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
Brown's also part Filipino. "My dad's mom is 100 percent Filipina," he says. "Most folks don't know that, but, yeah, I grew up going to Filipino church with her, being in that community and everything."
He never learned to speak Filipino, and Brown's 46-year-old father, Charles Strong, says his mother never forced it on the kids, but they certainly grew up eating Filipino foods and absorbing the culture. Brown is likely the most accomplished Blasian rapper of all time.
There's his argot too, choppy and strangely reedy and rhythmic: "I honestly think I get it from crackheads," Brown chuckles. "I think it comes from slinging to baseheads and watching them argue all day. That's fucked-up, isn't it? Living around crackheads made me talk the way I talk."
Except that's no joke. One thing that adds depth to Brown's rapping style is his voice. It's nasal and stretched, and much of the material he recorded on his 2008 album, the Nick Speed-produced Hot Soup, and his acclaimed 2010 release, The Hybrid, sounds as if he's yelling the entire time.
DJ House Shoes, who campaigned loudly on Brown's behalf when Hot Soup dropped, thinks that voice has huge commercial appeal.
"His voice is so different," Shoes says. "It's either going to push you away or grab you. He strikes a nerve in people and you can't ignore him. The cat can rap his ass off. Danny is also a workhorse. He's an artist that puts in the work, and even if he's not financially making it, since he hasn't released a project people have to pay for, he's fucking fantastic."
Brown appreciates that someone like Shoes has shown interest. He also recognizes the value of having Shoes' blessing.
"House Shoes is the tastemaker here. You don't go nowhere without a House Shoes co-sign. For you to get out of Detroit, you need a Hex [Murda] co-sign, you need a House Shoes co-sign, you need a Trick Trick co-sign. And they're all fans of my music so I should be good."
Last year, Brown spent the entire summer touring with G-Unit after re-establishing a connection with Tony Yayo. Several months later, he dropped Hawaiian Snow with Yayo, and despite disappointing sales, that G-Unit connection got his music to an entirely new demographic, and the rap world had to take him seriously.
"We recorded the whole Hawaiian Snow album on tour," Brown says, working a blunt. "50 [Cent] has a studio bus that people can record on during tours. Me and Yayo did a lot of demo versions of songs on the bus while criss-crossing the country. And the songs that we liked, we re-recorded them and turned them into an album."
For many rappers worldwide, recording an album on G-Unit Records would a huge accomplishment. But Brown wasn't too impressed: "It wasn't done when they put it out, in my opinion," he says. "The mixes weren't finished. We didn't have enough good songs, and by the time we got to the point where [Yayo] thought it was done, I felt like we had just started clicking."
The project earned Internet buzz for a few weeks, but soon evaporated.
Did Brown actually tell Yayo he was disappointed?
"I told him a lot of shit about it. But when a person has been in the game before you, sometimes you gotta take they advice. They might be right. But in that instant I was right." Brown cuts Yayo far more slack than he normally would. The physical copies of the album had both artists' name on the cover, but for the digital version, Brown's name was mysteriously removed.
"With iTunes, it takes three months before you can get your first check," Brown says. "Yayo was trying to look out for me, in a sense, getting me some money. But where I'm at career-wise, it's too early in the game for me to be releasing duds."
Brown out raps Yayo and guest star Lil B on the album, but in reality Hawaiian Snow stiffed. But Brown managed to get mostly positive exposure from it. There was an L.A. Times interview with Brown, and he featured on a Def Jam Records showcase in New York, and interviewed on-air with MTV. The bulk of MTV's questions centered on Brown's affiliation with G-Unit. Asked if the MTV interview annoyed him, Brown's voice goes all high like Tyrone Biggums: "Hell, yeah, that shit is annoying! I don't want to answer no questions about G-Unit. If I was on G-Unit, that would be one thing. Obviously, I'm not on G-Unit. Why is you asking me, man? 'Cause now you trying to get me to say something bad about them. I got absolutely nothing bad to say about them. They were feeding me, they were dressing me. They took me all over the country. So I don't have nothing bad to say about them. The shit just didn't work out. It's like that sometimes."
But Brown's not exactly on good, or bad, terms with G-Unit label head 50 Cent. They've clashed, and Brown says 50 would ride his case about wearing skinny jeans all the time.
"50 didn't sign me because I wore skinnies," he says. "I've never told anyone that before. He used to always try to get me to wear regular jeans and the shit was awkward. I get a lot of shit about skinnies. People hate on me all the time. I come in the room, shit tight, dick bulging, it's for the bitches! This ain't for y'all niggas. Don't worry about me. I'm a slut nigga, obviously, I'm offeriing services. But at the same time, I still owe 50 a conversation. Just to say, 'Thank you.' 'Cause I never said that to him. I see how the industry is. It took me to the next level to see the game."
But what's interesting is what Brown's doing now. He's steering away from mainstream hip hop, in a sense, navigating his own lane: Internet rap. And why not? Brown's a master self-promoter, which is key. So lately he's had far more success releasing projects digitally than physically. Between his brisk Twitter personality and select interviews with key bloggers, his online cachet has shot up exponentially within the last 15 months. Brown has become a member of an elite group of social media rappers who use technology and Internet attention spans to dominate the next wave of hip-hop.
"This the digital age," he says. "We not trying to get on MTV, we just trying to get on YouTube and be even bigger."
His official manager, a kind of Detroit hip-hop gatekeeper, Hex Murda — who also handles Elzhi, and Black Milk — thinks Brown's smart for taking that route, applauds him for never creating songs that are radio-friendly.
"Man, fuck commercial radio," Hex says. "As far as breaking new artists, they're in the Stone Age. People today cut on their computers. ... You wanna hear that new Danny Brown? Well he's not on your FM dial, but punch a few keys on your laptop and you'll find him. He knows his audience. An Internet rapper for an Internet age."
Brown thinks of days when he was younger, pining for citywide attention, and almost laments that he tried the traditional route. "There's no need to pay the radio any more to get your songs on air," he says. "I get a million hits on nahright.com. I'm definitely not about to pay for that shit. If I won't pay for pussy, I damn sure won't pay for radio."
Each single Brown releases is covered by buzz-up blogs such as twodopeboyz.com, nahright.com and various others. It's as if because he's playing by the rules of social media and instantly making himself available to everyone, folks are willing to invest in the punchline-driven rapper even more. But behind the persona, behind the mad promoting skills, is the real deal.
Born Daniel Sewell on March 16, 1981, Brown has rapped since he was a little kid. He's wanted to be a rapper for as long as he can remember. Sure, that's not the first time an emcee has used such a line with a journalist, and often, it's not true. They all wanted to be firemen, wrestlers, underpaid music journalists. Something. Not Brown.
"The youngest I remember Danny take rapping seriously was, I'd have to say, elementary school," his younger brother Marq Sewell says. "At night, we supposed to be sleep, and he's creating songs. It was little kid stuff, 'cause of his age, but it was serious. By the time he was 12 or 13, he was listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and he used to do the fast flow. It would amaze people to see someone rap that fast and he could actually do it. While freestyling! People's eyes would get really big.
As the oldest of four sibs, Danny was always the household jokester as well.
"He always wants that good laugh," Marq continues. "The fact that he says some funny shit in his rhymes is just a continuation of that. He really just likes to make people laugh."
Brown's dad agrees: "Ever since he was 6 years old, he was rapping and coming up with funny stuff to say. I used to DJ and he kind of gravitated toward that."
While Dad remembers taking Danny to Run DMC concerts at Pine Knob years ago, exposing him to such rappers as Rakim, NWA and Egyptian Lover, he wasn't convinced his son would make music a career. That is until he attended his son's first rap show.
"I didn't know anything about him rapping like that until I went to his 6th grade graduation," Strong says. "Next thing I know, him and two other guys were out there rapping in front of the whole audience. And they were good! He was rapping, telling the other graduates to stay in school, stay focused ..."
Danny was also the mini Michael Jackson of the family, and would sing any song like a jukebox and leave everyone in stitches.
And the older Brown got, the deeper his hip-hop knowledge became. "Our dad was big into music, so he'd get us the DJ Clue mixtapes before anybody in Detroit knew who DJ Clue was," Marq says. "By the time we got a computer and we had Napster, it was over. Danny started studying hip hop from everywhere and never looked back."
It's not easy to divert away from Brown's outward appearance, but his lyrics indelibly take hold. He blew rap fans away on underground and mainstream levels with the free download album The Hybrid. Songs such as "Guitar Solo," "Nana Song," and "Thank God" depict black life below the poverty line like a Donald Goines novel. And who else raps about killing roaches with your bare feet? Brown is keen on his poverty raps and people gravitate to that. His rap imagery also deals with mothers as prostitutes, drug dependency, hopelessness, and state assistance. Brown admits that about 75 percent of what he writes is the truth, with the other 25 percent comes from observations of others' situations.
The graphic detail that supports Brown's material caught the attention of Def Jam Records head Sha Money XL, who spent time with Brown during his stint in the G-Unit camp.
"Danny has the kind of wordplay and topic choices that remind me of the time when I first heard Em'," Money says. "Danny has a strong powerful voice with a tone that stands out. Detroit has a lot of talent right now, but Danny is clearly in the front."
The folks at Fools Gold Records feel the same. Now that Brown is on their label, more national touring is coming, giving his music a chance to get legs in clubs and other outlets apart from Internet access. Don't expect any international touring in the immediate future, though. Brown doesn't have a passport yet, and doesn't seem that psyched on crossing the pond despite his online-generated overseas fan base.
"See, I'm not trying to go overseas and do grimy shit. I be hearing the stories too. Niggas going over there for chump change. I rather just go to Chicago and make the same money. I'm pretty sure I'd be going over there playing the Chitlin' Circuit. Folks feel good just playing overseas. But you know when you on some bullshit. Just 'cause you poppin' overseas don't mean it's time for you to go. You got a lot of groundwork to lay in your back yard."
Brown recently released The Hybrid this month on vinyl, with help from Funk Night proprietor Frank Raines. Brown is eager to drop more singles this year, but isn't sure when the next album will come. "The next project is make-or-break for me," Brown says. "I can't rush it. Folks are ready for me to win big or fall off. I'm not sure how it's going to go, but so far, everything is moving in the right direction. I'm just praying it stays that way."
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