In a hurry-up culture, Danny Brown says taking his time was the key to the depth and off-kilter resonance of his 2011 breakthrough album, “XXX” (Fool’s Gold).
By hip-hop standards, the 31-year-old Brown is practically an elder statesman -- or a late bloomer, take your pick. After a series of mix tapes and a wayward decade of drug-dealing, jail time and record-deals-gone-bad, Brown summed up his chaotic life on “XXX” and ended up on numerous year-end best-of lists.
“When I started, I tried to write like Nas all the time,” Brown says. “I didn’t know how to write like me. I had the talent to write words and work out rhythms. I had melodies, but I didn’t have my style. I had to grow into that. Nas was like Rakim at the start. But you can’t predict the number of years it will take for someone to find themselves, to mature into their own voice. When I got to be 30, I was finally writing like Danny Brown.”
Brown grew up in Detroit, and at an early age was stringing together rhymes with astonishing dexterity – a byproduct of immersing himself in the collected works of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a k a Dr. Seuss. “I remember the first time I rapped, the expression on my cousin’s face was, ‘What the (expletive)!’ ” Brown says. “I was 5 years old, in kindergarten. Everybody has a talent. Mine was not basketball. From an early age, music was my only thing. You come from Detroit, you learn how to make the most of what you can do best.”
Brown’s dad, a house DJ, encouraged his son’s passion and took him to hip-hop concerts, including a memorable outdoor show byRun D.M.C.and L.L. Cool J in the late ‘80s. “Hearing and seeing it, it was like a way of life. Everybody in the audience looked like a rapper, too,” he says. “It was a no-turning-back moment.”
He spent a lot of time alone in his bedroom, as his parents tried to shelter him from the gang-banging and drug-dealing in their neighborhood. “I had a lot of time on my hands,” Brown says. “The only good thing about being alone like that is that I studied great music. I’d read best-of-all-time lists, and I’d get the records and study them to figure out what made them work. I remember being in 11th grade trying to listen to (the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece) ‘Pet Sounds.’ I couldn’t tell my friends about stuff like that, because they wouldn’t get it. I adapted this private side of bedroom music that was known only to me. I knew about all the top rap music with my friends, then during my alone time I would study everything else.”
Did he appreciate “Pet Sounds” when he first heard it?
Brown laughs. “As a kid, I thought it was boring as (expletive). But once my ears started to get adjusted and trained, I went back to it in my early twenties and started to appreciate the transitions they were making, and how that album influenced (the Beatles’ 1967 album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’).”
He focused on writing as much as performing, teaching himself how to craft songs by studying the work of older, more accomplished peers who were already trying to break into music. His success with underground mix tapes led to some flirtations with the mainstream business, but his quirkiness – his high-pitched voice, his sometimes discomforting or explicit subject matter, his flamboyant dress – made him a tough sell.
50 Cent was briefly interested in signing Brown but took a pass “because he didn’t like the way I dressed. He tried to get me to tone down my look. My pants were too tight. I wear pink sometimes. He wasn’t into it.”
The clothes fit the unconventional personality Brown brings to his songs. They blend humor and bleakness, sex and poverty; they disconcert as much as entertain. They reflect a hard life in which dope deals helped pay the rent, interrupted by a brief jail term for violating probation in 2007.
On “30,” the final song on “XXX,” he raps about using his kitchen stove and oven to stay warm in winter. “Die Like a Rock Star” details enough bad choices that “it’s a miracle I’m livin.’ ”
“The most popular rap artists aren’t supposed to be rapping about being broke,” he says. “They’re supposed to be rich and popping Cristal and hanging out with models.”
Yet Brown says he didn’t consider compromising to sign with 50 Cent. “I’m so old,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t go to bed at night with (expletive) like that. I was 28, 29, when that happened. If I was 20, sure, I would’ve considered (changing his style). But now, I’m like, ‘Nah, I know what I want to do with my life.’ ”
The music of his latest obsession, Joy Division, helped him cope.
“I watched a documentary about them, got sucked into their story and then listened to their albums,” he says. “(1980 Joy Division album) ‘Closer’ is my favorite album of all time right now. All the metaphors in there could relate to what happened between me and the music industry. ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ -- man, that about sums it up.”
Danny Brown with Childish Gambino: 7:30 p.m. May 9 (rescheduled from March 30) at the Riviera, 4746 N. Racine, $25; jamusa.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye