Indie rap has long been a kind of mythical creature. While blogs like DatPiff spill underground mixtapes on the daily, exposing new talent to the digital masses, the platform is more like Wonka’s great glass elevator. The ones with the golden ticket catapult through the ceiling of the indie industry, get absorbed into the game virtually overnight with high-profile guest verses, and wear their success on their grill. It’s built into the very ethos of hip-hop survivalism.
In his mythology and his music, Detroit rapper Danny Brown might be the best case for a truly independent rap star. Having spent his 20s selling weed and doing time in a crumbling city known for house music, the Insane Clown Posse and Kid Rock, Brown nearly had a break in New York before 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records allegedly dropped him for his fashion rather than his talent. In skinny jeans, a Win Butler haircut and a gap-toothed grin where a diamond grill could be, Brown has stated his intention to become the Arcade Fire of hip-hop, whose Grammy win may not exactly jibe with Brown’s plight to stay out of the “mainstream” but certainly comes as a welcome attempt to stake his artistic claim on his own terms. Just watch Eminem try to clamor back into relevance in Brown’s wake.
When Danny Brown arrived at Skidmore on Saturday, blog hype for his long-awaited Fools Gold long player Old had finally eclipsed the insufferable squabbling over Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control,” taken by most as a shot across the bow of contemporary hip-hop. Brown stayed quiet through the pissing contest but pretty much won the debate with Old’s 19 tracks, damn near a perfect rap record. It was the weekend of the height of his career and he performed like it.
Scrapping the callous braggadocio that most rappers rely on, Brown has forged two distinct, manic-depressive personalities and two vocal registers to match. Old economically divides the two front-to-back, but the 2 High 2 Die tour, featuring Action Bronson, predictably featured exclusively the Adderall Admiral persona. If Brown’s confessional studio work makes him relatable, his shamelessly indulgent party tracks provide a kind of light-hearted catharsis. Where live hip-hop performance can feel wooden and cursory, Brown’s club tracks were relentless onstage, owing to the electronic tilt of his adoptive label.
Sporting a Ramones tour T-shirt, Brown vocalized the contradictions of his personality early on with “Black Brad Pit” and the industry-lampooning “Radio Song.” The narrative continued through a set of tunes from XXX, “Lie4” and “I Will,” an assertion of personal integrity and eagerness to please (with, er, the fullest capacity of his tongue). That’s when new single “Dope Song” landed courtesy of a trap-inspired beat from producer Skywlkr as devestating and undeniable as that genre’s most famous, “Harlem Shake.” From there on out, it was all sub-bass and synths with molly anthem “Dip” followed by “Monopoly,” “Blunt After Blunt” and the gem-encrusted “Kush Coma.”
Skywlkr himself was deservedly allowed to spin a solo set between acts, effectively segueing the old-school heavy-weight boxer-style approach of Queens’ Bronson (whose set highlights included “Alligator,” “Strictly 4 My Jeeps” and his verse on Chance the Rapper’s “NaNa”) to Brown’s rubbery rap rave. Whether or not Brown’s inevitably rising profile results in dental work and absorption into the hip-hop mainstream, this tour will be evidence again of a genre being refreshed with the blood of raw, live performance.