Danny Brown: “When I was making this album, I didn’t think I’d be alive to see it”

Danny Brown: “When I was making this album, I didn’t think I’d be alive to see it”

Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, Danny Brown sold his house in the suburbs and moved to a penthouse apartment in downtown Detroit. “I’d just went through a break-up,” explains the 42-year-old underground rap maverick, his voice mellow as it drifts down the line. “I was moving there because there were more parties. I was going down there to be a ho! To party and shit.” He chuckles quietly to himself. Things didn’t quite work out that way. “When everything got locked down,” he remembers, “I just found myself in this big-ass penthouse apartment. Alone.”

Brown, newly single and approaching 40, threw himself into his writing. “I was just doing something to stay busy,” he says. “Music has always been like a form of therapy for me, so I just was getting my feelings out.” During those surreal days of lockdown, he found his mind drawn back to where he’d been ten years prior. It was Brown’s second album ‘XXX’, released in 2011 shortly after he turned 30, that made him a star. An audacious autobiographical concept record with an A Side of party songs and a B Side filled with more
thoughtful, contemplative bars, he wondered if he could repeat the trick for his 40th. “It was just like a: ‘Can I do it again?’ type of feeling,” he says. “When most people have a breakout project, people just know them for that and think: ‘They can’t do that shit again!’ It was me proving to myself that I can still make that kind of music.”

The result is Brown’s electrifying sixth ‘Quaranta’ – named for the Italian word for 40, as well as a nod to its birth during quarantine. Living just around the corner from his studio, a house on Detroit’s Grand Boulevard, on the same strip as the Motown Museum, meant Brown never had to look far for inspiration for Side A. “It was like a non-stop party, man,” he says. “I was always getting fucked up.” That attitude bleeds into songs like ‘Tantor’, which Brown recorded while in the midst of a deep acid trip. “I was super into Parliament at the time, and we talked about how George Clinton would take acid, get in front of the mic and just start saying shit,” he remembers, “So that was really the first song I never wrote. I just took a lot of acid, stood up to the mic, and it came up. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I’m not trying to glorify it or anything, but I was still deep in my addiction at the time.”

While Brown’s all-you-can-eat attitude to drugs and alcohol had been a feature of his music from before ‘XXX’, by now that hard-living lifestyle was starting to catch up with him. “During the time I was making the album, I didn’t think I’d be alive to see it,” says Brown. “I was thinking about how much time I might have left. So many people was dying from fentanyl, and I was still fucking around, you know? It was, like, impending doom. One day you might get the wrong bag. I was just thinking about that all the time.”

On penultimate ‘Quaranta’ track ‘Hanami’ – a Japanese word for viewing fleeting cherry blossoms – Brown grapples with his mortality. “They say age catchin’ up, so I’m runnin’ from death,” he raps. “I guess when you’re drinkin’ and druggin’, you get those thoughts,” he says now. “You’re starting to feel unhealthy. Then you’ve got to use just to feel better. I was in a bad headspace, almost pretty much suicidal in some sense. I felt like my life was a burden on other people, you know?”

Just as Brown was realising he needed to make a change in his life, the stars aligned and pointed to Texas. He’d started a long-distance relationship with someone who lived in Austin, and then comedian Tom Segura told him he was moving his podcast studio to the city. The pair now work together on The Danny Brown Show. Brown made the move on his 40th birthday. “It was a big thing for me to leave Detroit, just to try to get away from it all,” he says. “Coming to Austin I was away from the blow and all that shit, but it was still able to find me some type of way. My drinking ramped up because Austin is a drinking place. I would get drunk by mistake, just going to the store. Stop at a bar, have a couple of drinks, before I know it eight hours went past and I’m doing blow with a fan in the bathroom.”

He was in a similar headspace during the making of ‘Scaring the Hoes’, a collaborative album with DIY rapper-producer JPEGMafia that came out in March. He remembers the sessions as a great time, but acknowledges his drinking had become an issue. “I was still getting fucked up at the time,” remembers Brown. “I know it was hard for Peggy, but one thing about me and Peggy is that we’re friends first. He was able to be patient with me. He was probably the easiest person to work with – I can say that for him, he probably
can’t say the same for me!”

Things came to a head earlier this year after Brown’s aunt died, and he realised he didn’t have the money to pay for her funeral because of how much he’d snorted and smoked away. He voluntarily checked himself in for in- patient rehab for alcoholism. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life. “It was actually fun!” he says. “I didn’t really have nothing to base it on. I’d been to jail for a year, so I looked at rehab like it was probably like going to jail. Once I got there and seen the positive aspects, and how much I learned from that experience, I wish I’d have done it a lot sooner. Being a man, sometimes you feel weak asking for help. I didn’t really know how to go about it. I probably wasn’t even mature mentally enough to express those feelings to people, you know? I’m glad I did it, I just wish I would have did it a lot sooner. But everything happens for a reason, when it has to happen.”

Having once feared he wouldn’t live to witness the release of ‘Quaranta’, Brown now sees it as a fresh start. “It’s like the closing chapter of that phase of my life,” he says. He wants to make music differently in the future. “Music is always going to be like therapy for me,” he says, “But for the most part [I don’t want to] make music that will make people sad, you know? At this point in my life, I want to make music to help people and make them happy. I really do understand that what you put out comes back to you in some sense.”

Credit: Peter Beste

While finishing ‘Quaranta’, Brown cut certain tracks because of their excessive drug content – a far cry from his hedonistic ‘XXX’ days. “There were a lot of songs for this album that I would have wanted to have on there, but it got to the point, like, do I want to put that message out there?” he says. “On ‘XXX’ I was just starting to experiment with drugs, and a lot of that shit could be looked at like I’m glorifying it. I didn’t want to feel like I’m glorifying anything.” He’s putting his years of excess behind him. “There was a point in my life where I felt like those things were helping me, but as time progresses you realise that it’s really just hurting you,” he says. “Once you’re so deep into that cycle, that revolving door mentality, it’s hard to really get out. That’s why rehab was great for me.”

For a moment, Brown worried that cleaning up his act might make his music suffer. Instead, he says, he’s better than ever. “Since I’ve been back making music, I’ve been back having fun with it again,” he says. “When I was addicted, it was just like: ‘Let me hurry up and get this shit done so I can go get fucked up’. Now, I’m falling in love with the process again. I made music for a long time without drugs and shit. I think I’m way better without it.”

Danny Brown, once the outrageous, gurning face of Detroit hip-hop, is growing into something else: an elder statesman of rap, back from rock bottom with a story to tell. “A lot of people grew up without fathers, and hip- hop was their daddy,” he says. “Hearing a Nas line like: ‘That buck that bought a bottle, could’ve struck the Lotto’ was deep to me. It made me think. I want to be that now in hip-hop, now I’m growing up in age. I want younger kids listening to my music to get something from it, and make them think. I just want to help people, and make them feel good with my music.”

Danny Brown’s ‘Quaranta’ is out now

The post Danny Brown: “When I was making this album, I didn’t think I’d be alive to see it” appeared first on NME.

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