Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
For Fans Of: OutKast, A-Trak
Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s most eye-opening moment as a student happened outside the walls of a classroom. That moment—some circumstantial, life-affirming miracle—was on the day his little sister was born. His mother, who normally picked him up from school, was resting in the hospital. It was left to his cousin to make sure he made it home safely.
For Brown’s cousin, that trip to pick up little Danny (his family knew him as Daniel Sewell at the time) was an unbearable one. With all of his rushing, you might think it was because of the pouring rain in Michigan that day, but that’s only part of it—The two were running home mostly because Brown’s cousin had just acquired another recently born baby into the world: LL Cool J’s debut, Radio. Aside from whatever he learned in class that day, Brown also discovered the one thing that would change his life forever.
“We got to the crib and we went to the basement and it was on vinyl and shit,” Brown reflects. “We pulled it out on vinyl and we just listened to it in its entirety and I think that’s when I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do…I think I was like trying to rap to myself hearing that right then.”
So it was at an extremely young age that Brown knew his calling, and as far as we can see, he’s made it. That same person whose eyes were opened by Radio—and earlier in life, Dr. Seuss— is now rhyming with the best of them, and he has his own hard work to blame.
In 2007, Brown signed with Brooklyn’s highly respected Fool’s Gold records, which was founded by DJs A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs (“We talk a lot and I think that’s probably what’s missing between the artist and the company probably a lot these days. Like, I text A-Trak right now and he responded within three minutes,” Brown says). His 2011 album XXX made him a critical darling, earning him a spot on XXL’s “Top 10 Freshmen” list, SPIN’s No. 1 hip hop album of the year and Detroit Metro Times’ “Artist of the Year” award.
But his rise to making a living out of his passion came through some hard truth and even harder times. Brown went to Michigan’s Wayne County Jail in 2007, a punishment brought on from a probation violation that came from a marijuana manufacturing charge. And although Brown describes his time in jail as predictably horrible, that time was vital to becoming the rapper he is now.
“It made me a totally different person,” Brown says about jail. “Before jail, I was shy. I cared a lot. Maybe I cared too much back then, and now you can just hear that in my music, which is my edge. Once I started not caring and just doing what I wanted to do, that’s when everything started to work for me. If I hadn’t gone to jail, I might just be making whatever’s popular right now.”
The 31-year-old Brown might not be as discovered as some of his younger, radio-embracing peers. But he’s got something better going for him than that, starting with a time-tested voice and some one-of-a-kind, ghetto-flamboyant style (he’s maybe the only person you’ve seen wearing hybrid Adidas hi-top cowboy boots). This is the stuff that makes Brown irresistible now, and the same stuff he was too shy to get away with before his time spent locked up.
That voice, though. It’s unlike anything in mainstream hip hop—a sort of high-pitched squawk capable of channeling hilarious cracks and intimidating commands all within a few lines, a sound is now forever married to Brown’s effortless rhymes. It comes from years and years of simply being a fan of all music and studying how it’s done: “I was just listening cause I didn’t really understand how to make a song. I had to listen to songs to understand sixteen bars and hooks. And my hooks sucked at first.”
We hear Brown as an artist fully realized on XXX on tracks like “Radio Song” that show his unwillingness to ride with the mainstream. But as he tells it, that voice as we know it first appears on 2010’s The Hybrid, his first release out of jail that saw him embracing who he really was.
“The vocals had just started to get a little more extreme,” Brown says about developing his voice. “And like I said, it’s an emotional thing for me, too. Anybody that raps just raps and you could say the deepest shit in the world, but you don’t wanna say that the same way you say some funny shit. So, it’s figuring out how to say shit that’s not all funny. But I can say some shit that’s not necessarily that dope, but it sounded funny, so people laughed. And that’s the emotion I would wanna get from that line.”
And even now, with all the attention he’s grabbed, he’s not just soaking it in. Instead, he’s worrying about his next release and how he’ll keep progressing, and that’s a sign of a true artist.
“It feels good, but it’s like pressure, too. I got people listening to my music now, it’s like I gotta follow-up. And I don’t want that to change, so I gotta make the next project better than the last one. I don’t let it affect how I make music. I’m just still gonna do what I wanna do…I might lose some fans with that, but I might gain a lot more.”