In 2017, when Danny Brown first connected with the rapper, producer and legend from A Tribe Called Quest to begin working on the former’s fifth studio album, uknowhatimsayin¿, Q-Tip referenced “Greatest Rapper Ever,” the intro track to his 2010 mixtape The Hybrid, as the artist that he wanted to hear and work with. But while Q-Tip wanted the old Danny Brown, Danny had already spent the last few years trying to get away from that artist and person altogether.
“I mean, I wasn’t happy about it,” Brown recalls when he got that request. “Because I’m always trying to chart new territory. If I’m not creating, I’m discovering.”
Over the past decade-plus, Brown has become one of the most distinctive artists in rap – whether it’s concerning his music, his look, or his personality. He had a broken front tooth, a result of being hit by a car in a KFC parking lot when he was younger. His laugh is unmistakable, a charming, goofy shriek that both slips out or is used as a way to disarm an audience. He regularly morphs his voice from a guttural snarl to a cartoonish high-pitched yell, recalling the likes of ‘Ol Dirty Bastard circa 1995. And around the time he signed to Canadian EDM DJ A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold Records in 2011 to release his seminal mixtape XXX, he changed his hair from hood-centric braids into an anime-inspired swoop that made him look more like a heavy metal rock star than a Detroit street rapper.
The Danny Brown sitting here today – in the back of a Brooklyn bar with his manager Dart Parker – is far different from the guy whom I last spoke to in 2011, when he was depressed and wondering why his hometown shunned his art and his appearance.
“Detroit’s a close-minded city. People always talking sh*t back home, but it’s been embraced outside of home. It’s depressing at times,” Brown said during that 2011 interview. “Can you imagine me walking round Northland (Center, a now shuttered shopping mall in suburban Detroit) on a Saturday? Sh*t’s crazy. But let me walk through the Beverly Center (in Los Angeles) on a Saturday, no one pays me any attention.”
And his last album, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, integrated shadowy rock, punk and techno influences while delving into the drug addiction that fueled his own personal nosedive. “Back then … I was emotional, and I think I cared too much. I started to realize that in life you only have so many f**ks to give, so you might as well only give a f**k about the things you can control,” Brown tells me today. “I didn’t even do press for (Atrocity Exhibition), I wasn’t mentally stable at the time to talk to people like that. I would just be going on these binges, man. It got to the point where (I realized) there are so many people that this sh*t takes care of. Me risking it like that, one bad day and everything can go wrong.”
He describes his process of ditching drugs as a normal coming of age. “I was never the person who was depressed and doing drugs by himself, getting high for no reason. It was always about partying. I’ve just gotten to the age where I’m not partying no more.” Brown got his Fool’s Gold record deal at age 30 (the album XXX is titled after the roman numeral), later than many other rappers who get their shot. So as he’s approaching 40, he’s living the washed life, accepting invites to parties but staying at home when it’s time to leave. He attests that if he got his deal in his 20s, that he may have made even worse mistakes and ruined his career beyond repair.
While speaking about his pursuit of sobriety, he shared a story about the late Mac Miller. Early on he didn’t like Mac’s music, and he would spend time in interviews talking trash about him. But over time they would eventually become friends – “I miss the you that said I was the worst thing to happen to hip hop,” Mac once tweeted to Brown – and in fall 2018, Brown got a call from the Pittsburgh vocalist/producer.
“That week that he died, he called me, almost on some clarity sh*t. He’s like “‘Man, are we good? You should come out to LA and make music.’ I’m like hell yeah, man,” Brown remembers. “This was the time that I was cleaning up, so I wasn’t doing sh*t. I booked my flight to go to LA, I’m going to hang with Mac. But as the week was going, I know what I’m going to do when I hang with cous’. The day I was about to leave, I had my flight and everything, and I just canceled it… I was literally in the car, and they announced on the radio that he died.” Brown was shaken by the news.
Along with leaving behind substances, he also changed his look. When he showed up to shoot his scenes for White Boy Rick, a 2018 film about teenage FBI informant Richard Wershe Jr., he was required to cut his hair – he now sports a short, neat taper. Then there’s his grill: his snaggletoothed look has been replaced by a new set of pearly whites.
“Getting my teeth fixed was more of a health issue. As bad as my teeth was, I’m still going to the dentist all the time just to maintain that sh*t. They was telling me about weird gum diseases and all types of sh*t, they said, ‘at the rate you’re going you’re going to need dentures by 40.’ I’m thinking like a ni**a. ‘I don’t give a f**k, I’ll just put a grill on them bitches and we rocking out,’” he laughed. He Googled “Terrell Owens teeth,” and surprisingly found a surgeon in Michigan who did dental work for Owens and other athletes. He got bone grafting, a process that replaces damaged bone with new ones.
He says that process took a year, which was a big reason for the gap between Atrocity Exhibition and his new record. “It was the beginning of us working on the album and I couldn’t even work a lot. I didn’t have any teeth in my mouth,” Brown remembered. “We were working, but I couldn’t really do sh*t. I’m telling Q-Tip, ‘I’m in pain right now, I can’t even leave the crib. My face looks crazy right now,’ so it took a lot of time for me to do that sh*t, it took a year for me to get my teeth fixed.”
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Q-Tip wanted the lyrical, back to basics Danny Brown, not the EDM aesthetic that made up the second half of Old in 2013, or the genre-bending music from Atrocity Exhibition three years later. That meant that Brown would have to tone down some of the adventurous proclivities he was planning before.
“I knew where I wanted to take it after Atrocity Exhibition, I had something totally completely different in my head about where I was going to go with it. Which probably wasn’t the best idea, because it was in that same lane. I was just going to get crazier. I got to the point of ‘f**k it, I’m not on the radio and I’m making hit songs, I can go as crazy as I f**king want.’
“I love that [JPEGMAFIA] album, that sh*t is amazing to me, it probably would’ve been something closer to that,” he said, referring to his experimental friend and collaborator’s new record, All My Heroes Are Cornballs. “But thank God, every now and then somebody needs somebody to tell them to geek down a little bit, turn it down a little bit, you ain’t gotta do all that. Thanks for Q-Tip for doing that.”
In an email to VIBE, the artist known as Peggy said that the respect was mutual. “Love working with Danny. He welcomed me with open arms to his studio and took me in like a brother,” JPEGMAFIA said. “He was already one of my favorite rappers ever but he’s solidified himself as one of my favorite human beings I’ve ever interacted with.”
uknowhatimsayin¿ isn’t exactly boom bap or jazz-inflected like Q-Tip’s previous classics with Tribe, but it’s much more firmly rooted in hip-hop than Brown’s more recent work. Q-Tip provides three beats himself: the buzzy kazoo sounds of “Dirty Laundry” that have Danny sharing crude sex stories and clever laundry metaphors, the feel-good rags to riches “Best Life,” and the highlight “Combat,” which flips a horn sample and ends with a drum solo. He also helped pick other beats, or would insert some of his own signatures into sound beds from other producers on the album, and would keep Brown in the booth to record verses over and over until they were right.
Brown still tapped into his old habits a bit though. Nigerian vocalist Obongjayar lends emotive choruses to “Belly of the Beast” and the title track. And his buddy JPEGMAFIA provides the hook for “Negro Spiritual” and the beat for “3 Tearz,” which has abrasive verses from Run The Jewels. “Change Up” and “Shine,” the album’s respective intro and penultimate tracks, bookend the record by digging into his humble roots, sharing lessons from his upbringing and lamenting on his struggles. The result is a taut, 11-song album that’s as digestible as anything he’s ever made, but still reflective of his recent years of experience. So Q-Tip’s suggestion ended up successful.
“Danny’s never really been produced, he’s done it all himself. It had to be someone he respected to listen to,” Dart Parker shared, when explaining the idea to connect him with Q-Tip. “He was going crazy doing the same verse a hundred times … but who from that era that we love, is a professional, and still just as hungry as he was 20 years ago? He I s competing every day whether you hear the music or not. He’s one of the best bass players I’ve ever seen. … [Q-Tip] is hyper intelligent. One of the f***king channels went out on the board, he put on a soldering mask and went under the console and fixed it with a soldering gun!”
Despite his early hesitation, Brown also found even more appreciation for lyricism and learned to dedicate more time to his music.
“(This album) taught me that that’s a harder style of rapping than anything else. If I did double time songs with big trap bass beats, it’s so much going on that it’s an entertaining listen. When you’re doing it like this, the main sh*t is the words,” Brown added. “The beat is the backdrop at this point. Before, I was doing a lot of songs where the beat was the main thing, and my voice and how I’m coming across it is so off-kilter. With this, you ain’t giving a person no choice but to pay attention to the words. So if you ain’t saying sh*t, it’s going to be trash. The beats is banging either way it goes.”
Another key element of uknowhatimsayin¿ is Danny Brown’s humor. Jokes have always been integral in his lyrics, so his music has always been hilarious and self-deprecating. But that comedy is even more central in his life lately: his new VICELAND show Danny’s House plays like a combination of Eric Andre meets Peewee Herman, with inanimate objects like a burrito and a microphone serving as cohosts as Brown welcomes guests like ASAP Rocky, Schoolboy Q and El-P to discuss weed-worthy topics like sex with aliens, ghosts, and more. He also brings in comedians, who will come as guests or test jokes with him at the end of episodes. He says that he hangs out with comedians more than he does with other rappers these days, and they tell him that he could have a future in stand-up if he wanted to. That’s apparent during our conversation, too: he shares multiple stories, like a trip overseas and several recent incidents of peeing in his pants, that could be great comedy bits. It’s refreshing in a genre that can sometimes take itself too seriously with machismo posturing.
“Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) was the first person to tell me, ‘you’re like the Richard Pryor of rap. You need to dig into that and study Rich,’” Brown recalled. “Some sh*t you don’t have to say the way you say it, you can say the same thing wording it the right way and get an exciting reaction. A lot of times, I used to say sh*t for shock value. Richard Pryor was saying things for shock value, but it still had depth to it. That’s what I was going for.
“I feel like that’s the best emotion to have while listening to a song, is to just laugh at some sh*t. The only thing other than that is crying. To make a motherf**ker laugh at a song, that’s hard.”