After health setbacks left him walking with a cane, Sonny Brown's career is back on the fast track
Sonny Brown is standing on the front steps of the Charles Street headquarters of Street Legal, a Baltimore-based hip-hop label and recording studio, shooting the shit with old friends. And even though the occasion is a relaxed summer cookout, business appears to keep happening out on those steps throughout the night. Sonny, who once recorded for Street Legal years ago, discusses returning to the label with owner Mark Carey and, later, agrees to record a guest verse for a solo album by Blankman of the group Parts Unknown.
Lawrence "Sonny Brown" Miller, 34, has had a long and storied career in Baltimore hip-hop, as well as a lengthy career in crime. In the mid-'90s as a member of the group Da Outsidaz, he scored a local radio hit with "Da Huh," but by the end of the decade his less legal activities began to catch up with him, and in 2002 he turned himself in and served a stint in prison on charges relating to drugs and child-support payments. "I was on my way to Mexico," Miller laughs. "I'm glad I didn't, because I got my freedom, and I can do what I want now."
Since getting out in 2003, Miller has focused on music, but it's been a long process of trial and error, jumping between different deals and affiliations. After co-founding and naming the label Major League Unlimited, the career of one of its other artists, Mullyman, took off and Miller eventually left the company he helped start. "I let him know, 'You know I came up with that, but to see you doin' what you've done with it, I'm proud,'" he says. "And that's what got me feelin' better about the situation. Mully's good people."
More recently, Miller has had brief stints with First Family Entertainment and DJ Excel's Bmore Original Records that didn't result in releasing any music, before finally winding up back at Street Legal.
Along the way, something funny happened: Sonny Brown became one of the most well-known and beloved figures in Baltimore hip-hop. And though his skills are respected, it was hosting events around the city, not rapping at them, that gained him name recognition, such as running the weekly Hip Hop 101 series at 5 Seasons, and MCing shows at countless other venues. And even though he never issued a solo album, his raspy voice, charismatic delivery, and colorful storytelling were a highlight of any record he appeared on, guesting on albums by Ms. Stress, Mullyman, and UnReal. And then things started to go wrong for him again.
In the summer of 2007, Miller suffered a series of health problems, first suffering a transient ischemic attack (commonly known as a "mini-stroke"), being diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his leg, and getting a bone graft on his hip. To make matters worse, soon after the operation he fell and broke his femur. Miller now walks with a cane.
Local music friends rallied around him, holding a Sonny Brown benefit concert at the Turntable Club to help cover medical bills. "I came to the realization that I'm gonna be disabled for a minute, you know, I prayed to God about it," Miller says, dryly adding, "I just gotta make this cane look as slick as possible when I'm onstage."
As he recovered at home, Miller spent long days on the phone with longtime friend and collaborator Mr. Wilson of the group JI-900, who was dealing with his own health issues. When Wilson passed away last summer, Miller took it hard.
Today, a year later, it's a little easier for him to talk about. "I think he knew he was gonna die," Miller says. "This is his jacket. He gave me a rack of his clothes and was like, 'Make sure you wear the clothes, man.'"
The extended series of personal and professional setbacks Miller has suffered has long delayed his solo debut, The Ginger Bread Man. It's a title he's talked about for years, and for a time considered dropping after other rappers used it, but has now decided to go forward with it. "I hear a lot of people runnin' around callin' themselves the Ginger Bread Man, but ain't nobody been on the run longer than I have," he says, recalling his criminal past. "For like three or four years, I turned myself in because I got tired of it."
He came close to releasing the album in May, but now, it's his own perfectionism holding it back a little while longer. "I finished the project, I got everything done," Miller says. "But it was like, listening to it, I just felt like it wasn't strong enough--like listening to it and putting it up to an Ogun record, it wasn't as strong as what I thought it could be."
Now, Miller is taking career advice from two of the biggest hip-hop fans he knows: his 65-year-old mother and his 12-year-old daughter. "My daughter was like, 'Daddy, you gotta put some shit out there that's really gonna fuck people up.' And I even let her cuss like that. I normally don't let my daughter curse."
Now, Miller is giving himself time to rerecord some songs with new producers, and as it happened, opportunity recently came knocking in the form of Clinton Sparks, a popular Boston-based radio DJ and producer. In 2004, Miller was recording at the same Virginia studio that Snoop Dogg was passing through, and ended up with a song featuring the rap legend. Sparks heard the song, originally titled "Gangsta Ish," and decided to remix it for his own album, keeping the Snoop and Sonny Brown verses, and adding a new beat and a verse from another mainstream star, Jadakiss. "He puts my vocals behind a beat he made," Miller says. "The shit is ridiculous--like, this is gonna be a big record."
As Miller waits for what could be the biggest song of his career to be cleared for release, he's going back to the drawing board with a renewed passion, making big plans with Street Legal, talking with producers, and thinking hard about his experiences and how they inform the messages in his music. "The kind of stuff that I'm gonna talk about in the record is not to tell little kids to do it," he says. "But to let 'em know that, 'OK, if you're wildin', then calm that shit down. Because at the end of the day, you're a good person. Even though you're out here buggin' out, somewhere in the midst of all that buggin', you're really a good person. And somewhere down the line, you're gonna be aight.'
"That's where I'm at right now, just tryin' to live a righteous life," Miller adds. "And this leg thing--God probably fucked my leg up so I can calm down. Plus sellin' drugs is the worst occupation in the world."