After hitting rock bottom, Danny Brown is clean and fired up for the future - Features - Mixmag

After hitting rock bottom, Danny Brown is clean and fired up for the future

Danny Brown's latest album 'Quaranta' is a dark, diaristic journey about battling his demons. Now he's come out on top and facing life with a renewed sense of purpose

  • Words: Tracy Kawalik | Photographer: Peter Beste | Stylist: Done By Doug | Editor & Digital Director: Patrick Hinton | Design: Keenen Sutherland | Cover font: Jacob Wise
  • 24 January 2024

Lines of snow taunt the frozen nostrils of houseless buskers, hustlers and fentanyl-fuelled folk outside a drop-in centre in the Canadian rodeo town where I was born. Spaghetti Western guitars wail as I roll my window down to pass five bucks to a shivering street-spitter mid-rhyme and let the opening bars of ‘Quaranta’ melt out: “That rap shit done saved my life / And fucked it up at the same time.” As we part ways, he smiles, “Yo, that's the new Danny Brown joint, right? That's the warmest shit I've heard this winter.”

My phone lights up - Austin, Texas, is calling. A softly spoken, spirited Danny Brown filters through car speakers to join my early morning drive, ready to chat about traversing new sonic territory with his motley crew of collaborators, and how hitting rock bottom led to his most introspective album to date.

“Sometimes you gotta realise and remember why you do it, what you love, in the first place,” he reflects. “When you get so fucked up, you lose yourself...and I fucking lost myself. Now I've found myself, and I'm excited to see what the future brings.”

When we speak, Danny's on the precipice of a victory lap for his career-galvanising sixth studio album, ‘Quaranta’, with a US and European tour, as well as celebrating his surprise collaborative project ‘Scaring the Hoes’ with rap tearaway JPEGMAFIA landing on nearly every Album Of the Year list last year (and dropping hints about a forthcoming Vol.2). He's sober after a spell in rehab and dividing his time between his chihuahuas, making beats, his popular comedy podcast, The Danny Brown Show, and a Pickleball league. It’s hard to believe a year ago, Danny was heartbroken, continually high, and broke.

The triumph over his own demons started at the top of 2023 off the back of a divorce, the dismal dystopia of COVID-19, and two years making music in isolation fuelled by a smorgasbord of drugs. Hit by a final blow, Danny couldn't help out with funds for his aunt's funeral because he'd frittered away all his money getting fucked up, nor could he afford to get clean. By spring, Danny toasted his birthday with an apology mid-set at SXSW. surrounded by swarms of supportive, sweat-soaked fans, and an announcement that he was performing the show to pay for rehab and changing his tune.

“At the end of the day, I'm 42 years old, sitting around smoking blunts all day, and getting drunk is getting old,” he said on stage. “Y'all have y'all fun but shit could get dark. I'm going to get help.”

He added: “I made so many songs about doing drugs … sometimes I feel bad about that shit … if I fucked your life up, I'm sorry.”

Danny Brown is an audacious storyteller and one of the most distinctive voices in rap. His strangled yap and abrasive honk have been lauded by critics, fellow artists and the hip hop avant-garde, alongside his dexterity to perform lyrical acrobatics over a range of beats and genres so wildly obscure and complex that he could spit bars over the sound of a washing machine.

When it comes to chemically waved vernacular, Danny has waxed maniacal about drugs since he broke into public consciousness in 2010 alongside G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo in their marijuana mixtape ‘Hawaiian Snow’. He penned visceral verses about trap house scenarios, rapped about crack heroin, ecstasy, acid, shrooms, codeine, promethazine, morphine, and called himself the ‘Adderall Admiral’. His critically acclaimed breakthrough album ‘XXX’ was a nod to his 30s, as much as an homage to Xanax, with accompanying artwork depicting a girl with a pill on her tongue.

Along the way Danny’s weaved his own blend of horrorcore with his signature humour while dropping lyrical hints that he was haunted by his habits. He’s confessed about suicidal thoughts, claustrophobic comedowns, traumatising come-ups, and battling rock bottom, reeling off the undignified fate he expected to meet, invoking Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and others. “Experimented so much it's a miracle I'm livin'” he spits on ‘Die Like a Rockstar’. The revered hip hop blog Passion of the Weiss voted ‘XXX’ the sixth best album of 2010 and empathetically descibed it as “an uncomfortably honest self-portrait made even more remarkable by the fact that Danny Brown is alive to tell the story”.

Fear of an untimely death remained during the making of ‘Quaranta’. “So much fentanyl was going around at the time, you were risking it every time you got a bag [of drugs]. So I was making the music for ‘Quaranta’ with that in my head, too, like: 'Maybe this might be my last album' kinda shit, you know?” Danny bravely explains.

‘Quaranta’ is diaristic in a distinctly Danny Brown way. A Trojan Horse with bars, there’s no shortage of Danny’s typical blitzing verses over angular, mesmerising production from some of his oldest collaborators, including Quelle Chris, Paul White & SKYWLKR, and new link-ups such as Sven Wunder, who produced the record’s most personal track ‘Hanami’. It’s a traumatic trip down memory lane where Danny digests the harsh reality of time slipping away, writer's block, missed shots at fame, and cheating death. “A lot of times, people don’t put that kind of stuff in music. I mean rap is always about bragging about how cool you are and your accomplishments, and that. So to talk about your shortcomings in music, I haven’t really seen that.”

When pressed to describe what it feels to have such a vivid, candid and introspective project playing out to public ears, Danny beams. “I feel great! I’m glad about the reception it’s had. It's really good to put something out and be vulnerable, and you know, people make you feel better about it in some sense,” he says. “My music hits people in different ways. I hope this album inspires people going through the same thing I was going through, that they can change if they want to. I hate to say it like that, but if I can do it, anybody can!"

Across the 11-track LP, Danny weaves us into his warped world via his lower register. He pours his pain into each track in order to grow, heal and articulate what the view looks like from atop the hill. ‘Down Wit It’ is a heart-bleeding confessional about cheating, lost love, and the regret, drunkeness and lonliness Danny suffered as a result. The vocals are so cutting they caused Lewisham producer Paul White (who Danny affectionately refers to as his Hall & Oates following work on his past four albums) to worry about Danny for the first time, and pick up the phone.

Danny’s razor-sharp wit returns in full force on the menacing ‘Dark Sword Angel’, produced by his oldest collaborators Quelle Chris & Chris Keys. Although it was the first beat made for ‘Quaranta’ back in 2021, Danny admits the wordplay took a while to crack, ultimately nailing it while in the shower listening to ‘Illmatic’. “I was making a lot of personal tracks, but I still wanted to have some fun lyrical stuff that I usually do. I was in one of those moments where you feel like ‘maybe I’ve lost it’, you know, when you get down on yourself?! It was one of those kinda tracks where I couldn’t, I was trying. I think I probably recorded like three different songs before I got to that, but I knew I wanted to use the beat.

“Sometimes that happens to me a lot, where the beat’s so dope it’s just kind of kicking my ass. But I knew I wanted to get this, so I just kept going and eventually I wrote those beginning lyrics and everything else fell into place.”

Danny credits the newfound persistence and patience to perfect his craft to working with Q-Tip. “He taught me that you can write something dope, but you can also go back in and write something doper! I would usually record one take and be done with it. But Q-Tip, he’d do the same verse over a hundred times. He a perfectionist, almost to the point where it feel psychotic sometimes,” Danny laughs, recalling hours and hours of studio time and invaluable advice. “Q-Tip told me: ‘You got all the time in the world to make it, so you might as well put all the love you possibly can into your work. Once you put it out there you can’t take it back.’ So you might as well put all your fucking eggs in one basket or whatever. You don’t wanna look back years later and be like ‘damn, I wish I would’ve done this or that’. Explore all the options of the song while you can. That’s something that I really learnt and I have committed into my music today. It was a blessing working with him.”

They say you’re as good as the company you keep, and on ‘Quaranta’ Danny and his peers approach the project with an arsenal of multi-hyphenated skills, mind-melting creativity, and a playful conviction to impress each other with production and lyrics. An MVP nod goes to New York rapper MIKE, who dishes out 24 bars with the same rhyme pattern over distorted porn moans on ‘Celibate’. Danny lights up discussing the track: “To me that was like top-tier rap shit! He murdered that shit.” The Alchemist-produced lead single ‘Tantor’ is yet another bananas beat that features one of the most talked about lines from the project: “Got a Mexican homie named Chinese Mike.”

“I work with Alchemist a lot. I mean I’ve talked to him at least once a week for the past few years. He’s always checking in on me,” Danny chuckles. “It’s been a long time since he and I first met. Alchemist met me before I was a rapper. It was this one time when I was in Miami, when I wasn’t really a good kid. I was selling drugs and whatever. Alchemist was just walking up the street and I was like ‘shit that’s Alchemist!’. I pretty much scared him! I was in dreadlocks at the time and had like $50,000 of jewellery on. I ran after him and was like ‘Yo what’s up?’. We always laugh about that story now!”

First person scenes about the harsh reailty of Danny’s childhood, family life and his hometown Detroit are explored on ‘Quaranta’. ‘Y.B.P’ is a hard-hitting tale about being young, Black and poor, featuring rising Motor City rapper Bruiser Wolf (a crew member from Danny’s beloved Detroit collective and label Bruiser Brigade Records). ‘Jenn’s Terrific Vacation’ (a play on “gentrification”) sees the enigmatic hip hop pioneer tear into rapid rent increases and the organic gardens taking over downtown Detroit and forcing out natives. It’s backed by a terrifying, Goodie Mob-referencing, drum-laden storm which is produced by prolific percussionist Kassa Overall and superstar Beastie Boys engineer Mario C to which Danny refers to as being so difficult to master and rap over that it might as well be a gang initation.

Detroit and his upbringing are pivotal to Danny Brown’s story. He was born rapping as Daniel Dewan Sewel, to an 18-year-old father and 16-year-old mother. At home he was raised on a diet of house and hip hop via his dad, who was a DJ, and Dr. Seuss verses via his mum, and began speaking his words in rhyme from the minute he first started talking.

“The first time I ever rapped in front of people was in Kindgerarten during show-and-tell. I didn’t bring nothing because I wasn’t paying attention the day before, so instead I just got up and rapped and all the kids stood up and clapped. After that the teachers were always making me get up there and rap,” he laughs.

A self-described omnivorous rap nerd, Danny continued to write raps and chomp through music magazines, immersing himself in a kaleidoscope of genres. “I would see albums get super high reviews, and I would check them out,” he says. “The first rock album I bought myself was Korn ‘Follow The Leader’. I got used to hearing guitars thanks to Korn and I loved their music videos.”

He gained popularity as a teenager by racking up battle wins. “I would keep it to myself that I could rap because I was kinda shy and had super low self-esteem and stuff. But it would just happen that if another kid rapped, I had that competitive nature rappers have to prove ‘I'm the best!’” Danny won every battle and was widely respected in high school for it, but a future in music beyond those perimeters didn’t seem like one he could seriously pursue. “I wanted to be a rapper, but living in Detroit there was no avenue for it. It’s not like I could go downtown and get a record deal or nothing like that. Also it’s about the company you keep too, and most of the people around me were telling me I was never gonna be a rapper.”

Danny’s parents bought him video games to stay out of trouble, but by the time he was 18, they’d divorced and Danny gravitated to selling crack. “I was selling drugs since that's what all my friends were doing and it was kind of like something to rap about,” he explains. Danny was arrested twice at 19 which led to his first stint in jail. He pored over MF DOOM lyrics like novels, rapped in battles when inmates got on his nerves, and started acknowledging he had a gift as a rapper thanks to a prison guard who was prominent on Detroit’s undergound hip hop scene. “I wound up getting close with him and he would bring me down on weekends and let me look on the internet and stuff like that. He saw some of my bars and after that his brother started submitting my songs to blogs while I was in jail. He was big on the scene and helping me blow up, it gave me the inspiration to get out and go hard with it. I still see him from time to time and he still hits me up!”

Outside of prison Danny caught the attention of 50 Cent, but infamously lost out on a record deal with G-Unit because he didn’t like how tight Danny’s jeans were. “Jeans aside, when it comes to music, I think the fact I didn’t listen to him already didn’t help. Plus I was doing drugs at the time and I'm pretty sure that would have been a dealbreaker with him,” Danny pipes up.

More than that, Danny proudly retells: “When I got out of jail I didn’t want to go and record in New York like I had been doing. The thing that gave me the courage was to not rely on a record deal or that it HAD to happen in New York. I was getting more and more into the Detroit sound. J Dilla, Black Milk was cracking off. I just wanted to go back home and make music and work more with the people in my city. So I did that and made my name in Detroit and everything else just followed.”

Read this next: Uncovering Moodymann's Detroit hip hop origins

‘The Hybrid’, an industry acclaimed, sub-radar debut album, dropped in 2010, before Danny’s breakthrough masterpiece ‘XXX’ followed in 2011 on indie label Fool's Gold Records. Followed up by an XXL Freshman cover, third LP ‘Old’ featured guests such as Freddie Gibbs, Charli XCX, and a heater with Canadian electronic pop band Purity Ring among others. He blew $70k on samples for his next record ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ with a freshly inked deal with Warp Records. Buiding towards his fifith studio album ‘U Know What Im Sayin?’, produced by Q-Tip, JPEGMAFIA and Paul White. He then slid onto features with artists spanning The Avalanches to Insane Clown Posse, whipped ravers into frenzies across European festival circuits, and bridged old and new school rap royalty with collabs from Earl Sweatshirt to Q-Tip. Most remarkably, he did all of this while remaining inexplicably himself and wound up becoming a favourite of rap weirdos, goths, punks, club kids, rappers, metalheads and more.

Ask him his proudest accomplishment and Danny says: “I guess it’s that there was something I wanted to do ever since kindergarten and I’ve achieved it. A lot of people have dreams and I’m living mine now. Just to say I made it, you know.” He pauses. “Before the making of this album I wanted to quit. I got this low where I was thinking I don’t want to do this anymore. But you know, now I have a different respect for everything and a different outlook to my music. Being sober changed that I guess.”

Doing shows sober became like a therapeutic release for Danny, and seeing the people in the crowd smiling, being happy and having a good time gave him a new rush. “That energy translated to me, so it was like I was getting my fix every day with that.

“If anything, I’ve just got better. I'm not falling all over the place and being sloppy, I’ve got a lot more tight. I have more focus. I wouldn’t say I’m more creative because I was using substances to influence that. But now it’s more about repetition. I try to do something every day. Before I wouldn’t do shit for weeks and months and then get fucked up and do a lot of shit. Now, instead I take a few hours out of my day and make sure I work on music. I free up first thing in the morning so that when I wake up I can do something. I make a beat or mix a song. I do something every day.”

Danny started making beats in his Grandma’s bedroom when he was a kid, but after hearing a Quelle Chris beat decided to stop. “I’ve always produced. I make beats all the time, I’ve always had equipment. The only beat of mine I’ve probably ever rapped on though was early mixtapes,” he says. “I’ve always felt like people made beats better than me, and I’d rather get mine from someone else. I just stopped doing it. But since I’ve been back in Austin, Texas I’ve been getting back into it more and more, and I’m starting to feel like I’m catching up. I’m pretty sure there will be a lot more of me doing my own production in the future.”

If ‘XXX’ was to mark his 30s, ‘Quaranta’ (which means 40 in Italian and is a jab at quarantine when it was made) came out at 42, and Danny's discovered the meaning in life. I have to ask what 50 might sound like. “I have no idea, but I know I won’t stop rapping, it’s one of those things that I’ve now realised is not mine. I don’t own it, it was a God-given talent, and he decides when I stop. As long as he’s blessing me to do, I’ll keep doing it.”

As we close Danny makes it clear that he feels ‘Quaranta’ is the spiritual bookend to his past output, and the beginning to a whole new chapter. There’s more music on the way, and he’s traversing mediums and getting into stand up-comedy. “There’s a lot of people who I really respect in that field who are telling me to do it. So that’s my new resolution to get on stage and do comedy this year.”

“The way I'm living my life now, I wanted ‘Quaranta’ to be the happy ending, for such a sombre project. ‘Cause if I was still going through that shit, like I'm going through on the album, it would be like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We talk about this,so get some help, if you need help. The fact that I’m coming up nine months sober and in a happier place, that feels like the ending I wanted.”

Danny Brown tours the UK this spring, get tickets here

Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music journalist, follow her on Twitter

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