MC and Producer Black Milk on Learning from J Dilla and Chasing New Sounds

A Detroit native son reflects on his journey from young Dilla disciple to esteemed indie artist and producer

When he emerged out of Detroit’s west side in the mid-2000s, Black Milk was heralded as an exciting young producer and MC in the mold of his hero, J Dilla. With a flurry of highly praised solo releases, productions and collaborations, Black Milk would quickly establish himself as an important musical figure in his own right. As a beatmaker, the breadth of his sample-driven boom-clap effortlessly progressed into live instrumentation, fueling acclaimed pairings with Danny Brown, the band Nat Turner and the hip-hop super group Random Axe with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price. As a wordsmith, his material gradually advanced into more personal territory, touching on topical subject matter with an impressive assuredness via projects like No Poison No Paradise and Fever. In this edited excerpt from his Fireside Chat on Red Bull Radio with Jeff “Chairman” Mao, Black Milk discusses his creative evolution.

Maxwell Schiano

Tell us where you’re from, and if you feel like there’s a special pride that comes with being a musical person from that place

I’m from Detroit. Born and raised, west side of Detroit. Grew up on the street – Pierson Ave, Schaefer. Being from Detroit, as a musician, as an artist, I feel like it’s one of those things where I’m pretty lucky. I’m kind of fortunate to come from that city, ’cause as a artist I feel like it has probably the richest music history out of any city in the world. Me going into that field, in that industry, it feels good to be able to represent. And then on the flip side, I also always felt like I got to do my part in terms of trying to do what I do as best as I can, to go down in those history books next to all of the people that came before me that laid all the groundwork. There’s no other place I would rather be from. That Detroit pride is always there.

What are your early memories of Detroit hip-hop? Were old enough to be able to experience places like the Hip Hop Shop firsthand?

I barely got a chance to experience the Hip Hop Shop. One time, and luckily enough it was one time where Eminem was up there. If anyone knows anything about Detroit, rap battling and the Hip Hop Shop, Eminem has this legendary battle against this other rapper from Detroit that’s crazy as well named La Peace, and I actually just ended up there that day. Out of all days, and that was the only time I ever hit the Hip Hop Shop. I went up there with a few of my older cousins. That’s like my earliest, earliest memories of when I started getting into not just Detroit hip-hop but just the sound of music that was different than the commercial music that I always knew and always heard. So I was just exploring this whole other side of rap music.

The Slum Village’s, the J Dilla’s, you see that they react in a positive way to what you’ve made, it’s like, “Hell yeah, this all I’m about to be doing forever.”

What was distinctive to you about being in Detroit in that era, in your formative years?

When you’re young at that time and you kind of looking at everyone around you or everyone in this scene of music, excited about what they’re doing and this unique thing that they have and they could call their own, that makes you excited and want to be a part of it. It was one of those things where I might not have understood how great it was in the moment and how we kind of ahead of our time in a few different things… But at the time I didn’t really realize it.

I was just excited to be around some older cats that was dope, so of course that made me want to go back and try to see if I could create something that the people I respected will respect. Then once I started getting that respect, I start meeting certain cats and my music start getting around the city and my name started getting around locally, and I seen that people actually dug what I was doing, that’s the greatest feeling. In a world where people actually like what you do and then when you get acknowledgement from people you look up to, like I said, the Slum Village’s, the J Dilla’s, you see that they actually react in a positive way to what you’ve made, it’s like, “Hell yeah, this all I’m about to be doing forever.”

How did Dilla react to hearing your beats?

It was a few times when Dilla came around to the studio, and Slum Village, they were on a label, Barak Records, and they worked at the studio out in Southfield, Michigan. Dilla use to come up every now and again, and I remember specifically this one time, it was me, Young RJ, we was working on this project called the Dirty District, and we was playing this record “Do Ya Thing.” We was playing a beat for it, and I just remember it was Dilla, it was Frank-N-Dank, they were in the studio, and I just remember Dilla really feeling it. And after we stopped playing it, I just remember him saying, “Yeah, I’m about to go home, ’bout to go home, I got to go home, man, just make something.”

B.R Gunna - Do Ya Thang feat. J Dilla

So just seeing that little reaction, I’m just like, “Ah, that was good and bad,” ’cause I’m like “OK, that’s great, he like it, but that means he about to go home and just make something that destroys everything.” He actually end up rapping on that track, so that’s a memory that sticks out. And him rapping over me, producing a few other things that Dilla jumped on as a MC, it just was acknowledgement that he dug what I was doing.

How did you wind up embarking on your own career?

The way I started my own solo thing was I never stopped rhyming, I never stopped writing, rapping, whatever you want to call it, even though I was basically Slum Village’s in-house producer at the time. It came to a point… I just wanted to try my hand at putting out my own solo project. This was around 2005, MySpace days, when it was just crazy. MySpace was crazy, so I think Phat Cat, another dope artist from Detroit, he was kind of the one that put the battery in my back in terms of “Man, you just got to do this, do this, do that. Just go record some stuff and put it out there and see what happens.”

So I did that, put it out, dropped it online, put it up on the MySpace profile page, and from there that’s when the fans, people, support start slowly but surely growing. And my name was kind of out there through the Slum thing. My first project was called Sound Of The City, and that was like the beginning of it all. Once I got that love and fanbase start to bubble and build, I just kept going. Then actually, shout out to Fat Beats, they had hit me up to do a deal for a few albums and start rocking with them and yeah, everything else was history. I’ve been rocking like this ever since.

When you go back and listen to your early albums, what goes through your mind now about what you were doing then?

Going back and listening to earlier music that I made, for one, I try not to. I think most artists might kind of cringe when they listen back to their earlier stuff, even though most fans, that’s the albums that they love the most. But you just hear that raw energy… An artist, a person that doesn’t have a care in the world. Their mind hasn’t been corrupted yet in terms of press getting at them yet or seeing reviews, or industry stuff happening to them. They’re just excited about making music. I think that’s the main thing I hear and I take from when I listen to the earlier stuff. You just hear a person excited about making music that hasn’t been tainted yet by the industry and all the crazy stuff that happens.

Even now, I try to do my best to try to tap into that place, ’cause it’s hard to not think about so many things when you record and create. It’s hard to not think about is fans going to like this or how is these people going to review it. Even though I do whatever I want to musically, but there’s no way to not think about that stuff. Or that stuff creep in your mind every now and again.

What kind of set-up were you using at the time?

Back then, the drum machine I had was a MPC2000 XL. Thas all I was using from Sound Of The City, Popular Demand, Tronic, Album Of The Year, and then I moved to the MPC3000 on No Poison No Paradise, If There’s A Hell Below, and now for Fever, that was all produced on an MPC Touch, MIDI controller, Ableton. Everything is software now. I’m not really using any of my hardware, unfortunately. I converted everything over, felt like I was behind for a long time in terms of catching up to everyone that was using software, all the new kids and young producers that was. I was like, “I have to convert over,” and that’s what I use mainly, MPC Touch and Ableton.

Black Milk - The Matrix feat. Pharoahe Monch, Sean Price and DJ Premier

At a certain point your production began to more heavily incorporate live instrumentation. Had you studied with any formal training?

In terms of live music, live instrumentation, I never was trained with music theory, formally trained or anything like that. Everything I’ve ever done was by ear. Once I started incorporating live musicians and music into my production, which was around 2008, when I made an album called Tronic, that’s when I got the bug of hearing or seeing what I could do with my production and the next level I could take it to once I started bringing live musicians in. With my live show as well, so that was around the time where I started doing shows with a band, touring with a band, and recording almost all of my projects from then had some kind of live instrumentation on it. It just adds extra layers and extra dynamics that I can’t do just with a machine and samples.

How does that alter your approach?

It definitely changes my approach. Like with the whole sample clearance thing, that’s always been an issue for, especially major label type of artists, but now that’s become a issue with even indie artists. You got these sources, but that’s like telling everybody everything, so now being someone that’s experienced getting got for a few samples that I’ve used, I’m more conscious of, “OK, I know if I loop this, I’m either going to have to clear it or not use it at all.” Having a lot of musicianship helps me, like if it’s a melody or anything like a chord progression or whatever that I like on a record, I could just have somebody either replay it and then I could take those stems and tweak them, chop it up and still make it something totally different. That’s the beauty of being able to have all of the new technology that we have, for one, and then having really super dope musicians around you.

Collaborations are a big part of your discography. How would you describe the appeal of doing these types of one-off projects?

I like to collaborate with different artists, ’cause it allows me to produce or do certain things musically that I wouldn’t do for myself, and vice-versa. I do my solo projects because mainly, I love making music, writing music, producing music, but also it allows me to create something that I know maybe some rappers or singers or whatever might not fall... They might hear the production and it might not work for what they’re doing, so I use it for myself. That’s like the main reason to work with other artists, is just doing things that you wouldn’t necessarily do for yourself as a lyricist or songwriter. Working with people like Danny Brown, I’m going to give him something totally different than I’m going to use for myself or working with Busta Rhymes. People that have totally different styles and on a different vibe than I’m on, that’s the best thing. And I don’t have to worry about rhyming. I could just focus strictly on the music.

Stuff like Random Axe or Guilty Simpson – RIP to my man Sean Price – when we had that group, working with artists like that allows me to do even more dirtier, grimier type beats that I might not keep for my own stuff. ’Cause sometimes I go more musical with my stuff. But now I could get some super raw shit off with them.

Was there a template or another super group that provided the inspiration for Random Axe?

There wasn’t really a blueprint for Random Axe because the group came together organically, and there wasn’t many people doing those type of collaborations and teaming up. I feel like Random Axe was one of the first. I feel like it was us and Slaughterhouse. It was like the first two at that time putting a idea out there of, “Yo, two, three or four rappers can come from totally two different places and team up and just mess up the fans’ heads,” like “What in the hell was about to happen?”

It was a thing where Guilty wanted Sean Price to feature on one of his songs for Guilty’s solo album. I produced the track for Guilty, and the outcome of the song was dope and our manager at the time was like, “Yo, I think this would be a dope, super dope crew,” like you, Black and P get together and just did a full project. We put the idea over to Sean, Sean thought it was dope and he was down with it, and that’s kind of how Random Axe started.

Random Axe - Another One feat. Trick Trick and Rockness Monsta

How do you want to remember Sean Price?

Musically, even before we met he was already one of my top five, top ten favorite MCs, and just me thinking about even further back when I was younger, the whole Boot Camp days, I was a huge fan of BCC [Boot Camp Clik]. It was super dope to be able to do some music with him and just on a personal level, his personality was bigger than life. He was probably one of the top five funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. Everything was just always laughs, whether it was in the studio, on tour, it was just too much. To the point where we first started recording, he came to Detroit, the first few days we didn’t even record music ’cause it was just all jokes and just him cracking jokes and us laughing. Our manager had to tell us, “Yo, y’all got to do some music at some point before you go back home to New York.” That’s the main thing I remember about P – comedy, just laughs all the time and of course, incredible, incredible quotables, bars.

Traditionally in hip-hop on the so-called purist side of things, there was this idea that you were often expected to abide by certain rules or codes creatively. Do you feel like you’ve had the freedom to be able to evolve the way you want?

I don’t want to say that’s one thing I’ve struggled with, but that’s just one thing that can become kind of annoying sometimes. When you get certain responses or just certain things where people aren’t ready to try new things with you or move forward or try to push the envelope or try to take certain risks outside of their comfort zone. Of course, I experience that, but luckily enough, with this album [Fever] it seems like it’s just been all positive feedback. I haven’t really seen any feedback where it was like, “Yo, go back to such-and-such.” Or like, “Why you not doing this thing or that thing?” I think that’s great. People are finally like becoming more open. I think the times we live in, you kind of got to be a little more open-minded and not stuck in the time warp.

I feel like artists from Detroit maybe are just built that way to some degree, too, because one of the things that always impressed me is how creative musicians, artists from Detroit, always seem to be aware of what other artists are doing from the city, even if it’s not their genre.

Definitely, definitely. Artists from Detroit, we’re influenced by everything that’s going on around us outside of the hip-hop box. So of course, if you was in Detroit and you grew up through the ’80s and the ’90s, you heard electronic music, you heard techno, you heard Kraftwerk. It was just a thing that played on the radio, it played at the clubs. Kids in the hood was dancing to it, so it was just a part of your fabric.

If you decided to go into music and become an artist, of course those sounds and those elements and rhythms are going to still be in your head, and you’re going to make music with a certain kind of feeling because that stuff is a part of your rhythm. When you hear a lot of producers from Detroit, whether it’s me, whether it’s Dill or whether it’s Waajeed or Karriem Riggins… Of course you put them more in the hip-hop category, but their music, you’re going to hear so many different kind of sounds that’s not just based in soul and jazz and funk. You’re going to hear all kinds of stuff.

You just want to start creating things that mean something and have a timeless element to it.

Hip-hop is often thought of as a young person’s game. I’m not trying to make you out to be older than you are – you’re still young – but as you’ve grown, how do you think that your approach has evolved and changed?

The thing that keeps me pretty motivated and inspired is, for one, hearing new music and new things, and definitely technology has a part. The way technology advances, that plays a part in wanting to try new things, because technology is allowing everyone to get closer and closer to creating what they hear in their head. Then in terms of songwriting, I think you get to a point where you just don’t want to rap or write songs for the sake of writing songs. You want to do stuff that kind of means something, so you start writing about more life experiences and stuff that’s happening around you and just paying attention to what’s going on in the world. And that’s what Fever is kind of about, just me addressing certain things that’s happening right now.

So whenever I put out my next album, it’d be a thing where I’m talking about what’s happening at that point in time. I think when you get to a certain point in your career, a certain age or whatever, you just want to start creating things that mean something and have a timeless element to it.

What's the biggest challenge in writing topical material?

In terms of creating music, songs or whatever, with messages or topics that’s probably been touched on a million times, it’s one of those things [where] that’s the point of being a artist. You have to figure out a way to dig deep and do it again, but in a more creative way or in a new way, because a lot of the things that’s happening has happened before and going to continue to happen. You’ve got to figure out a way to address those things, but still in a dope way. Not too preachy. I think I do a good job at that. ’Cause I’m not a preachy person, I’m not a person that judges anyone for anything that they do, so I write in a way where it’s simplistic, bold, straight to the point. It’s crystal clear, the message that I’m trying to get across. And it’s never like, “Do this and don’t do this.” It’s just me just showing that I’m aware of these things going on.

By Jeff “Chairman” Mao on May 22, 2018

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