INTERVIEW: Danny Brown chopped it up with HNHH about his new album, "Uknowhatimsayin¿", how he broke down the doors for future generations, and getting back to basics on his latest project.
Nobody would’ve expected to see Danny Brown as prim and proper as he is today. Over the course of the decade, Danny Brown’s look has been a main fixture in his public persona -- the broken tooth, the flamboyant outfits, audacious hairstyles -- but it also characterized his music in a sense. His overall look captured the loud and rambunctious energy he gave off in albums like XXX, Old, and even Atrocity Exhibition. These days, his wardrobe isn't as brash and flamboyant as they were when he walked down the runway for Mark McNairy's show at NYFW in 2012. He's made a complete 180 with his look since -- his teeth are fixed, his hair has been cut down, and as he'd describe it, "I'm back looking like I’m in high school and shit."
The release of uknowhatimsayin¿ marks another era in the rapper's lauded career. In the past three years since the release of his critically acclaimed, Atrocity Exhibition, the rapper stayed low-key but he's also expanded past just music. He got deeper into acting with appearances on Comedy Central's Detroiters, White Boy Rick, and more. The culmination of his time with some of comedy's elite, such as Joey Diaz, as well as cleaning up his image, has resulted in more doors opening up for him in television and film.
On his new project, he's more focused than ever, less stressed, and living his best life. The overall experience recording this album was different than the previous albums he released. Q-Tip served as the executive producer for the project, giving Danny Brown the liberty to solely focus on writing and rapping, as opposed to taking full creative control of the album. That's why this album is probably his most potent, and confident album to date. More than anything, this marks Danny Brown's first album as an elder statesman. He's stood out from his peers since emerging into the limelight but he also soldiered through the criticism of his zany look. He argues that he broke down the doors for rappers to look however they want without having to fit a certain mold.
"That’s one thing I feel like I broke the boundaries with, hip-hop telling motherfuckers they don’t have the looks. You can look any way now and be a part of this shit. So I feel like if anything, that’s one thing I did. I paved the way for motherfuckers who don’t feel like they have to look a certain way to be a part of this hip-hop shit," he told us exclusively. "Now people are getting crazier and crazier with it to stand out."
One artist, in particular, that Danny helped open up the gates for is JPEGMAFIA who went from watching Danny Brown in Dallas crowd during an opening set for Childish Gambino to producing and featuring on uknowhatimsayin¿.
"For a long time it felt like I was sitting in a class by myself. Then Peggy came along and I felt like we were fighting the same battle when it comes to this hip-hop shit. It’s good to have someone on the front line with you," he said.
With uknowhatimsayin¿ finally out, Danny Brown invited HNHH into his universe, detailing the transition from Atrocity Exhibition to Uknowhatimsayin¿, breaking down the doors for younger artists, and where he'd rank his latest album in his illustrious discography.
Photo By HNHH
This interview has been edited for clarity.
HNHH: Yo, Danny. How you doin’ bro?
Danny Brown: I’m good, just chilling.
Just to kick this off I was wondering how you felt about the reception so far with the new album, considering it’s been three years since Atrocity Exhibition. Did you expect people to receive it with such high acclaim considering how praised Atrocity Exhibition was?
I’m gonna be honest with you, I never care about that kind of shit. ‘Cause that shit will drive me crazy if I did, you know? They always look at my album but they sit in their own – it’s almost like kids or shit, you know? I can’t really; I looked at houses you know, he grown up, he turned 18, he got the house now, you know? Now, this is my new baby, I got to grow this one now, you know? Give it all the love and care it needs, make sure when I put it out into the world, it’ll be good. I feel I gave this one enough love and care, you know what I’m saying? If you got about 4 of 5 kids, things get a little easier for you.
Definitely. With this project, you had Q-Tip kind of steering the direction of this, so I was wondering how different the approach was this time around compared to your previous albums?
I mean, I had somebody here fighting with me you know? So, admitting that he was the one – he was feeling it so it just took a weight off my shoulders. This was like the easiest project because it was so much less stressful. I mean the most stress I had was actually coming up with the raps, you know? That’s it. Other than that I ain’t had nothing to worry about. So this was the first time I didn’t – all I had to do was worry about rapping so you know. But, it took a minute for me to get the type of rapping he wanted. So you know, that was stressful. But once I figured it out, and once we started, you know, to get to know each other a little more.
Had to re-learn how to rap for this one, I don’t know if I’m misquoting you but like --
No, it's right. Pretty much cause like – I was going back to like, I felt like I was almost doing like a more production-driven type of sound where its almost the beatwas actually just merapping off that beat, you know? And a lot of time that could get lost, the sound in that could get lost. Now, that lyrics are the forefront. You can’t finesse and then it goes over the top hits you know, like high-level beats. So I don’t know man it's just real like – the beginning was rough. That’s all I can say [Laughs]. In the beginning, it was rough.
When did you guys start plotting it out?
Like three years ago. Like right after Atrocity Exhibition, maybe like 6 months later I was in Tip’s basement.I would say we kicked it but then we probably worked consistently for like two years.
Yeah and we probably didn’t find a groove really until the last year because you know, I had a lot of time where I couldn’t record because I was getting my teeth fixed and surgeries and shit, so I couldn’t even talk. I ain’t had no teeth in my mouth. There was a lot of down-time in writing and stuff, too.
Did that kind of play a factor into why you had to re-learn how to rap with getting your teeth fixed and everything?
Nah, that don’t have to do with it, it was just more so the writing actually. I was going through all the teeth surgery shit I couldn’t smoke. And shit like that, cause you know I don’t fuck with therapy. And I had to do something, you’re so used to smoking weed and making music, you know what I’m saying? So it was like I didn’t have that there, which was crazy.
Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you actually. I remember watching previous interviews before Old and Atrocity and you said you would pretty much would coup yourself up for a night, and go on a bender, and go crazy with the writing.
Yeah, and I stopped taking Adderall too. That was a big deal. Because like, I’m writing without Adderall now, something I had been relying on for damn near my whole career. Now I’m making music without it, so it was hard.
Getting clean in that sense, did you have any worries that it would impact your music in any way?
Yeah I mean I guess a lot of people think that. But, I was more worried about the reception. But it’s just harder to do, and everyone wants the easy way out. But, sometimes the easy way out ain’t the best thing for you.
Yeah, that’s one thing I found with this project specifically. It’s just a really concise project because it’s only 11 tracks long, compared to your previous albums but even the storytelling and humor were more refined.
Mhm. I feel like -- I mean, the album is called uknowhatimsayin¿ -- this is my first time where I’m just talking to people, and I’m reflecting on what I’ve been through more so than just telling you what I’m going through, you know? A lot of times with these albums, I feel like when they were over with, a lot of people used to feel bummed out and feel sorry for me. But I definitely don’t want people to feel sorry for me, or nothing like that. Everything's better, I guess. Because with this one I just wanted to just show these motherfuckers I ain’t lost nothing. I have not lost the stuff at all.
You were very successful in proving that point, for real. I’m a huge fan, but I’m also one of those people who is also critical of the people I’m fans of.
Yeah, actually we all are. We just want the best out of the people we fuck with. You don’t want to get let down by nothing, you know?
Nah, exactly. I was just interested in what direction you were going to take with this. One thing about your music since XXX, since you’ve been in the limelight, you have this way where you create a new era for yourself to define each project. I was wondering what factors dictate the aesthetic, sounds and themes in your albums?
I mean, a lot of times I kind of had it planned. But for this album, I didn’t. This shit just really happened on its own. Like I did the White Boy Rick movie, and I showed up and they’re like, “We gotta cut your dreads off.” I’m like “Cut my dreads off?!” But it was too late, I signed the contract for the movie. But I didn’t know, like I’m in hair and makeup they like, “We bout’ to cut this shit.” I’m like, “Oh my god.” They cut my hair off to be in the movie so I’m like, “Fuck, that’s that.” Then in the midst of that, I’ve had real gum disease like type problems. I needed to get a bone grafting surgery. Everybody was telling me like, "If you get your teeth fixed and blah blah blah, you could get some roles. You kinda good at this shit." So it was like, fuck it. But I didn’t know it was going to take me a year, and I was going to be off of work. I didn’t know I was putting myself out of work by going to start the process of me getting my teeth fixed. But thank God I did, because at the rate I was going I would need dentures by 40. It was more of a health risk if anything. Took care of that and here we are. But I definitely didn’t plan on looking like this, I’m back looking like I’m in high school and shit.
I think it kind of brings back the point of how your music just goes through these eras and it’s just really reflective of who you are at the time. With maturity and the way you delivered this project, and just the way you look, it all kind of just makes sense. Is that something that you think plays into your fashion sense, and how your fashion sense kind of bleeds into everything else you do in a way?
Yeah definitely. I’m not subconsciously doing it in that sense. But even with this, now I look like this, I can’t sound like that it doesn’t even match no more. Like the way I look, I can’t rap like Atrocity Exhibition Danny. I can’t be doing double-time yelp raps. It don’t look like it sound like that, you know what I’m saying? So it had to go with what I feel like I sound like now.
Definitely. So I just wanted to touch on a couple of the collaborations. First, I wanted to ask about Paul White. Obviously you guys have had such a great relationship over the years, I was wondering what does he bring to the table that brings out the best in you?
To be honest with you, I just have a shit ton of Paul White beats. I swear, I have more Paul White beats than regular music on my computer. He just one of the people that’s consistently working. The “[Belly Of The Beast]” beat, I had that since XXX time. That beat is so old. So I have these beats that I’ve had in my computer forever. Every time I get a new computer I transfer them from the hard drive. So I been collecting Paul White beats since 2010, and he sends me new beats every year. So, this folder keeps getting bigger and bigger and as time progresses, a lot of this music becomes a part of me at some point. Like I could be driving or just chilling somewhere and I’ll hear one of his beats just pop into my head. A beat that I’ve heard many times that I didn’t use. Then I gotta go back through thousands of beats that he gave me to try to find that beat. So it’s almost like I’ve been listening to these beats for so long that they’ve become a part of me and the songs just start writing themselves, more so than me forcing myself to write to a beat.
That’s dope. Paul White had a big role on Atrocity, right?
He pretty much damn near did the whole thing.
The next one I wanted to ask you about was Run The Jewels. I was wondering what made you get them on “3 Tearz” over JPEGMAFIA production?
The way that came about was when we first sat down, we thought that we have to look at it like “Danny Brown is his own universe,” you know? And it’s like, who would be in this world? Like I shouldn’t be working with nobody that doesn’t feel like they would work in my universe. So we just created this list of a whole bunch of people we felt would work in my universe. Of course, Run The Jewels at the top of it, they my homies anyway. I was over at El-P crib, playin’ him some songs, I just had to rap. You know, I had the first verse -- my verse -- on that Peggy beat. I had played it for them, but it wasn’t even for the album, that was just something I played. He was like, “That’s fucking crazy, send that to me. I might get Mike on it.” The rest is history, to be honest. It happened that easy.
The thing I like most about “3 Tearz” is that it kind of brought back that feeling I got from you off The Hybrid. So I was just wondering what it was about JPEGMAFIA that fits into your universe?
I mean, I’m super inspired by him, and I also inspire him. One of the worst shows I ever played in my life was in Dallas, Texas, I was opening up for Childish Gambino. We obviously had two different fan bases at the time. This was like, Camp days Gambino. I was playing, and they started chanting Gambino in the middle of my set, I had like three songs left. I’m like, “What the fuck?” They were chanting to get me off the stage, you know what I’m saying? So whatever, I felt so bad about that show it made me question what the fuck I was doing with my life. But I come to find out that JPEGMAFIA was in the crowd. Peggy! A young Peggy was in the crowd. He saw that shit and said he thought it was the tightest shit he ever saw. I think he was in the military or something at the time, it inspired him to get more into this rap shit.So, that was fucking crazy, you know what I’m saying?
That’s actually an interesting turn of events. I seen the Instagram flick of you and JPEGMAFIA having a shit ton of White Castle for Thanksgiving last year.
Aye man, we ain’t had nobody to cook for us on Thanksgiving. We had to do what we had to do. But that’s what it is with Peggy too, we just kick it kind of, we don’t really make too much music. We just be having fun. But he alwaysgota lot of beats. I got a lot of Peggy beats. So whenever I’m ready to fuck with the Peggy shit I just go through his playlist, you know?
Would there ever be the possibility of you two working on a joint project together?
I don’t know, I think the joint project stuff is getting a little corny. If anything, we’ll just keep this relationship musically forever. I’m always on his shit, he always on my shit, or not even that. Just us consulting with each other probably helps more and pushes this shit forward. We don’t even necessarily have to make music with each other, just us almost A&R’ing each other. Because he’s a fan of my shit just as much as I’m a fan of his shit. There’s strength in numbers, man, if you got your brothers with you. You’ll make doper shit. You bounce off of each other, you inspire each other. Like he played some dope shit for me I’m like “Oh shit! Now I gotta make some shit.” So that’s what we do. I think we bring the best out of each other, to be honest.
As one of the guys in the new generation, do you think he’s one of the people that inspires you to keep pushing your own your boundaries?
Yes, definitely. For a long time, it felt like I was sitting in a class by myself. Then Peggy came along and I felt like we were fighting the same battle when it comes to this hip-hop shit. It’s good to have someone on the front line with you.
Do you think you broke down the doors for a lot of people? I was thinking about it earlier, and I feel like you don’t get the credit you deserve.
Yeah, I wouldn’t say necessarily on the music, as much so as people being able to look how they want to look. To be who they want to be in hip-hop. When I came around, it was like heavy gun talk shit, it was gangster shit pretty much, comin’ up in my rap days. I was from the era where they told me I wouldn’t get a record deal because I didn’t have the looks. That’s one thing I feel like I broke the boundaries with, hip-hop telling motherfuckers they don’t have the looks. You can look any way now and be a part of this shit. So I feel like if anything, that’s one thing I did. I paved the way for motherfuckers who don’t feel like they have to look a certain way to be a part of this hip-hop shit. Now people are getting crazier and crazier with it to stand out.
Nah, for sure. So just one last feature I wanted to ask you about. On this album and the last album, you had two artists from Africa on it. With this one it was Obongjayar, and the last one was Petite Noir. I was wondering how you approach using afro-beat sounds in your music and finding a middle ground with your sound?
I can’t tell you how that come about. I didn’t even really realize that until you brought it up. But I don’t know, that’s just something that happens organically. But really, Obongjayar, he'sat Warp. My homie Stefan, he’s like my main A&R for my project. He the one put him [on it] and thank God, because the hooks I had for those songs weren’t as good, now that I think about it. Shout out Obongjayar. He came with some heat. I’m definitely going to do some more work with him for sure.
Photo By HNHH
I just wanted to talk to you more about the comedy side, and Danny’s House. I know you have a solid relationship with a few comedians like Hannibal Burress and Joey Diaz. How has your relationship with them influenced your humor and storytelling in your music?
Me and Hannibal are real close friends, that’s my boy. We hang out. It don’t even be about no funny shit or anything like that. For the most part, uncle Joey is pretty much like my mentor. He’s almost like my life coach. Anytime I’m feeling down or something, he’ll definitely make me feel stupid for it. So he always motivates me. At the end of the day, it's just something I always wanted to be a part of. When I was in high school, the only class I didn’t skip was drama class because I loved doing improv, sketches, skits, and shit. You can’t really try to be funny, so it’s always been part of my personality, I guess. So it’s just good, I feel like I can be a part of this shit when I got the top comedians telling me I’m funny. It gave me a lot of confidence to do something like Danny’s House. Before, I probably would’ve been scared to do that. Being around Hannibal, he definitely put the battery in my back.
I wanted to ask you about one particular line in “Dirty Laundry." Could you give me some context behind the line, “Fucked a stripper for same change, actual change/ Dimes, pennies, nickels, actual change"?
Yeah, the original song was produced by Samiyam. It was more of a slower -- I almost called it, do you remember Police Academy where they go inside the gay bar, the Blue Oyster and that fuckin’ same porn it would play.I had more of a stand-up comedy approach, from what you hear in the final product. So that started out as a bit. That’s not a true story, it’s just something I made up to be funny. It’s almost like me trying to work a stand-up bit into a rap song. Because I started out with that, and then I wrote everything else around it. So it’s pretty much just me trying to tell a joke. Yeah, that’s pretty much me trying to do comedy on a rap song.
So with Danny’s House, it was exactly fitting for what I’d expect from you as a television host. Is there a possibility of a season 2?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like I’ve taken on two jobs now. So I forgot I was a rapper. And with TV shows, you gotta be kinda be doin’ ‘em, like, all the time [Laughs]. Derek, he doing his show right now Mostly For Millenials. So everybody running around like crazy right now so we gotta get the gang back together so when we could brainstorm on when the second season would be. So, I don’t know. I gotta be a rapper right now and hopefully once I’m done with this shit. But we’ll definitely be doing a season two, man.
What kind of conspiracy theories would you want to dive into for the second season?
I talk to Derek every now and then, we don’t really want it to be like that with the next season. There’s not gonna be conspiracy theories, there’ll be more realer topics or, I don’t know, darker topics. I don’t want people to think we’re all about aliens and shit. You know what I’m saying?
For sure. I was just chillin’ and binging through them before a few nights ago.
I feel like it’s better if you binge-watch it. If you watch one episode it’s cool, but if you binge it you’re like, “This shit is fucking hilarious.” Not to toot my own horn.
I wanted to ask you about a recent Instagram post of yours. You posted the Drakeo the Ruler article about his current case. I was wondering because you’re a hip hop historian, and prosecutors have been using rapper's lyrics against them in court. Do you think that will ever end? Do you think there will ever be a point where rappers aren’t vilified for their music?
Nah, I don’t think we can, really, to be honest. At this point, we gotta think about all the destruction hip-hop caused, in a sense. Mothafuckas is hot! Like Jay-Z said, a long time ago, the rap game like the crack game. This shit is like the crack game now, we the target. There’s only so many motherfuckers that are going to know how to move through this shit. That’s how I look at it. I always looked at this shit like selling dope. If it wasn’t for me being in the streets, I probably wouldn’t be able to maneuver through this shit the way I maneuver. These motherfuckers just gotta realize this shit like the street. You can’t be out just walking around everywhere with jewelry, you can’t just be a rapper 24/7 no more. You gotta be on the low now. Mothafuckers are targets. That’s how I look at it.
Where would you put uknowhatimsayin¿ in the ranking of your discography?
I don’t know that’s pretty hard. I want to say number one because it’s the newest one, but yeah it’s gotta be. I think this number one, to be honest. And I hate to say that, but every album I make, I always look back and there’s a lot of things I would change. For some reason, this just feel perfect to me. It just feel perfect to me.
You definitely sound like you’re in a very comfortable position, just very confident in the skill set and approaching the project as a whole. It’s just a confident body of work in general.
Yeah, exactly. I mean when you got somebody like Q-Tip with you, and he don’t fuck with nobody, and I don’t really fuck with people like that, to be honest. We’re like supervillains in the studio, man, you know?
What can we expect next after you go on tour?
I’m still going to be touring a little, festivals or whatever. For the most part, I’m just trying to get back into the mode of starting to think about Danny’s House 2. I feel like that’s going to be part of my album, so like, Danny’s House then the album. I gotta start working on Danny’s House. Me and Tip already started bouncing ideas around for the next album, and I know I don’t want it to take three years this time, or even two years. Maybe a year and a half. I want to get a quicker turnaround because I never really put out projects back-to-back like that.
Nah that’s definitely true. The wait is honestly always worth it.
Yeah. It’s torture though. [Laughs]
A little bit. I ain’t gonna front.
I know, it’s torture for me so I know! [Laughs]
Alright thanks, bro, I appreciate the conversation.
For sure, for sure.