Commonly known by his stage name Danny!, Daniel Swain is not your average rap artist. With an impressive catalog that encompasses seven studio albums, three instrumental albums as well as three compilations, Danny! has been the flagship artist to Questlove's relaunched Okayplayer Records. His latest offering, 2012's Payback marks the eclectic conclusion of his trilogy of concept albums and displays his vast understanding of different sounds and genres. Moreover, the self-produced, largely overlooked opus offers the artist's emotional palette that functions as a response to the dysfunctional music industry. However, there is also love for Danny! within the musical landscape. His production credits reach to artists such as Danny Brown, Lil B, Wale and even German jazz musician Till Brönner. In addition, he has been a member of The Recording Academy. And last (but not least), Payback made it to the Top 10 of HYPETRAK's Top Albums of 2012 list. More than enough reasons to catch up with the South Carolina native.
What does the "!" in your name stand for?
I added it for emphasis years ago. You know, “Danny” by itself looks plain on paper. The exclamation point gives it a sense of urgency, it makes you want to know who this guy is that has the audacity to punctuate his name. That, and I couldn’t think of any other names that begin with “Yung” or “Lil” that weren’t already taken, or horrid.
Your album Payback was one of the most outstanding music releases, but yet again, it seems like it was largely overlooked. What is your perspective on that?
I really appreciate you saying that. I put a lot of work into that record, which isn’t to say that I don’t put work into all of my albums, but that in particular because I had a lot going for it. Okayplayer, you know, they were relaunching their label and I was their first act – I feel honored to be a part of that. But, you know, it kinda sucks when you drop a record that only your core base is checking for. Of course they’re gonna like it, or not, but I put out albums in the hopes of gaining new fans each go-round. Say what you will about the record’s promotion but I think that the word-of-mouth that used to bring critical acclaim my way doesn’t work as well as it used to back when I first started getting buzz. I remember reaching out to Pitchfork to review [“Payback”] -- which they still haven’t and likely won’t -- and they were like “yeah I remember Danny. I remember when he was poppin’ on the blogs.” Like, people think I’m a relic and I’ve been consistently putting out music for only a few years now. But because it’s so saturated it’s hard to command that sense of urgency like I used to. So yeah, I think the record was overlooked mostly because people are just indifferent. They hear it and they see it, I know they do because I see the stats and the money, but they just don’t go out of their way to shout about it from the mountaintops one way or the other.
You were also invited to the Grammys this year. How do you feel about that? What does it personally mean to you?
Well I’ve been a member of the Recording Academy for about seven years. [My album] Charm helped me become a member because it was the first record I was able to put out commercially. Therefore I was eligible to take part of the awards show. When I first started I wanted to get a Grammy so bad, I must’ve felt like actually attending the show would give me good energy for later [laughs]. But looking back, I think all I wanted all along was just acknowledgment from someone other than the four walls in my apartment, or my homeboys…basically someone who had already “made it” that I was talented and to keep me encouraged, to let me know that I wasn’t crazy in pursuing my musical dreams. That’s happened a dozen times over at this point in my career and I am quite content. I think I used to feel like winning a Grammy would’ve validated me but I can certainly say I understand now that there’s more to feeling fulfilled than having an award. Having said all that, the Grammys are always cool to go to and I always have a good time. I kicked it with Dice Raw and Questlove while I was in Los Angeles that weekend. Dice is hilarious, great guy.
You seem to be super busy these days. You are doing a producer panel at the Sonos Studios. Can you share some details on this involvement? How did it come about and what do you hope to reach with it?
I linked up with Thomas Meyer of Sonos while I was in Los Angeles for the Grammys. He’s a cool guy that’s been hipped to my music thanks to my mentor [Questlove] placing it in a commercial, so him and I have been talking about some things. I told him I’d be in the area Grammy weekend and he invited me to sit in on a panel with deadmau5 and Tommy Trash. It was fun. I was hoping to enlighten up-and-coming producers because I know a big part of me becoming who I am today was just from watching cats I idolized like Questlove or Just Blaze doing their thing, and then seeing Just speak at a similar panel. I love to give back the knowledge I've been blessed to learn so it can help some other savvy artists looking for a way in. Hopefully me and Sonos will be cooking some more stuff up later this year. It’s a great company.
You also linked up with Adult Swim to create music for a few commercial bumpers. How did this come about?
Well I haven’t officially had any placements yet, but [head of A&R] Jason and I finally sat down and talked about it. I sent him some tracks and I’m just waiting to hear back which ones he wants to use. He’s a fellow Savannah College of Art & Design alumni, but we didn't link until my Def Jux days. We’ve literally been going back and forth for like four years and we’re just now starting to get things off the ground. Just a note to any of my indie artists reading this, patience does pay off. Dude’s super busy though but he’s a fan of Danny and a fan of dope hip-hop in general so I know it’s only a matter of time.
Do you feel aligning with brands, or maybe even the corporate world, is something today's artists need to do in order to sustain themselves?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t say it’s a necessity necessarily, but things are definitely changing and you have to adapt with the times. Corporate alignment is nothing new to hip-hop but it’s definitely way more prevalent now. And you obviously have to be smart about it. I think Warren G partnered up with some sex enhancement pill company a few years back. Like, what the hell? Aligning with a brand is fine as long as it’s relevant and it can be mutually beneficial. There’s nothing I enjoy more than knowing that two entities can come together and want to mutually build each other up.
What artist have you been enjoying the most lately?
It’s really hard to say. The industry is so saturated now and everyone sounds the same as the next person. Nothing coming out is exceptional or mind-blowing, but ironically enough people say the same thing about my music [laughs]. I do like Chell from Detroit though, and Jahshua Smith. Collette is dope too, check her out.
You talk a lot about Jay-Z's co-sign on the album, who else's endorsement has really stuck with you?
Do I? You know I actually took the time to count how many songs I allude to the Jay thing on “Payback” and I come up with four. Four is a lot? Far be it from me to share with the world something very exciting and personal for me on my album, so excited that apparently I couldn’t contain myself. If it were every single song I could understand, but four? On a 17-track album? No offense intended to you, this is mostly for the lazy reviewers that said the same thing, that I talked about the co-signs a lot. Shame on them for making me feel ashamed of one of the biggest things to ever happen to me in my career, especially when cats like A$AP Rocky make the same song over and over but no one gives him flack for that [laughs]. People will say I’m “hating” with that last remark so can you put it in Hello Kitty font so niggas’ll know I’m not mad? [laughs]
Anyway, to answer your question there’s a lot of people who endorsed me publicly and privately. I wouldn’t want to sit here and name drop since that’s apparently tacky if you do it more than four times, but there are lots of people that are high up on that ladder that have reached out to me, you know, and given me props. The fact that hip-hop is so infatuated with the co-sign disgusts me, but when I finally play into it and mention Jay now I’m told there’s a limit? Oh, okay.
What was your first thought after realizing you had a collab track with Blu and Lil B? How did the track come together? Were all three of you ever in the studio together?
I mean, Lil B and Blu are my dudes. Lil B is like my little brother, he looks up to me and is a fan. Blu always shows love when I’m in his city, B does too. My first thought? I didn’t really have a first thought, it was just “this is a dope record and I’m glad my peoples are on it”. But that’s how I felt about all of the songs on “Payback” with collaborations. Along with co-signs, I don’t understand hip-hop’s obsession with collaborations. Like, “Whoa, I wasn’t going to check for this song until I saw MC Suck-A-Dick was doing adlibs.” I blame the “Buddy” remix. [laughs] But that’s part of why “Payback” exists, to prove a point and exploit the consumer’s stupid fascination with collabs.
What have you lined up for 2013?
I’m really excited about a lot of things I have lined up. I’ll be finishing up a collaboration album with Von Pea [of Tanya Morgan] very, very soon. I feel like I say that in every interview. Not sure what’s in the future for Okayplayer Records but if they’re down to put out another Danny! project then of course I will be, that’s the home team. And this is my first time mentioning this to anyone but I’m literally one negotiation away from signing on with my first management deal. I've never had an official manager my entire career, and it's with a well-known and respected company that also got me a publishing deal with EMI to help me finally shop my beats the right way. Super grateful to those involved for helping set that up, and of course Ahmir [Questlove] for rolling the proverbial snowball down the hill to ignite the interest in the first place.