By Brian Tucker
Busy people are impressive, especially those productive enough to take on multiple tasks like art projects, family, school, and jobs. Danny Louis Thomas is a UNCW student and when not pursuing majors in English and Creative Writing (and adding a Studio Art major with a focus in painting) he’s a performing rapper named Louis. In addition, he founded and is part of Beats & Coffee, a music collective of musicians and artists making beats.
“It’s nice because every time someone makes a beat or makes a project there’s a community that’s already there and dedicated to helping them get better or push it farther,” Thomas said.
Thomas has been active locally while at UNCW. He’ll graduate in the next year, and in that time he’s performed and created music with jazz and hip hop band Temple5, co-created The Valedictorians with Cameron Tinklenberg, contributed to a Beats & Coffee EP last summer, and has just released a new EP called You Changed Up.
The five song collection finds him producing and recording it on his own and learning new skills along to do it, and working with a handful of performers – J. Sales, ALLIN, Sean Meade, Tristan Burns, Sam Brown. You Changed Up is a mix of ideas and soundscapes – “Red Dragon, Blue Dragon” features smoky, sultry saxophone and evokes an after-hours lost in the city atmosphere whereas “Bounce” is energetic and danceable. “Blow the Whistle” featuring ALLIN (Tinklenberg) boasts tense, spare music electronic. Elsewhere the EP is peppered with hazy sound effects and spare, squash beats.
You can hear the new EP at iTunes and Spotify at the end of this Q and A.
Below Danny talks about his crafting his new album, learning to work on his own, music community, and family.
What inspired you for the music backing these songs?
On this project my focus was really just trying to take my rough ideas and see where I could go if I finished them all the way through. A lot of times when you’re making music, or any type of art really, you can get distracted by trying to envision the finished product before you get into the process and that can be destructive overall. You literally can watch your ego erode your vision right in front of you.
Some are spare, like “Blow the Whistle.”
I just tried to trust myself and my intuition and know that I had something good all along. “Blow the Whistle” is the best example of that; I had a lot of people shoot it down when they heard it initially but they understood it once the final product was there.
Save for the dance-floor ready “Bounce,” much of the album has a serious vibe.
The instrumental for “Bounce” was the actually the second beat I had produced completely on my own. It was just sitting on my computer for two years or so and I would revisit it from time to time, play it on my phone when I was walking to class and stuff. It just felt right in a way.
When the project was getting rounded out I was scrolling through old beats and verses and came across the full idea for that song. I knew the beat was special, in the sense that it could make a crowd move in a live setting. I knew that the project needed something to pick it back up after “5252 Alabama Ave.” and that seemed like the best pick. I didn’t want to leave people on that heavy downer.
What is the presence of family on your work these days? Is creativity a means to balance that?
My family makes up a large part of who I am. In some ways I have difficulties relating to people in general when I’m out and about, I’m pretty socially anxious. But my family has seen me at my worst and they push me to be my best so I just try to honor them in everything I do, even when it includes bearing my not-so-pleasant truths because those are part of who I am too.
I lost my father November before last and in a lot of ways it’s still something I’m processing, something I’ll probably always process, but as a result it strengthened my connection to family and I found more of myself in that process. It ultimately brought me closer to having the confidence I needed to come in contact with sheer creativity. Family and creativity kind of coexist for me.
Did you take on more of a producer hat for the EP?
The whole idea for the project was to see if I could self-produce an entire project on my own. It was intended to be longer but I realized that I needed to set a goal I could complete, rather than trying to tackle something I would eventually become overwhelmed with and leave at the wayside. I was also working on like two or three other projects at the time, so it was necessary to cut it shorter.
Aside from “5252,” I did the drums for the tracks and sort of enlisted friends to come through and play on different songs that needed different textures. I recorded all of the tracks at Jared and Cameron’s (of Coastal Collective) house and did all the mixing/mastering there also. I picked up mixing in the past year out of understanding the importance of knowing how to effectively communicate your ideas in every step of the creation process. I generally know how I want to hear things so it’s easier for me to just learn how it works and do it rather than looming over someone else’s shoulder expecting them to be as invested as I am.
A lot of guest players on this EP. Why collaborate on songs versus just you?
Whenever I’m making music I try to get as many homies as I can involved because I know deep down that there’s something larger out there for me, and I just want to give as many people a chance to achieve their dreams as well. I just try to think like, even if an executive or Questlove himself hears this song and they hate the rapping, they might like the feature or the sax player and then bam, that person is on if they follow through.
I’m not very me-minded. I enjoy seeing the people I care about prosper even if it isn’t in my best interest. That’s what real friendship or love is about to me. I pay a lot of attention to how musicians and labels operate, and I see the strength in community and numbers, and it’s something that exceeds beyond the impermanence of making money at the next show, or becoming a national icon. It’s something that really can unlock a higher potential in everyone involved if the trust develops far enough.
That doesn’t mean I’m open to working with everybody, because I’m very serious about what I do. But I do see the value in creating a family-like community of artists, not even just musicians, and really pushing and supporting each other to foster continuous growth. On top of that I can’t play instruments very well, so it’s nice to be able to have friends like Cam or Sean or Tristan who can come and lace a song up with instrumentation to take it to another level. I usually have the ideas for the musical lines, but I can’t translate it through an instrument the way they can so sometimes I just have to sit back and trust their interpretation.
Can you share the story behind “5252 Alabama Ave”?
“5252 Alabama Ave” is honestly about different girls I’ve dated. I’m not a resentful person, so I’m not intending to rap resentfully, but it’s more of a confessional. J Cole said on one of his songs, “I know deep down every poet just wanna be loved” and that’s true, in my case at least. Me being so driven, and having high standards for relationships, and meeting girls who expect to date a “rapper” instead of the very real, emotion-driven person I am, all do affect me in a mental and musical-sense.
“5252 Alabama Ave” was me just addressing how I’ve personally felt wronged by women who didn’t take the time to be patient enough to understand me, who jumped ship when I actually expressed my emotions and needed that extra patience and care. I’m at peace with all of it because people ultimately have to make the choices that are best for them at the end of the day, and in those cases I wasn’t that choice. So there’s no malice, but everybody deserves a little reflection.
How did you come to work with Sam Brown?
I’ve had beats from Sam Brown since I was a freshman. It wasn’t until this past summer that one of the beats really struck a cord for me and I just started writing to them like crazy. A concept album came from that and I can’t really talk about it yet because it isn’t completely finished, but it’s almost done. You Changed Up is sort of the precursor to that project really. “5252 Alabama Ave” was actually a rejected song from that project. Aside from that I spend a lot of time with Sam and his family, and they welcome me like I’m a part of theirs and vice-versa. He acts like a mentor in my life and always give me level-headed advice, it’s just a friendship that I’m very grateful for.