Original white boy
How a kid from East China Township paved the way for Eminem, ICP, Kid Rock, and more
Published: July 25, 2012
Danny "K"AE's YouTube presence is limited to a few edited tracks that were posted after Violent J played them on his radio show, as well as one surreal on-camera interview with the man. A few years back, a couple of associates from Insane Clown Posse's Psychopathic Records went to Anchorage and tracked down the reclusive rapper, taking him to lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet. On camera, Danny, who bears a slight resemblance to the late Don Knotts, is filmed busting an impromptu rap and doing some beatboxing and scratchboxing (imitating the sound of a DJ scratching a record).
Further clues to Danny's identity can be found in the artwork on his early albums. A closer examination of his Kold Def Music logo reveals an address from East China. If you've never been to — or heard of — East China, it's not surprising. Located north of Marine City in St. Clair County with a 2010 census population of 3,788, the town is mostly known for its two power plants and a historic 19th century schoolhouse. The number listed in the address is actually for a house that has been in Danny's family for generations; his grandparents used to own it and his Aunt Carol now lives there. This is where Danny lived when he first began laying down raps in the late '80s.
But that was a long time ago, and Danny moved to Sarah Palin country in 1998 to help out with his then-stepfather's electrician business. After a few false starts and a couple of MySpace and LinkedIn messages, we finally got Danny on the phone to talk about his career and colorful life.
Speaking in clipped, even tones with a slight "you betcha" drawl and a rather shy demeanor, Danny's voice on the phone is the same unmistakable, Ben Stein-like voice from the albums that influenced a generation of Detroit hip-hop musicians. After brief introductions, the conversation quickly turns to hip hop, because to Danny "K"AE, rap music is the very juice of life.
"To me, hip hop is just what it's all about. I've been representing hip hop since 1983, and it's just what I do," says Danny. "It's been following me my entire life."
Though Danny would rather discuss beats and rhymes, he provides a basic biography. He was born Ken Danneels in East China Township in 1969 to his mother, Julie Baker, who now supposedly resides somewhere in Florida (the two have been slightly estranged for years). His real dad took off when Danny was 2 years old and Danny has not seen him since. His mom remarried when he was kid, and he has a half-brother named Travis. He describes his childhood as "pretty dull," even after his family moved to the much larger Marquette in the Upper Peninsula when he was 5 years old. But while his 1970s peers were playing with Stretch Armstrong and Hot Wheels, Danny was more interested in something else — music.
"The radio was my best friend as a kid. I just listened to it all the time, pretending I was a DJ. I loved the different sounds and styles I was hearing."
While in the fifth grade, Danny and his family moved to Mackey, Idaho, after his stepdad got a job with the U.S. Department of Forestry. Danny describes his school-aged self as "sorta shy and pretty much off on my own," although he was active in sports, pursuing basketball, football, and track and field.
As the Reagan years dawned, Danny discovered a burgeoning musical style and culture called hip hop that would forever change his life. He would watch shows like Night Tracks and Soul Train and see early hip-hop pioneers like Run-DMC and Newcleus rapping, and he was amazed. What were these hard, pounding beats and speak-song vocal deliveries about? Young Danny was instantly smitten. But this was back in the day when rap music was rarely played on the radio, much less in the sticks of Idaho. Thanks to the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, however, Danny soon began amassing a collection of hip-hop music, including albums from Whodini, the Fat Boys, and the classic b-boy single "Rockit" by Herbie Hancock, to which Danny taught himself how to breakdance.
During the summer months, he would often go visit his grandparents back in East China Township and would further his hip-hop education by taping broadcasts of Detroit radio programs, particularly Tower 98.3 and WJLB, always making a point to stay up late and catch The Electrifying Mojo's show on 96.3 WHYT (his adoration of Mojo's show would later be immortalized in his track "Calling #1 DJ" from the Definitely Def E.P.). Danny would return from his Detroit summer holidays with a backpack filled with C-90 cassette tapes of new hip-hop jams.
"I'd go back to Idaho with these mixtapes from Detroit and take my boom box to school and just blast them during lunch," says Danny. "People didn't know what it was, but they'd hear me play it and ask me who the artist and song were. I was definitely a pusher of hip-hop culture and the rap scene."
In 1987, Danny graduated from Mackey High School and found himself dealing with the question all post-graduates must face: What do I do now? Always enjoying a close relationship with his grandparents in East China, Danny moved in with them, discovering an ideal situation. Unlike some of his family members — including his mother — his grandparents supported his dream of making it as a rapper.
"My grandparents always believed in me; my grandfather especially loved the Fat Boys. He loved the Human Beat Box and would laugh whenever he would do his scratching noises." Danny even made his granddad, James Dewey, a mixtape filled with Fat Boys songs, which he enjoyed all the way up to his death in 2004 at age 91. Danny also got enthusiastic support from his Aunt Carol Lee and his cousin James Lee.
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