As the creator behind soundbeds for the likes of Detroit Rap staples like Slum Village and Phat Kat, as well as Pharaohe Monch and others, Hip Hop heads are already well-versed on Black Milk's capabilities as a producer. The Motor City wunderkind's combination of soulful samples, hard-hitting drums and—as of late—electronic elements has earned him status as one of the most sought-after producers in his field. And his third solo disc, Album of the Year, continues his progression by fattening his sound with even more live instruments.
But the the biggest story of Album of the Year project may be his lyrics, and how the deaths of Baatin (of Slum Village), Black's aunt, and the near-fatal stroke of manager hex murda, all within a year's time, exposed a new side of his rhyme book. Oh, and how not even city runners eLZhi and Royce Da 5'9” can outshine him on “Deadly Medley.” In an interview with HipHopDX, Black Milk talks about stepping up his pen game, describes standout songs from Album of the Year, and explains why he doesn't take life for granted.
HipHopDX: With Tronic, your goal was to sonically mesh the soulful sound of your previous music with more electronic elements. What's the sonic goal with this?
Black Milk: I think that was more so with this record, I wanted to mesh a soulful, melodic feel with an innovative twist to it that you don't get too much in Hip Hop. Tronic was kind of experimental, but I wasn't trying to do any Soul on that album even though a few joints had that bob to it. On this album, when I say “Soul,” more so in the sense of it being more musical and more melodic. That's what we tried to capture with this album, definitely bringing in more live instruments and having them playing on every track.
DX: That was actually my next question. You got Daru Jones, and the Will Sessions band's Tim Shellaberger and Sam Beaubien back in the lab. How much did your guys' chemistry improve between Tronic and this album?
Black Milk: The more times were were able to get into the studio together, a relationship naturally just builds. Ever since Tronic, me and Sam [Beaubien] had clicked anyway, and we were speaking in the same language in terms of music. It was easy since day one for us to get in there and make some dope shit. The vibe was always cool. When they come up to the studio, most of the time, I have the music already wrote [sic] out. I may play a horn part with the keyboard, and they'll come up and replay it. Or I'll have a melody, and they'll replay it. But I still leave it open for them to bounce ideas, give their opinion, I'll let them go and do their thing. If it works, we keep it. If it doesn't, it's all love. But working with Sam and Daru [Jones], and the Will Sessions musicians, it's a dope vibe. …
I don't really feel I'm doing something so extreme and so new. You've heard live music before, and you've heard live music in Hip Hop, but I just think I have a different approach with it. I think we're starting something new and organic, and it felt the same way listening to the album. This Album of the Year project is just the start for what's to come in the future. [Laughs] And I'm sort of like, who knows what we're going to come with next as long as we keep vibing in the studio like we've been doing?
DX: In the interview you had on your site, you say that certain artists and songwriters can't see the vision you have when they hear the beat, and that's exactly what I thought about when I heard "Gospel Psychadelic Rock." Take me through the process of that beat.
Black Milk: Oh word. [Laughs] It starts off like with mostly every track, digging around the crates and playing records until you find something you'd want to chop in the [Akai] MPC. That's basically what happened. Skipping through vinyl and found a Psychadelic Rock sample that I thought was dope. I chopped it up, and for some reason, I heard a Gospel style of singing on it, so I had Melanie [Rutherford] and AB sing this little hook with that approach. I'm like, “This could be a new little style of music that I'd want to experiment with more in the future.” I wanted to put live psychadelic guitars on the track, but I didn't have enough time, so I kept it as raw beat shit. I named it that because I'm going to experiment with this kind of style that mixes Rock, Psyc Rock, and a Gospel twist to it to bring all the worlds together.
DX: You've stepped up a lot lyrically with Album of the Year as well. Before, you were good at narrating, and being able to tell a story from point A to point B. But on “Distortion,” you're actually able to describe feelings that you had about losing Baatin, your aunt, and almost losing Hex. What as it like tapping into that part of your lyricism?
Black Milk: I wrote that song to a completely different track, but I end up coming with this drum beat and calling up Ryan [Gimpert], the guitarist for Will Sessions, to come to the studio and just play over this drum beat until I heard something I wanted to use. I just made the drum beat, looped it up, hit record on ProTools and he just started playing. I came back the next day to listen, and I found a four-bar part that I thought was that magic moment. I looped it up, and when I listened to the track, it had a dark, eerie vibe to it. I started spitting those two verses that I wrote to another beat to that particular track, and it fit way more. Doing that style of song, I knew I had to tap into a different kind of energy. I knew I had to make my voice a certain way, and project a certain way vocally to make that emotion come across.
I think Melanie Rutherford was the glue to all that shit, because the way she sung on it, you can feel it even more. Especially at the end, when she starts vibing out and I put the distortion on her voice. Ryan was having a soundcheck with his guitar to get it tuned right, and I took that and put it at the end; it sounded crazy to me, he didn't even play it like that on purpose. I thought the shit was dope, I put a little effect on it, and that also felt like part of the song to me, how the guitar was screaming out.
It was an eerie vibe to it. That's actually one of my four favorite joints on the album. Definitely the most personal I've ever been on record, and people are definitely going to hear a whole new side of me on it.
DX: At the beginning of the song, you rap about being drunk. But you almost sound that way throughout the whole song, especially at the very end...
Black Milk: I definitely went in on that track trying to put my mind in the place of a Jimi Hendrix. They convey messages the best. An old school artist from back then used to be able to draw that emotion out of a record better than cats can do today. I put myself in that mindstate of artists back then: How would they approach this record, how would they put those effects over here, and how would they paint certain stuff to capture that feeling?
Another thing is, I didn't want to come across as too emo either. It seems like that's the thing to do, just be an emo-ass rapper. I didn't want to come across as just crying or bitching about some shit. I think I did a good job of just telling people some real shit instead of just coming across like a bitch. [Laughs]
DX: On that song and “365,” you talk about the loss you dealt with with hex murda, Baatin and your aunt. I think a lot of people understand how eccentric Baatin was, and how trill and how funny hex is on Twitter. But you know them both really well. What's one thing about each of them that you don't think no one else knows?
Black Milk: Ah, I don't know man. It's hard to say something that people don't know, because hex [murda] is the kind of dude that doesn't really hide his emotions or how he feels about stuff. So the character you see in public, that's how hex is behind closed doors. He clearly has no filter, and he can tell you the truth in front of whatever in a public setting. That's the same way he is behind closed doors, and I don't know what I can say to make him seem anymore realer than what people already portray him to be. [Laughs] hex always keeps it 100. That's one dude I can say he never did anything that I caught a vibe from him where he was shady or had his own agenda. Another thing, I think people already know, hex is the biggest cheerleader for Detroit Hip Hop. Look at his Twitter timeline; he doesn't give a fuck about anything else. He thinks the best artists and emcees in the world come from here.
With Baatin, it's kind of the same case. Baatin was just him: a caring, loving, free spirit kind of person both onstage and offstage. One thing I can say about 'Tin, he always went out of his way to help. It was always just all love. I can't even think of a time where I've seen 'Tin mad, everything was always all love. Them two dudes, what you see is what you get. You can't say that about most people. Most people carry themselves a certain way to make it seem like everything is all good. And some people don't like to speak their mind, and if they do, they only do it behind closed doors. But those dudes, they put it out in the open.
DX: If you had to say one lesson you learned from each of them, what would it be?
Black Milk: One thing that applies to all three of them is life is way too short. Seeing 'Tin leave at a young age, seeing hex almost lose his life at the age he was at, and seeing my aunt, it reiterates to you how short and how precious life really is. You really need to set out to do what you're here for, and be about pursuing certain goals in your life and appreciating certain things and certain people. Don't take life for granted. That's the main lesson what I've took from all these experiences, ups and downs I've had since Tronic. I really need to hustle and pursue my dreams, because you never know how long you're going to be on this planet.
DX: I need to talk to you about “Deadly Medley.” Anytime I see a song like that, the first thing I think is, “Who had the best verse?”
Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah. That's just natural, though. If you're a Hip Hop head, that's kind of natural.
DX: So I first heard it, and I'm like, “Wow, Black is sort of killing this verse, but I've got to give it to Royce.” But then I thought, “Wait—am I just saying that because I automatically figured that it would boil down to being between eLZhi and Royce? Because Black's verse really might be better.” Were they surprised by your verse in the studio?
Black Milk: [Laughs] That's funny. They didn't hear the whole song till the end. I didn't hear their verses until I was done with mine, and they didn't hear the whole song till I mixed that shit. Usually, I would send the artist the track with my verse already on it. That's how I did “Losin' Out” [with Royce Da 5'9"] and “The Matrix” with Sean Price and Pharaohe Monch. The reason I work like that is because it puts me in a position to write my best shit, so that I'm so confident in my verse that I'll let you write after me. But schedules were crazy this time around, so I had to write it around the time they were writing it. They heard the beat and took it with them, and then I laid mine. I thought everybody came off and killed it, but I feel like I might've got them on this round bar for bar. [Laughs]
But you can't fuck around getting on a song with [eLZhi] and Royce. For one, I knew I wanted to put both of them on the song before I even started the album. The beat had to have a certain magic to it, and I thought that if we did it right, it could be the best joint to drop this year and that it could fuck some heads up. But I knew I had to be line for line going into that shit, because I already knew el was going to come with some shit, and of course, Royce is going to come with some shit. And you're not going to kill me on my own shit. That ain't 'gon happen. [Laughs]
DX: A long time ago, Royce and eLZhi said they were going to make an album with you doing the beats. Do you think that's still possible?
Black Milk: I don't know, man. I don't think it's impossible, I'll say that. But Elzhi is focusing on his solo shit, especially after this whole Slum Village situation. Royce has his solo thing, and his Slaughterhouse thing, and he has his obligations with Shady [Records] now. So who knows? I'm down with it. I'm here as a free agent. I think that would be a fun project to put together, and they could crush other niggas with that type of project. It's a matter of time to see what will happen in the future. I don't think it'll happen anytime soon with what everyone has going on.
DX: Between Tronic and Album of the Year, you've dropped a lot of random free songs. You also have Random Axe, the album with Melanie Rutherford, and the instrumental album as well. How do you make so much music in what seems like a short amount of time?
Black Milk: Man, I don't know. It doesn't really seem like a short amount of time to me. I try to get out at least one or two a year. But I didn't put out nothin' in '09. I toured in the beginning of '09. I guess Tronic came near the end of '08 in October, so that movement bled into '09. I didn't drop anything last year. But this is what I do, so what else would I be doing other that would be taking my time to record music and put it out? [Laughs] It's all I'm focused on, all I care about, and all I'm trying to master. I'm not focused on any other projects outside of music. Eventually, I want to venture out into other stuff, but right now, that's my whole focus. So I'm on that MPC a few times out the week, in the studio a few times out the week, trying to beat the last thing I put out.
You can be here one day, and gone the next. Peoples' attention spans are so short man, once they hear some shit, cats want to move on to the next so soon. But I don't like to put out shit to just put out shit. My shit has to have a level of quality and dopeness; I'm never going to drop something mediocre just to get my name out there.
DX: So when you have so much stuff, how do you decide what makes your album?
Black Milk: I've never been the kind of artist to do 40 songs and then pick the best 12-14 tracks. I know a lot of artists work like that, but I don't work like that. I'm not even going to waste my time writing to something if I don't think the beat is on a certain level of greatness. [Laughs] I don't even keep it, to tell you the truth. I'll just cut the MPC off, erase the shit and start all over. Once I record to a track, that means the track is on a certain level of dopeness and I'm going to keep that shit. If it's not there, I won't waste my time recording to it. I only had like two joints that didn't make the album.
DX: Man, you had dropped like five joints between Tronic and Album of the Year.
Black Milk: Nah, those were just random joints I was doing. I wasn't working on an album at that time. Only joint that didn't make the album were “Don Cornelius” and “How Dare You” . I did “How Dare You” after the album was turned in, and the only reason “Don Cornelius” didn't make it was because of the sample. “Don Cornelius” was supposed to be “Black and Brown;” the first part was me and Danny [Brown] rapping over the beat that's done now, and it was supposed to flip into the “Don Cornelius” beat with another verse from me and Danny. But once I found out we wouldn't use it because of the sample, I just leaked it with my verse. I didn't even plan on putting “Dreams”, “Mo Power” , “In the A.M.” , or none of those leaked joints on the album. Those were joints I just did in the moment and put out.
DX: You said on Twitter a while ago that all the artists you thought were going to come with impressive shit failed, even the ones that you know are talented. So who do you look to for inspiration these days?
Black Milk: The same cats that have inspired me since I started doing music. If it ain't nothing new, just go back to the old. From old school, legendary artists back in the day to classic Hip Hop albums and Hip Hop songs. Everybody knows I love Prince. I'm always listening to Prince, Stevie [Wonder], Marvin [Gaye], Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown, all that shit. On the Hip Hop tip, I can listen to an old [J] Dilla beat CD and instantly get inspired. That's just the way Dilla's shit is. Cats are still trying to catch up with the style of beats he was doing in 2000. It ain't too hard to find. I don't know if I'm stuck in the times, but I just know I like a certain quality of music. That shit's got to be some shit to inspire me, it has to be a certain greatness to it. There aren't that many records dropping that are pushing the envelope, or at least, pushing me to run to the studio. I heard a couple songs here and there throughout the studio that made me want to jump on the MPC, but I haven't heard any full albums that make me want to step my shit all the way up. So if I don't feel that way with something new, I'll just listen to something old.
DX: Hip Hop is often criticized for not having the respect for its elders the way that other genres do. But Detroit, more than many other cities, seem to really respect its pioneers in one way or another. Cats are still saying “R.I.P. Dilla, Proof, and Blade Icewood” at shows years after they passed. Where do you think that comes from?
Black Milk: The Hip Hop scene here is way smaller than scenes out in the east coast or scenes on the west coast. Everybody knows each other. If there's a Hip Hop event going on, I know damn near everyone I'm gon' see. I think that's how it is with everybody. It's a small group of people, so for us to lose someone like Proof, Dilla or Blade [Icewood], it affects our scene differently. It's so small, it really does feel like family. That's more than just your homie, it feels like family. The music scene here, everybody is so close. We only have one or two venues that cats go to for a Hip Hop show, and the scene is pretty small. Everybody knows each other. There's nobody you'd see on the scene that you've never met; all the artists know each other.
So to lose somebody like the artists we lost, especially Dilla and Proof, they were like the heads of the Hip Hop scene. Dilla created a sound that the world took and ran with. And Proof was the man between the Hip Hop music scene and the street music scene, he was between both worlds and he was the leader, so he had seen it develop and grow. When you lose two leaders like that, that really affects home. And Blade, being one of the main dudes from the street side of things. We lost leaders, man, not random artists, so that's why it affects us in a different way.