Danny Brown's missing teeth don't soften his Detroit bite

Hip-hop's punk pied piper leads the new vanguard

Detroit MC Danny Brown is the prototype of hip-hop's new vanguard. Too innovative for the mainstream and not esoteric enough for the underground, Brown caught bloggers' attention with his 2010 mixtape The Hybrid and 2011 follow-up XXX, both uncompromising sets of tunes that drew from a deep well of creative mischief and established the rapper as a true psycho-talent. With a languid, sidewinding delivery and a squeal like liquid gravel, Brown is Eminem without the persecution complex, at once unhinged and hazardously sane. Brown's charisma precedes him; armed with an oblique personal style out of some alternate ghetto-fab American Apparel reality and a mouth full of "fuckin' missing teeth," he embodies the spirit of rap's punk rock moment better than anyone else around.

There are a slew of young artists who seem to be rejecting major label traditions in favor of a grassroots approach, in terms of both style and marketing. To what extent do you think the rise of the underground is a reflection of a new reality in hip-hop?

Danny Brown: It's just changed. What would have been underground five years ago is mainstream now, and what would be mainstream five years ago is underground. It's not really a changing of the guard; it's just new guys coming around. But we don't have the same amount of money as those guys.

What does it say that rap radio seems to be ignoring you?

We don't have major labels paying for things, shit like that, you know? It's still a business-oriented situation, but we're just some Internet guys at the end of the day.

So how does the new guard make itself visible, in that respect?

It's pretty much us competing with them, music-wise. And like me getting the No. 1 rap album in SPIN or something, shit like that hurts major labels. You got artists putting out music for free on the Internet and they're getting better critical reception than what the majors are putting out. It cheapens their brand.

A lot of attention has been paid to your fashion sense. Where does that come from?

It's just me buying what I wanna wear. I guess, being a hip-hop artist, people feel like you need to look a certain way. Even just being in an urban community, a lot of people are scared to be themselves. I'm old enough to where I don't really care — I mean, even as a kid I was like that. I'm comfortable with myself. I mean, obviously, I walk around with fuckin' missing teeth, you know? At the end of the day, it's got to do with self-esteem more than anything else.

Detroit is a huge part of your music. What role has your background played in determining the pathways of your music?

Growing up I didn't listen to that much local music. I don't think I got really hip to J Dilla until it was too late. I was kinda too young to be into the Hip Hop Shop/open mic scene here. When I started to get into that stuff it was already too late. So I started rapping over J Dilla instrumentals, because I felt like, me being from Detroit, I should experiment with that music. But as time progressed, I started to feel like I needed to do my own thing.

You mentioned Dilla, what other musicians were key influences for you growing up?

Jack White, if we're talking local.

I wanted to ask about that — you've cited a diverse set of influences, from punk to electro and beyond. Why is it important for you to have a grounding in other forms of music?

I wouldn't say it's important — if you do hip-hop, do hip-hop, you know? But just be knowledgeable about music in general. We do hip-hop, but don't look at it like some mixtape-every-week type shit. Take pride in the genre and respect it, but put the same work in as those other artists in other genres. That's the only reason I feel like somebody should study it. But if you're gonna do hip-hop, study classic hip-hop before you try other things. A lot of times, you might not be advanced enough to pull from those genres, creatively.

Do you think the new underground is more open-minded in that regard?

The artists are, but — are the fans open-minded, you know? At the end of the day, it always kind of was like that, things were ahead of their time in a certain sense. We can be as open-minded as we want, but it's all about, are the people open-minded enough to accept it?

Do you think they are?

We'll see how it plays out. It's still early in the game.