In a little over a year and a half, Danny Brown will be 40, a milestone that tends to inspire a bit of introspection in rock stars. Brown may not technically be a rock star — though he declared that he wished to die like one on a track from his 2011 mixtape XXX — but the rapper has embarked on the same path of midlife maturation as Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop before him. While his music’s fantasies of unchecked, hedonistic indulgence often verge on self-destruction, he’s been disciplined as of late. He landed his first big-screen role in last year’s White Boy Rick, and more recently, he’s been hosting a talk show for Viceland called Danny’s House. He’s got a new album coming soon, a collaboration with legendary producer Q-Tip currently titled uknowhatimsayin?. He’s cut back on the imbibing. He’s taking care.
When Brown plopped down for an interview at a Nolita restaurant earlier this month, with his trademark mop of hair shorn and his snaggleteeth replaced by a picket fence of pearly whites, he exuded a older man’s presence, and not just because his Cinderella tee identified him as a child of the hair-metal era. He then ordered himself a double Patrón on the rocks. It was two in the afternoon on a Monday.
Which is to say that Brown is still triangulating his behavior, still looking for the middle ground between a daily diet of MDMA and a step back from his wilder impulses. Living well doesn’t have to be incompatible with living large, he’s learned. Brown teased the first single from his upcoming LP at the Primavera music festival, and while he remains tight-lipped about the album’s details, he has let slip that that song will be called “Best Life.” The title refers to a lofty goal of self-actualization, but have no fear, he hasn’t parted with his intrinsic Danny-ness. As we wrapped up our conversation 40 minutes later, he cued up another double Patrón.
Danny’s House feels a lot like Saturday-morning entertainment. Did spend Saturdays in front of the TV when you were a kid?
Yeah, though my favorite stuff wasn’t the cartoons. I was more into Hang Time and Saved by the Bell. I had one punch line about that, like, “Off the same pills that had Jessie Spano tripping.” I know you’ve seen the caffeine pill freak-out video. I loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse, too, but I loved the movies more. Big Top, all that shit. I fuck with Pee-wee Herman. He’d always give you that look, like, he knew that you’d know if you were in on the joke.
What I liked about Pee-wee’s Playhouse was how it sucked you into Pee-Wee’s world. What’s the difference between the world of Danny’s House and the one you and I live in?
The whole point of it, to me, was that there’s this guy stuck in his basement and he’s going through these conspiracy theories. Everybody has that friend! He’s always down for people to come over and kick it with him, but then he starts talking about living in a simulated reality or some dumb shit. When you’re going through those YouTube rabbit holes at four in the morning, you’ll talk to anyone about it.
If we’re going to talk conspiracies, I have to ask about Jeffrey Epstein.
I don’t think I can talk about it! [Laughs.] I don’t want to get got! It’s a touchy subject, involving kids and everything. That’s all some fucked-up shit. Something’s up, that’s all.
Do you think that Danny’s House should be watched on drugs? Does it go well with weed, or should people see it straight?
Either way! Me, personally, I’m high enough by the time I start watching something. I don’t need to get extra, not even on a show like Danny’s House. My mind would drift off into the conspiracies and I’d lose track of what’s happening, you know? All I want is for people to pay attention, so if you’re good with that when you’re smoking, that’s fine. But I can see someone getting distracted and hitting pause to go look up eight things on Google real quick.
Gaspar Noé says that drugs only go with music, not movies or TV.
He’s right. Music’s all around you, it’s easier to take it in. You can’t not listen, unless you plug your ears, but why would you plug your ears? It’s not like with TV, where you might zone out into the background, start looking at what the extras are doing. Music’s different. You can focus on the beat or the vocals and still take in the whole song. When I was a kid, you could rig the speakers up a certain way to get a CD to only play the backing track. I’d listen to a whole song that way. That’s how I learned to do ad-libs, by listening to the stems on their own. You can break the song down and build it back up again, make the bass louder, distort the audio, whatever you want. I used to do that with Jay-Z’s album, Hard Knock Life.
If you could have a dead historical figure on the show, who would it be?
Big L, probably. He’s didn’t get enough recognition in his moment. We didn’t get so many on-camera interviews with him, so I bet we don’t even have a real sense of what his personality would’ve been. One thing I like about the show is that no matter what the topic is, you’ve got the freedom to relax and open up and be yourself. I’d have liked to see L in that setting.
How did you handle interviewing? Did you ever find it was harder than you thought it’d be?
They didn’t put too much pressure on me. The producers wanted it to feel more like a conversation than an interview. A lot of the guests are friends, like, I go back with Hannibal [Buress] and [A$AP] Rocky and [Schoolboy] Q. Some were people I’m just huge fans of, like Ron Funches and Nikki Glaser. On every show, it’s people I really want to talk to. That made everything go real smoothly.
You had said you wanted to go for a cheaper feel, but I’m curious, what does the version of Danny’s House with an unlimited budget look like?
It would look like some baller-ass shit! But it’d lose the personality. I’d be walking around in Versace robes, gold chairs, strokin’ a poodle, not even trying to be funny, trying to be serious and talk about art prices and shit. Personally, I just want to save that for my real life.
[Vampire Weekend’s “Sunflower” starts playing over the speakers.] Jonah Hill directed the video for this song, after he did “Ain’t It Funny” for you. How did you two get linked up in the first place?
He just liked the song and reached out. This was right around the time he was working on his movie, and he was experimenting with a lot of VHS cameras. He wanted to use the video as an opportunity to fuck around with these older cameras a bit before starting in on his own thing.
That song is about showing pain to the public and them not receiving it, or laughing it off. In the years since your last album, has that aspect of your personal life changed?
It’s better. I’ve been taking it easy. I mean, I’m drinking tequila at 2 p.m., but that’s part of my version of taking it easy. Before, I got so butthurt about how people received my music. Now, it’s just fuck it, go get it. You only got so much care and love to give. Family, friends, I got that. Apart from that, fuck it. I do not care! I wouldn’t get into an argument with some random person on the street, so I can’t live that life online. I do not care enough to engage. I save all my cares for the album. It used to suck when I’d be around people, or I’d meet a girl, and she’d be like, “You’re not the Danny Brown I thought you were.” Like, the fuck? I’ve got to be swinging around on chandeliers and shit? I’m supposed to be slippy-sliding my way into a big pile of coke?
You recently changed your look, getting your teeth done and your hair shaved. Was that part of any bigger symbolic change?
Nah, they cut my hair when I did White Boy Rick. The teeth thing is just about being healthy, to be honest. I was going to the dentist and they were like, “Man, you all fucked up. If you don’t take care of this shit, you’re gonna be in dentures at 40.” Nothing sexy about being in dentures at 40. Unless you can get diamonds on them, like a whole grill, but you’d wear it permanently and eat with it. I ended up going with the bone grafting instead, which takes a lot of appointments over the space of damn near two years. They cut the gums right open and put another bone in there — someone else’s bone, I don’t want to know whose — and then they screw the teeth in on top.
Do you think about your career in phases? You’ve got the new album coming soon. Does it feel like a new era?
My favorite rapper is Nas, and I wanted this to be my Nas look. I might think I’m a New York rapper now, or this is my interpretation of that. I pulled a lot from late ’90s, early ’00s East Coast artists, Jay-Z and Nas and Cam’ron.
I learned a lot from working with Q-Tip. I was always a person who’d do my songs in one take, because I was more so trying to capture emotion in the recording rather than get every word and lyric right. But Tip told me that you’ve got all the time in the world to get it out in the world, and then it’s over with, so why not give it all the love you’ve got to give? I now like to look around every little corner of a song, every single angle, and I never used to be like that.
There’s that classic debate about whether younger rappers coming up today put image over hard bars. What do you think? It seems like a point that’s been made as long as hip-hop has existed.
People said that about me when I was getting started, that I was just a hipster rapper or something. That’s so far gone now. It’s all normal now, wearing skinny jeans and building your fan base online and the street fashion. It’s hip to be square again, might as well look as presentable as possible. I’m almost 40 years old, so I’m just embracing getting older. I’ll do a goofy shirt here and there, but I don’t need to look like a damn teenager. Dudes look so corny when they’re pushing 40, walking around in Off-White shit. What’s wrong with you, man? You’re an adult!
With a new album comes a new tour. How does that fit in with you trying to take it easy? Is that hard to do on the road?
You just gotta go about it a different way. Doing music, you can look at every night as a party. But I’m into basketball, so I think about putting out each album as an NBA season. Every night’s another game. I’m on some athlete shit. It works out better for me mentally and physically, because nothing feels worse than getting drunk all fuckin’ night, barely sleeping, and then doing a show the next day. You never really wake up and you don’t want to drink, but you know that’s the only thing that’ll get rid of the hangover.
I’m over it. I just want to go to the cities, go do some local shit, get some good food, maybe see sports. Otherwise, you know about idle hands, they get a man in trouble. Especially when you’ve got these devices. [Holds up smartphone.] I’ll just do the work, and have a couple drinks to knock off the edge without getting me too drunk. [Laughs.] I say this shit, but we’ll see! It could all go bad in one day!