I really care about this shit. Whatever you put in, that’s what you’re going to get out of this shit.
Last time we spoke, you called Adderall the steroids for the rap game, because it helped you find your voice. But you said you didn’t want to become dependent on it. Do you feel dependent on it now?
Yeah. In some sense, yeah, but it’s cool. It is what it is. I’ll just put it like this. Now, I’m so used to it, I’ve adapted to it. At first, it would have me wigging the fuck out and bouncing off the walls and shit, but now I know what to expect from it.
I’ve been fucking with it for so long now. When I used to take that shit back in the day, I would fuck around and write like six or seven songs. Now, I take that shit, and I spend fucking 14 hours on one song, in one sitting, though. So that’s the fucked up part about it.
It’s just making me OCD about my raps, now. It’s like, nothing is ever perfect, now. So it’s starting to backfire, now. But it’s cool, it just means I’m about to really be on some ill shit on this next shit.
You’ve used that word “adapt” a few times. It seems like you’ve adapted your style, adapted your voice, adapted to getting used to using a lot of Adderall. Do you feel like you’re good at adapting?
I think that’s just something I learned in jail. Everything I’ve been through in my life was just a test for me to make it in music. In jail, you always have to adapt to a fucked up situation, and if you don’t make the right call, you might be fucked up or shit might be fucked up. It taught me a lot about being social, too.
Before jail I was super shy. I wouldn’t talk to nobody. Then, in jail, you have no choice but to voice your opinion or you might be a hoe-ass nigga, not eating. So jail kind of helped me a lot. I don’t ever want to go back, but I’m glad I went through that little training course.