A friend warns me not to turn up to a Danny Brown interview without vinyl or weed. Eager to avoid mistakes of the past (Brown once cut off an interview after the journalist generously offered him a scotch egg), I do exactly that. You see, Danny Brown isn’t your everyday rapper.
Volatile and incongruous by equal measure, the 35-year-old Detroit native is just as inspired by André 3000 as Ian Curtis. The latter is evident by his new record Atrocity Exhibition, which sees Brown’s love for the lyrically absurd (“I wet a nigga up like he forgot his poncho”) mixed with production (mainly handled by Brown’s close friend Paul White, with assistance from the likes of Black Milk and Evian Christ) that sounds like it’s being beamed in live from an industrial rave.
On Atrocity Exhibition, Brown sounds like ODB with a library card, an artist just as familiar with existential dread as the more minimalist soundscapes of J Dilla. ‘Ain’t It Funny’, which could be Brown’s superhero theme tune, has him contorting his voice to boast: “I could sell honey to a bee.” And, sat at his hotel room table, the contents of which look like Tony Montana switched coke for marijuana distribution, Brown, who can’t stop rocking a mischievous smile, looks every bit as confident as the album he’s just finished.
In-between comical, high-pitched laughter and puffing out a thick haze (“This London weed gets better every time I come out here,” he says at one point), Brown wants to make it clear he’s much more than just a rap jester with funny teeth.
Why do Joy Division mean so much to you?
One thing about me bro is I just like music that captures emotion. Ian Curtis, he probably wasn’t the best singer in the world, but he knew how to capture emotions. I always say the best thing is when an artist is just working with what they got. When you have talent in excess, and too many resources, it is harder to be creative. I don’t know what was going on at that time, because the Closer sessions were the last year of Ian’s life, but they were really aiming for that out there sound. Those tribal, digital drums they were using? I can really relate to that.
Musically you can hear a lot of Homogenic and Talking Heads on this album.
Yeah, Björk and Talking Heads were definitely reference points. But when it comes to influences I like to take them and put them in a blender. A lot of people when they say they get influenced by stuff , well, they just go and copy it and do the same thing that person originally did. There isn’t anything wrong with that but, I mean, it has to be better than what it was before and that’s kind of hard to do. One thing about me is that originality is like my biggest thing. It is all about keeping it entertaining. You gotta think when your hobby becomes your job, how is it you keep it fun? For me, it’s by challenging yourself to sound different every single time.
Talk me through your creative process.
With me, if I am kind of like dry, I watch a lot of documentaries to try to get inspiration. For the most part, with me it organically happens. I just work on it all the time. It is pretty much like building a car. Maybe one day I pick the beat, maybe one day I catch a hook and some beginning bars. Before I know it, months and months go by, and I catch a song.
On ‘Downward Spiral’ you say “When I’m alone, I feel like no one cares” – do you feel isolated in this industry?
People expect a lot from me and that comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility, you know? It is about maintaining because when you go through this here every now and then a person like me could have a panic attack. Or have a fucking burn out. It is about taking it all in your stride.
Are you bored of the ‘drug rapper’ tag?
At this point, I am not even going to talk about it, you know? If you just take my music for that, you are obviously not listening on a deeper level. You can’t force everybody to go deep, dog.
You rap “I’m like Kubrick with two bricks”. Do you try to make music like movies?
Did you watch that Room 237 documentary? About Kubrick putting that Indian shit in The Shining? He probably faked the moon landings too. With my albums, I always try to preview what I’m about to do next or to hide little secrets. I got that from Kubrick. One song might be me experimenting and opening doors to something new, which you then hear in full on the next album. I am so infatuated with The Streets A Grand Don’t Come For Free but at this point I am not ambitious enough to go all the way with it like that. If I’m a movie maker, then Atrocity Exhibition is more like a documentary.
You gotta think when your hobby becomes your job, how is it you keep it fun? For me, it’s by challenging yourself to sound different every single time.
‘Really Doe’ sounds like a 90s posse cut in the mould of Big L’s ‘Da Graveyard’. Was that the aim?
That shit is dope. That was the aim. Kendrick and TDE are my bros, I hang out with them every chance I get you know? Kendrick so deep with it, it wouldn’t surprise me if the hook is talking about [Ferguson]. ‘Really Doe’ is a posse cut but I feel like hip-hop is starting to be a little segregated. We starting to have a line now where it is old niggas and young niggas, that is where hip-hop is at right now. With this album a lot of stuff was so concept driven and me trying to say something on a deep level, I needed that one record to just have fun too. That’s what ‘Pneumonia’ is. People still say it’s dark and crazy. I’m thinking what the fuck must be going on in my world, where I think this is a fun song? Fuck. I have problems man.
What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
I feel like what is real, we don’t know. A lot of people just doing stuff for the internet and the tweets. If you really in the field, it ain’t about no internet shit. Activism don’t live on the internet, it lives in the world. Let it be that.
What do you make of Donald Trump?
I see the nigga that was on The Apprentice [laughs]. That’s all I remember, cuz? With [season one contestant] Omarosa and shit. That’s all I remember. We had Ronald Reagan, so it ain’t too far fetched, bro? You ever watched the Ronald Reagan movie? I’m saying, like come on cuz, he was president too man! This is America. We ratchet. This is what we do. Don’t be surprised man and expect the unexpected. Just be glad it ain’t Arnold Schwarzenegger. It could be a lot worse. This is America and this is where dreams come true. You could be anything you want to be.
If he does become President, will you move to the UK?
When I first ever came here, it was like I’d been here in a past life. I am English at heart. It’s like we’re linked – when I talked to Dizzee Rascal, he told me he used to listen DJ Assault mixtapes. That is like my whole teenage years, my beginning to high school and middle school, so that really knocked me out. My label Warp is British and they helped me make my sound bigger, better and stronger. This is my most confident record because I had a chance to sit with it. I had patience in making it. I put the most effort into this one then I ever did before.
On ‘Hell For It’ you say “Have a bitch like Iggy think she sicker than me, it’s so fucked up”. Are you tired of being ignored by the mainstream?
With the Iggy thing, it just rhymed so I went with it. I ain’t picking on her or anything. It just rhymes. I don’t hate on no one for what they do. That [industry rapper] world isn’t my world, so I ain’t tripping. Look, if it was competition for me then we’d have a problem. But it ain’t.
How do you feel when high-profile rappers are outed for using ghostwriters?
At the end of the day I am a writer so that ghostwriting shit is wack to me. But ghostwriting in hip hop always existed though. It ain’t like a far fetched idea. Like back in the day, ODB used to say GZA and RZA rhymes. But you gotta be honest. When you know it’s like some fake, made up, superhero shit, then that takes away from real artists.
[At this point, BEAT gets its Nardwuar on and hands over a vinyl copy of O.C.’s ‘Can’t Go Wrong‘ single – due to its musical similarities to new song ‘From The Ground’ – while Brown rolls a second joint that is bigger than a baby’s arm].
So B-Real is on Get Hi. Did you want to make a weed anthem?
First off, O.C.? The Time’s Up dude? That’s what’s up. I’mma take this back to the crib. Yeah man, B-Real is a hero. Dr. Dre and them, huh? They got the strongest weed on the market right now. Bro, they got this shit in LA called motherfucking Jet Fuel – you smoke that shit and it feels like your brain went to the depths of the motherfucking abyss! Know what I am saying? You ain’t gonna be fucking with anyone after that. That shit kills Adderall. You are just talking about a strand of weed, just like normal weed, and you’ll be sleeping for four days like you took a Xanax.
You reference André 3000’s BoB verse on the album. Is that the type of career you want?
Yeah he a legend so that is the idea. Outkast done so much it’s out of this world to me. To be mentioned in the same breath as them? I am honoured. I just want this album to stand the test of time. If we can listen to it ten years from now and it all sounds the same way it did the first time you put it on then I am happy with that shit.