This interview first appeared in Popmatters
Talking with Danny Swain (aka Danny!), the message is loud and clear: all he wants to do is make music and let people here it. The first part has been the easy part for the prolific producer/emcee. He began recording music with the production of his 2002 debut Danny Swain which was halted when he was expelled from Claflin University after being the alleged leader in a grade-changing scandal.
Using the “depressing and dejecting” situation for creative fodder, Swain bounced back with his official debut The College Kicked-Out (2004) and F.O.O.D. (2005). Over the last four years, he’s self-released four albums and various EPs. On his latest And I Love H.E.R.: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2008), Swain deepened his deftly orchestrated blend of soul, pop, and funk. Following the psychedelic jazz template of De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, Swain’s dreamy tapestry is a dramatic theatrical backdrop for his equally intricate and lush lyrical storytelling. Sometimes his greatest weapon and other times his greatest flaw, his interweaving flow of real life fact and fiction creates a storyline that makes you wonder how (and if) the events of his life really happened. But you never doubt his ability to create soulfully surreal and sonic wonder between your ears and to entertain with fresh and witty wordplay. And his artistic fortitude confirms that, though he appreciates the compliments, he never wanted to be compared to Kanye West.
Swain is a one-man production machine who’s always making music and promoting it. With Grammy shortlists nods for Charm (2006) and the “Beatles and noir detective film inspired” And I Love H.E.R. (2008), he is still trying to figure out how his prolific nature jives within the framework of a label.
In 2007, he won Definitive Jux Best Music on Campus Contest after he transferred to Savannah College of Art and Design. Winning the contest landed him a contract to begin recording what would eventually be H.E.R.. But after the label dragged their feet for most of 2008, Swain didn’t want his album to go to waste so he did what he’s always done and self-released it. (Def Jux has just released “Just Friends”, a new Danny! single.)
A week away from his first headlining tour in Atlanta—after relocating from his previous South Carolina home—I spoke with Swain about his Claflin grades scandal, the influence of being raised by military parents on his production style and the current status between him and Definitive Jux.
Why did you decide to self-release And I Love H.E.R. and where do you stand with Definitive Jux?
As far as I know I’m still at the label unless someone from Definitive Jux disagrees with me. I heard from the manager last week. But as you can see, two years after the fact I still haven’t put out my record yet. I just sitting around here twiddling my thumbs and I didn’t want to wait to see H.E.R. become old material. I don’t know what is going on at Definitive Jux because I don’t live in New York and I’m down here in Atlanta. Maybe it’s an out of site out of mind sort of thing for them but I can’t just sit idle. I wanted to release H.E.R. because it had been a while since Charm and that album was what got me signed to Def Jux. So if it’s up to them they would’ve released it this year. I had such a huge demand for the album that I just released it myself and waited to see what Def Jux would do since they know that a lot of fans were waiting for the album to come out.
So there are no hard feelings between you and Definitive Jux?
Not yet, anyways [chuckles].
Are going to continue to release on Definitive Jux and as an independent?
Well, I wouldn’t say I’m allowed to, but at the same time, if time goes by and I don’t hear from them for four months after trying to contact then I figure, “Why not release new music on my own?” The whole thing is a running gag. I was at concert a few weeks ago and a kid asked me about the situation with Definitive Jux so I was surprised that even the kids know what’s going on. Once I do what I did then all they can say is, “Well, we messed up.” All I want to do is establish a really good relationship with Definitive Jux so they know who I am and I can put my music out through their label.
You grew up in a military home where you traveled a lot. How did that influence your samples and orchestrate the mixture with pop music?
I didn’t really get in to hip-hop until I was 11 or 12. Rhe first song that got me into hip-hop was “Flavor in Ya Ear” [the remix by Craig Mack]. That really changed my life. After I heard it I was hooked and I started doing my homework. Before that it was pretty much soul, funk, jazz, or whatever my mom or dad had around. With them being in the military, we traveled all around so whatever my parents were listening to, or wherever we were—St Louis, Germany or Louisiana—that’s what I soaked up. Location played a huge role, but it was also having music-loving parents that really developed my love for music. I saw how music changed their lives and it influenced me. There was always music playing in our house. So when my mom had a Prince album on, I would go look up other similar rock artists and just build on it from there. When I first heard hip-hop, that’s when I really started to own what music meant to me. And at that point I already had a strong music foundation.
Where did you develop the love for storytelling in your songwriting? Sometimes it’s fiction and other times it’s your real life story. You mix and match and walk a thin line between reality and fiction.
Yes, I do weave a lot of fiction with nonfiction. I like to mix both of them together because I find it easier to tell a story or to create a story that’s mysterious or might be half real and half imaginary. It makes the songwriting more interesting for me and it’s the way I most enjoy making music. When I write a song in that way I can control where the song goes, add or take away if I need to, and not worry about the facts. I can focus on the song and the overall story that I’m telling.
This also comes from my love to write. I love words. I love the way they sound and the way you can control how they sound or what they communicate over music. I love the English language and being able to switch words around. I love making pun jokes, too. My friend and I do that all the time. It might be corny but it’s so much fun because of the language. Ever since I was a kid I loved to pick up a pen and write. Being an English major during my first years in college has a huge influence on my style.
When you begin creating an album—and you’re thinking about the song structure—is it more about letting the story unfold and then reshape it with orchestrated beats and melody?
The last two albums I had the general idea. Sometimes I start with an idea and I might take it in a different direction the more music I made for it. And I Love H.E.R. started out as a soundtrack idea. I wanted to tell a story in a French spy movie style. I took a few ideas from my previous albums to create the first track for H.E.R. Sometimes I start with a sample I like and I get far along. But then for whatever reason, I can’t clear the sample so I have to take the idea in a different direction. Charm was pretty close to what I started out with idea-wise, but the sonic feel of the demo was completely different from what you hear on the final album.
You have other artists featured on your albums but as far as producing goes, you work by yourself, right?
I do have a crew that I work with but, yes, I do primarily self-produce. But I do feature other artists and I want people to know that I do have a crew supporting me. I would like to have somebody do all the other things like PR someday.
Your albums are very elaborate and intricate with samples and layers of beats and interweaving storylines. When you perform live do you have the same sonic elements as they appear on the album?
When I’m performing live I look for the bigger picture. I pick the song that best fits what fans are expecting at a concert. I re-create some of the album tracks into more live party songs. I would eventually like to make my live shows more theatrical and have costume changes because I love doing that for the fans. I love giving them a show that they can dance to and get lost in.
Just as you were getting ready to release your debut Danny! In 2002 you were involved in a grade-changing scandal at Claflin University? On the The College Kicked-out you poke fun at it, but does that situation still come up as a sore spot when it comes to your musical career?
I’ve dealt with it and there’s no gag order. They didn’t have any evidence to put me in jail so all they could do was kick me out. I was allowed to go to the homecoming but I didn’t because I had a show. I make fun of the whole thing on my records. That’s my way of trying to use all the energy to make something positive out of it.
It seems you’re able to channel adversity into a creative project. Did you learn that from someone?
I learned that myself. I’m a cynical person so I can laugh at it and turn it around in a song or an entire album.
It’s almost a cliché with hip-hop artists retiring and then coming back to the game. And you seem to satire that, too on Charm and Danny Is Dead. But it also seems like you’re dealing with some real frustration in the satire.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s part of the hip-hop game. Everyone feels like that and I might be the most vocal about it. I do feel like quitting everyday but I just keep going. There’s a lot of music that I still want to make and I’m still having fun.
You titled your recent album And I Love H.E.R.. What do you think about hip-hop’s use of the women as a metaphor? It’s a common thing—no pun intended—but why did you choose to use it and blend it with the Beatles song?
(laughs) Yeah that was a good one. When I first heard Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” I loved it. It was pretty clever and I don’t think many people where doing it at the time. But then a lot of artists started using it and didn’t do it as good so it became cheesy. I didn’t even want to do the whole women-as-a-metaphor thing because I was going for more of the French detective noir feel. I wanted to tell the story of a real love between a man and a woman and still use the Beatles song title somehow. I was hesitant to approach it in that way because I knew a lot of people would think that I was rehashing the hip-hop woman metaphor. But as I went along it turned out to be double-sided, like a lot of my songs are. I don’t intend for them to turn out that way but that’s how H.E.R. ended up. I was happy with the way it turned out because I felt that I did it right and it wasn’t cheesy at all. It was my version of the women metaphor so it was different that how it’s been done before.
Since you’re an English major and you love storytelling, would you edit or rework any parts of the H.E.R.?
With a song like “Misery” I wanted fans to really enjoy that they mention other songs. I guess in the future I’m going to spend less time on making songs that I think are going to be great and work more towards figuring out what really clicks with the fans. I’m not compromising my art; I’m just paying more attention to what really resonates with the fans. You can sit and make music that you enjoy but after a while that gets old. I really want to make music that many people can enjoy and it takes work to make a song that I’m happy with and fans enjoy. But sometimes you can’t have both. With H.E.R. I think I might have been a bit too personal. It took away from the rest of the songs and the album as a whole. I would also use fewer skits or edit them down. Skits can really make a record unique but if you overuse them they can really ruin an album or take away from the music. I was using the skits to add the movie element to the album but looking back I probably would have cut the skits out because at 72 minutes it gets a bit long and I realized that the listener doesn’t need the skits to tell them that they’re in a movie. The music should do that itself.
Concept albums are still being made regardless of the MP3 single format. H.E.R.is a long cohesive record and it doesn’t easily mesh with the MP3 single format. Did you think about making it MP3-accessible or did you just focus on the story when you made the album?
When Charm came out I was really seeing people only making singles albums. But when it came to my albums I wanted fans to being able to buy the whole thing because I was telling a whole story. I wanted them to hear a complete story and create a sense of mystery that wouldn’t sound complete as a single and would make them want to buy the whole story to hear how it flows. That’s how I made H.E.R.. I make albums the way I would want to hear them. It is getting out of hand with other hip-hop artist making singles albums. When I buy an album I want to hear it from start to finish.
Was it hard for you then to release your songs on iTunes?
I wasn’t reluctant about it. I’ve had so many fans online and at shows ask for my old material that I was surprised. So when I had the chance to release my back catalog on iTunes it was really for the fans. I’m still surprised when a fan comes up to me and ask about F.O.O.D. I want to please those fans that have enjoyed my previous albums and I also want to be able to see the progression of my music for posterity sake.
So you were able to let go of some of your own fears about letting people see your progression, just so fans would be able to appreciate the progression of your music?
Yeah, I was really protective of my progression at first. I didn’t want people listening to my older songs saying that I sounded like Common or Kanye West. But at the same time I’ve realized that fans can appreciate the progression and see it as artistic growth and creative development. I didn’t want people looking at College Kicked-Out and saying I was a copycat. But I also didn’t want to let my own fears keep someone from enjoying an album that they really liked. I realized that a lot of times I’m worrying for no reason at all.
Do your parents still play a role in your music?
I still talk to my mom but not as often as she would like. But my dad passed away last summer right about the same time I was releasing H.E.R. I didn’t really have a relationship with him since my parents divorced. I made a beat for my mom for Christmas and she really liked it. She recognizes the samples that I use and she really supports my music. But when I sample European rock and jazz she doesn’t recognize it, but she immediately picks up the Delfonics and other soul funk and jazz she raised me on.
You’ve been called Tribe Called Quest on acid for your lush psychedelic production style but you also weave some pretty crafty rhymes. Who are some of your favorite emcees?
Biggie, Jay-Z, and Slick Rick for their wordplay, laid-back style, and storytelling abilities. I learned so much from them. Growing up and still today, my friends and I just kick around rhymes around for fun. After Charm made the Grammy shortlist I had a lot of guys coming up to me spitting rhymes and so I know that I also have to be sharpening and developing my craft.
I’m going to take everything about Danny! that is good in a different direction. A lot of the reviews don’t mention my rhyming schemes. They talk up my production but they say my lyrics aren’t as good. I put a lot of work into my rhymes. My next album is going to be similar to the minimalism of Madvillainy. I’d like to get more credit for my rhymes and talent as an emcee. Hopefully that’ll happen.