Danny Brown has pot to thank for his success. Not directly, mind you -- as a teen drug dealer in Detroit, pot users were almost the iconoclastic rapper’s undoing.

“When you’re selling weed, you’re dealing with your friends, people pulling up to your house at two in the morning after the club,” Brown says. “It ain’t like that with crack heads. They’re knocking on your door quietly; they’re scared to do anything. People that smoke weed, they don’t care. They’re pulling up with sounds blasting. That’s how we got in trouble.

No sooner had he been arrested than Brown violated his probation and went on the lam. A few years later, he was picked up and spent a year in jail. That was all the motivation he needed to pursue music. “It was pretty much all or nothing,” he says. “I’d rather die trying to make it in music than die in jail.”

Despite his rap sheet, gangsta’s not, strictly speaking, Brown’s style. Sure, he has moments of brash boasting and violent exaggeration. But they’re generally intended for comic effect, as when he promises to make Sarah Palin “deep-throat till she hiccup” or imagines himself as “River Phoenix ’93 VIP with some drugged-up porn hoes all around me.”

Rapping for his fellow clockers on the corner as a youth, Brown sought to raise the game. Gangsta rap “has been going on for 20 years,” he says. “You’ve got to find new ways to shock the listener, because to me hip-hop is still about being a music that you can’t listen to around your parents. It still has to have that edginess to it. Right now, the edginess is sex.”

Brown made his solo debut in 2010 with The Hybrid. That same year, he released Hawaiian Snow with G-Unit’s Tony Yayo, though he didn’t wind up on 50 Cent’s label -- in part because of his personal style, which includes skinny jeans and a wild, frizzy half-mullet. Instead, he signed with Brooklyn indie Fool’s Gold and dropped his XXX as a free download. Spin named it the best hip-hop album of 2011, highlighted by tracks like “Blunt After Blunt” and “Adderall Admiral.”

The latest by the daily smoker and dedicated G Pen user is titled Old -- short for “Old Danny Brown,” and also a nod to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “He was great -- a genius, to be honest,” Brown says. “He did everything freely. He wasn’t pressured to make music; he had fun making music, and it came across. I have that same intention.”

Brown felt no pressure from Fool’s Gold and intentionally took his time with Old. “I didn’t want to over- think it or try too hard to impress some- body -- I just wanted to let it do me,” he explains. “On XXX I was experimenting a lot, trying to figure out where I wanted to go and what works. I think, with this album, it’s me perfecting that and showing what I’ve learned.”

And while, at 32, he’s not quite “old,” Brown does feel he’s better equipped for success. “I guess everything comes with age and time,” he says. “I’m just fortunate that it happened around this time. If it had happened in my twenties, I might not be having this conversation with you now. I might be over with.”

Danny Brown Cheat Sheet:
“My mom read me a lot of Dr. Seuss, so when I first started talking, I talked in rhymes.”
“My first rap album was LL Cool J, and my first concert was Fresh Prince with LL Cool J, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.”