He's Old, Missing Teeth, and Has a Funny Haircut: He's Danny Brown, Rap's Biggest Deal
Apart from the overcrowding and cost of living, subway ads are one of the most depressing things about New York City. But now, next to the usual ads offering escape in vacation destinations and self-realization in a pair of shoes, you'll find a glimmer of hope in a Uniqlo ad featuring 32-year-old Detroit rapper Danny Brown.
See also: The Many Faces of Danny Brown: His Five Defining Songs
With his tongue sticking out between one-and-a-half missing front teeth and hands flashing devil horns, Brown, positioned next to a cast of forgettable characters, stands out. That's how he's achieved success in hip-hop as well.
Though he's been releasing music since 2003 and was vetted by both G-Unit and Roc-A-Fella, 2011's XXX, Brown's first release on Brooklyn label Fools Gold, was his breakout moment. The album is a brutally honest snapshot of an aging rapper struggling to achieve his dream, set against the backdrop of Detroit's fast-decaying urban landscape.
"The songs that I perform from XXX get the biggest response, and those songs are two years old," Brown says on the phone from Palm Springs, California, where he is preparing for his performance at Coachella. "I'm starting to see more and more people get up on XXX every day. I guess that's what's considered a classic."
This is more a statement of fact than bragging from a self-involved rapper. Forget hip-hop; XXX is one of the few albums in recent years that's helped an artist retain relevance in the fickle world of blog hype and buzz cycles that currently controls the music industry. SPIN named it the No. 1 hip-hop album of the year, and in March, Brown was picked up by Goliath Management, who guided the career of another successful Detroit rapper named Eminem.
Brown's distinct delivery alternates between menacingly gruff and playfully nasal, a signature style that earned him the nickname "The Hybrid." His drug-fueled rhymes, often over beats from grime and EDM producers, make him one of the only rappers expected to survive the changeover from hip-hop to electronic music as the party soundtrack for America's youth.
But six years ago, before he began flashing his missing teeth in press photos and became the first rapper with a Hitler Youth haircut, you wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a gangster rap lineup.
Born Daniel Sewell, Brown grew up with two teenage parents and began rapping in kindergarten. His father was a drug dealer and local DJ who introduced his young son to hip-hop and dance music. Though Brown lucked out with two loving parents, he says he was also sheltered, which led him to trouble in his teens.
"We didn't go outside much," Brown explains, "until I was able to go outside, and then I'd leave for whole weekends because they couldn't find me."
After his parents split up in his late teens, he began selling crack to provide for his family. He would later spent eight months in jail for drug possession.
Hearing Brown talk about his upbringing is like a history lesson on the deterioration of Detroit's inner city. Though he spent his early years on the west side in the Dexter-Linwood area, in first grade he moved to the east side, which he explains is a much tougher neighborhood.
"The whole vibe and mentality is totally different," he says. "On the west side, a lot of the parents worked at the Big Three [Ford, GM, and Chrysler]. The neighborhoods were a little better, so it was all about who dressed the best, who had the nicest car, who had the most money in their pocket. Then on the east side, there's no money circulating, so it's more about who's the toughest, who's shootin' the most niggas."
Brown explains that, as he got older, he witnessed the rapid decay of both areas. Auto factories began closing in the mid-'90s, leaving people on the west side desperate for income. They started illegally scrapping copper and aluminum piping, gutting homes in the once-flourishing neighborhood. On the east side, homes were abandoned, and either burned by vandals or torn down by the city.
On tracks like "Fields" and "Scrap or Die" from XXX, Brown describes both phenomena in vivid detail. This all happened within a decade, he says.