Danny Brown Interview: You Ain’t Heard It Like This Before


Danny Brown continues to be coming again to Earth. It’s nearing lunchtime, and he’s splayed out on a sofa within the foyer of a Manhattan lodge, wanting as if he’s simply woken up or as if he’s nonetheless making an attempt to revive his power following the earlier night time’s present. The present in query was at Webster Hall — a venue some 20 minutes downtown from right here, close to Union Square — and served as one thing of a teaser for one of many extra anticipated albums of the yr, even in a yr as wealthy with main releases and new musical revelations as 2016 has been. That album, Atrocity Exhibition, which simply started streaming a couple of days early, has been feverishly awaited as a result of it’s the follow-up to 2013’s Old, a set that capitalized on the simmering breakthrough of 2011’s XXX and launched the rapper into the type of ranks that garner timeless important fascination in addition to fervent crowds flocking to his many pageant units. It’s the sort of launch that, in some methods, can decide the arc of Brown’s profession from this level ahead.

The individuals who have been at that present, as ever, received the complete spectacle of Danny Brown onstage. The setlist, because it has up to now few years, leaned closely on materials from Old’s second aspect — the stuff that was tailored as Brown’s personal deranged tackle social gathering anthems, the stuff that was tailored to intensify his profile and provides him extra bangers to take out on the street. And Brown nonetheless delivers these things with all of the frantic, manic power we’ve come to anticipate from him onstage, operating forwards and backwards, barking out this refrain, then sliding up into that higher-pitched zany whine-rap he does, stacking “Side B (Dope Song)” and “Smokin & Drinkin” again to again. Aside from a number of detours like Old standout “25 Bucks,” the present reliably toes the road and stays The Danny Brown Party, solely gesturing towards the darkest corners of his catalog for those who’re actually paying consideration. Then, on the finish, he snuck in “When It Rain” and “Really Doe” subsequent to one another, leaving the viewers with a tantalizing trace of What’s Next.

So, at this time, he’s hardly audible. At least at first. His voice continues to be slightly broken, and it emits as a low, roughened mumble from Brown’s surprisingly tall body. (Maybe it’s the boots, perhaps it’s the completely askew hair capturing off in a number of instructions, however he’s method taller than he, for no matter purpose, seems onstage.) It’s a damaged, haggard-rasp counterpart to when Brown raps in his extra meditative decrease register, nevertheless it threatens to interrupt altogether in dialog. Even so, it doesn’t take lengthy for him to heat up, for the rampant power spikes that characterize his music to start out creeping in and reorienting the move of our dialog. He wheeze-chuckles to himself, typically. We speak quite a bit about all of the issues that led him to this place, sitting right here in entrance of me as one of many extra beloved and idiosyncratic characters in at present’s rap panorama, in right now’s music panorama generally. But we additionally speak about that What’s Next, as a result of a not-insignificant side of Brown’s magnetism is that no one else sounds fairly like him, and he’s proving that he can hold mutating and shocking us even when no matter got here earlier than would appear near-unsurpassable.

Atrocity Exhibition is, stylistically, a forward-thinking successor to the already forward-thinking Old. (Read Stereogum’s evaluation here.) At occasions, he seems to be additional again down weirder avenues of rap historical past than lots of his contemporaries do, however his present has all the time been making rap music that sounds prefer it’s rooted in some barely skewed alternate dimension, continuing alongside no matter’s on the market now however talking in a extra warped language.

Thematically, nevertheless, Atrocity Exhibition finds Brown taking a step again. He needed to proceed the place the story left off after XXX, which means should you take a look at the narratives of his current albums, and what elements of his life they draw on, the chronology is scrambled. “I did some Tarantino,” he says, adopted by amusing that’s a gravelly, percussive line of hm-hm-hm-hm. “Switch the scenes up just a little bit. Instead of making an attempt to proceed on from [XXX], I simply went again and gave you the previous [on Old], and a bit of little bit of the longer term and the place I’m at nowadays in my life.” (Speaking of Tarantino references, Brown raps, “I’m like Vega rolling with that blade” in Atrocity Exhibition’s lead single “When It Rain.” Though it might be referencing the Street Fighter character Vega, it might simply double as a call-out to the notorious ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, particularly contemplating Brown’s roots within the short-lived, early-’00s rap trio Rese’vor Dogs.) So, in that sense, the order goes: Old Side A, XXX, Atrocity Exhibition, then Old Side B.

According to Brown, the core idea of XXX was the melancholy and wrestle of making an attempt to turn out to be a rapper. Atrocity Exhibition picks up the narrative from there: the second the place you get what you’ve all the time needed however it doesn’t fairly clear up every little thing. Everyone can relate to the striving early chapters. What follows — if you get to reside some model of your dream, nevertheless it’s not fairly what you anticipated — is a extra difficult expertise that, arguably, can yield richer inventive outcomes. “It wasn’t the end all,” he remembers. “It was more pressure, and more stress.” He’s fast to level out that he’s happier now, although ups and downs are inevitable, however that there’s the load of continuous to have the ability to make music, interval, however particularly to make music on the degree he already has, or ideally surpassing that. “It’s like, you got the job…” he says. “The last thing you want to do is lose it.”

So then, that title. When Brown introduced his new album again in the summertime, that was one of many massive headlines: “Danny Brown’s new album is named after a Joy Division song.” The music in query is the opening monitor to Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer — the sophomore effort that solely noticed launch after Ian Curtis’ suicide — and it’s a roiling factor dominated by sheets of guitar noise. It additionally has a set of lyrics that resonated with Brown, together with its preliminary strains:

“Asylums with doors open wide/ Where people had paid to see inside/ For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’”

Brown acquired into Joy Division whereas he was recording XXX, having watched each the documentary Joy Division in addition to the Curtis biopic Control. When Brown begins an album, he doesn’t have a title or idea in thoughts at first — he begins making songs, exploring the place they lead him. But he already had the title Atrocity Exhibition in thoughts whereas engaged on XXX. “I was still newer,” he says, explaining why he felt as if he couldn’t use the identify then. “I thought people wouldn’t have got it.” But, at this level, 5 years later, it’s a matter of Danny Brown being Danny Brown. He can identify his new album Atrocity Exhibition, and other people will comply with.

There have been causes “Atrocity Exhibition” resonated with Brown. “Some freakshow, some sideshow exhibit, people just wanna come to see him be at his worst,” he says, describing Curtis’ narrative inside the music. “I feel that same kind of way sometimes.” Due to the rawness of a few of Brown’s songs, and the travails they painting, he can relate. “A lot of times I meet people and they’re like, ‘You’re not as crazy as I expected,’” he says. They assume he’s presupposed to be on medicine on a regular basis, they assume he’s purported to be this eccentric character on a regular basis. There’s a weight there: the character of “Danny Brown,” and the person Danny Brown shifting out and in of that but in addition dwelling with individuals anticipating him to all the time be “Danny Brown,” regardless of once they come throughout him.

These have been ideas he had method again throughout XXX, however one has to think about it have to be that rather more extreme now — in any case, he was nonetheless making his identify then. Now, he has his personal iconography, constructed nicely past the “new Ol’ Dirty Bastard” status that preceded Old. Now he’s on show. Perhaps in consequence — or because of the identify and canopy being unveiled — there’s been this implicit assumption that Atrocity Exhibition would go deeper and darker than even its predecessor did, and lots of preliminary descriptions of the document have certainly painted it as a haunting, twisted pay attention. It’s one thing that’s half-confusing to Brown himself. “Maybe I’m just demented,” he says, amused. “I just thought it was entertaining. I wanted it to sound urgent.”

And it does sound pressing, a lot in the identical approach that Old’s split-identity halves did. That was an album the place issues did have a bleakness hanging over them. Side A dug again into Brown’s youth and the shit he noticed in Detroit; it has rightfully accrued a popularity as being a harrowing pay attention. Side B has a unique type of popularity — the dance songs, the celebration songs. As the narrative goes, these have been songs designed particularly to deliver Brown onto the type of cruel pageant touring circuit he’s dominated in the previous few years, and that comes with a suggestion as if this isn’t the actual Danny Brown or one thing. Even he says, “Side A is real, that’s the album. Side B is the performance piece.” (At one other level within the dialog, he talks about how a part of him needed to easily launch Side A — with Side B nearer “Float On” as the ultimate monitor — as your complete album.) But even when Brown is indulging a pop gambit, he’s nonetheless himself. Sure, these have been the social gathering tracks, however they have been nonetheless pretty darkish songs, too. “What people don’t understand is a lot of those songs are about depression,” he explains. “’Smokin & Drinkin’ to forget about it, just partying to get away from all your problems.”

It’s well-established at this level that a lot of Brown’s music confronts a lineage of his personal demons. And whereas taking a look at Old as being a collection of darkish reminiscences adopted by the social gathering on the finish can tempt you into the notion that the second half was some sort of pop concession, Brown rejects that concept. “It’s still a part of me, that’s still me in there,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s me with levels, and me wanting to do different things.” He specifies, laughing: It was cool to lastly see women dancing to Danny Brown songs and, shit, he likes to social gathering too.

Those divisions inside Brown’s palette return to the picture of “Danny Brown,” too, the “Atrocity Exhibition” of being a public determine with a troubled previous you’ve been nakedly open about and, in consequence, have been filtered by way of as your work has been mediated. In actuality, Brown feels like extra of a hermit when he’s again residence in Detroit. “Everybody got that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing to them,” he says, describing the strain of his public persona and personal life, of the wild-man Danny Brown vs. the tortured Danny Brown, or vs. the quotidian Danny Brown. It’s an apt strategy to hint how his rapping fashion has developed, too. There’s extra vary than a strict binary would permit, however the factor that distinguishes him is that greater, unhinged stream, the one which seems like unfastened electrical energy raging ahead in an unpredictable zig-zag. Then he can drop down into the husky, moody movement, the one the place he feels like a extra conventional rapper and tells the extra pained tales from his previous.

Jekyll & Hyde: that’s a polarity, and it’s typically outlined Brown in current occasions. But his albums are actually sprawling and numerous issues that provide a variety of types, moods, and approaches — typically inside the similar songs, typically inside a delineated Side A and Side B, or typically, as within the case of Atrocity Exhibition, in an enormous wiry assortment the place Brown throws curveball after curveball. It is, in all probability, his most stylistically diversified work up to now. Some tracks — like opener “Downward Spiral” and “White Lines” — sound like a Looney Tunes character that took an excessive amount of LSD. There’s the frantic, unnerving rush of “When It Rain,” and the comparability level of nearer “Hell For It,” through which Brown raps over little greater than a piano determine and a barely there bassline.

Standouts “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance In The Water” have the infectiousness of the get together tracks from Old Side B, however really feel as if Brown is pushing them additional into his funhouse mirror model of rap music. “Ain’t It Funny” is a racing, insistent monitor constructed on the blare of synths and horns, whereas “Dance To The Water” makes use of its rousing vocal pattern and clattering percussion to equally propulsive ends. Then you might have tracks like “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” which might match proper in on Old Side A, and actually dates from that period. Those are the songs that lean extra in a classicist rap path, however Brown takes that funhouse mirror strategy once more. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” tells extra tales from residence — “Tell me what I don’t know/ Last night homie got killed at the liquor store/ Shot my nigga on the way to get a Swisher/ Breaking down the weed when the call got received” — however it’s constructed on a beat that tumbles right into a break of stuttering percussion, like a heartbeat concurrently quickening and going off the rails.

One of the primary songs we heard from Atrocity Exhibition was additionally one in every of its most anticipated. When the album’s tracklist got here out, “Really Doe” stood proper out — a posse reduce that includes Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, and Kendrick goddamn Lamar. Brown and Lamar have been buddies for years, however the genesis of “Really Doe” goes again to when Brown recorded one thing for Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly. Brown’s work didn’t wind up on the ultimate album, and Okay-Dot subsequently advised him, nicely, he owed him one. “Really Doe” was all the time destined to be a posse minimize, however Brown initially envisioned it as him, Kendrick, and Run The Jewels — a celebration that includes a number of of the rap world’s heavy-hitting, visionary figures directly. Due to their very own efforts on the third Run The Jewels album, El-P and Killer Mike couldn’t make it, however someday Brown was hanging with Ab-Soul — one among his shut buddies — they usually wound up engaged on the monitor.

Somewhere alongside the road, Brown deliberate “Really Doe” as verse after verse — no hook, no refrain — and he had given Lamar a special beat to take a look at. “He came into the studio, listened to all the songs and he took that one, because that was unfinished,” Brown says of the primary time Lamar heard “Really Doe.” “He took it and put a hook on it with a bridge, made it his own thing,” he says, laughing. Fast-forward to this previous spring, and Atrocity Exhibition was accomplished save “Really Doe,” which was sitting round ready for Earl’s verse. Once all of it got here collectively although, it was value it. It’s a shocking monitor, with everybody bringing their A-game, however Earl delivering a very spectacular verse. Brown is rightfully pleased with the second, the concept as an alternative of creating an enormous pop hit with Kendrick & co., they made an intense music showcasing lyrical and vocal prowess. “It was about sparring,” he says. “That’s what I told [them]. Let’s spar, let’s get in this ring. And everybody agreed.”

Otherwise, Brown prefers to principally function alone. There was no posse reduce on Old, however there have been options all through. “That’s what I didn’t need [on Atrocity Exhibition],” Brown says. “Get ‘em out of the way with one, and that’s it.” Features, to him, venture one thing: such as you need assistance. Particularly within the case of calling on somebody with as a lot attain as Kendrick, he asserts that it will possibly come throughout as in case you’re making an attempt to make use of a little bit of that fame to coast your method as much as a better degree. Besides, Brown is a type of artists the place it could possibly typically sound overseas to abruptly hear one other individual’s voice enter his world. He sums it up within the actual method you’d hope Danny Brown would sum it up: “Prince wasn’t calling up no one. People calling him.”

This angle extends to the best way Brown writes: alone, at house, late at night time, working towards one thing even when he doesn’t know what it’s but. Just because it took Brown a couple of years to seek out his approach to the album that would bear the title Atrocity Exhibition, it additionally took a number of years for him to work his means into the music that made it onto the album. The lion’s share of the album’s beats are courtesy of Paul White, and lots of of them date again to the period surrounding XXX. White would ship Brown 50 beats at a time, and Brown ultimately had one thing like 700 Paul White beats on his pc, ready to be unlocked. “These were beats I had been working on where I just wasn’t sure enough in my songwriting to tackle them the right way that I wanted to,” he explains. (And if a few of Atrocity Exhibition sounds on the market now, it’s certainly troublesome to think about listening to it 5 years in the past, proper after XXX.) I ask Brown how he even started to type by means of all that nascent materials. “Every night at 10, for the last five years of my life,” he says, cracking himself up.

The course of he’s referring to is the best way he all the time writes: each night time round 10, he’d begin placing on beats and seeing what got here to him. He by no means sits down and says, “It’s time to write a song.” “It always comes from a higher place, to be honest with you,” he displays. “The songs write themselves. A hook get done over this, and before you know it, they all start to come together. Then I’ll just sit on them, and practice them.” Hooks and choruses and lyrics come to him at random moments, when he’s ironing garments or having a shower; these are those he is aware of are good. This preliminary course of can take him eternally, however as soon as the track begins to cohere for him, he can then knock it out in as little as 30 minutes typically. “I’ve been working on it for so long, it’s like prepping yourself,” he says. “It’s like training. Once you get in the ring, you knock it out.”

Just like there are totally different parts of his character that Brown delves into for his totally different voices and types musically, there’s additionally a division between him as a performer and a author that mirrors the division between him as a private and non-private individual. He can’t write on the street, can’t take into consideration the artistic course of when he’s in that headspace. “It’s too personal to do it anywhere,” he says. He must be at house. Out there on the street, he’s in that different mode, he’s the Danny Brown you see operating round onstage, inciting events. “Performing is like boxing,” he says, once more returning to a coaching comparability. “That’s me getting into the ring. Can I do it bigger today? How the game gonna go for me?” The writing course of has to remain within the comforts of house, as a extra inside course of. “That’s gonna last around,” he says of the recorded work. “You see me onstage. But that’s the album.”

Across all this, although, Brown stays an outlier character. He’s a type of outsiders who discovered his means inside, and simply may rearrange the within a bit to suit across the odd form he introduced into it. Old, particularly, broadened his attraction past religious hip-hop heads, and commenced attracting consideration and new followers inside the indie world, too. He’s the type of one that had Ali Shaheed Muhammad as a mentor, collaborated with Purity Ring, had a rap godhead like Kendrick Lamar visitor on his album, and named stated rap album after an obscure track by a post-punk band from virtually 4 many years in the past. Which is to say: He is a uncommon kind of artist. As he places it, he’s extra “cross-genre” than something; he strikes between worlds and is all the time simply Danny Brown. “It’s still all organic to me. It’s just my life,” he says. “There’s been too much in hip-hop where you’re supposed to be this certain way, you know what I’m saying? I can’t carry a gun and smoke weed and listen to Vampire Weekend? Like, c’mon.”

That’s a serious engine behind what Brown does. After he describes the fashion and manufacturing of Atrocity Exhibition as avant-garde, I ask him if chasing that bleeding edge sound is essential to him. “Originality is important. If everybody starts trying to do this, I ain’t going to be doing this no more,” he says. After all, there’s that key lyric in “When It Rain”: “You ain’t heard it like this before.”

“Did you are feeling like lots of people tried to comply with Old?” I ask.

“A lot of people tried, but it don’t really work out too well for ‘em,” he says, grinning. It’s a humorous second, however one which’s additionally filled with calm and self-aware confidence.

At this level, his supervisor, Dart Parker, jumps in, too: “It’s onerous to recollect how totally different these digital beats [on Old] have been. Because everyone’s on shit like that now. It’s actually arduous to recollect, three years in the past, how nuts that sounded. It’s progressive hip-hop. That’s what he makes. People say prog rock? This is prog hop.”

“Facts! There you go, Dart, get your genre-naming. We need that,” Brown replies enthusiastically.

There’s a legitimate level there: When Old got here out, individuals talked concerning the poppier tracks on the second half, and in the identical breath acknowledged how, sure, these have been pop songs, however they have been Brown’s personal fizzling, melting, obscured interpretation. You can take it even additional with Atrocity Exhibition: While a number of the songs sound extra simple or catchier on the floor, there’s quite a lot of it that sounds simply as very similar to a customized spin on darkish digital music because it does on hip hop. There are friends Brown seems to be to as making progressive music inside the rap idiom: A$AP Rocky’s final album blew his thoughts, Kendrick and the TDE crew, Odd Future. But, basically, he characterizes all of it as “so straight line.” I ask him what he thinks of that general. Without lacking a beat, he grins and replies, “I think it’s an atrocity exhibition.”

So, one available, Atrocity Exhibition could possibly be the album that takes Brown up one other degree once more, solidifies his stardom after the broader success of Old. But it’s additionally an album that exhibits him prepared to go weirder, extra surprising, tougher. It’s an album born from his core ethos and persona, and all of meaning he’ll in all probability by no means be a pageant headliner of Kendrick or Vampire Weekend scope. He’s a type of unrepentant weirdoes who already connects with many, many extra individuals than may make sense on paper. But it’s arduous to image a mission assertion like “When It Rain” turning into a membership hit, or catapulting Brown to true movie star standing.

He doesn’t need that. He’s seen it together with his pals. (“Rocky can’t go nowhere.”) Brown doesn’t need or want a bodyguard; he likes to go house and return to the hermit life, he likes with the ability to stroll right into a Wal-Mart in the midst of the nation and never be bothered. This is a part of why he returns to Detroit repeatedly, when shifting to Los Angeles or New York may’ve given extra alternatives, and sooner in life. “It’s humbling. That’s what keeps me grounded,” he says of his house metropolis. “If I lived in L.A. or New York… my work ethic would be totally different. I’d be partying every night… that’s why I made a conscious decision to never leave. I’d be burning the candle at both ends for sure.”

(In a tangent on the finish right here, Brown does permit that he might all the time transfer to London sooner or later. The first time he visited, he felt like he’d been there earlier than — the music he liked got here from there, the style, and so on. He thinks he may’ve been born there in a previous life. “I was so engulfed in the culture. I dunno. I might be British,” he concludes considerably hilariously.)

Brown talks rather a lot about work, and the circumstances that permit for it, and what he’s constructing with it. Over the years, he’s had loads of lyrics about mortality. And at 35, his breakthrough and peak have arrived at a later age than many musicians, even in an period the place individuals’s roads to stardom have gotten extra winding and wandering. That’s the type of factor that may put strain on you: the thought to supply what you’ll be able to within the time you’re given, like you need to get that physique of labor on the market now since you began a bit later than everybody else. That doesn’t appear to influence Brown an excessive amount of, however he does take into consideration legacy. Rather a lot. “Legacy is the most important thing to me,” he says. “That’s the only thing you leaving behind.” This is a serious affect on Brown’s autobiographical writing type. He’s writing a sprawling memoir, album by album. I ask him if he ever regrets placing all of that on the market, if he’s shared an excessive amount of, if individuals then scale back him an excessive amount of to this struggling, druggy character that populates a few of his greatest songs.

“It’s almost like me putting out my problems and somebody getting entertainment from that while going through the same thing,” he ventures. “But it makes them feel better because they know somebody like me, who they probably think everything’s all good with because I’m living my dream, is going through the same thing they do. So it’s throwing negative energy out that eventually returns to me positively. That’s the best feeling in the world.”

There’s been an excessive amount of in hip-hop the place you’re presupposed to be this sure means, you recognize what I’m saying? I can’t carry a gun and smoke weed and take heed to Vampire Weekend? Like, c’mon.

It’s remedy for him, permitting him to inform tales he couldn’t even inform to a few of the individuals with whom he’s closest. But it’s remedy for the listeners, too. That’s the glue of the fierce devotion artists like Danny Brown appeal to.

Maybe, when that produces work like Atrocity Exhibition, that’s additionally what ensures that you simply’ll all the time be a bit bit the outsider. But when Brown talks about legacy, and when he talks about originality, and when he talks about the way you ain’t heard it like this earlier than, he isn’t simply speaking concerning the rap world. He isn’t speaking about his friends, he isn’t speaking about his direct predecessors. “I wouldn’t say I want to be the biggest name, but I want to be mentioned alongside the elite rappers [doing it right now],” he says. Yet it’s fellow Detroit native Jack White who Brown calls his “biggest icon,” citing the best way the person went from making lo-fi storage rock in Detroit, to producing a goddamn Beyoncé track. And he’s all the time chasing “the DBs”: Davids Bowie and Byrne. “I’m following they footsteps,” he says.

The custom of art-weirdoes who arrive within the pop panorama and depart some everlasting, paradigm-shifting mark: That does really feel like extra of a house for Danny Brown than any particular sub-genre or scene he might have been slotted into during the last a number of years. After XXX, which may’ve appeared distant. There was that strain. Don’t drop the ball. Don’t lose the job. Now Brown is extra snug and assured with himself, capable of comply with no matter speaking-in-tongues muse he hears, wherever it leads him. “Atrocity Exhibition is about doing what I do,” he says. “That’s what the album’s about to me. That statement. This is Danny Brown’s sound. This is his music. No one else’s.” And when he says these phrases, his voice is steadier than ever.

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