Dusk fades away as New York City’s grand skyline comes into view, but Danny Brown is too busy managing his vices to notice. Sitting on the rooftop of Spotify’s offices in Chelsea, the rapper is playing a juggling game: Newport cigarette in one hand, joint in another, drink resting on his knee. It’s a good day for the 32-year-old Detroit native with the frenzied hair, gap-toothed smile and signature squawk. His album Old is out next week and he’s enjoying early kudos from A-Trak (head of his label Fool’s Gold) and Heems (of the now-defunct Das Racist), who’ve both stopped by.
The former drug dealer has gone through several career iterations, from a stint in the rap group Rese’vor Dogs in the early Aughts to getting rejected by 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records because of his avant-garde image and then-peculiar skinny jeans. But 2011’s XXX proved to be his breakthrough: with its druggy tales of desperation enveloped in utter insanity, it was one of the year’s most compelling releases, positioning Brown as the voice of new Detroit rap.
Old mirrors what real-life Danny Brown is all about: a-fascinating look into the mind of one of hip-hop’s more complex artists. Rolling Stone spoke with the rapper about Old, life in Detroit, insomnia and why he hates Miley Cyrus.
Rap purists have been wary of accepting you throughout your career. As you prepare to release Old, what do you think the consensus is now?
I’m the villain. If hip-hop is full of superheroes, good guys and everybody buddy buddy, then I’m the villain. I’m the bad guy. I mean, if I sit at their table, there has to be people worthy enough sitting with me. Now with those guys, not too many are worthy to sit at that table.
Given that and the experimental sound of Old, is this a “rap” album?
Yeah! What else could it be? I’d say it’s a rap album but it’s an “indie rap” album. Indie rap, you can tell it’s no motives of making money behind it; it’s just artistic expression. I know how to rap and I care about pushing the genre forward, being progressive. Those type of guys are probably stuck in the early Nineties. For me, that sound is cool, that sound is great, but if we just continue to do that, where we gonna be in 10 years?
If you’re not concerned about making money from music, what’s your goal?
I make money off shows. [Others] make money from selling music and things, but I make money from way cooler places. I’m getting into voiceovers and shit. I did Grand Theft Auto V – I’m actually one of the lifeguards. If you go on the beach, there’s mad lifeguards, and if you fuck with one of them, it’s me, and I try to beat you up. I just did Fox’s Animation Domination TV show. If I could make money from voiceovers, then I could just do whatever music I want. I think I have a cool-enough voice to do that type of shit. I don’t know if Pixar will hire a guy who writes about eating pussy all the time, though. Maybe I need to tone it down a little bit.
How did you decide on collaborations on Old?
The only features I picked were Purity Ring and Charli XCX. The rest of them were just my friends. Like, being on tour with ScHoolboy Q. I’m playing my album, he’s playing his album. I was on [A$AP] Rocky’s bus. I played “Kush Coma” and he’s like “Shit. Let me get on that.” Ab-Soul originally wanted to be on “Dip,” but I just felt like “Dip” was already done so I’m like, “Nah. I’ll do a record for you” [“Way Up Here”]. I always used to listen to grime music and [A$AP Mob] would always joke about it. They liked it, but they used to crack jokes about it. I’m just too into it.
Where did the fascination for grime come from?
I’m from Detroit, so electronic music has always been a part of my life. When I was at home, we played our local shit, but we turned up when we played that techno, ghetto-techno shit. My first mixtape I bought wasn’t a DJ Clue mixtape – it was DJ Assault, and I was listening to “Ass-N-Titties.” You go to a high school dance and that’s what they playing. That’s just minimal, 140 BPM. They just was using chants. When you listen to grime, it’s still 140 BPM, minimalist electronic shit.
Being from Detroit, you’re quick to defend your turf. You had some choice words for Big Sean recently on why he doesn’t authentically represent your hometown.
My point with Big Sean is that every time you hear him in an interview and every time he do anything, he’s like “Cause I’m from Detroit! I’m from Detroit!” There’s ho-ass n****s from Detroit and there’s gangstas in Detroit. Just being from a place doesn’t dictate, doesn’t mean anything. My whole point is about inspiring people to do things to get out of Detroit. Somebody like him hasn’t been in Detroit forever, in years. He repping it like it’s a cool place to be.
Media portrayal aside, what’s it like living in a city in dire straits?
Don’t get me wrong. At one point, Detroit was a very bad and violent place. I feel like right now, we’re so broke, it’s no reason to be that way. Back in the day, if you came around stunting and had some money, n****s may try and get at you. Now if you come around and you got money, people are like “How you do that? Can you help me? I want to learn.” The thing about Detroit is don’t nobody know how successful I really be. They know I’m doing good. They see my shit on YouTube, but to them, I’m not like a famous, big-time rapper. I’m still Daniel from Linwood. That’s how I like it.
In her Rolling Stone cover, Miley Cyrus attributed a summer in Detroit to her evolution. You said, “I hate Miley Cyrus . . . Get her the fuck outta here” shortly after.
I think she just trying to beat the case and say some shit. Ain’t no way she could . . . trying to be dead or gangbang or some shit. She ain’t live no Detroit experience. We can throw that out the window. I think she just trying to be cool. Personally, the reason that I don’t like it is there’s a lot of little girls that saw and looked up to Miley Cyrus as a little kid. Now they grown and they seeing what she doing. Somebody else can do that; you can be the one person who don’t do that. What’s your point? That you want to fuck black n****s or something? I don’t get it. You just lost a nice-looking white dude, who was rich. Is he? I don’t know. I just know homeboy left Miley Cyrus and I say, “Duh!”
What about the men in hip-hop cosigning Miley?
I think anybody doing that just trying to eat. Ain’t no n***a worried about their own music worried about her. Kendrick Lamar is not trying to do no song with Miley Cyrus. It’s just like this, man. It’s like the little white girl in the hood that might get you a plug on some pills or some shit. You gonna be nice to her to get your plug or whatever you need to get. They trying to eat.
You always seem like the funny, silly, drugged-out guy. I feel that anyone eternally happy-go-lucky is hiding shit.
Of course! It’s what I’m putting out to the people. This is like everything else, man. I’m trying to figure out the right way to say it. It’s like hiding a pill in ice cream or something. Give motherfuckers the sweets first before giving them the medicine. We don’t know what my message is going to be yet because I’m still growing up. Right now, it’s just have fun. Don’t care what people think about you. No worries. As long as you breathing, anything can happen. I don’t care about nothing. I don’t watch the news because it’s not my life. This is my life.
What keeps you up at night?
I have bad nightmares. I don’t know. I have to do a lot of shit to get myself to fall asleep. Just drugs, whatever. Eventually, when I get to sleep, I always have weird dreams, man. It’s been going on for so long. It’s always back when I was selling drugs. The problem to me is that it’s never really a bad dream. It just seems like that’s my normal life. Go on the block, trying to get work – normal, everyday shit. I just take it as something in my psyche telling me, “N***a, you still that n***a from back then. You gotta grind. You don’t got it yet.” Then I wake up and listen to Old and try to write some more shit. I wake up sweating and shit. I don’t go back to sleep. I sleep four hours a day, unless I drink lean. Like, yesterday I slept 10 hours.
Have you thought about therapy?
Interviews are sort of like therapy, letting out a lot of that shit. This is therapy right now. I read it and sometimes I feel dumb and sometimes I make myself feel smart. I might take something from it.
Overall, are you a happy person?
Nah. Not really. I think I was too happy as a kid. When I found out that everything wasn’t that – you know? I think things just got cold.