He's Old, Missing Teeth, and Has a Funny Haircut: He's Danny Brown, Rap's Biggest Deal
"As a kid, it didn't look that bad," he reflects. "Now, as a grown man, it looks worse than you could ever imagine."
In 2003, Brown started a hip-hop group called the Reservoir Dogs with his cousin Dopehead and a friend, Chip$. Though Brown had been attending rap battles and open mics in his teens and performing under "Danny," he took the name Danny Brown from a retired pimp turned blues musician in the documentary American Pimp. He would later release a series of four acclaimed mixtapes called Detroit State of Mind, with influences ranging from Spice 1 to Eminem to Dizzee Rascal.
After Brown was released from jail in 2007, his taste expanded to indie rock acts like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. He began shopping at thrift stores in an attempt to court "hipster bitches." The haircut came later, inspired by David Bowie and the idea of adopting a new character.
Brown also started taking Adderall, and says his work improved as a result. He says Adderall, used to treat attention-deficit disorders and commonly used as a study drug by college kids, made him more focused, and he started obsessing over every word. He released The Hybrid and Detroit State of Mind Part 4 in 2010, and came in contact with G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo, with whom he collaborated on a mixtape titled Hawaiian Snow.
Brown was later courted by G-Unit and met with 50 Cent, who rejected him because of his skinny jeans. This didn't come as a shock.
"I've been hearing that ever since I started rapping, that I didn't look how they wanted me to look, so it wasn't a big thing," he says.
Journalists and DJs started taking interest around the same time, and his music eventually got into the hands of A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip through bandmate Ali Shaheed, whose manager was also courting Brown. In March 2010, Fools Gold owner DJ A-Trak had lunch with Q-Tip, who recommended signing the buzzed-about rapper. Fools Gold released XXX in 2011 to rave reviews, and OLD, Brown's second album on the label, will be released in August.
Music journalist Jeff Weiss of our sister paper LA Weekly first picked up on Brown through the Dilla dedication album Jay Stay Paid. "He's blowing up now because everything is right--the music, the cosigns, humor, the aesthetic," he says about why it took so long for Brown to pop. "But it's the honesty that allows him to connect. Most rappers are one step away from forging birth certificates, but Danny was so upfront about his age that he put it in his album title. There's no gimmick, no pandering toward one crowd."
Brown agrees. He says that hip-hop has fragmented in recent years due to an expanding audience, which has finally made room for rappers like Macklemore, Mykki Blanco, and himself.
"When I was a kid, there wasn't a [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based white rapper] Mac Miller, so that kid didn't have a rapper to listen to, so he listened to Pearl Jam or some shit," Brown says. "Now if you're a kid, there's somebody speaking for you in this music, so you have something to relate to."
This is all to say that Danny Brown got to where he's at without compromising, which is rare whenever art and business intersect. He says the last thing he expected was to be modeling for brands like Adidas, Mark McNairy, and Uniqlo, and he isn't worried about signing with a major label.
"At the end of the day, being on a major would just be me wanting money," he explains. "As far as what I want to do musically, I feel like I'm already on a good path without them."
Danny Brown performs with Kitty Pryde at Irving Plaza on May 7. 8 p.m., $17