Danny Brown by Josh WehlePhoto: Josh Wehle

It’s really hard to FaceTime with Danny Brown.

For one, the 32-year-old Detroit rapper is always shaking the giant plastic cup of lean he’s sipping on and the ice makes a loud noise that cancels out the goofy mumbles from his infamously toothless smile. Then, he nervously lights a cigarette or clicks back to his Safari tab every few minutes to check World Star Hip Hop whenever there’s a slight pause of silence.

“[World Star Hip Hop] is black people’s CNN,” Danny informs me. “That’s all niggas know on the internet. It’s rappers getting in fights and girls twerkin’. Everybody wakes up and checks World Star.”

What’s going on today?

“Gucci Mane got beat up. He got so many enemies after that Twitter rant he went on. I heard he broke up with his girlfriend and he went on a coke binge and went crazy.”

I wonder if Danny is cruising the site for news about himself. Possibly about the fact that he was recently denied entry to Canada (again) and his fans started a petition to get him past the border, or maybe he’s looking for news about his much-anticipated album Old, which drops a few weeks from time we talk. Perhaps some video of him freestyling on a morning radio segment in a cloud of smoke and a hoodie? But I don’t say anything. I just assume he is and ask him if he’s a narcissist.

“I don’t know exactly what that word means,” he admits shamelessly. I explain, and he continues, “Yeah, in some sense. I am self-obsessed with my music.”

And the music is what has pushed him to the point he’s at right now: big enough to get paid $30,000 for a single performance (though he tells me he should be worth $50k), but not big enough that he can’t go anywhere without an entourage.

Since the release of Brown’s slow-growing sophomore LP XXX on Brooklyn’s Fool’s Gold Records in 2011, he’s been marked the guy who’s making rap interesting again. Not just through his music—totally sexualized, drug-addled grime lyrics, his unpredictable, odd-ball voice, and infectious choruses (though he insists he is not about radio hits)—but also his public misdemeanor.

Brown is a character. He labels himself a cartoon, always calling himself “funny looking” on his Instagram account and making jokes about his awkward looks. (Even as we FaceTime, he lifts up his shirt to show me his “Grinch” belly.) The intimate and off-the-cuff interview videos he did with friend and fellow rapper A$AP Rocky for Vice music outlet Noisey went viral (and straight to Kathy Griffin’s cleavage), as did the infamous blowjob he received on stage from a female fan while on tour with Kitty Pryde earlier this summer.

“I don’t feel like I’m no big mainstream guy to where [the blow job incident] mattered,” Brown says. “That was some underground shit and it should have been kept there. It is what it is. At the end of the day it happened and now it’s over with.”

That’s part of Brown’s current struggle: his ever-growing popularity from the underground into the mainstream. Brown prides himself on his albums; he’s an artist who craves longevity and has a plan to achieve it, which goes beyond hiring a smart team and playing cards close to his chest. He’s recently got into voiceover work, a paycheque as a means to keep his art uncontrollable and unpredictable (something he prides himself on).

“I feel like [voiceover work] is my secret job I have been groomed to do,” he says. “Just get in the booth, act silly, smoke blunts all day. If I don’t have to worry about making money off music, then I can always do whatever I want with it.”

With the release of Old, which features work with Schoolboy Q, A$AP Rocky, Charli XCX, and Purity Ring, to name just a few, Brown continues his transition. It’s started in pieces this year—he admits frustration over not being able to meet people like he used to because of his rising fame, especially with women on Twitter.

As much as Brown jokes about the fact that he’s in his 30’s, Old is not about age (that was XXX, which is 30), or withering.

“The undertone, with both albums, is drugs,” he says. “That’s what connects them. It shows how drugs ran my life from the perspective of myself as a kid, and how that kid became an adult.” Recently, Brown elaborated on the title and its connection to his roots; about going back to Detroit and having “my people who be like, ‘Where that ‘old’ Danny Brown shit at? So I [titled the] album for them.”

Brown grew up the oldest of four children, with an adopted sister slightly his senior, and a strict Filipino grandmother. His parents waited to split up until Brown turned 18, but currently he and his entire family live within a block’s radius of one another in Detroit. As a kid, he ran away often, got in trouble, and sold drugs, but was mostly just obsessed with music. He says rap has gotten soft and he is out to find the edge he grew up with.

“I don’t want you to be able to play this music around your moms. It’s not about no soft shit. It’s about cuss words. I mean, [swearing] is a part of my normal shit. There’s an art to it. It has to happen the right way. It has to be… organic,” he laughs. “When I was a kid I listened to Too $hort talk about getting his dick sucked and it was funny to me.” As Brown says this, he pulls back and I notice he’s wearing a Ramones shirt. When I ask him what his favorite Ramones song is, he gets sheepish and lights another cigarette, avoiding the question and tactfully taking his own direction.

“I based my whole fucking set on the Ramones set,” Brown says. “They never stopped to talk to the audience that much. Just boom boom boom. Two-minute songs. Boom boom boom. I don’t want to talk to people. I’m kind of shy in that sense.” He goes on to discuss stand-up comedians like Louis C.K., Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, and how they manifest a presence just by talking to a crowd. That skill inspires him even more than the assault-like sets of the punks on his shirt. “That’s power. I look up to that.”

Like homely stand-up comedians and Johnny Ramone, Brown isn’t interested in being a flavor of the month. He wants to create work that leaves legacy, a “cult thing,” that means his records will still be sought out years after his retirement.

“As long as I make albums with a to-be-continued at the end, people can’t figure it out, and there will be another sequel,” Brown says, taking another sip from his drink, shaking the ice, and smiling. “I’d be cool if this shit blows up on some mainstream shit, but right now, I am in this cool middle space and I am still underground. I want to stay in this position. I want to continue to make the music I want to make, without any pressure.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in Google Play for Android devices, and the App Store for iPhone and iPad.

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