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 was a really bright, special boy and he always had a really special relationship with rap music," says Carol from the family home in East China Township. "A lot of people didn't really understand the music and so we didn't know what Danny was getting into, but it really made him happy and I also loved it when he would rap for me."
Danny's cousin James also shared Danny's love of rap.
"Danny was one of my best friends and I introduced him to a lot of rap groups back then. I was kind of a life-of-the-party guy and I used to hold a lot of parties back then and we would just bump all of these classic rap songs. It was great." James would later drive Danny to the recording studio and to the occasional live gig.
Back then, Danny knew that he wanted to make his own rap albums and soon began writing rhymes. Always a devout Christian, his raps featured little profanity and were often light and humorous, with titles such as "Track and Field," "After School Snack Attack" and "Give It Some Bass." One night while watching television, Danny saw a local record producer named Marvin Lewis who was sponsoring a contest for singers and rappers. Danny called Lewis at the Disc recording studio on Nine Mile Road in Eastpointe and soon after, his grandfather drove him down to meet the producer.
Today, Lewis fondly remembers that phone call and first meeting.
"When he first came into the studio and said he wanted to rap, I first had to see what he could do and what he couldn't do and then try and add what I could. As a producer, you first have to determine what an artist's strengths are."
When Danny started to rap, Lewis quickly determined that wherever this skinny kid's strengths lay, it sure as hell wasn't in rapping. Danny possessed an incredible amount of enthusiasm, but his voice was flat; his delivery and rhyme patterns were just ... off. He often rhymed too fast or too slow for the beats.
Yet, something about this young man intrigued Lewis. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop culture and could recite any rap artist's discography as well as tell you the entire release history of just about every rap record label on the market.
Still, Lewis decided to level with the kid to save him from embarrassment and wasting his time and money in a recording studio
"It was almost like I tried to destroy his dreams," says Lewis, who over the years has worked with everyone from Esham to Champtown and gave Detroit producer Mike E. Clark his start. "I lowered the boom on him. I told him, 'This just isn't working, man,' and I went into this long speech, and then I'm waiting for the tears to come and all that. And he just looks at me after I've told him all this and says, 'Huh. You're funny, man.'"
Lewis was stunned — and inspired.
"After that, I just decided, 'You know what? Let's do this.'"
From then on, it was pure joy as Danny and Lewis worked throughout the summer of '87 to produce Danny's first full-length album Destined for Hip Hop. Lewis made a few cameos appearances on the album and provided one of the album's most memorable moments by munching potato chips on what would become Danny's signature track, "After School Snack Attack."
A quarter-century after recording Destined for Hip Hop, Lewis recalls his time with Danny "K"AE with great fondness and is proud that the album they created together has become a true Detroit hip-hop classic.
"If somebody were to ask me who my favorite person who I ever recorded was, from an influence perspective, it would have to be him," Lewis says. "He was the most unorthodox person I ever recorded in all my years of producing and no matter how I tried to take away his dream, he believed in himself. That was the beauty of it — watching someone believe in something no one else could see at the time. The fact that Danny has influenced all of these rappers proves that you just never know who or what is going to influence somebody."
Following the completion of Destined for Hip Hop, Danny faced the familiar independent artist dilemma of getting the record into stores and played on the radio. He decided to approach the man you had to go to if you wanted your album stocked in Harmony House, Record Time, or any of the great Detroit music stores of the day, Tom Gelardi.
Now 80 years old and celebrating his 53rd year of working in the music industry, Gelardi remembers his first encounter with Danny "K"AE like it was yesterday.
"This young man walked into my office at the Disc one day and said, 'I had to get a ride down. I came with my grandfather.' I asked him, 'Where's your grandfather?' and he replied, 'Waiting out in the car." Gelardi told Danny to bring his grandfather in from the hot car and have him wait in the lobby. Danny then got down to business, asking Gelardi if he would stock his album in area stores.
"He said to me, 'I think I have an unusual feel for rap and my rhymes are somewhat religious. And I think I am blessed to have God in my corner." Gelardi listened to the album and instantly respected Danny's unique, if unconventional, style.
"I felt it was incredibly different. He wasn't copying anybody and I respected that. I felt there was a pocket where his brand of rap would fit into because Danny was really a breath of fresh air. What I really liked was his obsession about believing he was definitely going to make it, no matter how long it took. In the beginning, the guy had nobody in his corner, but he had the resolve to say 'Someday it's going to happen.' And we need people like that."
Under the influence
There's no getting around it — the Danny "K"AE brand of rap is an acquired taste. Today the experience of hearing one of his albums for the first time is just as surreal as it was back in the late '80s and early '90s. Say you put on Destined for Hip Hop for someone who has never heard of Danny "K"AE. Press "play" and watch their facial expressions. It'll likely go something like this. By the time the song hits the 30-second mark, the person will likely look at you with a WTF? expression. By the 1-1/2-minute mark, their jaw will be likely agape as their shocked confusion mingles with a half-smile. By the song's conclusion, there will be nothing on their face but a big grin and the request "Oh, my God! Play the next one!"
Musically, the beats are sparse and definitely old-school, filled with scratching and Danny's constant beatboxing, even on the albums released in the '90s, long after such production techniques fell out of style. Speaking in a flat monotone, Danny "K"AE delivers some of the most painfully earnest rhymes ever recorded. Consider this sample lyric from the song "Connections": "I tell you, if you want to succeed, you just got to believe in yourself and persevere/Most fail because of anxiety, which is a form of fear/Many in business or just in business in general think that it's easy/A piece of cake/Yo, you got to work hard/Take what you give, give what you take/Trust in God/And with that, you won't come whack/But be on your guard/There's always someone trying to jerk or scam you one way or another/Watch your back, my brother/You'll keep wondering but when you meet up with the right people you will see and feel/Then it's revealed through your eyes with proof and perfection/That you made the right connection/Connections, connections, this business is all about connections."
All of his songs are like that — unfailingly positive and jam-packed with Chicken Soup for the Rapper's Soul inspiration. No rhymes about bitches, hoes, gats or dissing a rival rapper. Just an Ed Wood-like wide-eyed innocence and sincere love of the rap game. It's easy to laugh at the fact that the rhyme patterns often don't match up with the beats, but it's almost impossible to laugh at Danny "K"AE personally. The rap genre has always been about posturing, looking hard and keeping it real, but rappers don't get more real than Danny "K"AE. There's nary a trace of pretense to be found on any Danny "K"AE album and that may be the secret behind his influence — he gave other white rappers the confidence to put out their own material, because it takes a certain amount of self-belief — and perhaps, gall — to put out a song like "After School Snack Attack" without even a hint of irony.
"When you first hear Danny 'K'AE, you might go 'This is whack!'" says Danny's longtime friend and business associate Champtown. "But there's something about his tone and delivery that makes you go, 'Hold on.' You keep listening to it and realize 'This ain't whack. This is some unique and interesting shit.' Then before you know it, you're loving Danny 'K'AE. You laugh because he brings you joy but at the same time you know he's a serious emcee."
Champtown also says that despite Danny's influence on Caucasian rappers, he didn't wield much impact on the Motor City's black rappers. "It's hard to say if Danny influenced any black rappers from Detroit, because most black rappers idolized Run-DMC, killers and drug dealers. But I can say this — Danny 'K'AE will make you love him and his music."
As the '90s loomed, Danny labored away writing and recording his second album, Definitely Def. Meanwhile, word about Destined for Hip Hop and its unusual creator was beginning to spread throughout the Detroit hip-hop underground.
Rapper and producer Mannix recalls a time where no house party was complete without someone breaking out the Danny "K"AE. At the time, Mannix was the main producer of Bassmint Productions, the now legendary rap crew whose members included Chaos Kid, Proof, DJ Buttafingers and a kid from Warren named Marshall Mathers.
"If anyone would come over, you'd always say, 'Man, you gotta fucking hear this. It's the worst shit ever,'" says Mannix. "But at the same time, it had such a charm to it. It was one of the first things we had ever heard that was so bad it was good. We used to go around reciting lines off of the record because they were so funny. Our favorite was 'After School Snack Attack.' It's a total classic."
Champtown worked with the Bassmint Productions crew a great deal in the late '80s and early '90s and claims that Danny's beatboxing and scratchbox techniques directly inspired Eminem's later works.
"I know for a fact that on The Slim Shady LP when you hear Em doing that scratching — 'chicka-chicka-SLIM/chicka-chicka-SLIM' — he definitely got that from Danny 'K'AE because Danny basically invented scratchbox."
Mannix disputes Champtown's claim of Danny's influence ("That's just a false rumor"), but says that Danny's underground success frustrated Eminem.
Eminem loved Danny, he says, "but at the same time it used to make him mad because we were struggling and didn't have anything released, and here's Danny 'K'AE who's got a fucking tape in every goddamn store — Harmony House, Sam Goody — every place had his fucking tape," says Mannix. "And it used to piss Eminem off that this guy had made it before we did. I had to explain to him, 'You save up $1,000 and you can get a couple hundred tapes printed up.' It wasn't that [Danny 'K'AE] made it, he just got the money and put out his own tapes."
Whatever the level of influence Danny "K"AE may have had upon Eminem's career, the man who grew up to be the best-selling rapper of all time still remembers — and respects — Danny "K"AE, releasing the following statement via his publicist: "Danny 'K'AE is amazing. I'm glad that so many years later people are finally realizing it."
Kid Rock also became a huge Danny "K"AE fan in the wake of Destined for Hip Hop and even name-dropped Danny as one of his main Detroit influences in one of his first Rolling Stone cover stories. Years later, Kid's longtime friend Champtown surprised him by presenting him with the entire Danny "K"AE catalog when the two were working together on Kid's Rock And Roll Revival Tour.
"I gave Kid the entire Danny 'K'AE catalog on CD and you would have thought I gave him a $50 million check," says Champtown. "Here's Kid Rock at the height of his career, in the wake of one of his biggest tours ever, and he's that excited because he now has Danny 'K'AE on his iPod."
Another Kid Rock associate, Uncle Kracker, responded to a request for a comment about Danny "K"AE with the following text message (printed verbatim): "Ooooo my God I was on acid. listening to Danny k every day."
Two of Danny's most outspoken fans — Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse — discovered Danny "K"AE when they were first beginning their rap career back in the late '80s. Violent J wrote at length about Danny's influence in his 2002 autobiography Behind the Paint and today, even after racking up a series of gold and platinum albums, he continues to praise Danny's influence.
"Danny is just authentic as fuck. He has the ability to believe in what he's doing without any doubt. And Danny doesn't know how great he is. That's the thing. His music is so innocent. It's so off that's it's on. In his opinion, his music is dope and there's nothing odd about it. He believes it in his heart. And that's the shit. "
The first big evidence that Danny was having a lasting impact upon Detroit hip hop occurred on Nov. 20, 1993 when Kid Rock asked producer Mike E. Clark (who had worked with Danny at the Disc) to invite Danny to Kid's sold-out show at St. Andrew's Hall.
"I went upstairs with Mike and there's Kid Rock and he just comes up to me all excited, saying, 'We wore out the wax on 'No Drugs, No Crime,' which was a 12-inch single I released off of Destined for Hip Hop," says Danny. "Kid just kept saying over and over, 'You're a legend, man."
Seeing the light
Already an elder statesman of Detroit hip hop, Danny continued to write and record at the Disc for his second album The Definitely Def E.P., which would prove to be another underground favorite thanks to tracks like the Public Enemy shout-out "The Government's Responsible," and the Electrifying Mojo-tribute "Calling #1 DJ."
1995 would prove to be a critical year for Danny. He, in his words, "rededicated himself to God," and soon the rapper, who admits to being something of a partier in his younger years, started writing rhymes reflecting this change. Danny's third album Righteous Rhymes of Life revolved largely around Christian themes, with song titles such as "Thee Almighty" and "Keep Believin'." While recording the album at his usual spot at the Disc, he bumped into Detroit rapper Champtown, who was a longtime fan of Danny's work.
"I was working on the 'School Days' track and he came in for the next studio session and was like "Danny 'K'AE! I need you on this track I'm working on!"
According to Champtown, Danny laid down his vocals like a seasoned professional. "He just went into the studio, got right on the mic and just dropped it. One take. Done. The whole song — the intro, the hook, the outro. No doubles. Done. Most emcees can't do that."
Danny's contribution ended up on the song "Fresh Mess" from Champtown's 1996 EP Check It! and marked the beginning of a strong friendship and business partnership that continues to this day. When Champtown was named vice president of Canorous Records in 2010, he claims that Danny "K"AE was one of the first artists that he wanted to sign.
Following the release of "Righteous Rhymes of Life" in 1996, Danny decided to legally change his name to Danny "K"AE, after receiving some divine intervention.
"I'd been going by the name 'Danny K' for years and years, but I felt like I should legally change it when the Holy Spirit pressed it upon me. He said, 'You're gonna make it and be a big success so I just want you to go by that name from now on.' And here we are." Danny decided to spell his new surname "K"AE, an acronym for "K. Always Excelling."
With a Prince-like name change now on his résumé and his newfound religious fervor providing inspiration, Danny headed back into the studio to record his most directly spiritual album yet, 1997's My God Reigns Supreme/God Don't Play. Though he was now a long way from recording rhymes about after-school snacking and high school track meets, Danny's one-of-a-kind delivery style remained proudly on display. Yet even as Danny's old distribution sidekick Tom Gelardi began stocking My God Reigns Supreme/God Don't Play in regional music shops (Danny's albums were never distributed outside of Michigan), Danny's life took yet another turn. In 1998, he left East China Township for the cold tundra of Alaska in order to help his then-stepfather out with his electrician business. Though Danny had mixed emotions about leaving the city he loved, he felt it was the right decision.
"By then I had put out four albums and I thought, 'Well, I guess I'll go do this now.'"
But after working for his stepfather for a bit, Danny was getting restless. The beats kept coming into his head at all hours of the day and Danny knew he couldn't leave music behind. He was born to rap. Simple as that. And screw the haters if they didn't like it; he had God on his side. Soon Danny began writing his album Messages from the Mastermind, which would eventually be released in 2001.
"It's weird how these albums come about," says Danny. "I get beats in my head and I will go into the studio and tell the engineer or producer 'This is what I want' and I'll beatbox it or play it on the keyboard or whatever. But I have all these ideas in my head before I go in there and I know what I'm going to do."
Trying to stay busy in Alaska, which didn't exactly boast much of a hip-hop scene, Danny began working as a DJ on a college radio station, hosting — what else? — a rap show. He also stayed busy by acting as an extra in a few films and kept his heat on by selling his albums directly to consumers on the music marketplace website Gemm.com and later on eBay. He also recorded another album around this time called Walking Through the Shadow of Death, which so far remains unreleased, although brief clips can be heard at AllMusic.com.
As Y2K came and went, Danny remained part of the Detroit rap firmament, even though his albums were rarely stocked in area music stores anymore. ICP and Kid Rock name-dropped him in articles and continued to cite him as an influence. Plus, his old friend Champtown continued to foster a business relationship with Danny, despite the thousands of miles separating them.
The two came close to a breakthrough in 2003 when Danny says he was nearly signed to a production deal with Universal Records. According to Danny, a longstanding beef between former associates Champtown and Eminem came to light, and Universal, not wanting to upset their relationship with Eminem, terminated the production deal. However, Champtown. says with a hearty laugh, "It didn't exactly happen that way. It's a long, boring story, but it didn't exactly happen the way Danny remembers it."
Danny also claims at this time he was contacted by The Source magazine, which was looking for dirt on Eminem. He declined to speak on the record against Eminem for a very simple reason — "He's an admirer of mine and he looks highly upon my lyrics and my beatbox/scratchmouth techniques, so why would I have beef with somebody who does that?"
But even as early as 2001, Danny had a premonition that he and Champtown would one day do business with the Sony-owned Universal Records. Champtown was skeptical at first but when Danny's prediction actually came true, he became a believer pretty quickly.
"This sounds odd, but Danny can foresee things years before they hit," says Champtown. "He told me years ago that he didn't know how or in what shape or form it was going to happen, but that he knew there would be a distribution line through Universal Records that I would run." Whether through coincidence or divine inspiration, the end result is Danny's current deal with Universal Records-affiliate Canorous Records, which will be distributing his back catalog through online retailers like iTunes and Amazon and later, in music stores. My God Reigns Supreme/God Don't Play is the first Danny "K"AE album to be released by Canorous and the rest of the catalog will be released over the next several months.
But will success spoil Danny "K"AE? Not likely. After all, he saw this coming years ago. Even if his albums do not become runaway bestsellers, Danny's legacy upon Detroit hip hop is assured.
"To us, Danny 'K'AE will always be the best, no matter what. He never questions himself and he just does his thing. And that's just the shit," says ICP's Shaggy 2 Dope. Champtown couldn't be happier for Danny's bid at nationwide recognition.
"I consider Danny 'K'AE to be one of the crown jewels of the Detroit music scene," says Champtown. "He's done so much and inspired so many other people, and it's important that history is not erased. He deserves this chance."
As for Danny, he remains cool. When asked how it feels to finally be getting nationwide distribution after decades of being stuck in the Detroit underground, he basically shrugs.
"I saw this coming years ago. I know the Lord put me here to rap, and He has blessed me and will continue to bless me."
Always excelling, indeed.
Jason Webber writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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