It’s that innate ability to turn on the charisma taps at will and bedazzle the little people with a few quotable baubles, a dash of charming bonhomie and frankly discomfiting levels of eye contact. Pop stars and rappers tend to have it in spades (not so much your laptop producers or synth tinkerers), and it’s one of the reasons they’ve got to where they are in the first place. It’s also one of the reasons to look forward to parking your dictaphone in front of their face, a bit like putting down a bucket to collect falling manna.
This afternoon in a Shoreditch hotel room, Danny Brown is not ‘on’. God knows what time it is for him, having stepped off the plane from Los Angeles just a few hours earlier, but he presents himself as a man who needs a spliff more than he needs oxygen, sloping into the room under his own small black raincloud with a few monosyllabic greetings. He’s over for a five-date tour of the UK and Ireland, including his biggest London show yet at Koko on Friday (very sold out; guestlist full) and the accompanying slog of press commitments. Later on today he’ll sabotage an interview with a less fortunate journalist (then offer a public apology), and it gets worse the next day when he walks out of the Guardian’s office after their journalists inexplicably attempt to feed him a Scotch egg (their spoof-like report of the incident turned out to be true).
This is hardly new to him. For most of the past two years, Brown has been on the road, in hotel rooms, on planes and in front of cameras to promote the album that took so long to arrive: Old. When it finally dropped last September, it came as a mighty relief to hear that he’d knocked one out of the park; it easily found a spot in our rundown of 2013’s best albums.
Old splits its charms over two distinct halves, with a helping of saucer-eyed, technicolour club bangers (mostly produced by Skywlkr, Rustie and Darq E. Freaker) offset by an opening run of gritty, psychedelic and searingly raw tracks that reflect on his wayward adolescence on the streets of Detroit, the poverty and small joys in his surroundings and that fabled path from crack dealer to rapper, which for him took 10 long years (as his friends recalled to FACT in The Danny Brown Story).
Despite his protestations that he doesn’t “think” about the music he’s making (“it comes from the heart,” he insists, as though those things were incompatible), Old isn’t an album that could’ve happened by chance or serendipity – it’s the arrival of a talent that, unlike most of the tenderfoot rappers whose quickfire mixtapes catch our ear from week to week, has firmly nailed down what it is that makes him such a unique proposition.
There’s also the matter of his winning public persona which, along with a raft of scene-stealing guest appearances, helped keep his career buoyant last year even as the album’s release date drifted into the distance. The laugh, the gap-toothed grin, the wild hair and skinny jeans, the guarantee of him being ‘good value’, as a journalist would put it – he’s so damn likeable that it’s hard to shake the expectation that he’ll bring his A game to every interview. And for Brown, who today is jet-lagged, depressed, all-too-sober and a few weeks into a tough detox from sipping lean, it might be easy to conclude that “nobody cares” if you even live or die, so long as you bring the entertainment, as he recently remarked in a (since deleted) tweet.
But what he may not always remember is that it’s exactly this hint of vulnerability, and his admirable candour in talking about his depression, anxiety and drug use, that both fascinates his fans and endears him to them. A molly-addled, sex-fixated, self-destructive party-starter who admits in the same breath that it’s all a way to dull the pain, to avoid the gruelling miseries of the real world – that attitude might not be so unique to him, after all.
So with his wilting limbs sparking into life as the interview gathers steam, Danny Brown opens up to FACT about being an emotional wreck, which producer he’s hoarded hundreds of beats from and why he’s taken on the role of RZA for his next album.
Over the last couple of years it seems like you’ve toured almost constantly, and your shows are so high energy – that gig at the Scala last year took the roof off. It almost seems as though getting to perform every night is the thing that’s driving you to keep rapping now, so how important is it for you?
I mean, performing is fun, and I don’t work out too much so I guess that’s another type of way I can burn a few calories, but as far as that goes I think I like writing more. Performing is just a blessing to do, ‘cos there’s a lot of artists that make music that don’t get a chance to perform, so when people wanna see you that’s a good thing, but I like writing more, that’s what I’m more concerned with.
I look at performing like sports, and it’s just me playing my games, you know? Anything else is like training. Me writing a song is like me practising, getting ready to run my plays, I gotta learn my plays to go out. So yeah, I’m not slacking off at all [laughs], you know what I’m saying?
So in your extensive travelling and touring, do you think you’ve picked up a taste for different music than you were into before?
Nah, I think if anything… I mean, unless it’s when I go to a festival, and my thing is when I go to festivals there’s always somebody I wanna see, but I always say you know what, I’mma try and see as many people that I don’t know, because they here for a reason, they here with me! So obviously there’s something cool about them, there’s obviously something great there, so let me go try to check out everybody I don’t know. So that’s how I usually approach the festival thing, and I get up on new music like that.
But usually when I’m home I’m on the internet all day, so I’m able to find something. Australian internet sucks – I probably spent like $200 in one hotel trying to watch a battle, you know what I’m saying! It’s hard to be on the internet when you overseas, my email got hacked just ‘cos I was overseas, you know, weird stuff like that.
Listening to Old, it feels like you can hear two different sides of your personality across the two halves.
I wouldn’t say it was two different sides of a personality because it’s still the same content, what I’m rapping about, it’s just a different style. It’s not like multiple personalities. I think it’s just normal emotions more than personalities – sometimes people happy, sometimes you sad, sometimes you wanna have fun, sometimes you just wanna sit around and be lonely and don’t wanna even talk to anybody, you know. So a lot of that comes out in that album, but I don’t think I have split personalities, I think I got like, maybe a bipolar type of thing more than a split personality.
So do you find yourself working towards that more reflective, personal sound on the first half of the album, or are you still all about the club tracks on the second half?
I don’t think about that stuff – most of the music I make, it comes from the heart. So I can’t really think about it. Like, when I hear beats that I like, I could love the beat but if it doesn’t do nothing to me on the inside then I can’t write a song to it. And I might hear a beat that’s not that good to most people, but something struck me emotionally that helped me to write a song. So I just go with what my heart tells me to do, which is probably not the right thing to do sometimes. I need to use my brain a little more [laughs].
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/2)
Yeah, I listen to them a lot and I just made a email just for people to send beats to, for my homies to listen to, and then they might find something and hit me up, send some beats to me that they think they like. And we go from there. ‘Cos it take a long time for me to sit there and listen to beats anyway – even with a beat I like, I might listen to it a year before I start writing to it.
In the UK we were pretty excited to hear producers like Paul White, Rustie and Darq E. Freaker on Old. What was it about their sounds that jumped out at you?
With Rustie I just really loved the way his drums hit so hard. Like I say, I like music that you can feel inside, and his snares are like heartbeats to me, you know what I’m saying? It ain’t necessarily about the sounds, the soundscapes he using, but what caught me first was his drums – like, how is he mixing these electronic drums so strong, you know what I’m saying? So that was the big deal with him.
As far as Paul White, that’s just – I don’t know, I was really just blessed with getting the chance to meet him and work with him, ‘cos I had just finished my album The Hybrid and I was just cleaning out my emails one day and there happened to be a email from his manager, just saying he liked me and wanted to send some beats or whatever, so I downloaded the beats and then maybe one day I checked them out and was like oh… I had to hit the manager back up instantly, like ‘I’m gonna be recording this’.
And now it’s years later and I have like over three hundred Paul White beats in my computer, you know? [laughs] And it takes years to write to those beats, so I’ll probably be working with Paul White for the rest of my career.
Does that mean that you’ve got ideas for future albums mapped out at all?
Like I say I can’t think, it has to come from my heart. I can think as much as I want – I wanna do this, I wanna do that – but once I put the brain to it and it don’t measure up with my heart, then it’s out the window. I don’t like to try to make things that I think people will like. I would just rather make something that I like, and then if everybody else agrees with that, then that just makes me that much more of a cooler person. But if not, then I just look real dumb, you know? [laughs]
But you take an interest in what people think of your work, you say you read reviews.
I mean, I’m not a journalist, that’s not my profession, to sit there and critique someone else’s music. But there’s people out there that get cheques for doing that, so it’s obvious they must be good at what they do, so you should take their opinion in your stride, you know? At the end of the day I respect their opinions, even if it’s a bad review. If someone was to give me a bad rating but it’s a great written review, I can’t be mad at that! ‘Cos I’ve had a lot of good ratings with bad written reviews, and that’s just as bad as having a bad rating to me.
There is talk of you doing an album with your group Rese’vor Dogs next.
That’s what I’m doing now.
What can we expect from that?
It’s a Danny Brown record at the end of the day. Same thing you would get from me. As far as me putting in the work and the time into it, I was working on that album before I started on Old. I was working on that and then I was like, you know what? Y’all ain’t ready yet. So I hurry up and finish my album and now everybody else is a little more focused, so we in the studio now.
So maybe they’ve seen what you’re doing and…?
I mean, they should have been seeing that, they shoulda took that along, but you know, everything’s coming together well now.
And are you working with producers from Detroit on that?
Yeah, for the most part. We got a lot of in-house producers, with Skywlkr, Professor Megablown, Kahlil Nova, all those guys, so just now starting to prep them up. As far as rapping, we rap all day, that ain’t nothing, but we need to have our sound. And you know, I feel like I been crafting my sound for so long and now they been sitting around watching me do this, so now it’s they involved. It’s like Wu-Tang in some sense, I’m just RZA in this right now – they don’t have to do nothing but lay they parts, I’m gonna come make the entire album, they just have to lay they parts, that’s it.
You’ve had a tough few weeks. How’s the drug-free Danny doing?
[Laughs] Then you ask me this question? Alright. I’m okay, put it like that. Who said I was drug-free? I just stopped drinking lean.
Do you ever worry that your success might be partly dependent on this larger-than-life character that’s hard to maintain?
No, because as much as you’ve seen that, you’ve seen billions of vulnerable moments from me where I’m like an emotional wreck [laughs]. So I don’t think that. I mean, as much as you can look at that you see the other side of it – I’m not out here being Superman, and you don’t get Clark Kent, you know what I’m saying? I think at the end of the day people know – yeah, of course I party and I have fun, I’m still a human being too, you know? I can’t work this much and be a fucking crack addict, like people think.
People might still think you’re pretty wild.
I mean, I have fun in moderation now. [laughs]
Danny Brown plays London’s Koko tonight (February 21) before heading to Brighton’s Coalition (22), Manchester’s Gorilla (23), Dublin Academy (25) and The Arches in Glasgow (26).