Hip-hop artist Brian Brown has his own way of repping Nashville

Listen to a profile of Brian Brown, visiting the East Nashville neighborhood where he grew up and the studio

Brian Brown begins the opening verse of his 2020 track, “Flava,” like this: “Started writing this the other day as I was strolling down Broadway.”

He’s invoking the rowdy, neon-soaked entertainment district that the wider world associates with Nashville — the city he’s called home for most of his life — and zooming in on a dissonant scene: “Homeless man, Starter jacket his pillow, sleep in broad day.”

From there, Brown begins to poke at the indifference of a city that often seems to prioritize its reveling, money-spending visitors over its unhoused population.

His delivery itself carries a sly critique: The phrasing lounges just behind the beat or spills over into the next bar, stubbornly refusing to be hurried along from the unflattering realities that have his attention.

Then he shares a low-key warning with longtime residents: “Condos just keep coming up and generations going down / But look around: Yo hood might be next.” Brown punctuates that last line with a dry, half-laugh.

It’s tradition for hip-hop artists to rep the places, people and scenes they come from with fierce displays of pride. But in Brown’s music, including his new album, BBGonProfit, released in December, he makes a subtler art of speaking to and for his city, watchful and witty from where he stands on the fringes of Nashville’s powerful music industry and booming economic growth.

‘Don’t even look like it’s the street that it was’

A few years ago, Brown filmed the black-and-white music video for “Flava,” from his previous album, in the East Nashville neighborhood where he grew up.

He took me back there in late 2023.

Don’t even look like it’s the street that it was,” he remarks, gazing up and down Meridian Street. The old neighbors are gone and so are many of their houses. 

“All these skinny homes, ugh!” he complains, with an exaggerated groan of disgust. “They used to be the most gorgeous houses, too.” 

In his old cul-de-sac, the brick split-level of his childhood still stands.

“I’m glad to see 130 is still holding up strong,” he says. “But man, it’d be so much cooler if I was holding up 130 strong.” 

When Brown’s family sold the house in the late 2000s, none of them could have predicted how the price of Nashville real estate was about to balloon. He was a teenager, and “at that point in time,” he remembers, “I’m just hearing about gentrification and what it actually is.”

Brown had his head in basketball, video games and music. He played saxophone for the school band, tagged along with an aunt who worked the professional choir music circuit, playing piano for as many as four different church services in a single Sunday, and harmonized with his mother, an alto in the choir. Eventually, she got hired for a few studio sessions, singing backup for country stars who were craving a gospel sound.

By sixth grade, a few of his friends had formed a hip-hop crew, and he wanted in. First, though, he had to prove he could hold his own in an hour-long rap battle.

There’s no footage of that, but he retrieves his phone from his pocket and pulls up a clip of him freestyling around that same time in a trapper hat with fake fur ear flaps and a t-shirt from a basketball competition, in his words, “trying to be a weirdo, thinking I was cool.” 

Brown learned that he wasn’t the first in his family to rhyme when he found a notebook of his dad’s writing. The fact that his dad didn’t pursue rapping made Brown even more determined to share his own verses with the world.

‘I’m finally in a space to say the things I want to say’

After a brief detour through college in Kentucky, where Brown saw little point in attending any classes other than basketball and literature, he started befriending rising producers.

Ducko McFli, also from Nashville, helped him complete his debut mixtape — 7:22 — before moving on to collect production credits with Drake, Lil Yachty and others. For a short time, Brown also worked with Ktoven, who now produces as TIGGI, and crashed at a Chattanooga house shared by a group of artists trying to make names for themselves.

But soon after Brown followed Ktoven to Atlanta, the producer was pulled away by bigger opportunities. So Brown, who’d stayed in touch with the Nashville scene, especially the emerging Black City collective, headed home prepared.

“By the time I get back,” he says, “I’m like, ‘Okay, I think I’m finally in a space and a position to say the things I want to say, feel how I feel about all this change around me. And it translates, and it sticks too.’”

Brown’s 2020 album Journey, which includes “Flava,” reflected on his city from a mellow, jazz-tinged angle.

During the height of the pandemic, he couldn’t do much to promote it, but in early 2023, he booked a show at the all-ages venue Drkmttr, a mere five minutes from his old house, and presented the songs as he intended, with a full band, enthusiastic crowd and laidback showmanship.

“Where he is in his career now compared to where he was when he started is just like, ‘You’re doing what you said you wanted to do,’” his friend and manager Justin Causey told me as they prepared for that show. “We’re trying to build and identify his community, people that really like him and really, really support him, so that we can continue to feed them.”

‘I just think people need to hear that there’s somebody out there that cares’

A producer named Carmine Prophets got Brown’s attention a few years back when he sampled one of Brown’s tracks and created an entirely new piece of music from it. Prophets specializes in bass-heavy bangers, not exactly what Brown’s been known for. Still, Brown wanted to try recording together and see what he could write to suit a more muscular sound.

“A lot of his lyrics are very thought-provoking,” says Prophets. “So I think it’s interesting to have beats that still rattle in the trunk. People can still play these songs in the club.”

Last October, I witnessed Brown and Prophets at work in a Madison studio. Brown chose a beat that would make people move — one with the ticklish, polyrhythmic intricacy of a bossa nova — and casually edited himself as he laid his vocals over it. 

He had no trouble getting through the entire song, reading the lyrics from his phone. After finishing each take, he decided whether to do it over and tweak a few inflections or to move on and add another vocal layer. Soon he was sing-chanting over the hook, teasing out a slouchy melody.

It gave me a window into what makes his performances feel so casually thoughtful and thoughtfully casual, not to mention the flexibility that’s landed invitations to sit in with a jazz trio, share a bill with a punk band, guest on a hip-hop kids’ album and write with a country artist just in the last year or so.

Things came easily when Brown and Prophets decided to record enough material for an album. The title BBGonProfit is a reference to each of their names and to Brown’s drive — as a leader in Nashville’s underground hip-hop scene — to demand better compensation for his artistic labor.

“It’s like you worked really hard to get to that point and you profit off it and know that this is my worth,” Prophets explains. “Because there’s a lot of people that are actually really, really talented, but they don’t know their worth. The theme on the album is kind of like, ‘No, you actually worth something.’”

There are tracks like “Home” where Brown speaks directly to Nashvillians who’ve been displaced by development, many of whom, he knows, are Black.

“I just think people need to hear that there’s somebody out there that cares,” he says. “Like, you shouldn’t get removed from your space or from your natural habitat, all for cracker box houses that aren’t even built firmly or steady enough to survive.”