Interview: The Art of Hip Hop No. 1 with Black Milk
Born Curtis Cross, Black Milk is a renowned hip hop producer and MC from Detroit. Influenced heavily by the likes of J Dilla, he has worked with prominent musicians from all over the pop spectrum. Although a frequent collaborator, he has also forged a career as a solo artist and is due to release his sixth full length, If There’s A Hell Below, on October 28. His music has evolved steadily since his 2005 solo debut, Sound of The City, combining his foundational soul and jazz sampling with an ever increasing array of studio manipulations and sonic experimentation that mark him as both one of the most ambitious beat smiths now working, and one of the most subtle. He will be performing Saturday, October 18 at Johnny Brenda’s and recently spoke to us from Texas where he was visiting family.
The Key: You’ve been at this for a while now, how did this start for you and when did it start?
Black Milk: For me it kind of started around high school, like sophomore or junior year. I think high school is the time when people start discovering music and artists outside of the commercial or mainstream world. That’s the time when you start getting turned on to stuff in the indie or underground world, and that’s the time I was introduced to things that weren’t playing on the radio. I fell in love with that underground hip hop sound and got bit by the bug of wanting to do production, and I found that that was really where my heart was at. I really had a love for creating the music side of it, digging for records and finding all these different types of sounds.
TK: It’s one thing to be a young person with a lot of enthusiasm and love, and to find out not just that you love something but that you’re good at it too, but how do you go from that to actually being able to do it for a living? Like how did you get into a studio the first time?
BM: You know, like a lot of people that start off, I was just doing it for fun, making beats and rapping.
TK: A Laptop producer.
BM: [Laughs] This was before I even had laptops! This was like ‘98 ‘99 2000. I had a Roland W30 keyboard sampler that I bought from my cousin, and I had a Cassio keyboard and a karaoke machine. I was still on cassette and stuff like that. You know, just making beats for my circle, close friends and people like that. And I was happy just doing that.
What happened was one of my friends went on tour with Slum Village as a roadie and he had some of my music with him and they ended up playing some of it on the tour bus. And when Slum came back they wanted me to come to the studio, because they had heard the beats. This was around the time J Dilla was leaving Slum Village. So I went up there and kicked it with them and played some beats.
They were already my favorite group of all time so I was super excited to work with them. They picked a couple tracks and that was my introduction into the music industry because at that time they had a major record deal, with Capitol I think. That was around the time they made the album Trinity. So eventually I became an in house producer and then eventually stepped out on my own.
TK: One of the things that stands out about you is the amount of people you’ve worked with, from Dilla and the Slum Village set, to Danny Brown, to Black Thought, to, out of a clear blue sky, Jack White. Can you talk about what those experiences were like and what you’ve learned as a musician from all those collaborations?
BM: Working with those different artists, you have to live in the moment, create in the moment, and let whatever happens happen. With the people I’ve worked with in the past it wasn’t really strategically planned. We just get in the studio, you do what you do, I do what I do, and release it to the world.
TK: How did the Jack White thing happen? Obviously there’s the Detroit connection, but he had long been in Nashville by 2011 when you worked together.
BM: I asked him when I got down there. How did you even know I exist? He said he had come across one of my songs with Royce Da 5’9” and Elzhi called “Deadly Medley” and loved the music. He said he had wanted to collaborate with a hip hop artist from Detroit but hadn’t really come across anything that made sense. So he hit me up and asked me to come down and record a couple of songs for his Third Man label, and record a live album too. So my band and I went down to Nashville and got in the studio with him and some of his musician friends, and took a couple of days to record some tracks. He played on the guitar and my band did their thing and it was just a big jam session, and I was producing and directing the session. We actually played a show at his Third Man venue and they recorded it straight to vinyl. It was a just a dope experience.
TK: You’ve been incredibly prolific as well. If There’s a Hell Below will be the second project this year. You already released Glitches In The Break, which was an EP, and judging by the songs we’ve heard from the upcoming album, Glitches and Hell Below are very different pieces of work. Do you ever leave the studio?
BM: [Laughs] Most days I’m in the lab, making beats, trying to figure out what I want to do next. I’m always looking two or three years ahead in terms of where I want to go musically. By the time a project drops I’m like 2 projects ahead and the current stuff is old to me.
TK: I wanted to also talk to you a little about Detroit. Despite the sort of postindustrial blight of the city, it has continued to turn out distinct, interesting artists, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why that is?
BM: It’s kind of all you can do. It’s come to the point that the city kind of forces you to focus on something creative, or forces you to become a creative. There’s just not that much going on, and there hasn’t been much going on in Detroit for a while now. There’s nothing really to distract you in Detroit, all you can really do is sit inside, or sit at home, or sit in the basement, or sit in your bedroom and just create something. And if you’re not doing that, then you’re probably out in the streets in some trouble.
And the environment affects your art. The city is so grey, it’s always grey and cold and it affects the music, the way the music sounds, the may the music feels, and the attitude in the music. And us being in the middle of the map, I feel like that’s why you get such a diverse sound, especially form the hip hop artists. We’ve been one of those places that for a long while have experimented with all kinds of music, especially when it comes to our hip hop production. And when I was coming up, J Dilla was the spearhead of that.
It’s not really a big deal in 2014 for hip hop production to experiment with all these different sounds, because everybody does it all over the world. But in Detroit we were always on some hip hop that experiments with this prog-rock over here or this electronic music over there. Cats been doing that in our hip hop scene since the early 90s. So when I hear a lot of stuff that comes out today that people get excited for, I always think to myself, that was done years ago in Detroit. Cats over here were ahead of their time. And I think it’s because we’re in the middle of the map, we got vibes from the west coast, east coast, the south, Europe with the whole Kraftwerk movement, techno and all these different things.
TK: That’s why of the three songs you’ve released from If There’s a Hell Below, “What It’s Worth,” “Gold Piece” with Bun B, “Detroit’s New Dance Show” is my favorite one. A lot of people don’t know how influential Detroit was in the electronic music scene.
BM: Yeah that was clearly a nod to the old school electronic scene. I grew up watching that actual show, the Detroit Dance Show. At the time it was normal to me to hear all these different sounds, seeing people dancing to Kraftwerk, seeing black kids in the hood dancing to this group from Germany. But looking back on it now, or watching old YouTubes of the dance show, I think damn, that wasn’t normal. That was just Detroit and like Chicago.
TK: I want to go into a little production arcana here. What do you use or prefer when you work, MPC or ASR?
BM: I never work with ASR. I’ve been all MPC. I started off with an MPC 2000XL in the early 2000s. These last 5 year I’ve been working on MPC 3000. Man I can’t get away from that drum machine, there’s just something about it.
TK: And you also started adding live musicians to your recordings a few years ago, what prompted that, and what has that added for you?
BM: It kind of started in 2008 on Tronic, where I did it a little bit. It was just an idea I had. Like, man I want to put horns on this track; let me call a horn a player up and see what it sounds like to add a sprinkle of live music. And after that it made me want to experiment even more, and take the live musicianship on the road and incorporate it in my show. By the time Album of The Year came out  that had a lot of live instrumentation on it. Ever since then I’ve been chipping away at trying to master incorporating live music with sample based music because I love both. So yea I’m all in, I’m always going to have some form of live instrumentation in my music.
TK: Now, we’ve talked a lot about Black Milk the producer. Let’s talk about Black Milk the MC, which is a kind of underrated part of what you do. Incidentally, I’ve played into that with all those previous questions. Do you agree with that assessment first of all, that your rapping is underrated, and if so, why do you think that is?
BM: I’m definitely a better producer than rapper. Not to say that I’m not a good rapper, but the time I put into producing, and the passion that I have for producing, is bigger than the passion I have for rapping. I don’t even have a passion to rap, I just like to rap. I like spitting bars; I like to create whole songs. But for the most part, I can’t really say I have a passion for rap like a lot of rappers do. All they do is rap and think about words and patterns. I do it when it’s time for me to do it, when it’s time for me to go into an album. That’s when I put on my MC hat and think about patterns, and think about cadences, and content, subject matter, whatever. But other than that, I don’t think about it outside the album making process.
Meanwhile I’m making beats damn near every day, I’m always thinking about how to enhance things sonically, because that’s where my heart is at. But I feel like as an MC I’ve gotten better, especially these past few years. Maybe it because I’m getting older, but lyrically, I just don’t want to rap about rapping any more. Now I’m like, if this doesn’t have a specific subject matter or some kind of substance somewhere in the verse, I’m really not going to write.
With No Poison No Paradise , my last album, it was kind of a conceptual album. I took the time to talk about different things that I’ve never talked about before, and at this point I can look back on my career and life in general, and I can pick out different themes to talk about. Versus when you first come out as an artist, sometimes depending on how young you come out, the content might be a little limited. You’re just kind of raw; you’re just kind of making songs. Which is great too, because I feel like that’s some of the energy that I wish I could get back, some of that raw energy and spontaneousness; versus kind of thinking about stuff or even overthinking sometimes. But you lose that [energy], that’s just something artists lose three or four albums in. You just can’t get that back.
TK: Yeah people are fond of calling that maturity.
BM: [Laughs] Yeah, I feel like I’ve definitely grown a lot, especially as an MC.
TK: But for you the important thing is the music.
BM: As a listener, if the production isn’t moving me, I can’t listen to the song, no matter what genre. It’s like James Brown. You might not know what James Brown is saying half the time, but the shit is so fucking funky and the feel of the music is so dope, that it doesn’t even matter what he’s saying. Even Slum Village, they are not the greatest MCs at all, but stylistically, what they did on their earlier stuff, was just so fucking dope to me. I was like what is this? I don’t even know what they’re talking about half the time, but it just feels fresh.
TK: Well we’ve heard three songs so far. What else can we expect from If Theres a Hell Below?
BM: What I’ve been telling people is that this album is a continuation of No Poison No Paradise. It’s not conceptual like that was, but I have more things to say about where I’m from and more to tell of my story. I don’t think this album is as dark as No Poison though. And I have more features, I bring Blu in and Random Axe in and Pete Rock in and Bun B in, more rap features for sure. And I approach flows differently. I’m trying to experiment with news flows, patterns I’ve never tried before.
Black Milk’s headlines Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday October 18th with Reef the Lost Cauze and The Bul Bey. Tickets and information can be found here.