A Good Egg: Danny Brown debunks his myths

As he prepares to play the Parklife Weekender, we speak to Detroit rap star Danny Brown about leaving the lean years behind, mankind's internet future, and why hard-boiled savoury snacks are not the enemy

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Jun 2014

In the three years since the release of his worldwide breakthrough, the XXX mixtape, and its follow-up, 2013's Old, Danny Brown has become very famous very quickly – and he has often found himself reduced to a caricature. The giggling, molly-addled party animal with a taste for narcotic cough syrup and weed – that's Danny, right? After a handful of interviews in which Brown became fed up with the line of questioning, he began to be portrayed as emotional, hyper-sensitive – and he has spoken candidly about his struggles with depression and addiction, his shyness, his time in prison for drug dealing. The former jailbird and bipolar genius who just wants to be taken seriously – that's Danny, yeah?

The fact is, both of these caricatures are reductive. Speaking to Brown via a dodgy connection as he stands outside his house in Detroit, his home city, it quickly becomes apparent that he is a sensitive, thoughtful, consummately professional musician with real passion. He's as excited about making both the most upfront, hedonistic party music for his core fans, and intelligent, brutally honest and confessional tracks for those who come to hip-hop seeking pure lyricism. He's equally accomplished at both.

That purist, lyrics-focused approach to hip-hop can have its downside in the live arena. “I've been to a lot of rap shows... that stuff can be pretty boring,” Brown says diplomatically. “I wanted to make my show more of a party atmosphere. A lot of people go to rap shows just to vibe in their head, but I wanted to make people dance.”

“To me, hip-hop is an expression of your life. It's the way you live" – Danny Brown

This explains, perhaps, why a live set from Brown is more likely to feature the pill-popping anthem Dip than, say, the eloquent, nostalgic autobiographical track Grown Up. Brown is unapologetic that his shows tend to go ham more than they make heads nod. “I have a lot of fun performing,” he says. The crowd are into it too – witness the regular moshpits that break out at his shows. Has he ever feared a riot kicking off? He laughs. “I mean, we've had a few hairy situations. But at the end of the day, I don't promote any negativity at my shows.” UK audiences will have another chance to experience this for themselves, as Brown heads to the UK to play the Parklife Weekender in Manchester, and Field Day in London. Brown is already a big fan of UK crowds: “I love being over there,” he says. “Every time I go I have fun.”

Brown is excited by the internet age. In his thirties now, he grew up in the era before broadband, forums, Twitter and Instagram, but he has embraced the technology, both on a professional level, and a personal one. “I just look at it as the future, you know what I'm saying?” Brown becomes audibly excited, warming to the topic. “Like, you could be a radio star, you could be a TV star, but being an internet star is what we're going to be talking about for the next few years, now. Like, video killed the radio star? It's like the internet killed the TV.”

That, says Brown, is no bad thing. “I don't watch things on TV any more, I watch things on the internet. That's my world. I don't listen to the radio, so I don't know what happens in that world. But anything that happens on the internet, I know what happened.” He is no prophet of doom when it comes to predicting the effect of global connectivity on the next generation, either: “I think life will be better for kids who grew up with the internet. I remember a time when the internet wasn't there, but who's saying that was a good time? The internet is the future. I'm just happy to be alive and be able to see stuff like that.”

Growing up in Detroit, with a DJ father who introduced him to house, techno and other electronic music, it's no surprise that Brown's choice of producers has been wide-ranging and genre-defying – over the years he has worked with bass music luminaries such as Rustie, Baauer, Evil Nine and others, as well as a clutch of producers from Detroit and beyond. He talks passionately about his love for grime and dubstep, particularly Dizzee Rascal, whose influence can be felt in Brown's tightly-laced double-time cadences. He was never tempted to become a producer: “I played around with beat machines my whole life because they were around me, but I always looked at it like writing was my thing,” he says. "I always wanted to be a rapper."

Should hip-hop always be a wide-ranging, diverse, portmanteau art form, borrowing freely from a huge array of different musical styles? Brown seems reluctant to reduce the genre to a set of instructions. “To me, hip-hop is an expression of your life,” he says. “It's the way you live. Whatever you think that sound should be, that's what it should be. I don't think anybody should cater to what's going on around them; just be yourself. Use the sound that you think you should use. Don't follow, just lead.”

Asked about Detroit, which has experienced grinding poverty and a mass exodus in the wake of continued industrial, infrastructural and economic collapse in the past decade, Brown is cautiously optimistic. “Whenever things get that bad, when there's not a lot of money around, people have different ways to express themselves,” he ventures. “Like now, we have a really thriving art community. A lot of artists are moving to Detroit. It's a place where you can do graffiti. You can put up a tag, and it's probably going to be there for a long time, it's not just going to disappear next week. It's starting to make the city look better, actually, the more and more graffiti that goes up – we have artists from overseas, from New York – all big time graffiti artists. There's a big art community there, so that's what I see happening.”

Brown served time for drug offences before his rap career took off in earnest, and he credits this experience as a formative one. “Before that happened, I would say I was probably a bit more shy. I figure it worked out, just for my personality, in some sense. When you're in jail, if you don't talk, you don't eat. You have to speak up for yourself. You'll always be around different personalities, every day. So... I had to start talking. And once I got out of jail, it was just easier to communicate with other people. Before, I was just real shy. I wouldn't tell people I knew how to rap.”

With those years firmly behind him, Brown is still shaking off the notion that he is a full-time party animal. He has given up drinking 'lean' – a concoction of codeine-laced cough syrup and soda favoured by rappers such as Soulja Boy, who was recently rumoured to have bought up a large stack of the medicine's ingredients after the company that made it elected to close down production. “I didn't hear about that,” Brown says with some trepidation. He takes a deep breath. “That's on him. I drank lean for like two years maybe, and it was just a bad time in my life. Good luck to him, you know?” Are the lean years something he is happy to put behind him? “I'm happy leaving it in the past,” he says. “I don't even want to think about that stuff.”

Giving up lean was no picnic, either – and yet, when he went to The Guardian's office to be interviewed about his music, they decided to pitch him a humorous interview whereby Brown would try various British delicacies, the first being a Scotch egg. “A lot of people look at me and think I'm a funny person,” he laments. “And I am, I have a warm personality. But at that time, that was when I was starting to get off lean – I was very moody, and I was going through a lot of things. I wasn't up for playing any games. I just wanted to do the interview, be serious, and then be out, you know? I didn't expect to go to The Guardian and be having jokes.” Brown, understandably, walked out of the interview.

Now, the rumour that he hates Scotch eggs follows him around like a bad smell – The Skinny is happy to help him debunk this particular falsehood. “See, I ate a Scotch egg before that,” he insists wearily. “I don't have a problem with Scotch eggs. The Scotch egg I ate was fresh from a restaurant, it was warm, it was nice. But this Scotch egg happened to be one he had just grabbed from a deli or something – it was cold, and it looked like it had been sitting there for who knows how long. I just wasn't up for it that day. It wasn't really bad, it was more of a funny situation. I just left because... I was there to work. I wasn't there to play any games.”

Brown is not currently working on a follow-up to Old. “I take my time to make albums. I'm not the type of person that goes to the studio every day,” he says. “I'm not the type of person who literally has to make music all the time, because the music is not my life. I have to live life, in order to have things to write about. So right now, I'm in a living phase.” He's happy at Fool’s Gold: “I love those guys, they are my family. That's the label that I wanted to sign to. At the end of the day, there aren't so many labels that are going to let an artist take his time with his music. They trust me, they give me that space to do what I have to do, to make these projects.”

How does that differ from releasing his own music? “I guess the biggest difference to when I was releasing my own stuff is that being with Fools Gold, it's a movement. They have a scene. That's what enticed me to want to be over there. Before, I was just putting music on the internet. With the label, that music is able to reach a lot of people that it probably wouldn't have before.”

Crucially, music should never feel like work, as far as Brown is concerned. This is why so many producers have praised him for his easy, natural flow and relaxed approach in the studio. Brown laughs when reminded of a few of these comments. “I only do projects I can have fun with, so if I'm having fun, it's always going to be an easy time.”

Danny Brown plays the Parklife Weekender in Manchester on 7-8 Jun

Old is out now via Fool’s Gold