“My Whole Life Thus Far has been Clocking In and Clocking Out”: An Interview with Danny Watts

Myles Andrews-Duve sits down with Houston rapper Danny Watts to discuss working with Jonwayne, Houston rap, and alienation.
By    September 11, 2017


Photo by Robb Klassen

It can be difficult for newer artists to break out if their music doesn’t provide an immediate clue to their origins. So give Houston’s Danny Watts credit. His delivery lacks a muddied drawl and his image isn’t particularly flashy. Instead, his sound comes across relatively low-key — one that you might blindly trace to the rainy day rap of Seattle rather any city bordering the Gulf.

But if you listen closely, Watts’ sound is positively Southern. He inherits the somber tone reflective in N.O. Joe’s crawling soul samples and the narcoticized blues of Ridin’ Dirty. On his debut full-length, Black Boy Meets World, Watts delivers this emotion with candor reminiscent of Houston hip-hop luminary, Z-Ro, who Watts acknowledges as an early influence.

Z-Ro is one of many H-Town legends (Pimp C, Bun B, Scarface, Slim Thug) whose music, behind the images of drugs and opulence, offers an insightful clarity into their personal strife. It’s near impossible to hear Z-Ro’s “Can’t Leave Drank Alone” and not understand his agonizing struggle with addiction, or to listen to UGK’s “One Day” and not hear two men who have accepted the fate of either prison or death as an inevitability.

Watts’ words follow suit, carrying the weight of a man who has been dealt plenty of losses and instability. “Seeing death is a hard pill to swallow/ My mind is frenzied but my heart is feeling hollow,” he concedes on “Pill,” the LP’s fourth track. Centered on his inability to cope with witnessing a close friend killed at a young age, it’s one of the bleaker songs on a debut that serves as an arrival and inquiry into Watts’ relationship with spirituality, forgiveness, and death.

Dropping September 22, Black Boy Meets World follows Jonwayne’s triumphant Rap Album Two from February as the second release on the Wayne-founded Authors Recording Company. The Wayniac produced Watts’ album in its entirety—the first project he’s produced in full for another artist—and has declared its rollout the “official start” of the Authors imprint. The two, along with DJ EMV, are setting off on a nearly 50-city US tour starting October.

While Watts was stuck inside his home due to tropical storm Harvey, we spoke on the phone for nearly an hour about working with Wayne, the upcoming tour, Houston hip-hop, and how early instability informed his introductory project. —Myles Andrews-Duve

So you’ve got your single out and, for a lot of people, this album is going to be the first time they hear about you. How are you hoping listeners digest your sound?

Danny Watts: I intend to make my sound just really bare. I focus more on the stories of just telling my life but also doing it in a way where people can take a little seed of information from it that they can apply to their own. As an artist, I feel like that’s my responsibility. Like I took that responsibility on years ago to where I wanted to be knowledgeable about what I said, I wanted to be knowledgeable about the information that I put out there and the stories that I do tell. Because I intend for a lot of people to listen to it and I just want to make sure that I’m influencing people in the best way I know how.

So how did this project come together? Were you making a few tracks and started noticing a theme or were you just in full album mode right away?

Danny Watts: It was more so Jon’s idea of what he wanted to do. I had been working on a project for a few years now, maybe even a couple of years before Jon noticed me. But ever since me and Jon had been in the talks it wasn’t about releasing song by song, it was always about releasing a full-length project.

You talk about being bare. I think that’s a super interesting word to use here because the project has a very raw, candid feel. Almost like you’re working through these emotions from track to track. I have to imagine even for you there were things you learned about yourself through making the album.

Danny Watts: I would say so. I think that a lot of what I talked about on the album were just things that were flowing through my mind and through my heart internally. This album was just a perfect space to connect those dots and really get to the source of things so there were things about myself and connections between experiences that I’ve had and experiences that my loved ones have as a result of me that I didn’t know where it came from. So this album just really allowed me to connect the dots.

What are some of those experiences? I know on “Uprooted,” which hit super personal for me, you speak on your parents and the instability you experienced while growing up. What are some of the other experiences that really shaped what came out of this project?

Danny Watts: I would say one of the biggest ones is just thinking about somebody other than myself, which would be my daughter. That just allowed me to relate to her more and her experience because unfortunately, as much as I want to, I haven’t been that active in her life just because of a variety of circumstances that [have] gone on since she’s been born. We’re better now and we’re building a relationship now which I’m fortunate for and I feel like the timing is perfect.

But all these years where she hasn’t been able to see me as much as she’d like to and I haven’t seen her as much as I’d like to, that song and just thinking about my relationship with my dad just allowed me to reach a deeper level of understanding for her.

So she influenced a large part of this project I’m assuming.

Danny Watts: Yeah. Just because she was she was a part of me. You know, the title of the album is Black Boy Meets World, and there’s no better way than to meet the circumstances of this world than to become a parent. You know, having her just really helped me learn about responsibility and the understanding that you can influence someone else. I have influence over my daughter like I’m a role model for my daughter. So knowing that I’m a role model for her kind of helped me realize that I could possibly be a role model for other people as well.

So she is in my mind when I think about what I write, how I go about writing it and what I say because I want her to be able to listen to it and take something from it. Learn from me, learn from my experiences, and just develop a better understanding of people that aren’t the same as her, because I’m completely different from my daughter but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she can’t draw some type of information from me.

The album cover shows you knelt down looking at a cross in what looks like a barren field. Could you explain the meaning behind it?

Danny Watts: The significance of the cross is in reference to a song on the album called “Pill.” I witnessed a homie of mine killed when I was younger and that is what’s left of a shrine that was made in his memory. I went back to one of the places I lived; the place where I learned about how the world operates. Most of the album is talking about things I dealt with at the time I was living there. So I knew it was important to revisit and feel that energy again. Upon visiting, I saw that it was still there and I wanted to pay homage to him in some regard.

How does it feel once you complete an album like this? Because again, your transparency is striking. Like the transition from “Young and Reckless” into “Pill” into “Ain’t No Problem,” it feels like you’re going through this range of emotions from track to track. Not really high and lows so much as just different ways of coping with the same issues. Once you finish something like this I have to imagine it’s a sense of relief.

Danny Watts: Definitely. For this to be my debut project for people, I feel like it’s perfect because it really shows the complexities of human emotion. You look at the layout of the songs, I go from “Young and Reckless” into “Pill” into “Ain’t no Problem.” That could be a three-day span of emotions or that could be a three-month span of emotions as far as how quickly we’re able to bounce through these wide variety of emotions.

So it allows me to really display that and also toward the end of it, it all comes together. So the recording of the album, once I finally finished it and me and Jon knew it was done, I broke down and I cried because I knew that I had something that was truthful to me, that was complete, and it just really drove home how complex I feel my emotions are within me.

I feel that. You can feel that emotion coming through and Jon’s production served that well. You guys seem to have a chemistry where the production falls totally in line with the emotion you’re conveying. How was the process of working with him?

Danny Watts: Working with Jon is amazing man. Like I give him a lot of credit mainly because he had very little to work with. Like, me and Jon, we we linked up in 2015 off of him noticing me on Soundcloud and once he noticed me on Soundcloud I think I was out there like a week later because I reached out to him to work with him but he was just like, “I only work in person.” So I was like aight bet, I’ll be out there in a week. So I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what was going to happen and what would come of it, I just knew that I needed to go out there and take this chance. So I was like alright, I’m here.

So from that moment in 2015 we’ve been talking about this album and because of my responsibilities back home, I would go out there for a week, come back home and do absolutely nothing. I was putting more energy into work and not writing. And I would go back out there and not have anything. So fast forward to 2017, Jon has nothing to work with, I haven’t sent him any songs, I haven’t written anything and he was just like, we got to get it done this week. And I was like okay. I went out there and I barely had any lyrics written. And we did the whole album in a week.

I feel like that’s a testament to him because he drew something out of me that I didn’t know was there. He guided me, he gave me the necessary tutelage and information that I needed. When I felt like I was getting discouraged he made sure we took a break, if he felt like I could push through it he made me push through it. We went through walls and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if he wasn’t there. So working with him is amazing.

And this will be the first release on the Authors label that isn’t Jon’s album, correct?

Danny Watts: Yeah this is the first release other than Jon himself.

I saw an interview where you ranked your top five artists, you had Kendrick in there, Tyler in there, yourself. You also had Zeroh, who actually appears on the final track of your album. How did that collaboration come together and how was the experience for you working with one of your favorites?

Danny Watts: That was pretty cool. Like it was pretty amazing actually. I’ve been listening to Zeroh for as long as I can remember. He’s a really reclusive artist, so a lot of his stuff revolves around uploading tapes online, taking them down, deleting music and I was such a big fan that I would search for hours looking for some of his projects. Like I had a whole collection of his stuff on my old computer.

So just to be able to meet him and be around him and see how he is as a person and actually have the honor to have him on the song—and not only on the song, but it is probably the most important song on the album—was truly truly an honor. So I’m really glad that that happened. And it was really Jon’s decision to put him on there. So of course, like, when John said,’You know I think I’m going try to get him on there,’ I didn’t disagree whatsoever.

Was that your first time meeting him too?

Danny Watts: No, I had met him prior to when I started working on this album because he hangs around Jon a lot. And we’ve worked on stuff before but as much as I wanted it to, it never saw the light of day. So it was really good to actually do something with him that people are going to get to hear.

It’s interesting too because he’s out of L.A., Jon is out of L.A. and you’re out of Houston, which we know its history of in terms of hip-hop. But on the surface your sound is very different from what people would associate with the city. How heavy was Houston’s influence on you musically?

Danny Watts: It’s kind of cool because not only is there a Zeroh in California but there’s a Z-Ro in Houston. So Z-Ro from Houston is probably one of my favorite artists from the city. And I think I drew a lot of influence from him in the sense that his music is really bare and straight to the point and when you listen to a song from him you walk away from that song knowing what he truly meant. There’s nothing to decipher, nothing to decode, it’s straight in your face. And I think I adapted that writing style for this project.

It wasn’t something that I knowingly did but now that I look back on it I can see how those two are relatable. And then just the city in general you know, our music culture has definitely influenced me because that’s what I grew up listening to, because it was all around me. Listening to DJ Screw tapes on repeat all day. I think that’s why I like more slowed down melodic type sounds. I don’t really go for upbeat songs if you will, more of the album is laid back and chill and I definitely think that’s because of Houston.

Houston hip-hop is experiencing a shift too though, right? At least the sounds have become much more diverse. What is your view of that landscape right now?

Danny Watts: Oh, definitely. Like, it’s way more diverse. There are so many different acts that it’s hard for you to tell that they’re from Houston. And I think that’s because the rise of the Internet. You know we were able to have access to all these different styles of music from all over and it really had its influence on the city. Houston has always been a melting pot, it’s one of the largest cities in the U.S., so we have a lot of people here that weren’t born and raised here, they come in and they have their own influences and things like that.

So it’s definitely not the same anymore. You can still hear the influence in the music but I think people just kind of took that chopped-and-screwed for instance and just expanded on it and they just kind of figure it out like, ‘Okay, this doesn’t have to be the foundation of my music. I can expand, I can do other things,’ but yeah like definitely there’s like a long list of names that I can mention where you can hear the music and see, like, this is definitely a new sound for Houston.

Yeah who are some of those dudes? Like Fat Tony I’m familiar with, B L A C K I E, JOn Black, anyone else come to mind for you?

Danny Watts: Yeah, I mean you just named three of the homies right there. Definitely, yeah. I’ve always been a huge fan of B L A C K I E, JOn Black is a good friend of mine. I would say there’s another cat My’Key Iso, you have another cat Brice Blanco and there is another guy whose name is The Aspiring Me and he does a lot of stuff with Fat Tony as well. And even on the producer side you have Philippe Edison, Tony Dark, Bobby Earth, and—I mean I could go on forever, really.

So you’re going on your first tour with Jon and DJ EMV in October. How are you feeling about it?

Danny Watts: I’m excited, man. My whole life thus far has been clocking in and clocking out, so to actually go on tour and do what I love and be on the road six nights a week performing, driving everywhere, I’m excited for it. I know it’s going to be a lot of work but you know, when you have so many years where you’ve done something that you weren’t extremely passionate about and then you finally get to do something where you are extremely passionate about it, it doesn’t feel like work anymore. It really doesn’t.

And the other thing is that, this is a moment for me where we’re going on almost a 50-city tour which is kind of unprecedented for someone on their first tour. So I know if this record takes off and I get to do more albums and I become more popular as an artist then it’s going to pick up. I’m going to get more and more and more. So this is a perfect testing ground for me to see if this is something that I really want to do.

I think one thing that’s going to be interesting is how you portray the project in a visual sense. Like how an album as intimate as this will play out on stage.

Danny Watts: Yeah. My thing is I plan to not have a lot of smoke and mirrors. I just really want people to understand the emotion behind it and I want it to be centered around me. I think my career thus far, if you’d like to say, is doing shows around the city [and] you just kind of learn how to pull people in. Because, while I’m on this tour, people aren’t going to know who I am and even around my city, not a lot of people know who I am because my sound isn’t popular down here.So when I go to shows I go into it knowing that people aren’t going to know who I am. They don’t know Danny Watts, but by the end of the show I’ve gained the ability to draw people in because I feel like they understand the severity behind what I’m saying when I’m on that stage, they know that it means something to me and that’s something. If you’re able to truly convey your emotions across the stage you can pull anybody in. And I feel like I’ve gained that ability.

Touching on that severity, the album really feels like you’re struggling with how to deal with your complex emotions, debating whether to resort to the bottle or just compartmentalize it entirely. Is that a very real thing for you? Were you resorting to alcohol when you were going through a lot of what you talk about here or were you going the other route of just acting like nothing happened?

Danny Watts: I definitely compartmentalized it. I think for me growing up I was very easily influenced because I basically learned to become a chameleon. I adapted to my surroundings because we moved around a lot growing up. So you know, make friends, lose friends, make friends, lose friends, just going to like a multitude of different schools. It allows you to just really do what you have to do to blend in and make friends. So as a result when I got to the age where alcohol was involved and smoking was involved I would do those things because I felt like it was necessary for me to fit in. And I soak in a lot and I don’t know when to stop.

So it’s like one or two drinks will lead to three and four. And it was like, “Hey Danny drink this,” I don’t ask what it is, I just drink it. “Hey Danny smoke this,” I don’t ask what it is, I just smoke it. “Hey Danny take this,” I don’t ask what it is, I just take it. So once I realized that about myself I was like I can’t, because I’m gonna end up hurting myself and hurting everyone around me in a terrible way.

So I think it was this one night—I talked about it on a song that didn’t make the record—where I got super drunk and I made the terrible decision of trying to drive home and it got so bad I had to pull over in the parking lot and you know just throw it all up. And I’m sitting there in the parking lot and I’m just contemplating to myself like man, this has really got to change. I can’t go down this route. So from then on I just compartmentalize a lot of things to where I use it as motivation for my music. But some of it I didn’t necessarily address, I just kind of took that away somewhere and locked it off. And I think with this album, this is the first process of me really addressing a lot of things that I never talked about with anyone except for one person. But other than that I’ve never addressed these things to myself or on a scale to where people are going to know.

What age were you while going through that?

Danny Watts: I think I was like my 20, 21 somewhere in there.

And so it was like after two or three years until you realized you couldn’t keep doing this?

Danny Watts: I don’t think I realized it until I was about 23 or 24. From like 19 to 22, I think that was the time in my life where I just wasn’t in the right mental space. So once I got to 23, 24 that’s when I started to realize that things needed to change.

And how old are you now?

Danny Watts: I’m 29.

When was it that music became that creative outlet for you?

Danny Watts: I’ve always been a writer, like I’ve been writing since I was eight. That’s been my only constant throughout my whole life where when I got to the point where I could cohesively write what I felt down, I’ve been addicted to it ever since. So I’ve always been a fan of writing poems, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written a novel before. It’s something that I took with me throughout my whole entire life because it just allowed me to escape my reality. Like you deal with situations of life, like not having friends, your pops not around and your mom working all the time, you don’t have a PlayStation, you don’t have video games. It’s like all you have is books and all you have is a notebook.

So I read books and that fed my creativity and I just turned that into writing my own stuff, like you read something and think, ‘Okay, I can make this, I’mma do my own thing.’ I did it that way and that became a way for me to to make friends because I would use it to my advantage and write short poems for all the homies in grade school to give to their girlfriend for Valentine’s Day or whatever. You know girls are into poetry and things about love so it was like, ‘qlright let me just write something up real fast.’ That was what I did to make friends.

They would pay you for that too?

Danny Watts: Some of ’em. They would give me a dollar or buy me lunch. You know, they have the little ice cream truck that would come through.

You said you were doing a lot of clocking in and clocking out before really doing rap as a profession. Was it like you were a cashier who decided OK time to take rap seriously or was rapping one of those things that was always at the forefront and you were making ends meet with other jobs on the side?

Danny Watts: I’ve been rapping since I was 17. And that was just…I think in a way you could look at it like destiny because it was just another situation where we moved again and we just so happened to move right across the street from a guy that was rapping. Me and him started becoming cool and he found out that I wrote and he introduced me to instrumentals and put me more into hip-hop. My first album that I ever bought, I never forget to this day, first album I ever bought with my own money was an N-Sync album.

Haha you’re lying.

Danny Watts: Yeah my first album was an N-Sync album. So once I moved across the street from him, he started putting me on to more hip-hop and instrumentals and so I fell in love with riding the beats and seeing if my poems could fit over beats and things like that. So I took like three years to really get good at it to where I actually wanted people to hear it. And I think around this time was when like MySpace was popping, so I took those three years to practice and practice. And then I think at 20 is when I came out with my first mixtape.

Is that still online?

Danny Watts: Nah. I took the Zeroh route and took it all down.

Did you feel growth as an artist through the week of recording this project?

Danny Watts: I definitely feel like I have a lot more to say. I didn’t feel the growth process during the making of it but I did feel it after. Because when you record something within a week, it doesn’t give you time to really reflect on everything that you’re saying. A lot of these songs were written and recorded like three or four a day, so you can imagine the range of emotions that you are going through while writing and recording all these things. So it’s a fast pace.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I just noticed how strong it is to just really go straight to the core of what you mean. I didn’t have time to focus on being witty, writing metaphors. I didn’t have time for all of that, it was just time for me to listen to the instrumental, see how it makes me feel and once I get a word or a theme or a line in my head, take it and run with it. That’s all I had time for.

So I definitely felt my growth as an artist when it pertains to that because I don’t feel the pressure anymore to be like barred out and try to outlast the next person. Like I know my skill as a rapper but I don’t necessarily feel like I have to showcase it all the time because I feel like that will take away from my artistry.

You’ve said you really want people to listen to this album and take something from it. What’s an album that significantly impacted you in that way?

Danny Watts: I’m going to have to go with Lupe Fiasco’s first album, Food & Liquor, I’m going with Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard, and I’m going to go with Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated.

I’ve seen you mention Tyler a few times. What is it about him and that project that really hits you?

Danny Watts: Tyler is my favorite artist, like, by far. I think when I first listened to Tyler I related to it because at that moment in time I was in a dark place and I just knew what it felt like. I feel like he was using his darkness as a cover because he didn’t want people to get close to him. And I did the same thing. And a lot of the stuff that he talked about, like he was having issues with not knowing his father, he was having issues with feeling like the outcast because he was a black person and surrounded by all these white people, but he was conflicted because he enjoyed what white people brought to his life and it influenced him. But black people as a majority always look at black people who did take away what you would deem as white culture as weird. And that was me.

I went to a school where there were like less than ten black people in the whole school so I was into skating, I was into emo stuff, I was listening to Coldplay and punk rock all day, and that was a phase in my life that existed and it became a part of me. So I think that album just touched me the most because that was the first time where I heard someone who was black talk about something like that. I’m not saying it was the first time, but that was the first time that I heard it expressed in that type of way. And it just impacted me so much. I still listen to that album to this day.

Anything else you want to add about the project in general?

Danny Watts: Black Boy Meets World is my story. I’m super proud of it. The making of it, the writing of it, the recording of it. This whole process has been a growing experience and I hope people truly take something from it that can help them get to the next phase in their life or elevate to the next level. It’s named Black Boy Meets World but that’s simply because I’m a black man. I don’t want it to just be delegated to just the black man period, I want it to be for people in general, men and women. I hope they can all relate to it and it’s not the last. I have so much more that I want to share and I can’t wait to share it.

Are you already thinking about the next project?

Danny Watts: Yes. This process has allowed me to move swiftly and not rest on my laurels. I had developed the habit of dropping a project and really just taking it all in, listening to it and becoming stagnant. But I think now, the way this album is rolled out and how it was created, it developed a hunger within me. The day after I got back home from recording the album I started coming up with ideas for the next one. So I’m definitely ready for the second one to drop.

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