Last fall, during my brief stint at OhWord, I got an e-mail from a kid out of South Carolina, Danny Swain, who had signed with Def Jux earlier in the year. Originally working on his own, Danny had spent the previous few years juggling the demands of being a college student while developing a solid following as an independent producer and emcee. After winning a contest sponsored by mtvU and Def Jux, Danny signed a deal with the record label to release a digital EP.
As so often happens in the music biz, however, things didn't go quite as planned. When we first talked, almost a full year after signing the deal, Def Jux had yet to release the EP and the promotional efforts for their new artist were decidedly limited. Not content to leave the fate of his career in the hands of record label execs, Danny's been putting in some hard work promoting his own music - which might be best described as sounding like something Lupe Fiasco would put out if he had a sense of humor, a genuine heir to the Native Tongues throne - and as part of that effort he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. His answers - discussing his relationship with Def Jux, life as an independent artist, and his musical influences - were surprisingly sincere, offering up a look into the life of an artist who seems to be well on his way to success, with or without the help of his record label (downloadable mp3s included at the end of the interview):
There hasn't been a lot of exposure, at least on a national level, for the hip hop scene in South Carolina. From what I have heard, it's been strongly influenced by the Crunk and Snap movements of the past few years. Yet you've got a kind of Native Tongues vibe to your own music, both in the lyrics and the production, which is not at all what I would have expected. So what artists have you been most influenced by? Do you listen to any of the more "traditional" southern artists?
South Carolina is my home state, don't get me wrong, but I think the main reason why my music may not have that stereotypical "Southern" sound is because I haven't lived here my entire life. My parents were in the military, so we've lived all over the world; as a result, I was exposed to more things that people who may have never left their own city let alone their own state might not have ever had a chance to experience. I didn't move to South Carolina until 1996, where I've been living ever since, but it was the music that I was exposed to from travelling the globe that influences my sound most, anything that I grew up on. They certainly weren't playing De La or Tribe or even Wu on the radio like that by the time I moved down here, so fortunately for me I was aware of who they were and sought out the music on my own instead of waiting for the radio. Meanwhile, the stuff they DID play on the radio: UGK, Trick Daddy, Outkast, Goodie MoB, Scarface, Eightball & MJG...I was definitely digging so if I never moved down here, I probably wouldn't have been exposed to that either. The bottom line is that there needs to be balance, there needs to be diversity. I think that once we (South Carolina) show the country that there's more to us than crunk and snap -- which I am certainly not opposed to, mind you -- we may finally get that national exposure.
You made the switch to using samples in your beats after you heard Freeway's What We Do. What was it about that specific song that had such an impact on your approach to production?
I had been making beats since I was 15 or so, and everything I did was original. I may have replayed some samples here and there, but for the most part everything was original keyboard-based compositions. I was really influenced by Don Blackman and Patrice Rushen, one of my earlier beats was a replay of "So I Say To You" by Sylvia St. James, which Blackman produced. But that was the extent of my sampling, just replaying stuff occasionally. For years I always thought that I'd never be able to do what my heroes at the time -- DJ Premier, RZA, Prince Paul, Dr. Dre -- were doing. Especially Prince Paul, dude would use like five different samples in one song! It wasn't until around the time I got my first sampler -- which was really just my uncle's MPC that he let me use whenever I wanted -- that the whole Roc-A-Fella and Diplomats movement began to start up, which made pretty much every dude with a sampler wanna loop up records and throw some drums on 'em, ha ha.
When "Supreme Clientele" dropped, that's all me and my boys would play; everybody went apeshit when Jay dropped "The Blueprint", but me more so because I was really into the beats and I wanted to make joints that resonated as hard. But still, I was reluctant to jump on the sampling bandwagon 'cause like I said, every Joe Schmoe my age with a Gladys Knight record and a SoundClick page was trying to be the next RZA, so I was like "nah, I'll just keep doing me". But when I heard "What We Do", being familiar with the Creative Source record ["I Can't See Myself Without You"] that I had owned for quite some time, and seeing how Just Blaze chopped that song up, maaaaaan...it inspired me to start using samples because it showed me that there's more to sampling records than just taking a loop in a song and putting some drums on top. I mean, Premier pretty much had the chop game on lock and like I said, back then I never thought I'd be able to do what he did because he was a legend. When this new cat came out of nowhere killin' it on the beats, it let me know I could do it too. I knew I was a creative cat and that if I kept at it, I could make beats that hot someday.
Prior to signing with Def Jux, you seemed to be making some pretty big moves on your own. What was the deciding factor for you in signing with the label?
Before I signed with them I was used to doing everything on my own: promotion, distribution, marketing and all of that. It all paid off and I thank God for that but to be honest I felt like I had hit a glass ceiling years ago. Where else could I go? I had done so much but still felt like more could be accomplished if I had that extra push. So I figured that Def Jux would embrace me and help take my career to the next level but here we are a year later and still no album, no promotion at all, a lot of people don't even know that I'm on the label.
It would seem to me that, to go from an independent artist to a signed artist, you're essentially giving up a lot of creative freedom in exchange for the bigger budget and increased exposure that a record label can provide. Is that a fair assessment of the situation? Having been with Def Jux for roughly a year now, would you do it all over again or would you have stayed on your own?
If I knew that things would be the same now a year ago when I first signed I probably would've thought more about the move to an indie. I, too, assumed that being on a label, especially one like Jux would mean, if not a bigger budget, increased visibility and exposure. It couldn't be further from the truth. Where are the magazine articles, the interviews, the blurbs on sites like Nah Right? I can't expect support if no one knows who I am. They really could do more to help get my name out there. I understand the record industry is in a decline, but they have an obligation not just to me, but to MTVU to make sure my album comes out. That's where part of the promotional money is coming from, from MTVU. I want everyone to know that. I'm not asking for a $50,000 advance, I just want to know when we're going to put this record out. Why is it that I go weeks without hearing from someone? I'll e-mail or call the label and not hear back until I write a snarky e-mail. Why should it be like that? Meanwhile, I have to pay bills and put food on the table so what am I supposed to do? If I wasn't going to be a priority why did they pick me? To be honest, I don't think anyone at the label takes me seriously.
A lot of people have this glamorous image of the music industry where getting a record deal is almost equivalent to winning the lottery, that you're financially set for life once you sign with a label. Yet you have a day job in addition to the work you put in with the music. Can you give us some details on the financial realities of being an artist on a label like Def Jux? What level of success does an artist need to achieve for the music to become a full time career?
The first thing I tell these kids that come up to me asking how I do what I do 'cause they want to do it too, the first thing I say to them is "don't quit your day job". There isn't anything in this industry guaranteed, else I'd have quit my day job as soon as I got picked up by Jux. The glamour days of the huge advance and the big budget videos are long gone, you've got artists signed to majors who, in theory, are in better positions career-wise than an indie guy like me, and yet they're shooting their own low-budget videos and putting them on YouTube, totally bypassing the MTV rotation and heavy dollars it would cost to shoot a regular video. The money is gone, don't come into this business looking to strike it rich 'cause it ain't gonna happen, that's just the reality. Which is why the second thing I tell these kids is if you're looking to get into the entertainment industry to hit it big, you may as well hang it up now. These days if you can make a decent living from album sales, shows, and for a producer selling beats and such, AND keeping a day job to supplement that income, I tip my hat to you because to me that's the new goal. That's success to me, because it's attainable and not as lofty of a goal as getting picked up by a major or going platinum.
I was reading an article that my friend John Book passed along and it said that, as an artist, if you have a thousand true fans that will, without question, support you in every way possible...that's 1000 guaranteed CD sales, and I won't even mention venues and touring...then you're pretty much set. [Danny is referring to Kevin Kelly's 1000 True Fans] The key is to get those thousand fans. If I don't do anything else in this hip-hop game, if I never sell another CD or never get mentioned when people talk about dope new artists, I'll have proven that artists can take their career into their own hands and still have moderate success. I tend to think that unsigned is the new signed.
Further on that point, with you having a 9-to-5, what's your schedule like as far as getting into a studio and working on new music? Do you just work on stuff over the weekends? Call in sick when you want to get a new song finished up?
Aww man, anything I had to do to finish up an album or a track, you name it, I've done it. I feel so bad, 'cause I've had to fib a little. I stopped calling in sick after a while 'cause everytime I did, I'd actually get sick! Then I couldn't call in 'cause they'd be like, "I thought you were just sick...?" So I'd tell them I'd be in late 'cause I had to take my sister to school, or I had to drive my mom to the airport. I was terrible! But I feel like it all paid off. And it wasn't like I was lying all the time, because usually I'd book studio time for the weekends anyway. Even if I wasn't at my job I'd have schoolwork so I'd make sure everything was finished during the week so it wouldn't be hanging over my head come the weekend.
Have you had a chance to get in the studio with any of the other artists on Def Jux? Any upcoming collaborations?
Out of all the Jukies on the label I've only met Hangar 18, Despot, El-P and Del right before he signed. And that was only because I hosted the CMJ showcase in October. They're all cool cats, and Hangar's Alaska invited me to open up for them but it was finals week and I couldn't do it. Other than that, there's no communication, I guess everyone has their own thing going on. Mr. Lif is supposed to be on my first Def Jux single but trying to catch up with dude is like pulling teeth. Just like with the label, I'll e-mail him or call him and not hear from him for weeks, if at all. I sent beats to him months ago and I'm still waiting for a verse. So to answer your questions, all signs point to no, not at all.
You were in a program at Claflin for aspiring teachers. Does teaching still hold any interest for you? To follow up on that, you have an overall positive message in your lyrics; do you think as an artist you have the ability (and/or the responsibility) to have an impact on kids?
At first, I didn't really think I had a responsibility because I didn't think I even had an impact in the first place. I was just trying to rap and get my music heard. But the more people started to hear it, the more I realized that I do have power, my words do carry weight. From the time I put out 2005's "F.O.O.D." to when I was working on "Charm", a lot of kids were like "Danny, why do you curse so much in your songs?" And I had to be mindful because I didn't want their parents to tell them not to listen to my album just because of a few swear words that I once thought were harmless. If you listen to the last track on "F.O.O.D." I say "'F.O.O.D. 2' coming soon" but I scrapped it to make "Charm" 'cause I wanted to make music that everyone could listen to. Not that I was super crazy with the cursing and vulgarity or anything, but I did eventually clean up my act just a little to be more accessible. I think it's fantastic that so many kids gravitate towards my music, given that their heroes are cats like Souljah Boy and Lil' Wayne. As for teaching, I don't want to rule anything out but as of now I'll have to pass on having my own classroom. As much as I talk about retirement I still feel as if I have a lot to do in my music career, and before I start changing lives through teaching, I want to finish what I started trying to change lives through music.
Long term, do you see yourself staying signed with someone else's label (be it Def Jux or someone else), or do you have plans to go back out on your own?
Unless I can find a label that will actually support me and not disappear on me, helping my career progress instead of stalling it, I will most certainly be back on my own in the future. Like I said earlier, unsigned is the new signed. Cats be like, "I'm trying to get where you at, dog", and I'm like, "I'm trying to get where YOU at!" Ha ha, no but seriously, I'd rather have my shit be fucked up because of something I did than because I waited a year-and-a-half for a label to realize that three deadlines for my album have since passed by and that they need to get on the ball. If you're not going to promote me, I'll do it myself. I'm not above it. If you're not gonna put my album in stores, guess what? I can do that too. Every album since "Charm" has had national distribution, meaning on shelves in retail stores. Do you realize how much money I made from "Charm"? "Danny Is Dead" was supposed to be my Def Jux release, but I put it out myself 'cause they weren't communicating with me and I sold almost 3,000 copies which is dope when you consider I do EVERYTHING on my own. Do you realize how much money that is? It only makes sense to stay on my own if they're not going to do anything. Why go to a university with no professors? I feel like I could be learning so much from those that were there (on the label) before me, but no one reaches out. I'm gonna continue to give these labels the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not sure for how much longer I can do that.
As a "producer slash emcee," do you find either role to be more enjoyable than the other? Does one role come easier to you than the other?
I've been producing for almost half of my life, which is a scary thing to say. Me being a rapper, I mean...I'm so thankful for all the success I've got as an artist, but it wasn't even supposed to be like this. I wanted to be behind the scenes as a producer, but I had to use my albums as a vehicle so people could be like "yo, who made those beats? I wanna cop one." After a while it just got to the point where since no one was buying beats, putting out albums helped put food on the table. But soon people started getting into my music, and I really started to enjoy making albums, so that's why "Charm" is so thorough, or "Danny Is Dead" is so thorough, 'cause by that time I was really getting comfortable with my rapping. I figured if I was going to this, I was going to do it right. At the end of the day I'd give anything to just be a successful producer, you know...the last thing I want is to be forever scrutinized because people still think I sound like Kanye, or they don't like my voice, or my lyrics are just okay and nothing special, or...whatever. The thing I hate the most is when I read a review and the person is like, "Danny may not be the most cerebral MC, but..." Or "Danny's lyrics may not be that complex, but..." Like, seriously? What a slap in the face. So with that type of nonsense criticism I enjoy being behind the scenes and producing. I definitely enjoy producing more but rapping allows my productions to get heard. I had to put out like three instrumental albums just so people could hear my beats, for crying out loud.
Finally, can you give us some details on your upcoming album, which I'm assuming is still planned for release under Def Jux? Are you aiming for a concept-type album, a la And I Love H.E.R., or is it going to be a more "traditional" album?
Well, the "And I Love H.E.R." project will be coming out later this month. It features Von Pea from Tanya Morgan, Che Grand and Naledge from Kidz In The Hall. I really appreciate them being a part of the album, they really bring out the best in the overall presentation. The album is being produced by me and my boy Goose, who did "Lip Flappin'" from "Charm". The whole album is the story of a dude who falls for a girl and the stuff they go through. It's an allegory for my music career, and I think this is by far the best album I've ever done in my life. I'm at a tipping point so if people aren't feeling this I swear I'm gonna disappear for like three years and come back with an EP where I just rap over loops from library records, on some straight DOOM shit. With this album I'm really trying to drive home the idea that just because you're an "underground" rapper doesn't mean your music has to have a certain aesthetic or a certain type of sound. I like boom-bap as much as the next man but why can't my music have hooks you can sing along to also?
I was reading a Just Blaze interview where he was saying that back in the day, being underground didn't mean you rapped a certain way, it just meant you haven't achieved mainstream success yet. He was saying that dudes like Jay-Z and Big L were underground at one point, but just hadn't broke through yet. After "F.O.O.D." I got out of that same mentality and stopped trying to sound like what I thought an underground rapper/producer was supposed to sound like and just did me, and it worked. Now I'm taking that and totally increasing it to the nth degree. I wanna say "And I Love H.E.R." is like "Charm" on steroids, but really it's more like the "F.O.O.D. 2" I wanted to make years ago, just with less vulgarity and better beats. Despite the bright and shiny cover, it's a really dark album and I'm kinda back on my D. Swain, sarcastic/cynical tip. But there's balance too; like I mentioned earlier, balance is key. You can be a jaded artist and still smile sometimes. These old, bitter MCs rap about the same thing; I'm like, "I know God must've done something in your life today that made you happy about SOMETHING, smile muthafucka!" Ha ha. I'm putting out "And I Love H.E.R." myself because Def Jux obviously doesn't plan to, and it'll lead in my EP with them later on in the year, if that ever comes out. After this project I'm not doing any more concept records, it involves so much work and to get just a "way to go, Danny" here and there doesn't really make up for all the time spent laboring over it.