How Austin Transformed Danny Brown

The Detroit wild card on getting his shit together (and finding H-E-B)

Danny Brown outside his house in the suburbs of North Austin (Photo by David Brendan Hall / Design by Zeke Barbaro)

Back in 2011, Danny Brown was a 30-year-old, not very famous yet, Detroit rapper who’d released his debut album the previous March and recently signed to the influential indie label Fool’s Gold. He had his first-ever fly-out shows on the books: a run of performances at South by Southwest, and he’d be damned if he didn’t spend his entire album advance that week in Austin.

“I didn’t give a fuck if I rapped in front of five people or 5,000 – I was gonna go there and try to kick ass,” Brown recalls 13 years later. “I was motivated.”

That energy was warranted. This was peak hipster era in Austin and hype was mounting – not just for the rapidly growing city, but its flagship entertainment industry conference. Dreams were still being minted at SXSW, and at the pinnacle of its influence was a festival-within-a-festival that spectators scrambled to RSVP for: Fader Fort.

Brown was not booked to play there. But Raphael Saadiq was. And when travel delays made the progressive R&B veteran unavailable for his midweek appearance, a door opened for the rapper.

“They just hit me up randomly, like 'Danny, can you slide in and play?’ So I was able to play Fader Fort and I did a good set and they loved me and shit,” Brown recollects.

That set proved to be the starter pistol for a SXSW blitz where he’d step in and steal the show.

“I was still that wild card and people didn’t really know me at the shows, then I’d rap and they’d be like 'Ah, this is SICK!’” he says. “Seeing how the crowd would change from me walking into a building to me leaving. It was a moment – it felt special.”

Soon arrived his now-classic XXX. It’s a portrait of an artist at 30, with all the essential Danny Brown elements crystallizing: wild wordplay; a squawking, high-register vocal delivery that interlaces the beat like a trumpet solo; and a crazy-cousin personality that instantly made him one of the genre’s most intriguing characters. The following SXSW, he was on the cover of The Fader magazine and headlining their event.

“I remember after doing that one show and coming home, my Twitter followers and everything just exploded and everyone was talking about me and wanted to talk to me,” he says.

Pressure? No, it was a relief, Brown tells me. He’d just turned 30, and had been rapping since he was 5 years old. Things were finally happening.

Then and now, he looks at that time in Austin as transformative.

“It changed my life,” he says. “Everything really happened after South By. That’s why it’s so crazy that I live here now. This is the city that made my career! So, for me, it’s like I went back to the motherland!”

With that, Brown lets out his intoxicating laugh, which deserves to be the doorbell at the gates of heaven. Not a giggle, nor a snicker or even a chortle – it’s an all-caps, uninhibited crack-up. Punctuative in function, it connects closely to the words that prompted it. And it’s reminiscent of a cartoon dog that swallowed an accordion. An attempted transcription might read: “A-HEARH, HEARH, HEARH, HEARH, heh-heh.”

On March 16, 2023, a dozen years after his SXSW breakout, Brown stood onstage at a Dr. Martens pop-up on Rainey Street and apologized to fans for potentially being a bad influence. It was a strange way to spend his birthday.

“I made so many songs about doing drugs and all types of fucked-up shit,” he said, standing with one leg perched on the stage monitor. “And sometimes I feel bad about that shit because I know there’s probably a lot of kids that hear me rap about doing molly and they’re like, 'Shit, Danny Brown rapped about it – it ain’t too bad’ and try it and fuck your whole life up. And if I fucked your life up, I’m sorry.”

That mea culpa was part of a two-minute speech in which he laid out a major lifestyle change to come.

“At the end of the day I’m 42 years old. Me sitting around smoking blunts all day, gettin’ drunk ... shit is gettin’ old, man,” he admitted. “I know y’all way younger than me so, everybody, have your fun, but make sure it’s fun because shit could get dark and I got to a real dark place with it. So now I’m gonna go get help.”

The crowd cheered – lovingly, supportively. Maybe they’d seen the signs, like when he got sloppy drunk on a 2020 livestream with collaborator JPEGMAFIA, while playing the newest Grand Theft Auto for Rockstar Games. He repeatedly blew the mission, then flew into a cringey rant, targeted at “incel” gamers, where he bragged about having fired guns at people in real life.

On his podcast The Danny Brown Show, just days after his onstage confession, Brown would discuss feeling stifled and manipulated by those who controlled his output. He implored fans to ruthlessly harass Warp Records and his manager Dart Parker for delaying the release of his sixth album Quaranta, which he claimed he’d delivered to the label two years prior. It wasn’t long before Brown apologized, tweeting: “That’s why alcohol is something I need to be done with cause it makes me hurt the people that care the most.”

Still, Brown’s rehab announcement at SXSW felt as genuine as any exchange I’d ever witnessed between a performer and his audience. Facing the music and taking the first steps to improve his influence on the world, he seemed to know that rehab couldn’t come soon enough.

“Honestly, my dumbass supposed to been gone, but I’m so broke I still gotta do shows to make some money before I take my ass in,” he told the crowd before launching into “Dip” ... a song about getting high as fuck on molly.

It would have been a fitting moment to perform the title track to Quaranta, which begins with the couplet “This rap shit done saved my life/ And fucked it up at the same time.”

Danny Brown in his home recording studio (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The American Dream

Enter suburbia.

Brown’s house, in the farthest northern edge of Austin, sits in one of those neighborhoods where residents probably fear the HOA more than the cops. It’s some kind of American dream: uniform, safe, calm. I bet if you left your wallet on top of the mailbox, the money would still be in it the next morning.

Walking up, I’m dubious that the man who once rappedGot a rat bitch that smoke Blacks until the plastic melt” actually lives in such a place. But when I knock on the door, he’s there, shushing the two Chihuahuas barking behind him. We’re 1,200 miles from his city of birth, but culturally it feels even farther.

Daniel Sewell was born in 1981 Detroit the decade after white flight, where hundreds of thousands of Caucasian families split for the suburbs to make “The D” America’s Blackest big city. Raised on the hardscrabble west side, he attended Jamieson Elementary. Now an abandoned building with plywood over the windows, the school was also the site of his earliest Danny Brown rap performance.

“The first time I rapped was for show-and-tell,” he tells me in his home studio, which contains a life-size cutout of Pitbull for no other reason than that he thinks it’s funny. “I didn’t pay attention the day before and didn’t bring nothing to show, so I just got up in front of the class and rapped. The class jumped up and started clapping and, after that, the teacher always tried to put me in any little program the school had and have me rap in it. I rapped at my fifth-grade graduation.”

The child of two teenage parents, Brown says he was his family’s comic relief, but was also reserved amongst his peers.

“I was shy as a kid because I had messed-up teeth – so you know that would do something on your self-esteem,” he reveals, bringing attention to the pristine incisors he had implanted in 2017 to fill his famous front gap. “I didn’t want to talk too much because I didn’t want people to jump at my teeth and shit, so I always kind of stayed quiet.”

Rapping, though, would bring out his personality. Brown’s go-to icebreaker in a new school or social situation was to challenge another young lyricist to a battle and turn heads, which resulted in him being “a popular kid.”

Upon moving to the city’s east side, Brown’s parents enrolled him in a charter school, not far from the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe, that had foreign exchange students and elective classes that inner-city schools didn’t. He was a solid student until interest in girls outweighed his passion for academics.

“By the time I was in high school, school was just a fashion show to me,” explains the ever-stylish Brown, currently wearing a pair of enormous, patchwork flare jeans with a gleaming Jesus piece on his neck. “There was this one third-floor wall where, every class break, you go to your spot and everyone [would] just walk around looking at everyone’s outfits. If you didn’t dress good, you wouldn’t get a spot on the wall.”

Brown describes his adolescent style as “dressy.” To stay decked in Tommy Hilfiger shirts, Timberland boots, and Coach belts with the tag hanging, a 14-year-old Brown forged a work permit, toiled full-time at a buffet in St. Clair Shores, and blew his whole check on his wardrobe – except for the occasional video game.

You know that credibility question we ask ourselves: Would my high school self like the person I grew up to be? Brown doesn’t have to ponder it much.

“I feel like I never really grew up because the same shit I did at 16, I do now – just sit around and play video games and buy clothes and rap,” he laughs. “I never really had that transition where I had to grow up and get responsibilities aside from being the best-dressed I could be and the dopest rapper I could be. And I made a career out of it, so I feel like I’ve been living the American dream.”

That American dream has been playing out in Austin since he settled here in 2021.

There’s a tired townie expression: “No matter when you moved to Austin, you just missed it.” It’s lampooning a painfully nostalgic perspective that the glow of the past is always brighter than the future. People have been saying it since before Willie Nelson started wearing braids.

But when Brown tells me, “I wish I would have moved here sooner,” he’s not talking about missing out on anything – he just likes what the city has to offer.

For one thing, he loves H-E-B. He talks about the grocery store so much on The Danny Brown Show that they should be paying him ad money. He’s called it his new nightclub – “I go there for no reason!” – and extolled its healthy, premade meals: “I feel like it’s an old Black lady cookin’ that shit. I don’t think it’s white people back there.” When I point out one H-E-B misstep, how they hideously named their knock-off Go-Gurt “Sqlurp!,” he stands up for the Texas supermarket: “Man, a lot of their off-brand versions taste better than the actual product!”

Enjoying his fresh perspective on Austin, I pepper him with questions about the local culture.

What’s your impression of the food here?

“It’s great! When I moved here I got fat as fuck! The first thing I noticed was the way things were seasoned – like this shit is extra seasoned-out compared to being back home. This is a food city for sure. My girlfriend, she always wants to go to some fancy stuff and I like that shit too, but I really like the wing spots – I’m a Pluckers guy. There’s a great spot around the corner from here, Hurricane Grill & Wings, and they got the creamy lemon pepper wings. I love that shit!”

How good do dogs have it in Austin?

“I feel like dogs in Detroit – that’s your burglar alarm. You got him chained up in the backyard and you throw food at him and make sure no one breaks in the house. Here, it’s like a dog show! A lot of smaller dogs and just naturally pretty dogs. You go to the dog park and everybody’s showing off their cool dog – and our little dogs are my best friends.

“But I remember, in Detroit, there used to be packs of stray dogs – big, furious animals – and if you were out on a late night, those motherfuckers might attack your ass!”

As I continue prompting Brown for Detroiter-in-Austin observations, we begin to talk about how trapped you feel in the Michigan winter. Then, by accident, the talk turns heavy.

“I never had intentions on leaving Detroit. I thought I’d live there for the rest of my life, but Detroit’s hard – it’s not easy living – and I don’t think I ever would’ve got sober if I wasn’t here,” he points out. “I’m healthier and happier here. There are times when I go out in the morning and it’s warm. Feeling the concrete on my bare foot and shit, I just think, 'Fuck, I’m so happy I’m here.’”

Danny Brown at home (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Tell Me What I Don’t Know

Brown’s biggest fear about getting sober was that he wouldn’t be as good at music or he wouldn’t be as funny as before.

It was a concern he frequently discussed with a spiritual adviser last April at an inpatient rehab facility in rural Pennsylvania.

“She gave me the confidence that those things were ingrained in me and, if anything, doing all these substances was putting a forcefield around it so I wasn’t meeting my maximum potential,” he says. “And she was right.”

Brown anticipated rehab being like county jail (which he’s been to), but he says it turned out to be more like college (which he hasn’t been to). There was a schedule, classes, groups, homework, and exercise – plus some of the best food he’s ever eaten. He characterizes the time he spent there as one of his “funnest experiences ever.”

He didn’t mean to quit smoking weed, but it happened. As he’s said on his podcast: “It turns out my weed bone’s connected to my booze bone and my booze bone’s connected to my coke bone and my coke bone’s connected to my dick bone.”

So these days he proudly goes to bed at 10pm, except the night before our interview, because his old friend Hannibal Buress made him judge a late-night event at Joe Rogan’s Comedy Mothership. With encouragement from Buress, Brown’s tried his hand at proper stand-up sets, and wants to pursue it more. Fans can already hear him being effortlessly hilarious every week on The Danny Brown Show – part of YMH Studios, a popular podcast network run by the Austin-based married comedians Tom Segura and Christina Pazsitzky.

As an excellent interviewer, Brown doesn’t interrupt his musician and comedian guests and shows a genuine interest in what they’re saying. He says he only has one secret: Don’t prepare.

“I found out that when I do too much research on someone it turns out just like everybody else’s interview,” he says. “So to keep that natural element, I just try to get to know them in the process.”

Asked what his worst interview was, he’s quick to answer: “Obviously Steve-O’s ass.”

Last November the internet at large roasted the Jackass star for going on the podcast and clearly not knowing who Brown was.

“I really wanted to talk to him because he’s been successful in his sobriety for years, so I thought that was something we could connect on,” Brown says. “I guess I’d be surprised if Steve-O listened to my music, but I would think he’d do the homework. It was just awkward and the clips went viral and it was being pushed in a negative light – that’s what I didn’t like about it.”

On the topic of optics, I ask Brown if there’s any baggage – good or bad – that comes with Austin’s modern comedy boom and its stars who sometimes court controversy.

“It hasn’t trickled down to me, and I think that’s based on who I am and who the fan base of YMH is ... you know, middle-aged white dudes and shit. They don’t listen to me, they don’t care about who the fuck I am,” he says. “I’m part of the YMH crew, but I don’t think people who watch everything else on that channel watch my podcast. I probably bring in a whole new type of listener.

“Same thing with Joe Rogan. I was on his podcast ... it wasn’t a good one. I was drunk. I’m on there talking about fashion and video games and rap music. That’s not their world. They’re thinking about TRT [testosterone replacement therapy] and conspiracy theories and shit like that.”

XXX ... X

When Brown takes the stage at Empire Control room on April 11, he’ll have just celebrated one year of sobriety.

It roughly coincides with a good year for him in terms of output. Scaring the Hoes, his ultracreative collaborative album with JPEGMAFIA, has been his most commercially and critically successful work since 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition; he had a classic game-changing Brown feature on billy woods and Kenny Segal’s fan favorite “Year Zero,” and last November finally saw the release of Quaranta, which is often mistaken for his rehab record. It’s actually a pre-hab record – recorded live at rock bottom.

A triptych of downtempo, deep-in-his-head tracks that address depression, destruction of a relationship, and feeling trapped by your career encapsulate the LP. Something of a bookend to XXX, Quaranta stands as a mic’d-up midlife crisis in profound ways. He’s processing, he’s reflecting, he’s finding clarity – even if the answers aren’t yet there.

The somewhat painful record perhaps contradicts where Brown is today: clearheaded, optimistic, feeling like the artist he was at SXSW 2011. In real time, he’s seeing how reports from one of the worst periods of his life became a path to positive influence.

“It’s a weird duality to it, isn’t it? Because I’m talking about my insecurities and putting it all out there. For me, it’s a form of therapy because I was saying shit in songs I wouldn’t talk to my friends about or my family about,” he admits.

“But it’s crazy because I get messages from fans saying 'Man that shit helped me out so fuckin much’ or 'You made me look at myself a lot more and I’m sober now.’ I get those messages every fuckin’ day now and it’s fuckin great – I feel great about it.”

Brown didn’t always use to answer messages from fans, but now he writes back – particularly when it pertains to getting clean. Through his audience, he’s come to understand his current sobriety as important context for the record he made in a very fucked-up state.

“I was going through one of the worst periods of my life, and just talking about it made other people look at themself in the mirror and say 'I gotta get my shit together’ ... I don’t think it’d be that way if I was still in that position,” he contemplates. “But they see that I got sober, so it’s like a happy ending to the movie.”

The question remains: What will Brown’s sober record be like?

“It’s gonna be some left-field shit,” he offers with that lung-clearing laugh. “I’ve always left the box top open. I never put myself in a box, because I’d jump out that shit and jump into another one.”

On a North American tour supporting his sixth solo studio album, Quaranta, Danny Brown plays Empire Garage on April 11 with Alice Longyu Gao and Bruiser Wolf.

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