A hip-hop phenom revels in pushing buttons, on stage
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
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.
"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
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
"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."
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
"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.