Interview: Danny Brown Talks Finding His Voice, Old Man Rap, Kitty Pryde & What He Learned From Jail

The Fool's Gold rapper opens up about becoming an artist, being older, and why his music is deeper than rap.

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Complex Original

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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.




How did jail make you social?
Because you have to talk. Think about it. You’re locked up for eight months, and you’re just going to be in that bitch not talking to anybody? I’m shy, and I don’t really want to talk to nobody, but somebody’s going to eventually talk to you and after a while. As shit goes on, that shit’s going to be your home, and they’re going to be your homies.

I was fucking with niggas I would never fuck with on the street. Like, niggas who, my life is so fucking 360 from what their life is. I can’t even really talk to them about the shit that I know about. They was just straight hood niggas. That’s it. I was on some whole other shit, back then. I was wearing skinny fucking oranges and shit. [Laughs.]

I’m pretty sure you were the only one wearing that.
Yeah. I had a hook up with the laundry dude. I used to get small pants and extra, extra large shirts. That shit used to look crazy. Because you know you have to get your own size, just medium top and medium pants, but just, how you get them small pants and that big-ass shirt. That was my jail shit.

I ain’t going to front, I kind of shot a lot of moves in jail. That’s Detroit slang for like, making shit happen. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’m that type of guy. I didn’t have a bad time in jail, no homo, not fucking. [Laughs.] I was shooting moves, man, making shit happen for myself. I wasn’t worried about shit. I was eating good, bruh. I was eating Burger King and shit. [Laughs.]

Yeah. I had COs bringing that shit in. I ate that everyday for lunch, I didn’t eat what the regular inmates ate. That took me a while to get, it wasn’t like that until like, my last three months. But my last three months, I lived like a king, before I was let out that bitch.

How did you manage that?
Because I had a job in registry. When you work in registry, working where they first bring the inmates in, you’re actually dealing with a lot of the prison guards and you’re like the fucking coffee boy. A lot of inmates want that job, that’s like the number one job to get. I just got it by luck.

What happens in that job is, when everybody gets processed, whatever that person has, they throw it away. But if you get cool with a guard, they’re just going to give it to you. I was in a county and you can’t smoke cigarettes in a county jail. But guys would come in with cigarettes all the time—or come in with weed or whatever they got—the guards would take it and give it to me.

What happens is, most inmates that have that job, they go and sell the cigarettes back to the other inmates. But me, I wasn’t no bum-ass nigga. I didn’t need no money in jail. So I was smoking everything. You had to fuck with me to even try and get a cigarette or anything for like, four months of that shit. So I was kind of running shit.

So nobody would put their hands on me and nobody would do shit. Everybody was riding for me because they wanted to get cigarettes. And I wasn’t like a hoe-ass nigga that was just cussin’ them. Like, I smoked them, but I showed love, too.

I was the type of nigga that if niggas was watching TV too loud at night, and I was trying to sleep, I’d come out like, “Y’all niggas want a cigarette, man? Turn that TV down.” And I’d throw a cigarette on the table. Niggas looking at it like it’s crack because they can take one Newport and roll up like five cigarettes out of that shit.

You were a man of the people.
Yeah. So after a while, just from me being down there, I got cool with the guards. The guards, every now and then, when they would go get lunch, they’d ask me what I wanted because I was just wavy like that and shit. They were like, “Yeah, you cool,” and they’d grab me shit. So after a while, I wasn’t even eating jail food anymore.

Yeah. Back to what I was saying, like usually when they would give the inmates shit, they would try to sell it, and you can tell when somebody’s hustling, in jail. I wasn’t hustling. So the security guards were just like, “Damn. This guy’s cool. He ain’t really doing nothing bad. He’s just doing his time and really trying to go home. He’s a really cool guy.” I never told them about my music, and now they see me on magazines and shit. Like, I run into them every now and then.

What do they say to you?
They just be happy for me, kind of. I mean, it ain’t too much they can say. I was an inmate, to them, at one point in time, and now they see me on magazines and shit like that. So it’s like, “Damn. I can’t believe it.” I think they usually see an inmate and think they’re coming in and they’re coming back. They probably thought I was coming back, regardless of who I was. They thought I was going to get back in the streets and I was going to be back.

It’s like the intro to Ready To Die when Biggie was walking out of his jail cell, the guard is like, “Aw, yeah. You guys always come back.” And he’s like, “I got big plans…Big plans.”
That’s pretty much how my movie started.

I think it goes back to what you were saying, that everything you went through was a build up to you being in this game.
Yeah, because even just being in jail and having that job working registry, you’d have new inmates coming in all the time, and I’m the guy expected to sell the cigarettes. So they’ve got to holler at me before they get registered and get back to their floor like, “What’s up with the squares? You got the squares on deck?” and I’m not selling shit.

So a lot of motherfuckers in there hated me, too, but they wouldn’t do shit to me, because like I said, I pretty much had protection, because I had OG’s and was giving the big homies cigarettes. So they couldn’t really do shit, but motherfuckers used to yell crazy shit to me all the time.

That’s kind of like blog comments to me. That’s how I’m able to take what a motherfucker says on Twitter. I was locked up and motherfuckers were saying crazy shit to me. I’d get pissed off and want to scrap, but I wanted to go home, too. I wasn’t trying to catch no tickets and get extra time. So I could take any criticism in the world after I took that.

Right. It’s like, what is anyone going to tell you?
I’m talking about, you’d even get the guys that would be coming back to the counties from upstate, who were still like, doing court shit. Sometimes they be snitching and shit like that. So I’m the guy they expect to get cigarettes from because usually that’s the guy who’s selling cigarettes, and I’m not selling cigarettes. So I was the bitch-ass nigga, everyday. And I’m the guy that’s got to feed them, too, because I’m the guy that gives you sandwiches and shit.

Yeah. It worked out good, too, because I also had to feed the female inmates. And that’s how I was able to pass the time, I’d ask them to show me them titties for a cigarette. I’d see some titties everyday. That was cool.

I would get their inmate numbers and I was writing them bitches. I wasn’t even writing nobody on the outside. I was writing all inmate bitches, at one point in time, during our time together. I was living it, man. [Laughs.]

That’s so crazy. Who would’ve thought going to jail would be the best thing to happen to you?
[Laughs.] It kind of was, but it sucked, bro. I’m not trying to sell you no fairytales. A whole eight months, everyday of that shit sucked. It wasn’t happy times. I mean, seeing them titties was cool, but you was bittersweet.

I’ve done a lot of interviews with rappers that have been to jail, and I try to get them to talk about it, and they don’t even want to talk about it.
Because they was probably getting sonned in that bitch. [Laughs.] I had the squares. You couldn’t fuck with me. If you wanted to get some cigarettes, you better be cool. They called me Snoop because I had braids. You’d better be cool with Snoop.

I kept my shit braided, too, because there was this one dude who used to braid his sister’s hair. So he knew how to braid hair, good as hell. I kept my shit crispy. They’d be like, “How are you crispy braided in jail everyday?” Cigarettes.

It’s crazy how cigarettes is currency in jail.
It’s the biggest thing possible. Like, if you smoke them, you’re used to that shit everyday. You have a cigarette every fucking 20 minutes, if you want to. Then you go to jail, and it’s...I mean, unless you’re going to the penitentiary upstate, and if you’re going up there, that means you’re really doing a lot of time.

I guess if you want to smoke cigarettes that bad, that’s cool, but my little eight months was county time, and in that shit ain’t no cigarettes. County, a lot of people say, is worse than the penitentiary, because it’s just straight nothing.

It’s bad conditions, all the way around. I went a whole fucking summer with no TV and no fucking air conditioning. Just niggas on the floor with no TV and no air conditioning, just hot, playing chess, eating tuna mac and shit. I was like, “Y’all niggas is wack.”

Switching gears, I wanted to ask about your relationship with Kitty Pryde. What’s the deal with that?
I mean...[Laughs.] I mean, it is what it is, man. I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy. But yeah, I guess. [Laughs.]

What was your reaction when you first saw that video?
I mean, I heard the song way before I seen the video. I already knew about it. She had told me about it.

Oh, you know her?
Yeah. I’ve known Kitty for months. I listened to her music way before this. Like, I’m real cool with her manager Walker, because I’m super homies with Main Attractionz.

So you guys met through him?
Nah, we met through Twitter.

Oh, was she just hitting on you?
Nah, I wouldn’t say it was like that. I was more-so checking out her music, and I liked it.

How did you find her music?
She hit me up, and it was just one of those times when I did click it.

So you weren’t surprised when you saw the video? You kind of knew it was coming.
Yeah. We kick it.

Like, on the phone? Or do you hang out together?
[Laughs.] I don’t know, man.

[Laughs.] It’s so funny how you were so open about jail and so closed about this.

Well, I’m not sure how old she is, so maybe you shouldn’t say anything about this. [Laughs.]
I mean, I know it. So it’s all good.

Okay. [Laughs.] If that’s the case, you know...
I’m not saying anything like that. I’m just saying, at the end of the day, it’s a music thing, man. We just make music together.

What is it about her music and new music in general that interests you?
Anything that's true to the heart. To me, hip-hop was always supposed to be like a representation of yourself. So if she was trying to make Nicki Minaj records or trying to bust punchlines and metaphors, it wouldn’t be kind of real. So her music, to me, is authentic. It’s her. It’s totally her personality, so it works.

Right, and that’s something that’s very true for you, too. Danny Brown is really Danny Brown.
That’s the rules of hip-hop. So I follow them, and she follows them. It’s almost like some...I don’t know man. I’m going to say it’s almost like some 1970’s shit going on over here with me and Kitty. There’s some real hippy shit going on.

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