Danny Swain has been in the hip-hop game for over 10 years. Performing under the moniker of Danny!, the backpacking producer turned rapper has released more albums than years active and considers himself the sole inductee of the “Dozen Album Club’ – three of which are solely instrumental efforts, showcasing his unique take on sample-heavy beat-making.
Spending most his formative years taking the DIY route, releasing and promoting his music independently, it wasn't until the release of 2011’s Where Is Danny? that Swain finally inked a deal with Interscope and subsequently left for lack of support not two years later.
It was around this time that Questlove of The Roots, a long-time supporter, let slip that Danny! is “Hov’s (Jay-Z) fav cat,” leading to a new surge of attention. With co-signs from both Jay and Questo, the latter signed him to his recently re-launched Okayplayer Records and released the much anticipated Payback, an album that has proved to be his most inspired work since 2004’s The College Kicked-Out.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Danny! to discuss his past, present and future. Opinionated as always, Swain let’s us in on his writing process, the evolution that self-promotion and DIY has taken since the advent of music blogs, his newfound attention, Peaswain, and of course the rumored collaboration with Questlove and Jay-Z.
Tell us a little about the writing and recording process for Payback. You started soon after the release of Where Is Danny?, right?
Yep yep. The Where Is Danny? record was originally released in 2009 but it was taken out of stores shortly afterwards due to a legal dispute. After Interscope put it out officially, I decided to work on what would become Payback. And honestly I didn’t even plan to do another album [at the time], like it wasn’t as if I were sitting around like “hmm what’s my next album going to be like?” ‘Cause at that time I had just began working on my joint project with Von Pea, and even that was after a year-long hiatus from doing anything musically. I didn’t make beats, or rap, or anything for a whole year. I was just spending And I Love H.E.R. money. [Laughs.]
The writing and recording process was pretty intense. It was the first time I had ever given myself a definitive deadline on something I was working on. All my other albums I would just record at will, and they would manage to get done in a timely manner anyway so I never had to say “okay Danny, this is your deadline”. But for this one, I actively pursued a finish date of December 2011 to give myself enough time to figure out promotion, marketing and things like that. Now granted, this is before Okayplayer entered the picture. At this point I still had my digital deal with Interscope, so the version that’s out now is way different than the one that was getting passed around at the top of 2012. So altogether, I’d say the whole process from development to production to writing and recording and re-recording took about a year and some change.
It's said that a demo version of Freeway's "What We Do (Is Wrong)" was a definitive moment in your beginning to incorporate samples into your work as a producer and The Miracles' "Poor Charlotte" inspired Charm. Anything like that for Payback – a sole track responsible for the record?
Hmm…I wouldn’t say an actual track inspired the record. More like actual events. A, uh, close friend of mine had hacked into Rick Ross’ Twitter account around that time, I think the summer of 2011, and I watched everyone get genuinely upset that the person they thought to be Rick Ross was saying these disparaging things about 50 Cent. They were personally invested in it and it disgusted me. Disgusted at what people deemed to be important, disgusted at what was touted as “news”.
I’m an analyst. I sit back and watch how things play out and then strategize for my own success. Nine times out of ten, it works. I saw the Twitter incident and said to myself, “if this is what people get excited about, then let me play by the so-called rules to get some attention for my project.” If people will only check for an album based on who is on it, then let me assemble this monstrous guest list on my own terms. Who cares how I do it, let me just do it so I can watch people get excited. Then I can shake my head at them later. And I was right. I took a gamble and it paid the fuck off.
It was during this time, and this time only – some people have been painting me as this “mad rapper” recently which is such a convenient distortion of the truth – that I admittedly had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. I was making under-the-radar tracks just throwing shots at everybody in the game [Laughs.]. So I took that angst from the Twitter incident, and the industry in general, balanced it out with quite a few positive tracks (“Keep Your Head To The Sky”, among others), and that’s how Payback was conceived. Sort of. The angst went away but the determination to make a statement remained.
Payback completes a trilogy started on the conceptual albums Charm and And I Love H.E.R. What does this album represent for the character you portray?
I’d say it represents vindication. Mind you, the same character on Payback is not the same one on Charm, or And I Love H.E.R. – these are three completely different universes with narratives that happen to involve a guy named Danny [Laughs.] But yeah, whereas Charm was about escapism and And I Love H.E.R. involved resilience in spite of, Payback is definitely about vindication and redemption. Here you have a guy that played it straight all of his life with nothing to show for it. One day he snaps and breaks his own moral code in order to provide for himself and the people that depend on him. Is he proud of it? Heck no. But when it comes to survival, it’s either eat or be eaten.
The “trial” toward the end of Payback’s story is supposed to resemble the judgment of others and how everyone wants to have a fucking opinion about what is or isn’t right, but no one actually possesses the right to judge another man. So the character shoots himself because he would rather literally kill himself than have others figuratively assassinate him or his character, or judge him without never even walking in his shoes.
The storyline is a parallel to my own life. Personally, I’ve been struggling morally with the things I had to do in order to get my payback with Payback; that inner battle is played out all over the album. Like, I knew there would be consequences and I’m well aware that some people I associate with “know” about it but they’re too chicken to confront me about it one-on-one. They’re the same people in the jury on Payback, the same cats that would rather judge me instead of coming up to me and saying “yo dawg, I don’t agree with what you did, but who am I to talk?” At the same time, not only are the tactics I used an exploitation of the way people allow the industry to run in the first place – I’m only taking advantage of a flawed system that I did not create – but I also feel like I’m extremely hard on myself. I didn’t even do anything serious, I only beat myself up about it because I care about others and I’ve never been one to take advantage of anyone or anything. I’d pride myself in being such an honest guy for so long that it took for me to get my hands dirty making this album to really understand human nature, like truly understand it and remind myself that no one is perfect, and I certainly am not either. That’s why Payback isn’t just an album for me. It’s a life lesson.
Payback includes features from El-P, Swizz Beatz and a whole host of others. Who would you like to collaborate with next?
I’ve honestly never really been into the whole idea of collaborating for the sake of. Like I mentioned earlier, the main reason why most of those guests pop up on Payback is to prove a point, the point being that the music is secondary. People won’t bother to check for you anymore unless you have an all-star line-up on your record. And even that’s a gamble, just ask Kweli. [Laughs.] Take “Misunderstood”, for example. Lil B is like my little brother and Blu, me and him are mutual fans. But I put my foot into that beat yo. From the drum pattern that I jacked from [Destiny’s Child’s] “Get On The Bus”, to the verse cadence I borrowed from Scarface’s verse on “This Can’t Be Life”…I put my everything into that track just hoping that someone would “get it”. Imagine how it feels to look on NahRight or FADER and see people leaving comments like “Danny was trash, Blu is the GOAT” or “Lil B and Blu murked that other nigga, who is that anyway? Danny Brown?” Some people don’t even know I produced it, or my whole album for that matter.
Don’t get it wrong, I love these dudes. I only reach out to artists that I respect and admire, so there isn’t a single person on Payback that wasn’t personally contacted by me. At the same time, consumers put so much emphasis on collaborations that it sucked the fun out of it for me. They’re like little marketing strategies now instead of actual musical collaborations. I can’t even think about the concept of collaborating anymore without briefly pondering the idea of things like demographic, or how much I have to come out of my own pocket for a feature, and things like that. Having said that, I’m only focusing on this joint album with Von Pea at the moment and a possible feature on the next Roots album, Lord willing. Other than that? I’m good. I’m open to it but I’m not gonna be knocking on anyone’s door either.
The hip-hop world has been buzzing about you for a long time. Even more so since Questlove revealed Jay-Z's admiration of you. How surprised were you and how soon after were you co-signed?
I was pleasantly surprised. It was a blessing to get that sort of recognition. Some artists go their whole lives without a lick of acknowledgment and pretend like they’re okay with that, but the truth is that all creators – writers, poets, designers, whomever – want to know that someone admires their work. Every artist, every single one, feeds off the knowledge that at least one person likes their work. What that boils down to, ultimately, is just wanting some sign that what we are pursuing is not in vain, it doesn’t even have to be recognition. The type of affirmation sought could be different for everyone. But anyone who tells you they don’t need it is a lying, broke, no-recognition sour-grapes rapper.
For me particularly, getting recognition from someone – no matter how big they are – is the difference between releasing music or lying in bed all day. No one wants to feel like they don’t have an impact in the world, creator or otherwise. I’ll always appreciate Jay and Questlove for keeping their ear to the underground. Their acknowledgment alone may have very well saved my life.
Do you think their fans have come along to support you the way they have for other co-signs?
Nah. But that isn’t to say that they were “supposed” to, or whatever. Co-signs are tricky. In regards to music, the term didn’t even exist until recently, but the concept’s been around for a while. It used to refer to someone personally vouching for you musically, not just saying “hey I’m aware of this guy and he’s neat”. Jay co-signed Memphis Bleek. He gave Bleek a record deal, took him under his wing and all that. Fat Joe co-signed Big Punisher. He didn’t necessarily discover him, but he put his own reputation on the line for this dude, helped him get a deal with Loud Records and all that. If Pun had tanked, Fat Joe would’ve looked bad. Questlove basically launched his label with me as his first artist, pushed to get me on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and put a bunch of other opportunities in front of me despite people in his corner tsk-tsking him. See what I mean? These are established artists saying “I believe in this guy so much that I will put my own reputation on the line for him.”
These days, if you take a picture on the street with Pharrell that’s a co-sign [Laughs.] If Ludacris retweets you, that’s a co-sign. The definition has been extremely watered down over the past few years and it’s borderline comical. That, along with the fickle nature of the industry in general, is probably the reason why not many people in Jay’s fanbase or Questo’s fanbase have flocked to me in droves. But I feel like some of their fanbase was already rocking with me in the first place.
So yeah, it hasn’t taken off for me as much as, say, Dr. Dre “co-signing” Kendrick or Lil Wayne “co-signing” Drake. But I’m not trippin’ because I’ve already gotten the satisfaction of two huge artists that I’ve admired for years and grew up listening to, publicly acknowledging who I am and putting the wind in my sails for another few years. If these young sheep-ass niggas aren’t intelligent enough to make their own decisions, and only want to listen to someone based on who co-signs them, let them. The recognition from Jay and Questo is more than enough for me, and the real fans won’t care either way.
When I listen to the production on your albums I can't help but hear a huge DJ Premier influence – tight drums, brassy horns, soul sampling. Your website also cites him as your favorite producer. How big is his influence in your everyday production?
I learned from the best. I even have an instrumental as homage to Premo called “Learned From The Best (Royalty ’08)”. I take paying homage to the greats seriously, but at the same time I’m not over-the-top with it. I’m not a purist or a stuck-in-the-90s type dude like some of these other cats. It’s all subtle. You have to realize, back when Diddy and Jay and all these dudes were sampling 80s R&B, that was their reference point. That’s what they grew up on. I did too, but later on hip-hop would be added to the mix. That’s my reference point.
So when I remake A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find A Way”, or give Payback a makeover and retool all the beats to pay homage to Timbaland and Missy Elliott, that’s nothing more than giving credit where credit is due. Speaking of Tim, if Premo is my favorite then Timbaland is a close second. I think my sound nowadays is more indicative of that, but I definitely went through a production phase where I emulated Premo, then Dilla, then Just Blaze or something. I think every producer incorporates a little bit of all their influences into their own sound.
On "Do It All Over Again" you talk about calling radio stations, then trying to get on blogs; you following the evolution of the music industry through self-promotion. What do you consider the biggest difference between how listeners discover and spread music now, than when you first started?
Ah man. These are some good questions you’re asking. [Laughs.] Everyone has me pegged as the poster boy for DIY, but in all honesty I’m still trying to figure things out because things change so much day to day. When I first started radio was the holy grail, and in some respects it still is, but the road to Clear Channel wasn’t as hard. If my stuff was as polished when I first started as it is now, I know a few people in South Carolina that would’ve played my record for sure. And that was just, what, eight or so years ago? Even back then there was certainly favoritism and payola going on, but you could still talk to a person that knows a person if you were unsigned. Now? Forget about it.
Fortunately for me I was savvy enough to not waste my time on something that wasn’t taking off. My first two albums came and went but I vowed that when I released Charm that I would try out this internet thing. [Laughs.] I set up a MySpace account. I was one of the first artists Facebook emailed to begin an artist page. And blogs, man I remember talking to Eskay [of NahRight] back in the day way before his site was as big as it is now. These days the avenues are relatively the same, it just may be a little tougher to get heard because everyone is a rapper or producer now. But I kept at it. I’m not even a big email blaster type of guy. Once my music was out there, word-of-mouth did its job way more than my own self-promotion ever did. The music spoke for itself. My entry into the game coincided with the blog explosion of '06 and '07, which helped my career a great deal because I was able to get in the gate, so to speak, right before the game got too saturated.
The biggest difference? I mean, publicity has always been relationship-oriented; it takes a person that knows a person to put you on, that will never change. The difference between then and now is probably just the ease of reaching out to these people. You can send a private message to Peter Rosenberg on Twitter and hope for the best, whereas ten years ago there was no real direct line to Funkmaster Flex. [DJ] Clue wasn’t returning your calls unless you left a Western Union confirmation number on the voicemail, you know?
The only other big difference I can think of is the different channels that artists have to get their music out there. As saturated as the game is, you’d be surprised how many artists don’t use Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or Spotify to host their music. We should take advantage. It’s so easy to take for granted that these avenues weren’t always here. Think about it! Back in 1999 what resources, like actual helpful resources, did us artists have? From the very beginning, my goal was just to create the perfect hub where people can discover me and my music, whether it was now or ten years from now. I still follow that mindset, that’s why my website is so thorough. If someone discovers me in 2018, everything will be practically laid out for them.
Your first trilogy was a set of instrumental records that are in the process of being rereleased – it looks like all but Dream, Extinguished are now available through Potholes. Do you plan to release any more albums in that vein of instrumental music?
Yes! I love making beats first and foremost. People forget that I only started putting out studio albums as a vehicle for my production. Eight years later I’m just now getting placements. My shit’s all over television and film now and I just produced some joints for Lil B off his Illusions of Grandeur 2 mixtape. Hopefully I’ll still make the cut for Missy’s album. Me and Potholes are gonna rerelease Dream, Extinguished to reintroduce people to my producer side and after that we’re thinking of putting out a literal beat tape. Like, a cassette tape full of instrumentals of mine. I’m excited about that.
What can you tell us about PeaSwain?
Not much I’m afraid. Gotta leave some element of surprise out there, right? Just know it’ll be a dope double EP with me and Von Pea producing each other’s side. I will say this: Von’s side is telling a story, and my side will more or less be a return to Where Is Danny?-era tracks. Pea and I can’t wait to unleash it onto the world.
And your rumored project with Jay and Questo?
I never said anything about a project with Jay and Questlove. That’s the media for you though, I suppose. If something goes down in that vein it’ll definitely be announced officially.
Anything else we can expect from Danny Swain in 2013?
Hopefully I can link up with a proper team that can help me get some sort of tour started with Okayplayer. Music-related it’s too soon to say. People want you to drop a tape every week but that’s never been my strategy. Quality over quantity, that’s the way to go.