The doorman at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel is pushing 40, but he tells us that he’s trying to get off work early to catch Danny Brown play at Fool’s Gold Day Off just a few blocks away. Doorman aside, the wild-haired, snaggle-toothed rapper and his manager go otherwise unnoticed by the herds of bouigie families and businessmen as we walk through the hotel lobby – and then we step outside. As soon as Danny’s “way too expensive” adidas × Raf Simons shoes hit the Brooklyn pavement, everything is fair game. Teenage hypebeasts linger around the corner whispering about who should ask for a photo first, while eager girls wave flirtatiously and buzz with excitement for his set later that night.
It’s almost impossible for our photographer to get a shot in, given how often fans ask Danny to snap an iPhone picture with them. His pose is the exact same every time. He has it down to a science: eyes squinted, tongue wide out, fist up in the devil horns sign – it’s the version of Danny Brown that stares back from images on computer screens the world over. An unlikely poster boy for the current state of hip-hop, Danny has expressed his preference for boots over sneakers, has walked the catwalk for NY menswear designer Mark McNairy, and spits his bars with an intonation that’s unique at best – and abrasive at worst. Back outside the hotel, he switches from almost distant and irritated to on-brand and enthusiastic as a fan approaches. But despite his ability to pull the charisma trigger at any time, Danny really just wants to be down the street, where affiliates of A-Trak’s label Fool’s Gold Records are playing a free all-ages party by the Brooklyn waterfront.
The swarm of fandom makes Danny appear to casual passers-by like a rap superstar, which in his own right he is, but his is not a voice we’ll be hearing on commercial radio any time soon. Not that this bothers him, explaining that he’d “rather be an internet nigga than a TV nigga.” That said, his Fool’s Gold affiliation has made him a frequent headliner at $300-plus hipster festivals worldwide, and it seems his entry into the mainstream is as close as it’s ever going to be. One might cite his signing with the label as evidence of a greater strategy, but Danny is quick to defuse this, outlining his rationale in aligning with the label simply: “They were cooler than everyone else.”
While the rapper may only just be reaching the pop cultural radar of the masses, his story is far from one of overnight success. Making the transition from selling crack in Detroit to being one of the Brooklyn-based label’s most hyped artists is a dream for Danny, who was immediately drawn to Fool’s Gold after unsuccessfully trying to attend a party in New York years ago. “I couldn’t even get in,” he reflects. “There were mad girls, everybody was dressed nice, I wanted to be a part of that shit. I needed to get my shit together.” It’s all been part of the journey for Danny Brown, one that’s seen him evolve personally and sonically along the way.
Danny is a unifying figure in hip-hop’s current state of uncertainty – a favourite of dance music lovers and internet rap nerds alike – not to mention the frat boys riding the trap wave, teenagers in Jordans, and long time older hip-hop fans like our friend the doorman. Despite meeting the stereotypical (and sometimes restrictive) qualifications of ‘real hip-hop’, the Detroit native is travelling in the independent circuit, and finding that his listeners vary drastically from his original fanbase back home. His association with Fool’s Gold has brought him to a new audience – not that they always appreciate what he’s doing. “When I first came to Fool’s Gold Day Off with sample-based music, people were like, ‘We don’t want to hear you rap,’” Danny says. He isn’t looking to prove himself though, his formative years on the streets of Detroit offer more than enough in terms of authentic credentials. His early sound was distinctly underground, but lyrically Danny’s style has always varied from his peers. “If you were a backpacker at that time and you were listening to me, I was different from the normal backpack shit. I was talking about what I do and what I’m going through. I want to make people laugh,” he explains.
Making people laugh comes naturally to Danny. At his core he’s a performer looking to engage his audience. After ditching his ties with crack, Danny has become a spokesman for the molly generation (he’s also appointed himself the ‘Adderall Admiral’), admittedly spending all of his tour money on clothes and recreational drugs. MDMA and Danny have a lot in common: they have successfully bridged the gap between raves and rap shows and collected an audience of people who just want to party, even if it’s a little risky. As the stigma of recreational drug use fades, and the pendulum of popular culture swings to favour rappers who rhyme about partying on molly as opposed to bagging up crack, Danny’s self-professed love of the substance is in touch with the zeitgeist. But the references to drugs in his tracks are more than merely tools to paint a picture of a ‘ratchet’ party lifestyle – if you read between the lines they are a part of his much larger personal narrative.
This is the artist who starts the aptly named ‘Torture’ with “Remember one time this fiend owed the boss / Put peanut butter on her pussy / Let his pits lick it off,” before going on to describe his first exposure to crack as watching an addict try to light a rock off of a stove in his kitchen at seven years old. Speaking to Danny, there’s an almost-but-not-quite guilty conscience below the surface. “Drugs can be so dirty and nasty. I feel bad when I smoke weed in a dirty house. I got to make sure my house is spick and span before I do anything. I like smokin’ and cleaning.” Selling drugs again isn’t completely off the table for Danny though, who claims opening a weed dispensary in Michigan would be his dream business venture – as long as it follows his clean and (almost) classy approach to smoking.
Danny’s latest album is called Old, a reference to the seniority he has on many of his musical contemporaries who feature on the record. It is also a nod to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but this album is all about the old Danny Brown. At 32 years old, rap isn’t exactly new to Danny, and he has lived wildly enough to have stories to make double-sided records for many years to come. On this record, the MC talks about selling crack and giving the money to his mom for groceries, getting his hair braided, and booties clapping. His ad-libs are very much of the moment – ranging from “swag” to “molly”, but this is not the plastic-wrapped hip-hop that dominates the popular domain. Old represents the maturation of the Danny Brown that blew up on people’s radars after 2011’s XXX. His distinctive yap is still present, but it’s less abrasive this time around. It’s the (slight) mellowing of a voice that’s found its place, that’s gained an audience.
On the release, Danny brings back his old-school style, catering to his early supporters by re-introducing elements of the sample-based music that he originally made for the headphones of backpack hip-hop fans. There’s a tension in Danny’s music, with equal emphasis on samples and original electronic compositions. Unable to decide between the two sides of his music, he simply decided not to. “I make sample-based shit to listen to in your headphones, and then I make the electronic shit just to perform. Back in the day, people used to make albums, and people would make radio songs. I make performance songs.” Brown has created an album that encompasses both ends of the spectrum and continues to allow his varied fan base to grow.
It’s an attitude that’s reflected in his production choices. “There isn’t a middle ground in Detroit,” says Danny, “there’s people who do sample shit, and people who do electronic shit. I couldn’t pick.” But making sample-based hip-hop has its own set of legal issues. “Working on this album and using sample-based music, it just reminded me – you might make a song that you love and not even be able to use it, because of clearances and all that.” Being so closely tied to the electronic community through Fool’s Gold and his producers, Danny jokingly worries if there will be a place for rap in his community in the future. “In a minute they’re not gonna need our rapping asses. They can just have DJs.” Fool’s Gold Day Off is largely rap this year, but Danny believes rap came from DJing, and is glad to see the worlds colliding in the present day. “DJs run shit now. Rappers – we’re just pumping the party up a little bit. You know, the hype men, the MCs. It’s going back to some real hip-hop shit.”
Old was a long process. Due to his schedule, Danny didn’t get much of a chance to sit down and record – and the album took two years to come to fruition. It took shape while consistently touring, with just a few stops home to Michigan. Being on an independent label helped allow Danny to work at his own pace, but eventually he needed a push. “With a label like Fool’s Gold, they don’t rush me. Well, after a while they were like ‘C’mon, you gotta do something.’” Although the constant touring wasn’t without its own benefits, snagging features from tourmates A$AP Rocky and Schoolboy Q on Old was as easy as messing around on the bus. “I played ‘Kush Coma’, and Rocky was like ‘Put me on that!’ I played Q an unfinished song – it was only one verse – and he was like ‘Fuck, let me finish it.’” Danny was also conscious of keeping true to his own style, a process that took some time. “You don’t ever want to get caught up in no trends, no matter how crackin’ everything can get,” he tells us. “As much as I want to experiment and do new shit, the old shit is my backbone.”
Growing up, Danny was accused of “losing his mind” for listening to British MCs like Dizzee Rascal. Like “most of America”, Danny says his friends couldn’t get past the accent. Not fazed by the judgement, he has always paid close attention to international music, so it’s not surprising his own album is “60% UK,” as he describes it. There are flashes of an Americana take on grime throughout Old, surely to the chagrin of hip-hop purists – not that Danny seems too concerned. “When I was coming up, I was giving props to those artists. I don’t think too many American artists are doing that,” he tells us. It’s this attitude of looking outside the insular US hip-hop community that ensures that Danny’s music resonates far beyond the boundaries of his home country.
Much like the rest of us, Danny’s global mentality is closely linked to an appreciation of the online world. He admits he “came up on the internet,” which makes us question if he fits into the polarising category of ‘internet rappers’. After all, he has toured with Kitty [Pryde], frequently graces the pages of music blogs worldwide, and is known to read a fair bit of online music journalism. Unlike a lot of his hip-hop contemporaries, the idea of being part of this modern phenomenon doesn’t offend him. “Internet is that new shit. It’s the new way to entertain. I don’t want to be on the radio; I don’t want to be on TV. I’d rather be on the internet.” While Danny isn’t rapping about the internet, it’s clear he’s spending his time on it. Although he considers it research. The internet is Danny’s number one spot to find out new music. “You have to yearn for it,” he tells us. “There’s some people who listen to music in their car, they like it, [but] they don’t seek out music. I literally get on my computer and I’m googlin’ and trying to figure it out.”
Placing features from his peers like Schoolboy Q on his album next to unexpected multi-genre collaborations like Purity Ring and Charli XCX is what makes Old stand out from the rest of 2013’s rap releases. SKYWLKR, Danny’s “go-to guy”, along with Paul White, produced the majority of the tracks. After Hudson Mohawke was occupied working with Kanye on Yeezus, Danny got an unexpected call from Scottish producer Rustie. “I felt like Rustie was a bigger deal, because I knew Hudson. He hit me up after I said that I was a fan of his, and gave me some beats. I was like ‘Hell yeah I want some beats from you.’” It’s that diversity of sounds that makes the album so compelling, but at its core it’s Danny’s vision that shines through and warrants obsessive re-listens.
Meanwhile, back at the Wythe Hotel Danny is posing for the last few photos with the gaggle of fans gathered at the entrance. They have been drawn in by his presence. As he leaves the landing, you get the feeling that there will be a lot more doors opening for the artist in the future.
This story will appear in ACCLAIM’s upcoming issue 31 – The Loud Issue – preorder available here.
Photography by Clément Pascal
Words by Lina Abascal