When Danny Brown welcomes us into the suite he’s inhabiting at London’s Ace Hotel, he’s in high spirits. He cracks a wide grin, showing off the new grill that conceals his signature chipped front teeth, and offers up a drink from the mini-bar. Save for a few choice feature verses, it’s been three years since we’ve heard from the Detroit rapper - and they’ve been the best of his life. Now 35-years-old, Danny has spent the past 36 months ticking off the things he believes he probably should have achieved earlier in life: he bought a house, he got his daughter into a good school, and he learned to drive - even if the latter was just so that he could buy a Porsche! “To be honest, I’m too stuck in my ways,” he admits, when asked about life behind the wheel. “Driving takes too much responsibility. I like to drink, I smoke.”
In a constantly accelerating music industry, Danny isn’t concerned by the time taken to craft his latest body of work. Even from first listen, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, released on legendary label Warp Records, feels timeless; considered, free of volatile references, and with boundary-pushing production that sounds unlike anything else on the market. “I want my albums to mature,” he says. “More than just be the talk of two weeks. Sometimes they say something is the best album in the world for two weeks, and then ain’t nobody talking about it. I’d rather skip all the hype. Tell me [what you think] a year later!” As an avid music fan with an eclectic taste himself, Danny understands the value of dodging the trends and making music that lasts.
Even delving back into his catalogue now, and pulling up a record like ‘XXX’ -released on trendy Brooklyn-based label Fool’s Gold in 2011 - the content sounds as refreshing as ever. It was on that release that he first began working with Paul White, who had initially reached out to Danny after being captivated by ‘The Hybrid’’s ‘The Greatest Rapper Ever’. The Lewisham producer has been somewhat of a secret weapon to Brown over the past three albums, and comes into his own this time around handling the vast majority of the album. When talking about Danny, Paul refers constantly to their compatible energies: unique, powerful, raw and intense. Despite being forged over 3000 miles apart, this is a connection born out of real feeling.
“I have over 500 beats from him,” Danny proclaims enthusiastically. “Some of these beats on this album is from the batch from ‘XXX’. I just wasn’t mature enough in my songwriting to execute them right.” From this stash, Danny keeps playlists that he returns to whenever it’s ready to get back into album mode. “I look at it like me and him prepare the meal, and then I get everybody else to put the seasoning on it. He starts the album and I just get a little flavour from everybody else.” On ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, the seasoning comes courtesy of a stellar line-up that includes Black Milk, Alchemist, Evian Christ and Petite Noir. “Our marriage of arts is something I’m very proud of,” says White, a few days after our conversation with Danny.
“Creativity first and sticking to that. Being such a part of the vision, my energy helping to tell stories and create worlds. It’s guts, grit, honesty and magic.”
- - -
- - -
Diving into worlds created through sound is something that Danny is all too familiar with, citing Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ and The Streets’ ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ as his two favourite rap albums. “When you listen to them you’re a part of their world,” he says, laying back and sipping from his bottle of Hennessy. “That’s what I wanted to bring. I’ve never been to the Queensbridge Projects in my life. But, when I listened to ‘Illmatic’ I felt like I was in the middle of it. I want people to be in the middle of my world when they listen to these. It’s like therapy to me. The world is my therapist. I just lay down on the couch and I tell them what the fuck I’m going through.”
He likens each of his albums to scenes in the wider movie of his catalogue, and constantly refers to directors from Kubrick to Spielberg in his lyrics. Today, due to the non-linear approach he’s taken in releasing these scenes he’s got another film-maker in mind: “‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’; I’m not as ambitious with my albums as he was - as far as being that detailed in every song - but I look at mine almost like Tarantino, where scenes might not come directly after each other.” His latest scene leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The narrative, which takes him through a rabbit hole of self-destruction before changing direction with its uplifting third act, could describe the past three years, or it could reflect a weekend long bender - Danny isn’t particularly interested in clarification. “It’s like puzzles you have to put together for yourself and figure it out,” he offers. “I’ve got songs that reference other songs all of the time. I might retell a story in another song, I might have only told you a little bit the first time around, and then I give you a song about what really happened.”
While his autobiographical 2013 album ‘Old’ - which he cites as his most personal work to date - was rooted in the past tense, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ sees him dealing with his present reality, as life as a rap star. While ‘XXX’ told the story of his come-up, his latest follows up with the realisation that ‘making it’ can be even worse. “The irony of the whole shit!” he exclaims. “‘XXX’ was desperation. Using drugs to escape my problems, and now with this nothing’s changed. I made it here and now the drugs are in excess. Now it’s more pressure staying in it than it is getting in in the first place. Fuck! What did I get myself into?”
- - -
- - -
Danny’s rap star reality is far from the cliché you’d see painted on MTV. Referring to himself as a hermit, he spends most of his time chilling at home with his girlfriend and his cats. “My cats are my best friends,” he admits. “I hang out with them for the most part. When I’m home I get a lot of chance to think. I’m Daniel then. Once I fucking get on the airplane, I turn on Danny Brown and the next thing you know, that’s when shit gets a little crazy.”
His off-the-wall actions in the past have been a gift and a curse for Danny in the media and are likely what has him connecting to the Joy Division song after which he named his new LP. While he is hilarious and endearing when appropriate, many journalists and fans have come to expect a 24/7 on-demand circus act from the rapper. Ian Curtis’ droning lyrics (“For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says ‘I still exist”) on the mournful ‘Closer’ track couldn’t be more appropriate. “The song was like talking about he feel like he like a side show, freak show type of thing,” he says. “For me, I kind of feel like the same. I really relate to that lot.”
During a particularly turbulent press run in 2014 he had walked out of an interview with The Guardian over a scotch egg, while a Gigwise journalist penned an article on how she felt humiliated by the interview he gave her. He apologised for his actions at the time, and he reflects today, remorseful but pleased to be on the other side. “I’m all emotional, I was going through shit at the time, I was getting clean. It’s hard when you’re going through that. Now I’m happy.” On the album’s closing track, ‘Hell For It’, he extends an apology to anyone that got caught up between him and his addiction: “Actavis double cups was addicted to that / Had them demons on my back, was escaping through that / Blamed everybody but myself, apologies for that.”
Still, Danny accepts that one man’s misfortune can be another’s comedy. Sharing his toughest ordeals can be enlightening, or even entertaining, to his listeners, and he’s more than okay with that. “A negative situation happened to me, but when it becomes a positive to somebody else because they get entertained by it, it spins back on me and gives me positive energy,” he enlightens. “That’s one of the best joys in life to be honest with you. People hit me up all the time to tell me that ‘XXX’ helped them going through their drug habits.”
- - -
- - -
After all, the success we find him enjoying today was born from struggle. On ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know’ he returns to his days on the street corners of Detroit where he hustled weed, recalling: “We was so ambitious / All we really wanted was new Jordans and some bitches.” At the age of 19, as the man of the house, he caught his first case for possession with intent to distribute, and when he violated his probation landed himself in jail for eight months. When he got out in 2007 he saw his friends - who were previously small time hustlers like himself - reaching new levels and living big time lifestyles. “It was cool before, buying cars, rims and sneakers,” he recalls. “But when I came back it was a whole other ball game. I was terrified because I knew at that road was not no fucking white picket fence. What we was doing to get the Jordans and bitches, that could only last for so long. After going to jail I was like, ‘I’m never going back to that shit.’”
The experience left Danny Brown aspiring for more. And now, with all the new Jordans that he could have ever hoped for, it’s a thirst for artistic evolution that drives him. “A lot of people have more ambition than creativity,” he considers. “I have more creativity than ambition. At the end of the day I just want to get respect for the originality.” Danny is happy with his place in the world, and would rather have the respect of his peers than a Top Ten chart position, something that is very apparent in his approach both to the content of the new album, and the way he’s chosen to roll it out. The idea that a track as abrasive and unorthodox as his Evian Christ-produced ‘Pneumonia’ could be a lead single would be laughed out of most label meetings, yet with his proven track record and the support of Warp, it feels like a no-brainer.
“I’ve shown that I can consistently create some progressive fucking rap music,” he says, taking a reflective moment as our interview comes to its conclusion. “I think with this album my flag is cemented in the ground. I’m proud of that. I feel like this is fully me; I’m not playing by anyone else’s rules but mine. All I ever wanted to be was a rapper since I was in kindergarten. And I did it, so shit, I’m good! I just gotta stay here now. It’s like a trained fighter. I feel like Mayweather right now. I ain’t got no ills yet in my bouts. I’m still swinging.”
- - -
- - -
'Atrocity Exhibition' is out now.
Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Jesse Jenkins