The Okayplayer Interview: The Adventures Of Danny! From Jay-Z To Von Pea
Danny! AKA Danny Swain in Atlanta
Few people have had as an up-and-down year as Okayplayer Records’ latest signee, Danny! AKA Danny Swain. In the beginning of the year, he was gearing up to release to release his 7th album, Payback via Interscope's digital distribution program. After months of delays, Mr. Swain abandoned that outlet to team up with ?uestlove and (ahem -ed.) Okayplayer Records.
Payback is the third of a series of concept, narrative-driven LPs. It follows up 2008’s And I Love H.E.R. and his 2006 break through Charm. The two previous concept records felt something like lighthearted romantic comedies, wherein Danny! chased his love interest, only to get his heart broken. Payback, thanks to the subtler, more grayish tones of the production, and narration by Joi Gilliam, plays out more like a classic noir detective flick. Like any classic black and white noir film, the protagonist (Danny! of course) gets involved with a no-good woman (hip-hop) who ultimately leads him to an untimely demise [close curtains].
Payback is not only the first album released on the recently re-upped Okayplayer Records but also a testament to Danny’s ability to persevere in an industry that has made success challenging, to say the least. Hopefully this is just the beginning for Mr. Swain as Payback is one of 2012’s best and most refreshing albums.
In a recent convo with Swain, he talked about his relationships with Jay-Z, ?uestlove and Amber Tamblyn, gave us a little insight on the behind-the-scenes work on his latest LP and shared what it was like to perform on national television for the first time.
OKP: First off, congrats on the new album…
Danny!: Thanks man. I'm still taking it all in. It's definitely a blessing.
OKP: How's the feedback for Payback been so far?
D: I think the feedback's been great. Metacritic has it at 80% right now. I mean, scores don't really mean shit but that's still pretty darn good. Scores don't matter, it's the content of the review that means the most, at least in my opinion. The only thing I don't like is people dismissing the album as "angry"…or saying I complain too much. I listened to the album a million times and counted maybe two times where I was like "boo-hoo, the rap game sucks" or something similar. What about the uplifting songs like "Keep Your Head To The Sky," or "Get Up"? I've caught flack for making fun of rappers on the album, but when 50 does it, or Ghostface and Raekwon did it, they get props? It's like, the little bit of negative feedback that I did get is always, always a big-ass reach. Kendrick has a twelve-minute song on his record that everyone loves (and I do too) but when I have a ten-minute-long jam session [with ?uestlove] on my joint I hear "ah, it's too long, get this shit outta here." It's like I'm criticized for the same shit that other artists get props for.
I think my marketing plan for Payback backfired in a way because I made it easy for writers to say stuff like "Oh, Danny's getting his revenge on the industry with this album" or "Danny is coming out swinging and no one is safe", or whatever-whatever without commenting on the quality--like the actual quality--of the album's content as a whole. In reality, Payback is dark at times but extremely optimistic. But people get lazy and read the Wikipedia entry that someone typed up and all they ever say is "Danny's mad." Shout out to the three or four people that actually listened to the record, you guys are neat.
OKP: A big moment in getting Payback out there finally was the Jay-Z cosign. Describe what was going on when you first saw that tweet from ?uesto.
D: I think it was back in January. I had just got back from mailing advance copies of "Payback" out. Dan [from Okayplayer] emails me out of the blue and is like, "yo Danny, one of ?uestlove's associates was asking about you recently. I've CC'd ?uestlove so the two of you can talk." Now this is all he tells me initially. I'm thinking "Oh Lord, they're going to disable my Okayplayer message board account." [laughs] But sure enough, a few days later ?uesto hits me up and he says that him and Jay had been talking and somehow I came up in the conversation. Jay thought I was talented and wanted to hear more music. I was stunned. Like, really? And in my head I'm still like "Okay, someone's messing with me. The prankster is getting pranked." But later that day ?uesto let the world know on twitter that it was official. To be honest with you, it didn't really hit me until that moment.
OKP: You mention on "Do It All Over Again" (which features some drumming from the man himself) that ?uestlove "groomed" you because you were "rough around the edges." What did ?uesto do to help you develop more as a rapper and an artist?
D: Honestly? He gave me a lot of ambiguous feedback for me to run with [laughs]. Everyone knows how busy that man is, at any given moment he's got a million important things going. So he doesn't have the time to sit down and say "do this, don't do that" every single day, and no one expects him to. But whenever we have spoken about music, especially leading up to Payback. he would relay advice to me based off conversations he might have had with Jay. Like, one nugget of advice I got was not to be so "rappity-rap." But I have mad songs where I'm not just rapping for the sake of! It's almost like a "jump? how high?" thing. But I don't mind playing my position at all. Ultimately he would just advise to be myself but not be one-dimensional; put my best foot forward at all times. In turn, whenever he saw opportunities he would put me in front of them and that nurtures growth right there.
OKP: In addition to that, I imagine ?uesto had a role in helping you get on national television, what was it like performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon?
D: Ah dude, it was an amazing experience. Huge shout out to ?uestlove and Okayplayer for making that happen, I'm forever grateful for that. I kept telling people that Ahmir and I had that in the works for months but no one believed me, no one at all. It was cool to be able to fly my man Gavin Castleton up and rock with The Roots. Plus to meet Jimmy Fallon and have him personally tell me he's a fan, like...even during the show he's like "I put my money on this guy" to the audience. Incredible.
I heard through the grapevine that a few cats in the camp weren't feeling my performance at all but -- and not to cop pleas -- you have to understand, it was my first time performing on television. My fans were too excited to finally see me on the tube to give me any constructive criticism, but when compared to seasoned artists like The Roots crew…? Of course it's gonna appear a little lackluster. At the end of the day the important thing is that I'm happy with it, which I definitely am. Of course any performance that anyone ever does in life can be improved upon and hopefully I'll be lining up more TV appearances in the future so I can tweak my set. Melanie Malone from SNL's staff hit me up and said she liked the performance a lot and put me in touch with their music booker, so we'll see what happens. Hopefully one day I'll be able to pay it forward 'cause that was a huge look ?uestlove gave me.
OKP: Also on Payback you refer to the album as "the most self-indulgent" project you've ever recorded. What would you say is self-indulgent about the record?
Danny! AKA Danny Swain
D: Just the gratuitous amount of easter eggs I place on the album. Up until Payback I'd say "Where Is Danny?" was the most self-indulgent project I've ever done 'cause, like, I'd have a freakin' minute-long jackhammer skit at the end of one of my songs. Just because I could [laughs]. Or how during "Manic At The Disco" I let the Baris Manco sample come in before I start my second verse. You have this guy warbling in a different language and you can't understand what he's saying, but I like it so much. There's a lot of that on Payback. I'd make a beat or whatever and instead of just leaving it as is, I'd add a string section in the bridge, or r&b vocals that match the original sample. It's like a banana split that you just keep adding toppings to, and someone's like "damn dude! There's no way you're going to eat all that." And I say, "you're right, let me add some more sprinkles" [laughs]. I just love music so, so much, so I added all these layers of sounds. I do it for me first and foremost, it's a bonus if someone else catches it and enjoys it.
OKP: One of those easter eggs or inside jokes you mentioned was probably having Amber Tamblyn sing on “Evils.” You’ve posted on twitter/tumblr that you two share a common love for pulling pranks, is that how you got her to sing on the record? It seems pretty random to have Joan of Arcadia on a hip-hop album in 2012 [Laughs].
D: [Laughs] It's not so random. Amber, that's my BFF. We both have a common love for trolling, that's how we became acquainted. She pranked Tyrese a while back when he confused her for Amber Rose (Tamblyn's middle name is Rose), and I took the ball and ran with it. I prank called him and continued her first prank. Somehow she heard [the prank call], got in touch with me and we've been pals ever since. In turn, I introduced her to ?uesto and next thing you know, he's DJing at her wedding [to David Cross]. She's an awesome person, an awesome writer and I hope we get to cook up some more tunes soon once she gets back from honeymooning. She wrote and recorded the epilogue for "Evil" in, like, a day.
OKP: Payback received a pretty major face-lift from the version that was supposed to be released on Interscope. Why did you decide to change so much of the album?
D: There were a lot of variables, honestly. Like, so many I can't even begin to name. But the most important reason is because to me, as an artist putting product out, a lot of it already sounded dated to me by the time summer rolled around. I pined for Payback to come out way back in January but now I'm glad things worked out the way they did. Every artist will tell you that if they had the opportunity to go back and change their work, then they would. It's rare that an artist is satisfied with his or her final product the first time around. I'm fortunate that I had the opportunity to do that with all the pushbacks. Plus it gave me the chance to pay homage to Missy--who had just recovered from Graves' disease around the time Payback was supposed to come out--and MCA from the Beastie Boys who passed away recently. I pay tribute to Missy & Timbaland with the beats and the Beasties by layering all of the samples like they did with "Paul's Boutique."
OKP: Aside from the Timbo/Missy/Beasties nods, what are some things on the Okayplayer version of the album that you are happy you were able to re-do?
D: I'm glad I got to go back and do alternate mixes to some of the songs. After riding around listening to the original version of Payback for the past six or seven months, I noticed that some of the tracks sounded a little muddy. I admit I was probably anxious to get the project out back in January so I may have rushed some of the mixes. I went back and re-did "Keep Your Head To The Sky", "Little Black Boy" and a few others. I'm sure no one really noticed, it's just an audiophile thing I wanted to do.
I'm also glad I got to include Joi [Gilliam] as a narrator. I always liked the way the storyline was unfolded on the first version of Payback but I wanted to have as many people as possible that I admired musically on this project. Her and I had been kicking around the idea of collaborating for a while now. People always give me props on my music business savvy but Joi is a pioneer. She's been a mentor figure to not just me, but a lot of Atlanta musicians so it was awesome to include her as a narrator.
OKP: Do you plan on recording more records with Okayplayer Records?
D: I mean, I'd like to. The whole thing is very organic, very family-like. There's no doubt that I'm always gonna rock with Okayplayer, and vice versa. Any subsequent releases will depend on what their business plans for the label are, and whether or not I even want to release anything else in the first place. It could definitely happen, I'm sure everyone is open to it.
OKP: You've mentioned that you're working on an album with Von Pea, can you give us any details on that?
D: Man, I am so excited about finishing that project. Pea's been like "ummm, D. Swain...Payback's finished...NOW can we work on PeaSwain?" [laughs] I had to take a detour to knock out Payback but now I'm in full swing again. We're doing a joint album for the fans 'cause they've been asking. Plus we're fans of each other so I guess that counts too. But I'm headed back to the lab to finish recording the last few songs on my end and then Pea and I can start wreaking havoc with this album. It's sounding really, really good.