We Want That Old Thang Back: Danny Brown, Nas, and What the Artist Owes His Audience

What's an experimental artist to do when fans say they want to hear "the old stuff."

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Danny Brown’s new album is due at the end of this month. And it is called Old.

“With Old you think I'm talking about my age, or where I'm at in my career. But it really [refers to] when I'm experimenting, making songs with Darq E Freaker and stuff," Brown told the publication Clash. "And then when I go back to my 'hood, I have my people who be like, 'Where that 'Old' Danny Brown shit at? I wanna hear that J. Dilla Danny Brown.' So I [titled the] album for them.”

One listen to the caustic “O.D.B.,” suggests this title is a bit of sarcastic defiance—and perhaps even a friendly middle-finger—towards the fanbase who liked the down-home Detroit cracked-soul production of Danny’s earliest work, before he upped the adderall quotient, developed his own voice, and embraced the production eccentricities of UK producers like Paul White. Single “Kush Coma” is even stranger, as quivering trebly synthesizers and pulsing drums make for an in-your-face experience. It’s as if club music's tools have been repurposed for a song that sounds a million miles from club-oriented radio rap.

If you're just a fan of good music, of course, where his music fits in a narrative about his career is irrelevent. This is obvious. All that matters is if you like the music. Keeping that in mind, it’s almost always good to be skeptical of the artist’s explanation of the creative process. As skeptical as you are of the artist’s stans, or YouTube commenters, or whoever else contributes to the noise around the music. The real mechanisms behind great music’s creation are, ultimately, unknowable.

This is best illustrated by hip-hop’s ultimate example of the Garden of Eden career record: Illmatic. Nas continued to release amazing music after its release. But for the rest of his career, he was plagued by fans who wanted him to go back to the sound and feel of his debut album.

Mystery was a huge part of Illmatic’s appeal. It felt like this particular aesthetic emerged perfectly formed, articulating a previously-invisible worldview. Nas's genius on Illmatic was to act as a prism of his time, of his influences, of a hyper-specific place. Although there's boasting, there's an absence of ego in the process of constructing the record. He seems to reflect his surroundings, an impartial observer. (You know this; if you hadn't thought it, you've read it.)

Whenever an artist talks about one of his records, it’s good to think of him as an unreliable narrator. Not just that Nas might have been too stoned to remember exactly how his debut came about. And not just because he has something invested in keeping the exact story of its creation shrouded, to some degree (after all, mystique is a huge part of its appeal).

The real reason an artist's explanation is suspect is that the artist doesn't even really know how it happened. We idealize the artist's creation after the fact. And that creation isn't just the product of the artist's Genius. But by the artist's genius in a context, under certain circumstances, with certain technological limitations, and through the further limitations (Walkmen, cassettes) of the listeners' contexts.

I once interviewed The Jacka, a rapper from the Bay Area in California. He had been a big fan of rappers like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, but after the wave of rap stars in the late '80s he told me they didn't really fuck with east coast rap until the cleaner sound of The War Report. "When I listen to it now, I see how people really did like it then, because it was ahead of its time," he said of Illmatic. "But at the time, I was just like, man this ain't slappin' hard enough for me. These niggas snares is louder than they drum kicks. But then when Snoop Dogg and everybody came out, it made these East Coast niggas step they beat game up." Some might argue—and no doubt will—that he was wrong for that. But that's a reality of our consumption; if you were used to West Coast production, beats with snares that were louder than the kick drums didn't translate quite the same way.

In other words, when fans want an artist to go back to the "old stuff," they're chasing an ephemeral sensation. Part of it is certainly that the "shock of the new," that sense of something that surprises or upsets your expectations, is no longer present.

In other words, when fans want an artist to go back to the 'old stuff,' they're chasing an ephemeral sensation.

But more than that, it's about how that music created a need. It created an archetype of what Great Rap was supposed to aspire to; at the same time that it widened hip-hop's sense of possibility, in another way, it closed those possibilities. This was even more true for Nas, who had created a record so good that he instilled in his fans that need, one those fans didn't even know existed previously. Here was something that articulated exactly what they wanted, without them even knowing it. Nas, meanwhile, had different needs. While his debut album took two years to go gold, he watched Notorious B.I.G. become a tremendous star right in his backyard. He wanted to grow, too—and that meant finding more fans. 

Think about what makes something seem essential. What is the primary ingredient in a record that creates that itch that needs to be scratched in the listenership, a need they didn't even know they had.

One thing that made hip-hop an experimental art form early on was its limitations: the equipment that only allowed for a few seconds of looped samples. The back-breaking labor involved in cutting tape with razors and realigning them with precision. Brian Eno, a musician who produced hundreds of records for artists like David Bowie, U2, and The Talking Heads, described this sort of thing in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno's Diary as "the sound of failure." As he explained:

"Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them."

Illmatic felt like the culmination, the full realization of the technology of the time and how it had helped to create an entirely unique sound, beholden to its era and its geography.

And its mild commercial success, and Nas's musical shift, pointed to the new direction hip-hop was moving: How popular can this stuff get? How much money can we make? How many people can we appeal to? What kinds of music can we buy or produce that can maximize its potential appeal, while still remaining true to certain core values? Which of those core values are up for sale, and which ones aren't, in order for the genre to still be 'hip-hop'? And you'd find a lot of stuff that seemed essential, like breakbeats and DJ Premier production, weren't necessary for its continued evolution. Nas wanted to created a new need for new fans; The guys who wanted Nas to do The Old Stuff are chasing something frozen in amber. Like the Garden of Eden, you can't return.

Since the mid-2000s, though, it has become clear that while hip-hop is continually penetrating popular culture in all kinds of new ways, as a commercial force, its peak may be behind it. The need to expand outward, to conquer the pop charts and become a star, is considerably less pressing for artists than it once was. The mass market is fractured; the Internet has made it so each artist can reach every fan, and everyone gets the fanbase they deserve (at least, if they know what they're doing). The levels of access required to truly cross over are still there, of course. It's just easier than ever to ignore them and create your own niche. Which is exactly what Danny Brown has done.

The levels of access required to truly cross over are still there, of course. It's just easier than ever to ignore them and create your own niche. Which is exactly what Danny Brown has done.

I said earlier that it was almost always good to be skeptical of the artist's explanations for the creative process behind their work. In this case, though, the work itself draws attention to it directly from its title. Old suggests Danny Brown's own music is already wrestling with his audience's expectations.

In an interview on Sway in the Morning, Danny's explanation of the album's title didn't seem combatative at all. “It’s about me returning back to the original style of music that I once did," he explained. But he wasn't striking a conciliatory note, either; he was doing something more clever. "[I'm] not saying that I had moved away from that style of music, which is sample-based, J. Dilla-esque psychedelic hip-hop, Wu-Tang influenced. And now I do moreso an electronic, grime influenced. Dizzee Rascal style. But I’m from Detroit—it’s like both sides of it. Coming home from school, stuck in traffic, we was listening to Ghettotech. Friday mix, freeway mix sessions and shit."

This quote illuminates the bind Danny Brown has found himself in. He has fans who want him to go back to his "old" style, and every time they say this it creates, for him, a false choice: Go back to the old stuff. Or follow his "true artistic spirit" (not a quote, but that's the essence of it)—presumably, something weird, the musical equivalent of his unconventional hairstyle. But he’s trying to reset the narrative here, and argue that his new stuff is following the same path as the old shit. This is the old shit, and has been since he first heard Ghettotech on the radio. He wants you to know that he never stopped making it. 

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