The two sides of Danny Brown

Blake Gillespie

Danny Brown

“The whole point of Old is [that] this is my first album.” I'm on the phone with Danny Brown, Detroit rapper and spastic indie-rap fan favorite, and he says this to me after our converstaion has already gotten off on the wrong foot. Claiming that Impose was no longer in his corner, (a fact that I took issue with), Brown was defensive in his answers and quick to dismiss incorrect descriptions of Old, his first official full-length, due out a week from tomorrow. In our last talk in 2011, a time when I declared him Rapper of the Year, things went far better. The difference between the tone of our conversation then and now is that XXX was out and earning him accolades from every publication his gap-toothed grin graced. This time it was only a week before his release date and Old still remained under tight lock and key—no leaks whatsoever; no one even knew what to expect. Days later, Brown apologized to the masses on Twitter:

Though he defines this record as his debut, Old is the result of Danny Brown understanding just how far he’s come in two years, so far in fact that he’s caught between worlds. He's said many times that the title is not in reference to his age, as XXX showed up right around Brown's 30th year. Two years later, Brown chose to title the record in feeling the anxieties of artistic progression. There’s the “old Danny Brown”—the undiscovered Detroit native who sported braids and wrote gratuitous raps while serving crackheads for 10 years—and then there’s wild-haired Danny Brown who toured with trap & bass sensation Baauer for a month, took the stage at Coachella, embarked on the Old & Reckless tour with Kitty, and most recently joined Action Bronson on the 2 High 2 Die Tour. The 2013 version of Danny Brown is aware of just how many new fans he’s accumulated.

“Regardless of what I did previous to [Old], I had to go back and catch everybody up,” Brown says. “This album is about me having ideas in the past and now I know how to make those ideas a realization more than before.”

If Brown’s official debut is discussed as a growing pains record, a bipolar outing, fussy in its new skin, it will come from longstanding fans and critics who resist its B-side. The follow-up to 2011’s XXX was made with a cassette tape in mind, though the closest it will get to honoring its Side A/B format will be vinyl. Side A, which opens with the refrain “they want that old Danny Brown,” is a psychedelic head trip through Detroit blues that is geared toward fans of the Detroit State Of Mind mixtapes, while Side B borders on being its own entity. Bearing little resemblance to the journey on Side A, names foreign to American rap, like Rustie and Scrufizzer, replace producer Oh No and rapper Freddie Gibbs. Danny Brown will be the first to tell you, it’s been his vision since The Hybrid, possibly even before, to explore UK grime, a style that runs rampant on the B-side. Only now is he in a place to pursue it properly.

Since releasing XXX, Danny Brown has worked with The Alchemist, who most likely introduced fellow Gangrene member and producer Oh No to Brown, resulting in three beats that fit into Side A’s grits of psychedelia. Brown made it known he was a fan of Purity Ring and Charli XCX via Twitter—both artists osmose into Old without it feeling like indie-blog pandering, just like Side B is dominated by Scottish dubstep producer Rustie without the discomfort of bandwagoning on the EDM craze. The record seizes every opportunity it’s given, which is why it sounds like two different albums. It's an internal battle in which the artist in Danny Brown wants to progress and experiment in the studio, but the hardcore fans have static expectations of Brown, and unlike many artists, he likes to keep them in consideration.

“I make so many different types of rap music that a lot of times that shit can’t fit together,” he said. “It was a way for me to divide it.”

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Before signing to Fool’s Gold, it was Brown’s The Hybrid that put him on the map. Possibly more than ever, he embodies his oft-called out moniker, Danny The Hybrid. Side B is hybridity as a result of globalization. The understanding of cultural overlap—traces of other cultures exist in every culture, thus wedges exist that offer common ground—informs Danny Brown’s interest in UK grime. If The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free influenced Brown’s conceit on XXX, it’s the oeuvre of Dizzee Rascal that informs Side B of Old. The impulse is to file Side B under Brown’s exposure since XXX, but he’s quick to note he’s included EDM-styles into his music since his 2010 record.

“If you look at The Hybrid, there’s a song called ‘Need Another Drink,'” he tells me. “And that was from a Disco D song, which is ghettotech. Then, you get the XXX album, I started experimenting with the grime music with ‘Lie4’ and ‘Bruiser Brigade’. Every project I do, I always give a hint of what I’m trying to get to with the next project.”

The two sides represent the polarity of “that old Danny Brown” who came up on Detroit rap and the current Danny Brown who’s in a place he’s sought since he first started incorporating ghettotech and grime into his sound. Side A is confessional and strained by harsh visions of Detroit – some far more decayed than ones explored on “Scrap or Die” or “Fields” – and the struggle to be himself, while helping raise a daughter. Side B discards the personal for hedonistic celebration of ass slaps and substance abuse. It's not until closer “Float On” featuring Charli XCX that Brown humanizes himself again. The polarity creates opposition, two records pressed to opposite sides of the slab, but Brown said he never considered separating Old into two albums, rather than the Side A/B format.

“When I was a kid that’s what I was raised on—tapes,” he opines. “ Most of my favorite albums, you gotta think they’re going in thinking about the tape. It wasn’t a zip file. It was different times. I didn’t start the album with that intention, just a lot of my favorite albums are broken into sides and it had a different feel when it did that.”

As Brown continues to grow as an artist with bigger opportunities to make the music truest to what’s in his heart to craft, it begs the question—is Side A a swan song to the old style? Is he merely indulging those who were down since he was nobody, while Side B is the unavoidable future that helps to reveal which sides will be taken?

Danny Brown is in a unique position, one not possible had he been a weaker individual and caved to 50 Cent’s skinny jeans criticism. In standing by his identity, he is a different rapper than any before him. By trade its mostly the producer-on-the-mic types who harbor eclectic interests spanning the annals of music’s wealth. It’s a characteristic that comes from the digger’s mentality of mining source material deeper than the next man. Danny Brown was raised by a DJ, still quick to note he grew up on as much Juan Atkins as J Dilla. Brown is a different breed, unlike predecessors because he indulges in the spectrum with a producer’s thirst. It’s a trait that merits him not taking kindly to other rappers whose forays into EDM stink of transparency.

“You’ve got a lot of rappers that never did EDM shit in their life,” Brown says, lamenting a new truth. “And now they’re trying to do that shit. It’s weird.”

The silver lining to his ongoing transformation is if Old is a record caught between worlds, the stasis will be Brown’s commitment to quality. In our interview he noted most rappers that incorporate psych sounds in their rap don't attempt the same gritty lyrical content as him. Likewise, the EDM B-side doesn't allow the double-time flows to compromise his wit. In the early days, Brown had few luxuries in curating his sound. His projects were built from beat tapes in which he had to seek out the progressive sounds he desired. Old marks a new shift, as Brown is able to offer input and work alongside SKYWLKR and Paul White for production nuances. He’s less the “old Danny Brown,” but he still maintains his old mentality of taking two years to make a record and applying patience to his art until he acquires the perfect beat.

“I ain’t touching no equipment or nothing, but I’m hands on,” he says.“There’s not a beat on there I didn’t flip my wig to when I first heard it.”

As sensitive as he's been regarding Old, our phone call ends with the question—will people get it? Will the old fans grasp that this is technically his debut album and not his fourth? Will the split sides to the record translate?

“I think I already won, to be honest. I don’t know another indie rap artist that’s gained this much attention for an album. I’m not competing against the Pusher Ts and the Drakes. I’m competing against myself. There’s no competition for me. I’m my competition.”

Danny Brown's Old is streaming now and available digitally and on vinyl October 8 via Fool's Gold.

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