A Cashville Story: An Interview with Brian Brown

Brandon Callender speaks with the Nashville rapper about chicken and country, his roots in the church, and the long road to "Journey"
By    February 26, 2020

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Rappers in 2020 are forced to be visible, whether they’re on IG Live learning how to Shimmy like Boosie or unboxing their latest Friends & Families pair of sneakers from Virgil Abloh. Once they stray away from the limelight, they’re almost instantly forgotten, causing people to make “Who remember this song ??” tweets about rappers whose last song was less than a year ago. Even the biggest stars aren’t allowed to take time off. As soon as rumors of an album surface on the internet, their notifications are filled with single word replies of “need’ and “drop.” A four year creative cycle would be a death sentence for most rappers, but for Brian Brown, it was his key to success. 

For four years he’s been asked ‘Where’s Journey at?’ by his fans,  keeping any details about the album a tight-lipped secret. When I asked how many different songs and tracklists he went through before finalizing the album, he told me he had no idea. Journey is the Nashville rapper’s first full project since 2014’s 7:22 EP. In these 6 years, he’s filled the dead air with loosies like “Newports” and “Ric Flair.” He says that 2017’s “Cycle” was the “foot in the ground” that allowed him to “take time off and work on [Journey] officially.” 

Journey is the 26-year-old rapper attempting to make sense of the world he lives in. The stories told on this album —  the gentrification of Black communities and strenuous romances — are filtered through his own life. Brown manages to package these stories in a way that allows him to be honest about the mistakes he’s made and lessons he’s but not suffocate listeners with his sincerity. He’s seen Nashville’s image drastically change, becoming a must-visit destination for people in Carhartt beanies who call themselves foodies. (He says he’s sick of people trying to recreate the magic Nashville Hot Chicken, “the one delicious, self-righteous Nashville thing that the country and world has tried to pimp and hoe.) As someone who’s Nashville born-and-raised, he’s willing to offer a more realistic vision of Nashville, one that doesn’t try to sweep the city’s history under the rug.

The day after we learned where Journey was this whole time, Brown and I spoke over the phone about old XXL freshman covers, how he got involved with TheHouse and the best chicken spots in Nashville. His list of the best chicken spots in Nashville (from what he’s tried) in no specific order: 400 Degrees, Bolton’s, Prince’s Brother Z’s Wang Shack, and Ghot Wingz. If you’re in Nashville and none of those are open, you might be out of luck. — Brandon Callender

What was it like growing up in Nashville?

Brian Brown: Tight-knit. Very 6 degrees of separation. It don’t take too much to know somebody. Really proud, really protective. It’s a Blue-collar city. It’s always consistent, always struggling. Now it’s on some… I don’t wanna say some other shit. But, they have done what they can to brush away the things that make this city this city. It is intricate, for sure, but I don’t know. They’ve just done so much in so little time. Nashville is a small city, but it’s a big city too. There’s a lot of areas and places you see and go “Hm, I didn’t think this was still here.” Or “I didn’t know this side of town existed.” It’s country, it’s beautiful. It’s grimy for sure. It was Top 10 murder rate when I was growing up for a second. It’s a lot of things, but definitely home. Nashville’s a lot cooler than what the average perception is. When you think of Nashville, what comes to mind for you?

Country music and chicken.

Brian Brown: Even as corny as that sounds, those are sound principles [of the city]. There is a long history of chicken. There is a long history of country. That’s probably the most frustrating part, the history and getting it told the way it’s supposed to. Being from Nashville is almost like a show-and-tell project for me. There’s a lot of moments of history that’ve came through this motherfucker. Nashville is a very historic part of this country. It’s cool to try to be from there and especially with Journey, trying to tell it and trying to describe what I know best and what I remember best too.

Who were some of the first artists you remember hearing growing up?

Brian Brown: It starts in the church. On my mom’s side, my aunt taught herself to play piano when she was 5. She also played drums and cello. Traveling to whatever church growing up with them. Plus on my dad’s side I had a few aunties that sang. My granddad played a few instruments and he owned a few clubs in Chattanooga. That’s where the Chattanooga ties started from the jump, before TheHouse and stuff like that. My dad’s from Chatt. I’d been going back and forth between there and here forever. Combine that with the Sades, the Gerald Leverts, the Brian McKnights. I’m not a big Brian McKnight fan, but my parents played him a lot. I know that motherfucker can sing so I don’t wanna take no credit from him. I feel like that’s damn near why they named me Brian. But I don’t know. I ain’t mad at my name, shit. My dad was a big DMX fan, big Ice Cube fan. My mom, Prince and Janet. My auntie, Outkast. Gospel music too. She was playing at all these churches here in Nashville, on some every other Sunday shit.

When did you first start to rap?

Brian Brown: I was 10. But I realized I could do this for sure when I was 17. I first started on some funny shit. I liked making people laugh and smile and shit. When I was like 16, 17, I did four freestyles. It was over this Fonzworth Bentley beat when he dropped the C.O.L.O.U.R.S. mixtape, it was a Rapsody and Mac Miller beat, “She Needs Me,” by Kendrick, and “Just Begun” by Eternal Reflection, Cole, Jay Electronica and Mos Def. Everybody was commenting in awe. I did all those within an hour and a half. From there, I was like, “Oh yeah.” That moment in particular, a lot of those cats that were in the studio with me were the people that I started with. Keeping it together and growing up with them. That one session where it was like in my space and in my zone, the best producers I had known and the best rappers I had been around. For me, the rest of Nashville, I didn’t know too much. I was big on the blogs and shit, 2DopeBoyz, Nah Right.

It’s been traces of hip-hop in Nashville before then that I still have to find and search through, like from the ’90s. It’s always been here. It ain’t necessarily been as prevalent and as current as it is now, even though it’s been happening for a while.

Brian Brown: A lot of rap history in the South pre-dates the internet. Nashville for a second was a major underground staple city for a lot of Southern characters. Pimp used to be here, like for real. I got some homies that they family was some of Pimp best friends type shit. By 17, my junior year, some of those rappers were on the circuit. And by that time, Starlito, he was the one. He might’ve still been on the Cash Money deal. I’m not too sure. I was into the 2DopeBoyz and stuff. I came up on the motherfuckin Dom Kennedies. That whole blog era changed everything for me. I fucking skipped class to go get the Kendrick, Big K.R.I.T., Yelawolf, and Lil B XXL freshman cover. That was my shit, for sure. I’d come home and pick up where I left off on 2DopeBoyz, just scrolling through and clicking buttons. A lot of those niggas I felt like I could actually relate to. Because where I’m from in the Ville and how the Ville was growing up, it definitely wasn’t as pretty as it’s portrayed now. From how my moms and my pops kept me, I knew what was going on around me, but I never got into it.

Were you with TheHouse when they first started?

Brian Brown: I wasn’t with them when they first started. Pretty much everybody in that squad is from Chattanooga. I’m not sure where Chris is from. Black is originally from Atlanta, but I consider him to be from here. I got acquainted with them in 2014, one of my homies was working on TUT’s merch and brought me through to the house and I got to meet a few of them. I was still in the early stages. TIGGI had played me a couple of beats and I was like, “Damn, this is something inspiring.” TIGGI had the studio upstairs at the crib. I was like, “I gotta get back.” 2015, I wound up at SXSW and we wound up linking up. Before then I was just listening to they shit but I enjoyed it, no games, it was just full of fire songs. That summer I had went back and forth between the crib and the Ville and they was working on shit. I made “The Dreamer’s Anthem” in 2015. That was like the first song I ever made with TIGGI, just on some try it out shit. My living situation in the Ville had gone sour and a spot in the crib with Duncan had became available. So I was like, fuck it, let’s give it a shot. It happened as naturally as it could. I wasn’t there from the jump but I’m not what I am without them niggas. I’m grateful for each and everyone of them niggas. And just like any friendship or brotherhood, you can get into it, but them niggas is my niggas.

In your music you’re an honest and open person, but you avoid being overwhelming and corny with it.

Brian Brown: That was the cool part about Journey for me, being able to find a way to be comfortable with myself. I honestly feel like that’s something I’ve always done. Keep it honest, keep it trill and keep it uplifting. I think that before it, my sound was so experimental that it sounded like so many other things that it wasn’t as focused as it could be. But Journey is focused as fuck. There’s a flow, there’s an idea. Almost a resurgence to it. When I think about “Stoop Kid,” it’s nasty. I think anybody can relate to that. If you from a place and you know you’re about to break that glass ceiling, exceeding the expectations you had for yourself, how can you not feel like that? For whatever reason, niggas and positivity don’t go together. I don’t know what it is, but trying to give niggas some game and legitimately be like, “I got you,” for whatever reason, it’s hard. I guess it’s just on some nigga-to-nigga shit. When somebody’s talking I don’t think they take the time to register what it’s actually gonna take to really get you. I don’t think people take the time to let shit hit either. It’s so rapid-fire now. I’m just trying to keep an uplifting sense without being corny because I’m sure that we can both name hella rappers who give off that vibe and I’m sure they’re not trying to be. So like, what is it that they’re doing either musically or as a human being that something’s right but something’s wrong?

“A Cashville Story” is such a familiar story about gentrification for Black people across America.

Brian Brown: Trump being president was a lot. I ain’t gonna lie to you. Even what went on before it, you got Mike Brown, Trayvon, Sandra, the ones before them too. You see it often, and I talk about it on “Flava” too. It happens too often. But it made you pay attention a whole lot more. For me, at that time, I wasn’t really in the Ville, but I was back and forth. That’s why I had to carry the verse over from that song me and CP did because it was still a familiar feeling to me. A lot of this album is built on that same thing. I don’t do shit unless I feel it. That’s how I get down. As much as I didn’t want to carry the verse, I thought that message still held weight regarding our oppression. That beat was spooky. I love it. When I first heard it, I said, “Oh yeah.” That was the one I originally wanted to do a lot more of. I wanted to capture that live instrumentation, percussion feeling. Just observing the world and taking in as much shit as I could without being annoyed by it. As a kid, you don’t watch the news and as you get older you definitely don’t wanna watch the news. Like damn, we got a motherfucking bigot in the office who just don’t give a shit about nothing but himself. And then Hillary, there really wasn’t no best of two evils to it. They both sucked. It’s hard to give perspective and I did my damnedest to give my perspective on the world on this that I at least paid attention to.

You took your time with this, it’s been 2 years since you started saying “Journey on the way” right?

Brian Brown: I was talking about it with somebody earlier and I really couldn’t put a finger on it. Damn. At a certain point I had to just be honest about it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t working on it. Y’all have heard things that were supposed to be on the original version of Journey. “Stoop Kid” was supposed to be the intro, “Desires,” “The Dreamer’s Anthem,” the shit me and CP had been cooking up. It’d been little stuff here and there that we had started on and been tweaking and improving that just due to situations and circumstances, at the end of the day, shit just needed to happen. It put me in this feeling of, “Oh shit, what am I going to do?” I had an idea, I had a concept, I had something, but the soundscape I wanted to do, I couldn’t figure out a way to finish it. I came back home and I don’t even know when I started getting a lot of the beats for this album, but “Steely Dan” was the first song I wrote. That was in my email prior to me starting writing. Honestly, Journey has been a 4 year process, but a lot of the music, out of the 10 songs, and if you wanna count everything included in the album, the mixing and mastering, I’d say a good 64% of this album’s been done in the past five or six months. The last mixes were done in the last two, three weeks type shit. It’s really been an internal process to me. Then to see it all come to fruition, I can’t beat that at all.

Just about everyone who worked on this album is from Tennessee, was that intentional?

Brian Brown: Black Metaphor, Cassic and Jordan’s A Weirdo are the only people not from Tennessee. Everyone else is all Tennessee. I didn’t do it on purpose or anything, it just kind of happened like that. That was super cool to get it as familiar and close as possible. I know my friends could deliver and portray it in the best way possible. It’s just fun man. It’s fun when you do it like that. Like when you talk about the regional hip-hop shit, it’s not big by any means, but when you say ‘Nashville Hip-Hop,’ it’s only so many people who are gonna name the people I named earlier and shouted out. Imagine them talking about the people who doing stuff now, myself included. It was cool to get a lot of my friends who I either worked with or came across along the way. Like Sir Illington, I think he’s the closest thing to J Dilla we’ll ever get. Niggas be like, “Whoa, you’re tripping.” But, nah, Sir Illington can do anything. The fact that he was from around the way, just searching [for something]. He’s a down-to-earth family man, a real ass nigga and can make, sing, rap, anything he wants to. A lot of these people I have relationships with. It’s still cool to be challenged and be bent about how to take it, asking what song am I trying to make, what am I trying to pull from.

“Runnin” is the worst kind of break-up song, it’s about growing apart, which hurts even more sometimes.

Brian Brown: Coming to that realization isn’t necessarily the most fun thing in the world. On this song we did our best to make a break-up song but we did that in a way that wasn’t “fuck you bitch.” I thought it was super cool. It could easily be that if it wanted to be but it’s not. That’s something I really appreciate about it. I also appreciate the fact that Reaux [Marquez] really pushed me to sing. Reaux was like, “you gotta yell it.” But I hadn’t sung like that in a while. Of course, I grew up in the church singing that gospel choir, school choir. But at this point, all the backwoods and alcohol had fried my vocal cords to a crisp. He had a majority of the hook and I had bridged it out, helped where I could here and there. Did a couple switch-ups on the way I phrased things. Can’t thank him enough for getting that whole movement of us going to Atlanta, kicking it with Black [Metaphor] talking about shit. It’s one of those magical joints that you’re proud of. It’s just different. It’s so familiar. It’s not necessarily brand new, but it’s refreshing to hear it for sure.

When you’re 80 years old, with a cane and all that, what do you hope you’re remembered as?

Brian Brown: A trill ass, rapping ass nigga. Period, point blank, end of story. Whether you saw me at Target, on the basketball court, or the bar, or the restaurant with a bitch you ain’t never seen me with before. Whether you saw me in the Benz or you saw me in the G-Dub. Just so you can’t really say too much different from the last time you saw me. Might look older. Might’ve had a little extra bit on. Might’ve looked healthy, might’ve looked shit. Whatever the case may be. But the spirit, the personality, and who I am as a being as a whole, I want it to be like, “That nigga’s still doing him.”


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