There is no one in hip hop -- or any genre for that matter -- who has had career ups and downs like MC/Producer extraordinaire Danny! (aka Danny Swain). He was on a Grammy Award shortlist in 2006 for Charm, critically praised for 2008's And I Love H.E.R., he was signed to Def Jux but ended up being unable to properly release Where is Danny? before the label dissolved, and then he was picked up by a major only to find that his most recent album, this year's Payback, was getting shelved for the foreseeable future. That was until he a fateful tweet from the Roots's Questlove saying that Swain was Jay-Z's favorite rapper.
While Payback was finally released on Questo's own Okayplayer imprint, Swain has been stuck in Rodney Dangerfield mode -- grabbing his collar and asking what it takes to get some respect. While its critical reception was mixed, Payback is a unique record, encompassing styles that stretch from early-'90s, feel-good tunes like "Keep Your Head to the Sky" to the Dipset-inspired "Shit Starters" without losing its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
The project also has a guest-list that breaks any sense of decorum for independent hip-hop records (which might've contributed to some of the critical confusion), including appearances from DJ Kay Slay, Bruno Mars and Swizz Beatz, as well Phonte, Tanya Morgan and others.
Swain makes a stop in Denver on Saturday night -- his first-ever stop in the Mile High City -- to be the special featured guest at Solution Showcase #10 at the Meadowlark. The MC/Producer fought off tryptophan-induced naps to catch up with us via email this week to talk about the album, his need for a booking agent, and why he wishes he'd never mentioned giving up on music.
Westword: Your show schedule jumps around all over the place. Is that easier or harder than going out and knocking out one long grueling tour and then getting off the road for a while?
Danny!: I couldn't really say. I've never been on a real tour before. The most I've been on the road consecutively is maybe two dates back-to-back. I'd like to set one up eventually, a tour of some sort, but it's hard to do that sort of thing without anyone interested in being your booking agent.
What brings you out to Denver this weekend? Is this your first time doing a show out here?
Yeah, it's kinda cool. DJ Low Key set it up. I know him through a mutual friend/collaborator (Von Pea of Tanya Morgan). Should be a fun event. I'm looking forward to it.
After all the effort it took to get this album made, did it live up to the expectations you had for it when you started out making it? Do you feel like the greater vision for Payback as a statement about the industry's massive dysfunction was successful?
Sort of. I feel like a lot of what was said or attempted on the record flew over people's heads, the critics in particular. Some of them just dismissed the album as "ambitious" or "whiny," when, if you really listen, that's not what it is at all. In a sense, I suppose the inability for folks to "get it" -- or refusal, for all I know -- is indicative of the very statement I was trying to make in the first place. So, in that regard, it only reinforced what I knew to be true all along.
What was the biggest surprise you had while working on the record?
I guess the amount of hype that it had at one point. It's weird because when I originally wanted to release it there was very little chatter about it, but the more I was forced to push it back because of that, the more people got into a frenzy over it. Catch-22 shit.
You talked about the possibility of giving up on pursuing music after the debacle with Where is Danny? a few years ago. Now that this record is finished, is that idea rearing its head again? Or are you feeling differently?
I'm starting to wish I'd keep those thoughts to myself, whenever I publicly mention being disillusioned with the music industry and whatnot. There isn't a single creative person in the world that doesn't get frustrated with their craft, or hasn't considered stopping what they're doing because it isn't practical or whatever other personal reason, probably way more often than I do. It's normal.
I'm just more outspoken than a lot of people, so now, the "is Danny gonna quit?" question follows me after every album I put out. In reality, the only time I even pronounced that I was quitting was back when I dropped Charm in 2006 -- which obviously never happened -- but now it's interwoven into my story that I quit after every album for some reason. I hate that. It's partially my own fault though.
Given everything you've been through with the music industry, what would you say to all the MCs and producers who are out there just getting started? Is the industry too fucked to even worry about trying to mess with anymore? Should everyone be independent? Or is there hope that a better system will emerge and let artists with good music create on their terms while making a reasonable living?
I would just encourage them to be savvy. I broke through because I was savvy. Talent had only a little bit to do with it. I adapted with the times, not stylistically or musically necessarily, but just keeping up with marketing and promotion tactics. Artists with good music can make a reasonable living, if and only if, they are willing to work smart.
Danny!, the Solution Showcase #10, with DJ Low Key & Lazy Eyez, J. Carey and Infamous Jones, 9 p.m. Saturday, November 24, Meadowlark, 2701 Larimer Street, $5 (pre-sale at Family Affair)-$8 (at the door), 303-293-0251, 21+. See also DenverSolution.com for additional information.
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