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Danny Brown: No boundary issues
A hip-hop phenom revels in pushing buttons, on stage and record

By Jonathan Zwickel
Special to MSN Music

Danny Brown is a haphazard haircut, a gap-toothed grin, and a pair of purple skinny jeans. He's a drug dealer, a drug addict, a sex maniac, and a misanthrope. He's a Juggalo. He's a writer and a performer and a vocal stylist. He's a superstar late in the making. The 32-year-old hip-hop phenomenon is all of these things because — as he'll tell you in no uncertain terms and with plenty of coarse language — he sets no limits for what he does.

"I don't look at myself as a rapper, I think I'm an artist," Brown says, occupying one of the copious green rooms at the Sasquatch Music Festival in eastern Washington State. "I do what the f--- I want to!"

The air conditioning diffuses blunt smoke as Brown sips soda from a can, flanked by his DJ, Skywalker, his manager Yussef and a couple female friends. He's as actively engaged in this conversation as a man sunk almost horizontally into a couch can be.

"So I care about my live shows," he continues. "I think my live show is the most important aspect of my music. I make music for people to listen to in their headphones and I make music just to perform. Not too many rappers do that, and that's my niche."

Brown has been developing that niche for years, but he officially arrived on the national radar last year with his debut "XXX." The album — at once self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating, emotionally raw and hilariously debauched — defined him as one of a few breakout artists in the crowded field of modern, Internet-driven hip-hop. Like the slew of self-released mixtapes that preceded it, "XXX" was offered to fans for free online, but this time backed by uberhip New York indie label Fool's Gold. Subsequent tours with fellow rising stars like A$AP Rocky and Childish Gambino nudged Brown further into prominence — this summer he was the only rapper to perform on Sasquatch's main stage (aside, of course, from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who have climbed to a whole other echelon of fame). Brown's sophomore LP, "Old," is slated for release later this year and comes packaged with all sorts of attendant hype.

Onstage and off, Brown's demeanor is that of the class clown who's not-so-secretly concealing hefty emotions beneath a goofball exterior. Sonically, he's descended from the great lineage of nasal rappers with a sense of humor, a loose-knit but intimate family that includes B-Real of Cypress Hill, Adrock of the Beastie Boys and Q-Tip of a Tribe Called Quest.

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"I'm really a fan of the music so I understand, like, every side of the genre," he says. "A lot of people look at rap like it's all one thing but it's not. Every rapper is not the same. Just like rock music. Classical rock has nothing to do with heavy metal. There's so many different genres in rap or hip-hop or whatever you wanna call it, but it's just not divided up yet."

Lyrically, Brown's pedigree is entirely Detroit and mostly hard knocks. By his late teens, his parents had split. By his early 20s, he'd been in and out of jail for various drug offenses and misdemeanors. But he'd been sure of one thing all his life.

"I knew how to rap since I knew how to talk," he says. "I rapped at my kindergarten 'show and tell' — I just kicked a freestyle. Class was hyped, so I was like, damn I must be kinda tight, so I just kept rapping from that day. I told my guidance counselor I don't give a f--- about school, I wanna be a rapper."

Detroit music has always been an influence, but not necessarily the side of it you might expect. He cites Eminem as a touchstone as a matter of course, but other than that he has little opinion about the city's hip-hop scene.

"Most Detroit that I ever got was ghetto-tech and house music like Juan Atkins, Model 500," he says. "But I didn't really listen to no local rap music. We didn't have any good rappers 'til Eminem. I never was the type that just listened to somebody because they're from my city. I'm still like that. The Earth is my turf."

These days, Brown sees little of Detroit — he's on the road too much. The closest connection to home he maintains is another unlikely crew, much-maligned horrorcore rappers Insane Clown Posse.

"They my homies. I look up to them," he says. "Can't say I have too many music industry friends, but Insane Clown Posse is for sure my friends

Brown played ICP's infamous Gathering of the Juggalos in 2012. A scene of prodigious intoxication, semi-professional wrestling, gratuitous bare breasts, and geysers of cheap soda sprayed at performers in a constant spume, it makes Sasquatch's shiny, happy revelry seem downright genteel. The enormous Main Stage here is hardly intimidating to Brown.

"Once you play the Gathering of the Juggalos, everything after that is whatever," he laughs. "I'm not worried about getting my head split with a can of pop. I think I'm gonna do alright."

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Sure enough, an hour after the interview, Brown took the Main Stage to play a 45-minute set to thousands of eager fans. He played a slew of hits — the ones tailor-made, perhaps, for live performances — with shirtless dudes and beer-buzzed girls rap-singing along to anthems like "Blunt after Blunt" and the inevitable follow-up, "Weed Hangover."

Brown connects with his audience in a hugely personal way. That connection is due not only to his microphone skills but his charisma. Part of his charm is his disarming self-awareness. Who else but an utterly confident individual would flaunt two missing teeth like a banner? Who else would go through an incident involving onstage oral sex (as Brown did during a show in Minneapolis earlier this year) and simply never speak about it?

Here in this cramped room in the remote, awaiting stage time on one of the most scenic stages in American, Brown knows exactly where he is and what he's doing.

"I'm kinda like living the American dream," he says. "I was born to do something and I did it, you know? I win at the end of the day, regardless what happens. A lot of people live life and they don't know what the f--- they wanna do. They got no type of goals, they don't even know what the f--- they talent is. But I discovered my s--- at an early age and I stuck to it and now I'm rapping to mountains!"

Jonathan Zwickel is senior editor of City Arts magazine in Seattle and contributes regularly to SPIN, The Believer and MTVHive. His book "Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography," was published Greenwood Press.

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