40 Is the New 30: An Interview With Danny Brown

Donald Morrison speaks to the prolific Detroit emcee about his refreshed love for creating music since being sober, moving to Texas, coming to the organic realization that his new album Quaranta...
By    November 20, 2023

Image via Peter Beste

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Danny Brown didn’t plan on quitting smoking weed when he checked himself into rehab earlier this year. He wanted merely to begin recovering from a particularly brutal pandemic, a years-long stretch of drinking, drugging, isolation and loneliness that culminated in a messy break-up with his former girlfriend. But when he got to rehab he found that he needed a more radical change than originally expected. The weed would have to go too, Danny thought, as he looked forward to beginning a new chapter of his life away from an ever-changing Detroit, having relocated to podcaster-haven Austin, earlier this year.

In the 12 years since Danny’s breakout mixtape, XXX, the Detroit rapper has rarely slowed down from a schedule of constant touring and recording music. He’s released four critically-acclaimed albums, each record earning its own special cult following. In recent years, he’s been welcomed into the often insular world of comedy. He films and records his own podcast while also making appearances on other more famous comedian’s shows. In fact, it was a drunken appearance on one of those podcasts that catalyzed the decision to check himself into rehab with the help of a grant from the Recording Academy’s Musicares program. Now, with nearly six months of sobriety under his belt and fresh off his first sober tour with JPEGMAFIA, he’s finally releasing Quaranta, a long-awaited unofficial sequel to XXX.

The majority of Quaranta, which means 40 in Italian, was recorded in the early days of the pandemic. It didn’t take shape as the spiritual successor to XXX until after the songs were recorded and everything assembled – which Danny says is usually his process when crafting an album. It’s an undeniably dense record with moments of chaotic instrumentation and rabbit-holed introspection. Danny grapples with his legacy, taking stock of everything that’s changed around him in the past decade. In Detroit, gentrification turned crack houses into organic gardens and drug spots into electric scooter charging ports. NPR reported in July that the city has made significant progress since it became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy in 2013. But to Danny, Detroit’s inevitable rehabilitation has zapped out some of the magic that made the city special.

Danny possesses a rare vulnerability. He’s an artist who, for better or for worse, has allowed us into the spectacle of his actual life. A good portion of his music from the last five years has directly reckoned with the psychic damage of being constantly perceived as the funny, f*cked-up guy. The video for “Ain’t it Funny,” directed by Jonah Hill and starring Gus Van Sant, is premised around a sitcom where Danny plays the skeevy uncle to a wholesome white family, acting like an exaggerated version of himself by smoking meth and drinking hard liquor straight from the bottle. A laugh track kicks in as Danny sullenly tells the audience, “I have a serious problem…stop laughing.” It’s a not-so-subtle comment on the prison of celebrity and the pressure to remain a stagnated version of himself that’s marketable enough to make a living. Would people still love a sober Danny Brown?

He spends a good portion of Quaranta reconciling with everything he’s lost in pursuit of his dreams. Which isn’t to say he’s not grateful. Danny tells me that hes spent the better part of the past decade getting drunk before recording music or performing, with an attitude of “f*ck it, let’s just get this done.” On “Down Wit It,” Danny says “lifestyle of this music shit, had me on some stupid shit, never woulda’ thought it f*ck up who I’m closest with.” I can imagine Danny coming to these realizations in the early months of COVID, his life finally slowed down enough to meditate on what’s truly important to him, like his friends, family and health. If “Down Wit It,” is Danny wallowing in everything he lost, “Celibate,” featuring MIKE, finds Danny on solid ground, confident the worst is behind him. Over airy production, he says “I used to sell a bit, but I don’t f*ck around no more I’m celibate.”

His love for making music and performing in front of thousands of fans has only grown deeper since getting sober. He no longer dreads going to the studio and can actually remember his live performances. He tells me during a phone interview in November that he now spends his days at home recording music and nearly has his next project after Quaranta finished. It seems as if the Adderall Admiral has left active duty and chooses now to live his days in peace and quiet, or buried in work. After everything he’s given us, it’s well-deserved.

When did the idea for Quaranta come about?

Danny Brown: It was during the whole COVID-19, pandemic situation. I don’t think I initially set out to make a follow-up to XXX, it just kind of worked out that way. A lot of my albums come about like that. I don’t even know what I’m doing, I’m just recording stuff, listening back and then tailoring on a concept later.

What was the recording process like?

Danny Brown: I recorded a majority of it during the pandemic. We just didn’t have nothing else to do and I was going through a lot at the time. I went through a crazy breakup, I moved to downtown Detroit from the suburbs and then everything immediately got locked down. Music is really my form of therapy in a sense. It was just a way to get everything out.

The isolation that the pandemic brought was really hard for a lot of people. Especially people struggling with alcoholism or addiction.

Danny Brown: Everything just ramped up, you know? Before lockdown I would leave for tours for long periods of time. That was my way of cleaning up in a sense. I was able to not let myself get too far because I’ve always had to work. But after the pandemic I was just home and around everything, it was hard.

Was this your first time going to rehab?

Danny Brown: Yeah and I wish I would have done something like that a lot sooner. I always just had some sort of stigma about it. The only thing I would relate it to was like going to jail. But actually it was a great time, I’m not saying I had fun, like it was an amusement park or some shit, but it was a time to really just reflect on shit and realize what I was putting myself through for the most part. I was just making my life harder. SO now I’m just being sober and shit. You know, it has its good days and bad days, not everything has been peachy, but I am a lot happier, I can say that.

What kind of things have you had to do to maintain your sobriety?

Danny Brown: I just don’t put myself in certain situations anymore and I realize now that life is going to happen. For a long time it was an escape for me to just not deal with the shit I had going on. But that’s just like putting a band-aid over a gunshot. Now I just deal with it. I’ve been dealing with this shit for so long that I’m just happy to be on the other side now. There’s nothing that could make me go back, not trying to sound over-confident.

Also just being in Texas. I feel like it’s easier for me to live a healthier lifestyle out here versus back in Detroit. So I would say my surroundings have changed and I just make sure to keep myself busy. It sucks to say it, but it’s like I have a newfound love for music now. It was hard for me to get back to making music while being sober. But that was just my mental telling me that. Before when I was f*cked up it would be like “let me do this shit real quick,” like, it was more of a “let me just get this shit done” type of attitude. Now, it’s like I’m actually enjoying the process and loving doing it. I’m sitting at the crib, making beats and shit, just always studying and figuring shit out. I pretty much got the next album figured out after this one. I’m just burying myself in work to be honest.

How are you enjoying Austin? I’m guessing you’ve been to The Mothership.

Danny Brown: I enjoy being here. Most of my friends are comedians, it’s just a different vibe. I don’t really go out as much as I used to. When I do go out, it’s just when somebody invites me out or something like that. But it is two different worlds, the comedy world and the rap world.

Would you have ever imagined moving to Austin ten or twelve years ago when you were making XXX?

Danny Brown: To be honest, Austin was the place where I feel like everything popped off for me. Like, God always has his plan for you type shit. It’s where everything started to take off with SXSW and everything. It’s kind of like a 360 me being back here. It’s a lot different than being in Detroit. Back home I’m just Daniel, you know? Here I’m like a f*cking celebrity or some shit. So it’s got its pros and cons. But for the most part everybody here is nice and shows me love.

I’ve never been to Texas, it seems like a slower way of living.

Danny Brown: Texas is one thing but Austin is different. I don’t know if I could really live anywhere else in Texas. But Austin is its own place, like “Keep Austin weird.”

I wanted to ask you about one of my favorite lyrics from XXX, “I feel like Billy Corgan in a church playing organ. Coverin’ Too $hort, smokin’ a Newport.” Are you a fan of The Smashing Pumpkins?

Danny Brown: I had my rock phase and that’s definitely one of my go-to albums.

What was the reasoning behind naming your last solo album Atrocity Exhibition?

Danny Brown: Just being a Joy Division fan to be honest. Like I say, sometimes when I make these albums I don’t really know what I’m doing and then through listening to it the concept plays out to me and then I know which direction to go with it. With songs like “Ain’t It Funny,” it’s about people looking at me like I’m a f*cking circus animal or something. It’s like all these cries for help are just entertainment for somebody else. Instead of it being like “oh, let me help this motherf*cker,” they just laugh at me.

Like when Ian Curtis used to have epileptic on stage and shit. We’ll just be looking at him and be entertained by that. I feel like I was telling people to take me a lot more seriously. I know I’m crazy, silly and goofy and shit. But there is a serious side to me. Take me serious when I’m talking about serious shit, you know?

I can see how this plays into your alcoholism too, like thinking people only want the f*cked up Danny Brown as opposed to the sober one. Do you think that fed into your alcoholism at all?

Danny Brown: I wouldn’t say it fed into it. But it’s certainly harder to manage. Like here in Austin, I can pretty much go into any bar and get free drinks. Or going to shows and people just giving me drugs and shit. People just want to get f*cked up with me, you know? Even when I wasn’t seeking it out, it was finding me.

I feel like you’ve always had a unique perspective of drugs and alcoholism, dating all the way back to The Hybrid or XXX.

Danny Brown: I grew up around it my entire life, even with my family and shit. You would think that would make a person not want to go through that shit. That’s one of the good things about rehab, I was able to figure out where the underlying trauma comes from. It was a lot of just underlying trauma from childhood shit, you know. I found It’s easier to deal with it than to just run away from it.

It’s so nice to have the space to actually deal with that stuff.

Danny Brown: It comes from maturity, too. Even though I was 30 years old, you would think I was a grown man, but I was still immature in some senses. So I was able to really grow up. I was too old to be doing that shit in my thirties, now I’m in my forties, I definitely needed to change.

Do you have any funny or interesting stories or anecdotes from your time in rehab?

Danny Brown: Not really, but I understand what you mean. It’s just adults being brought back to their childhood state, because you have to be watched over and fed and treated like a child. So there’s a lot of jokey, laughing times in there. Nothing I could really pinpoint, but we were playing games like Uno, talking shit, you know? I still keep in contact with a lot of the guys I was in there with. One of them was just here last week. He came to my crib and hung out. I’m still friends with a lot of people I was in rehab with. A couple of guys fell off the wagon, but I feel like it’s a community that we have, where we help each other out and just understand what we’re going through.

Do you go to AA meetings or anything like that?

Danny Brown: I went to a few, but it just makes me realize that I’m not just Daniel, I’m Danny Brown, you know? It’s hard because people recognize me and I also tried doing a few on Zoom and didn’t really like that. I was seeing a therapist for a minute but even that got to a point where I’m like, “I’m just paying too much money to sit here and tell somebody my god damn business.” So to be honest, I haven’t really done anything and I know a lot of people who would say that’s the wrong way to go about it, but I don’t know man, I’ve been good.

I think having a community in any capacity is the most important thing.

Danny Brown: It’s definitely something that keeps your head on straight with some things. I enjoyed doing Dharma, a meditation type thing. But really, I’m just not concerned with anything that’s not helping me be healthy. I eat better now, I try to stay in the gym as much as possible, but I’m always f*cking up my routine with me having to leave and do work shit and it’s only getting worse now with the album coming out.

Are you planning a tour with the album?

Danny Brown: We’re doing a little promo run, so that’s not too bad. I’m not complaining about it. That’s another thing about being sober. Before I’d be worried about so much, now I can just get up and go. I don’t have to worry about any of that shit.

Rehab really teaches you to be grateful for the small stuff.

Danny Brown: It made me realize how blessed I am. There were a lot of people in rehab in situations they really didn’t want to be in. I’m blessed to have a job that I f*cking love, you know? A lot of people work for money or just do what they gotta do. I actually love what I do, which to me is the American Dream. To be able to make a living off of something that you would do for free. It’s f*cking amazing.

Who have you been listening to lately?

Danny Brown: I’m listening to a lot of Nia Archives. I’ve been going back and listening to old drum and bass shit, I’m always tapped in with the UK shit too. But in the past year it’s a lot of Nia Archives. She the queen of jungle, man, It’s f*cking amazing. I also really love what 100 Gecs is doing. I love the Frost Children, I can’t wait for their album that comes out the same day as mine. I’m just really tapped in with the hyperpop, the drum and bass, all that shit. When I was in rehab I was listening to 100 Gecs all the time.

100 Gecs is great rehab music.

Danny Brown: I’ve also been going back and listening to a lot of old albums I liked as a kid and shit, or albums that didn’t really get me as a kid that I’m now realizing were actually dope albums, like Method Man’s Tical, I’ve been listening to that a lot.

My favorite scene these days is what’s happening in Detroit and Flint, artists like Veeze and Rio Da Yung OG, or Babyface Ray.

Danny Brown: All those motherf*ckers are really good at f*cking rapping. That’s Detroit for you man, everybody is really good at f*cking rapping there.

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