For rapper Danny Brown, it's not the Adderall, the weed or the hood, it's dope skills, cred and the Internet
Published: February 16, 2011
We're sitting in the kitchen of what he calls the "frat house," a home right next door to his grandmother's that has considerably less appeal. Cockroaches creep across surfaces. The only heat here rises from the open oven, which is cranked to full.
Brown props his feet up on the oven's door. The place isn't a known drug house, but copper wiring's a commodity with inhabitants, and it's the house in which Brown shot his much buzzed-about "Greatest Rapper Ever" video that sees some dude stripping copper from the kitchen. How Detroit.
Sipping from bottle of Smirnoff vodka, Brown tells of his journey from the slum to, well, the slum.
"I used to sell crack out of apartments off Clairmount and Third," he says. "Most of the stuff that I rap about is the truth. The line, 'was so thirsty dog sold a pregnant bitch crack,' that's true. I really did that shit. She was smacking herself and everything. It definitely wasn't a good time in my life." His clink time wasn't for crack sales. It was weed, which he smokes recreationally.
"I never got caught with no crack, that's what makes it odd. Maybe it was my karma. I had to pay my dues. When you sell crack to a woman that's pregnant, you have to pay for that. Jail was a chance for me to sit down and regroup myself."
Upon his November 2007 release, Brown's priorities were in place. He wanted to push his music to a wide audience and be a better father; his child is a 10-year-old girl.
In the mid-'00s, Brown was once best known in Detroit as the strongest member of Reser'vor Dogs, a three-man eastside crew who rapped of crime and women. (In fact, Brown was born Sewell, but going on the theme of Reservoir Dogs the movie, the emcee adopted his after Mr. Brown, his favorite character.)
The rap trio released a now hard-to-find album, 2004's Runhispockets-dumpemindariva, and their name spread in local hip hop. They landed some press, including a piece in Murder Dog. The Dogs also got spins on one local FM station, which Brown claims the group's manager paid for in hard cash.
Prior to the Dogs, Brown had recorded songs in the studio that belonged to the East Side Chedda Boys (famous for their regional hit song "Oh Boy").
"My homeboy that was in the streets believed in me as a artist, so he got me in the Chedda Boys studio over off Davison, and they charged us $500 to record a song. I did four songs. Dude spent $2,000 on some of the shittiest material you'd ever hear in your life. That shit might be a collector's item one day though ... me rapping over some garbage-ass Chedda Boy beats."
After more failures than successes in Detroit, Brown and Reser'vor Dogs hit New York City in 2004.
A friend's uncle who once drove Jay-Z's tour bus got the Reser'vor Dogs album into Roc-A-Fella Records. The label liked the Dogs, but talk of a deal eventually fizzled. "They liked the music and was gon' sign us," Brown says. "But basically, the guy representing us went in the meeting talking crazy, about how he wanted distribution control and all this shit. The label was like, 'What? Get out of here.' That was pretty much the end of that."
Reser'vor Dogs returned home and faded.
The Roc-A-Fella folks did, however, notice Brown's skills, and about a year later, Travis Cummings, a Roc-A-Fella A&R rep, liked Brown's solo stuff enough to help hotwire Brown's career.
Cummings remembers Brown well: "Well, after I heard his music, I told him that we should keep in contact. I shopped a couple of his tracks and mentioned his name to everyone. People at Atlantic, people at Def Jam, Jermaine Dupri, anyone that could help get him a deal. We banged out Danny's Detroit State of Mind album in '05, '06. The majority of it was recorded in Queens, N.Y., at the Fire and Ice studios. Everyone used to record there, Nicki Minaj, Tony Yayo, Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Stack Bundles. I remember when Danny went to jail, I compiled all the tracks for Detroit State of Mind and put it on the Internet for him."
Brown had returned to New York when things were falling in line, but the time wasn't glamorous for Brown. "I didn't have any money," he says. "I was sleeping on couches, sleeping at the studio, eating beef patties or a slice of pizza for dinner. My peoples were holding me down, Western Unioning me money when I needed it. I'd hit up my mom, my dad, my grandma, whoever could send something."
He remembers times when he and Nicki Minaj were recording material together and it wasn't a big deal: "Nicki was my homie. Not surprised at all in the way she blew up. When I met her, she was rapping like Foxy Brown and Lil Kim. This was back in our grinding stage, eating chicken wings and fried rice together, you know."
He also befriended rapper Tony Yayo, 50 Cent's right-hand man. (Yayo and Brown released a slightly buzzed-about album, Hawaiian Snow, last year.)
Brown traveled to New York for weeklong stints, but, for the most part, he had nothing. Then he lost that year behind bars.
Brown is continually cracking jokes. Part of his appeal is how a room changes when he enters, it moves. There's sudden joy. He's like hip-hop Dave Chappelle.
Brown's mien compliments his music well; he's tall and lean, loves blunts and misses two front teeth. The dental flaw has become his trademark. People adore it. It certainly is endearing. Brown says he actually lost his adult front teeth twice.
"I just think God intended for me not to have teeth," he says, laughing. "I was a little kid. I was riding my homeboy's bike, back when I was staying off Gratiot. And this IROC-Z pulled out of a KFC parking lot and I didn't see it. I got hit by the car head-on. That's how I lost my teeth the first time. But I got 'em fixed! Parents paid for it and everything, I was good. Dawg, like a month later, I'm playing in the house, I fell and chipped a tooth on the table leg. I'm like, 'Damn!' Didn't get it fixed, then was playing basketball a couple of years later, and a nigga came down with an elbow and chipped the other tooth. So I had two, big ass chipped teeth. The shit started deteriorating, and one day I was eating a big piece of chicken, and the shits just came out."
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