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Pop and circumstance: Danny Brown

Rapper is running a marathon to the mainstream



It's the eve of Election Day and Danny Brown is in New Orleans with the "Long Live A$AP" tour. Surprisingly, the Brown on the other end of the phone isn't the rackety, filth-flarn spouter heard on his mixtapes Detroit State of Mind (2007) or Hot Soup (2008), or The Hybrid LP from 2010 or last year's Fool's Gold Records release, XXX. Nor is this the same, non-filtered, anecdotal Brown I interviewed in person last year, following an opening performance for Das Racist.

The Brown speaking now is more like the laid-back persona heard on XXX's melancholy tale of misguided womanhood, "Party All the Time." But Brown — born Daniel Sewell — isn't a man of contradictions. He's a fatigued witness to Detroit's rougher lifestyles — enjoying the thrill, humor and exploits of being the rapper-as-reporter from the front lines.

Of course, there's also the Brown who constantly boasts about his recreational drug use — more specifically, "molly," a powder form of MDMA (ecstasy) that's sold in capsules and is several rappers' latest designer drug of choice. For some people, frequent, indulgent behavior would take a tremendous toll on their body, but Brown says it gives him a preferred boost. "I think it kind of helps," he says. "Maybe I'm a superhuman type. Some people can handle certain things better."

This past summer, Brown performed at Insane Clown Posse's infamous Gathering of the Juggalos festival in Cave-In-Rock, Ill., and stuck around to get a taste of the sub-culture his fellow Detroit natives have built for themselves. In video footage from that day, Brown surveys the festival grounds crawling with dedicated eccentrics and is inspired to eventually have a similar festival of his own — Gathering of the Bruisers (named after his crew, Bruiser Brigade).

To the 31-year-old Brown, having a bunch of fans convene for a full day of Danny Brown-inspired amusement might be more valuable than winning Grammy awards or being on the POTUS' speed dial. "There's probably some people that would love to come to my shows, but they're probably scared of what the crowd is going to look like. There's so many different types of people," explains Brown, who performs at the Fillmore on Nov. 15 with the Long Live A$AP tour. "So I think that something like bringing them all together would be kind of ill. That's so far down the line though. I got a lot more albums to make before I think about doing something like that."

It's easy to assume the title of his next album, ODB, is a nod to Ol' Dirty Bastard. When asked about the title's meaning, however, Brown is just as cryptic as the late Wu-Tang Clansman with whom Brown shares a similar zoo-like zen. "I can't really say what the meaning behind it is," he says. "You'll have to figure it out for yourself."

That's just fine, because even if we can't speculate on a Danny Brown/Ol' Dirty Bastard tie-in, we at least have his sweeping guest appearance on "Tick, Tock," on the soundtrack for The Man With the Iron Fists, directed by Wu maestro RZA.

And while XXX came out in August of last year, it still has plenty of gas. Three weeks ago, Brown released the freak-a-zoid video for "Witit," a bonus track from the album. "At the end of the day, I look at this shit as a marathon and not a fucking sprint. So I pace myself," Brown says. "I could have put out another project, but with the way my music is, it might take people a long time to catch up. The same people that hated XXX a year ago probably listen to it every day now. I'm an ahead-of-my-time kind of person."

Brown's current tour mates — A$AP Rocky, whose major-label debut is still on its way, and Schoolboy Q, whose exposure has grown from the mainstream success of his Dr. Dre-cosigned labelmate, Kendrick Lamar — are like him in the sense that they're gaining popularity. But unlike them, Brown's progression has been a calculable buzz-build as a DIY artist, rather than a plan for a mainstream break.

By today's shrinking standards and niche markets, Brown is as about as pop as it gets. He's an amusing yapper who has perfected the art of harnessing skilled, profane raps onto an eclectic melange of beats ranging from Black Milk's dirtier, Dilla-esque production to the havoc of an El-P track. Fortunately, hardly any of Brown's stuff is complex enough to sabotage its inherent fun. Yes, he's ridiculous at times, but the pay-off is far more rewarding than any of the pop ridiculousness in today's Top 40 rotation. And if pop music is all about catchy hooks and crossover appeal — or, well, being included in a downloadable, Bun B.-curated "Rap Coloring Book" on Tumblr — then Brown is an icon.

He hasn't had much trouble maintaining one of the most distinctive voices in music, and even if you find his wardrobe and hairstyle questionable, there's no denying that he flaunts his fashion choices just as loud as any mega-pop star. His Robert Smith-like free-reign mane is a complete contrast to the brand-name clothing he wears. Brown speaks his mind and is as transparent as they come, but if you hang on to his every word, you could end up hurt or worse. No fan should ever be that gullible, but they shouldn't be scared of him either.

"I think that my biggest fan probably wouldn't even say anything to me. They wouldn't come to me in the club and talk to me," Brown says of his fans' reluctance to approach him. For those who do approach him, they shouldn't be surprised at who they get. A friend of mine expressed her displeasure with the rapper's signature silliness, but artists like Danny Brown aren't put here to mingle with. Fans should be starstruck from afar. And for an indie-rapper from the bowels of Detroit, that's not a bad way to be targeted. That's the pop life.

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