Columbia, South Carolina rapper Danny! first drew widespread attention (at least by underground/online standards) when he won a talent contest sponsored by Definitive Jux and MTVu in January 2007. The prize was a recording contract with Def Jux. The surprise is that he’s actually very good.
Talent competitions are a hoary tradition, meant to give meager motivation to the hundreds of thousands of fledging musicians trying to establish themselves. The artists who win these contests are kings for a day, rewarded with promises of studio time and national exposure, before quickly disappearing into the ether.
Danny Swain has a goofy name (yes, he puts an exclamation point next to it) and a seemingly anonymous personality. He isn’t one of the freestyle MCs or trap stars who often monopolize rap battles. But his catalog of four albums, including 2006’s The Charm, reveals an easy wit and grace that belies his 25 years.
On The Charm he often joked how people compared him to Kanye West, but he really sounds nothing like the College Dropout. Although, like West, he’s more of a conceptualist than an MC per se, and both produce their own beats; Danny! sounds more natural than West when he raps, and his flow is inimitable. On The Charm, Danny! creates an autobiographical fiction of his life, imagining himself as an underground MC (with a baby mama, natch) who somehow becomes famous, embarking on world tours and smashing groupies galore. Several of his tracks, particularly “Cafe Surreal,” bustle with catchy hooks and an inventive imagination.
Danny! first reached out to me in July 2007, just after he released an EP called Danny Is Dead. When we spoke on the phone, he talked a mile a minute, so fast that I found it difficult to transcribe afterwards. I’m not making excuses, but…the interview was never posted. Instead, I asked him for a do-over, which took place in January. Fast forward ten months…and here you go.
Some things have changed for Danny!. He’s now recognized among online heads as an established artist. His fourth and most recent album, And I Love H.E.R., received positive reviews in several outlets, including Okayplayer.com and Pitchforkmedia.com.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, Definitive Jux still hasn’t released his project. When I spoke with Danny! in January, he sounded frustrated by the delays Def Jux seemingly imposed:
“I almost like to think that, by doing The Charm, I talked the whole thing into existence. I like to think that by me hoping for it so much it actually happened. But actually, now I realize that [the deal] wasn’t necessarily the best thing.
“I’ve got nothing but love for Def Jux. It’s just that we don’t talk on a regular basis, where it’s like, ‘Oh, Danny, your album is coming out,’ or, ‘Danny, you need to go to the studio.’ We talk so sporadically that it’s not even funny.
“But, as far as working on the project, I just spoke with the general manager last week, and we talked a little bit about the beats I submitted months ago. And out of ten I submitted, only a few got approved, because they had samples in them, and they’re basically trying to get me not to use any samples at all. So that’s all well and good. I have to go back to the drawing board. But then I said, “Well, I have some more to submit to you.” And he said he was going to be out of town for a week and a half. Oh great, I have to wait a week and a half.
“So that’s been the whole song and dance ever since I got signed. Maybe I’ll hear from them now and then…it’s been really taxing on me.”
I decided to excise most of our discussion on the Def Jux topic because it was nearly a year ago, and posting it now may invite people to take his words out of context. I hope to catch up with Danny! soon and get an update for you.
In the meantime, here’s part one of the interview, which mostly concerns The Charm. Part two of the interview, which covers his new album, will be posted next week.
The College Kicked-Out (2004)
The Charm (2006)
Danny Is Dead EP (2007)
And I Love H.E.R. (2008)
Plug One: It sounded like The Charm in particular was very autobiographical. All of the lyrics were addressing a particular situation that may or may not have happened in your life. Do you always rap about what happens in your life?
Danny!: I’ve always done that, way back to the first album [The College Kicked-Out], which jumpstarted everything.
Last song, first album where I’m like, getting kicked out of school, getting kicked out of college. And this girl I was good friends, we fell out. I was upset, of course – who wouldn’t be? So I made a song about that, like, yo, when you get a chance, hit me up. When you get in a position where you want to be at, and you’re happy, then give me a call and let me know how you’re doing. We’ve had our differences, but let me know how you’re doing. Stuff like that.
I’ve always put my stuff out there so it doesn’t just come out later on. That’s why, in my bio, I put that I got kicked out of school. I’d rather [that come out] now and people know about it than when I win the Grammys for real sometime in the future and people are like, “Oh, he got expelled out of college.” But I said it on my first album. I say it in almost all my rhymes. All in all, I want people to know what kind of stuff I go through.
“Where Were You” [from The Charm] is one of my favorite songs. It was a pretty bizarre story. People have an affair, and then one of them gets killed. But believe it or not, somebody hits me up and is, like, “The same thing happened to me. I had a boyfriend, we were supposed to move to Atlanta together, but he stopped calling me. I was wondering why, and then it turned out that he got into an accident on the way to see me. I was distraught, but you helped me get through it.” And I was, wow, that’s crazy. “Where Were You” was a personal story. I never thought anybody could relate to it. But it just goes to show you that you can make music that people will relate to by telling your experiences and stories. You never know who might gravitate towards it.
Plug One: Another constant theme on that album was success, and whether or not you would achieve it. Is that big concern for you?
Danny!: Yeah. Most everybody in the past six to eight years has picked up the mic after looking at their idols on TV and thought, I can do this. Everyone wants to achieve a certain amount of success. If they tell you any different, they’re lying. But even me, when I first got into it, I remember wanted to get a deal so bad. I wanted to get signed. On my first album, I was like, I want to get a deal before my 22nd birthday. Then, when I turned 23, I got a deal with Def Jux.
Everybody wants to achieve a certain amount of success. But people have different plateaus of success they want to reach. Some people want their name in lights. Some people think success is getting a small following in their hometown or in the region, or being able to go to a show and have people know them.
For me, around the time I was making The Charm, I still wanted to get signed and get a deal, because even in 2005-06, it was the thing to do. Nowadays, getting a record deal isn’t crap, if you ask me. But that’s a different story…
But for me, I equated success with getting signed and transforming from an underground sensation that nobody knows about to this megastar – not so much megastar but a person that people knew, so you’d hear, “Yeah, I knew him when he was the shit, when he was just doing freestyles and making his little albums. And now he’s successful and he’s got all this.”
That’s what I was going for with The Charm. It gave me success. And the thing about it that I learned was that you don’t have to have any of that to be successful.
I had a friend – I’m good friends with people who listen to my albums over the years, and they reach out and email me – but this one person in particular who works at allmusic.com was like, “Yo, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Just ‘cause you don’t have all the big things you want doesn’t mean you aren’t successful. You’ve accomplished what a lot of underground MCs who have picked up the mic over the past six, eight years have wanted. They want to do what you’re doing, but they can’t. That’s success in itself.” And I’m like, yeah, I guess you’re right. I learned now that getting signed to a deal, getting on TV and all that stuff is cool. But even getting a review in a magazine, that’s success.
Plug One: Do you feel that, because of your age, achieving major success is still attainable? And do you feel that, as you get older, that may not be as important if you don’t achieve it by the time you’re, say, 30?
Danny!: Yeah, I feel like, over the years, maybe because of me maturing, that’s not something I want as much as I think I do. Like I said, when I was first starting, way before my first album, when I was 15 or 16, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to get a deal, it’ll be so great.” But over the years, I’m like, man, I don’t need a deal. In this day and age, you can do everything yourself. I’ve been doing everything myself.
Success is relative, if you ask me. On one of my songs on [And I Love H.E.R.], I have a song called “Wanderland,” and it talks about what you do when you realize, once you’re 30 or a person of an older age, that things aren’t going to happen the way you thought they were ten years ago. What do you do then? Where are those places you’re at? It’s wanderland. You’re just wandering around, still open [to your dreams], but knowing in the back of your mind that it’s not going to happen. You learn how to let go when the time is right and not keep on holding on to a dream that might never happen.
For me, it doesn’t wane when I get older. It makes me more realistic. If it still happens, it can happen when I’m 32. But, in this day and age, I’m not going to realistically think that I’m going to be the next whatever, you know what I’m saying? If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I still have a good catalog of albums that other people appreciate and like. If I like to say so, I’ve done pretty well for myself.
Plug One: On “Temptation,” you talked about living in sin. Are you a religious person?
Danny!: “Religious” is a strong word. I wouldn’t say I’m religious, like, I go to church every Sunday and I make sure I’m in Bible study every Tuesday. I don’t do anything like that. Yes, I think I have a great relationship with God. And I feel like I’m conscious of the things that I do so that everything I do is pleasing in His eyes. But at the same time, I mess up because I’m human. I can’t think of the last time I picked up a Bible, and I don’t go to church on a regular basis.
But I definitely have a great relationship with God. I tell Him all the time, I feel like He’s the reason why things that have been going on with me have been going on, and I’ve been able to get invited to go to the Grammys two years in a row, and get this critical acclaim for an album I made in my bedroom. That’s really a blessing.
Plug One: Do you consider yourself a Christian?
Danny!: Yeah, definitely.
Somebody told me one day I should think about doing Christian rap. And I’ve thought about it. But, number one, people wouldn’t expect a Christian rap album out of me…
Plug One: You talked about having a baby mama [in The Charm]. Do you have a child?
Danny!: No, I don’t have a child. The whole baby mama thing in The Charm that I explored was just part of the story – a person having responsibilities back home, but he still wants to do his thing. It’s just part of the whole story. If I just made (The Charm) about some guy who wanted to blow up, then everybody [couldn’t relate to it]. But to add more realism…I never said I had a daughter. It’s part of the story if you listen to it. Sure it’s about me, but is it really about me? The story’s about anybody that has had a dream before in their life. I added that realism to it. So it’s about a man trying to do his thing, but he’s having a hard time, because he has his family back home that he’s trying to take care of, and his baby mother is accusing him of doing this and doing that, and it makes it that much more tougher.
Plug One: So The Charm is a concept album. It’s about this character who wants to blow up. Is that an accurate description?
Danny!: The Charm is definitely the story of any MC in Anytown, USA, anybody who’s ever had that dream of blowing up. I’ve had that dream, literally dreams where I’m that special person, like, yeah, I’m at this party, or doing this show. And then I wake up and I’m, like, damn! So I’ve had that dream plenty of times before. I know people who have had it as well. If you’re into it as much as I am, then you will have had that, and anybody who dreams of being successful in whatever they’re in. So I just put it as an MC because that’s all I know about.
It’s hard to maintain that when you’ve got other stuff like children at home or a baby mother at home who’s trying to get you to be more realistic about it, but is basically snapping out of your dream. Just like the interlude on the end of the album (“Rise and Shine”) where she’s, like, get back to reality, you’re not going to blow up, you’ve got children to take care of at home.
The album’s for anybody who has had a dream coming up. It’s based on my life, but I had to throw extra things in there just to apply it for everybody else.