A year ago, Black Milk dropped No Poison No Paradise, and received high praise from Hip Hop fans and critics alike (HipHopDX awarded it a 4.5 out 5 Rating). The Detroit producer, who cultivated fame with his beat making, always had a knack for rhyming too. But it was only then that people began taking notice: Black Milk the lyricist had arrived. Now, with seemingly no time wasted, he’s back on the scene with a new album, If There’s A Hell Below.
Thematically, the album is a continuation of sorts. Where No Poison No Paradise was a concept album and a tutorial in story telling, If There’s A Hell Below captures the same mood and energy, but from a different viewpoint.
During a recent interview with HipHopDX, Black Milk discussed his approach to song-writing, different musical genres, and working with artists like Pete Rock, as well as Guilty Simpson and Sean Price as Random Axe.
“Pete’s the type of person he’ll send me a text with a beat playing in the background, like a little video text with just a few seconds of him just playing a beat in the background like, ‘Listen to this,’” says a chuckling Black Milk.
Besides working with Hip Hop All-Stars, this album is testament to the journey Black Milk has taken. From the lyrics to the beats to the message, his work indicates a philosophical artistic approach.
“I feel like [there is] so much more I want to learn about just music in general, and so many places I still feel like I haven’t gone musically that it feel wide open. So it’s like, “Damn, man, I’ve been doing this thing for 10 years and it still feel like just the beginning.”
Black Milk Lines up If There’s A Hell Below and No Poison No Paradise
HipHopDX: We know you got a little Curtis Mayfield thing going on, but can you tell me a little about the title and how thematically it relates to the album as a whole?
Black Milk: Yeah, obviously I got the phrase “If There’s a Hell Below” from the Curtis Mayfield song. But I kind of wanted to play on words where — I wanted to make the title have a different meaning than it coming off so literal. It was more like asking the question in terms of Hip Hop, or how the album represented an environment like where if you ask if there’s a hell below, some people feel like this is already it, or we’re already in it. For some people I should say. So I was trying to kind of paint these different pictures of what these different scenarios of living in this “hell.” For me, [it is just] being from a certain kind of neighborhood and just trying to find happiness within that hell. So I was just trying to play on words.
And this album is also kind of a continuation of the last album, No Poison No Paradise. I feel like if people listen to them back-to-back they can kind-of hear a lot of similarities. But this one is not as conceptual as the last one. The last album had an actual character kind of narrating the whole story, but this one is more in first person. So yeah, that was the direction I was trying to go.
DX: That actually segue’s perfectly into my next question, because right next to No Poison No Paradise, fans and critics might be more inclined to say No Poison No Paradise is more of a concept album in the traditional sense. So along those lines, how else are these albums different?
Black Milk: I mean, besides this one not being a conceptual album, I think more so it’s just the energy. I can’t really describe it in words, I just think the energy is slightly different where this album still has its dark moments, but it’s not dark like No Poison. This album feels a little more upbeat in a way where the energy just feels a little more vibrant, where you could say No Poison was this tale with these super dark moments. I feel like this album is kind of like telling the tale of still having those dark moments and kind of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel damn near. So that’s how I feel it’s different, but like I said, for the most part I’m still describing these stories and painting certain pictures about what people see that come from a certain kind of place.
DX: So in your own words it might be a good idea to listen to No Poison No Paradise all the way through and then If There’s A Hell Below right after it to have the whole experience?
Black Milk: These last couple years, the way I’ve been creating has just been in kind of a reflective stage where I’m kind of just reflecting on a lot of different things, so these last two albums kind of represent this point of my career where I’m going through that stage of creativity where I’m, just like I said, reflecting on different things that’s happened in the past and different things I went through, and different things I’ve seen other people go through. So that’s why these albums kind of came out back-to-back right after each other, ‘cause that’s just kind of the wave I’ve been on the last couple years.
Black Milk Explains Production Techniques For If There’s A Hell Below
DX: And like you said about the vibe, fans can definitely hear the vibe translate and segue into the next one. But also, what I thought was unique about this album is the track sequencing and the flow of the album, song-to-song, beginning to end is incredibly precise and crisp. How labor-intensive was just that process alone?
Black Milk: It really wasn’t that much labor, there wasn’t that much labor for me. I don’t know, maybe because I had just did an album with that similar theme, so I kind of — my mind was already wired to map out a project that way. And I guess just being a producer, man, and not even just a producer. Just me, the way I go into my albums, I always say I’m not really one of those artists that records like 30-40 songs and just picks the best 12. The way I create is like, I really won’t even create a record if I don’t think the track is the direction I’m trying to go. I think the more labor-intense part is me just trying to search for these different — you know, ‘cause my production is very sample-heavy — so I think the most labor-intense part is me just trying to find these different samples that make sense with one another on one record.
So that’s more so the hard part, but once I get the flow, or once I get the core foundation of the samples that I feel that express the vibe or the picture I’m trying to paint, that’s when the words just come easy, and that’s when I’m like, “Okay, that’s how I want to start the album,” and “This is the mood I want to go into,” and the middle of the album, and, “This is how I want it to end.” So the more intense part is picking the right, or waiting for the right samples to come your way. ‘Cause sometimes projects or samples come faster than others, and it might be that one mood that you know you’re trying to put on the album but you haven’t found the right track or the right loop to express that mood you’re going for. For a person like me that samples as part of my production, it kind of sucks ‘cause I gotta wait until I come across that track or that sample that I feel like has that magic in it and fits perfect.
DX: So nitty-gritty, the way this album sequences, we should be tipping our hats to production and not engineering in that sense?
Black Milk: Well, yeah, it’s definitely a combination of both. It’s a combination of it all, ‘cause I’m at a point now as a producer where I can make each track seamlessly flow together. I definitely have different tricks in production tips and things and ways that I do things to make one track and transition into the next song and make it flow. That’s one skill I’ve picked up over the years and I can kind of do that easy. So yeah, man, I kind of feel good to be at this point as an artist where you can walk into any project or produce any project, not just like my solo stuff, but even if I have to co-produce or executive produce somebody else’s stuff, I know exactly how to take an artist’s project and make it feel cohesive. And sometimes when two tracks don’t make sense, if it’s two tracks that might be extremely different, I kind of know what to do to make those tracks make sense together when one comes after the other. But like I said, it’s just learning different things over time. Now I know how to do it.
DX: When you were making the beats for this album and you were putting everything together, was this something you could do on the go, or where you in a studio for most of it?
Black Milk: Yeah, I did everything at my home studio. I stayed at my home work station, I didn’t really go to like a — I never really was one of those artists that worked out of a big studio and recorded projects out of a big studio. There might have been one or two, like Caltroit and Album of the Year, ‘cause that was a lot of live music involved, so I had to go record it somewhere else. But for the most part I come from the class of the basement producer or the bedroom producer. Even to this day I have my own studio room at the crib, so that’s how it work. That’s just how I’m used to working.
Black Milk Says He’s Gotten More Conceptual Lyrically
DX: That’s dope. Lyrically you take steps with each album you make — which isn’t to say you weren’t lyrical in the first place. You have a very visual voice and you’ve got great imagery to your lyrics. What goes into your lyric writing process?
Black Milk: I don’t know, man. I feel like I’ve always had that skill of being descriptive and painting an image in a person’s head with lyrics, but I never really happened to do it on my early work. Earlier work it was more so like rapping about Rap. I don’t know if it’s a thing ‘cause I’m getting older or what, but now I feel like I’m tapping into that artistry a little more where I’m telling more stories, I’m getting a little more conceptual, a little more personal. And yeah, man, it’s just awesome to listen to music, listen to a record and see the visual in your head while you listening. I started doing this a lot of course on No Poison, so to see how people reacted to it like, “Damn, man. The way you telling these stories,” and to see people connect on a personal level, “I know that lifestyle,” or “I can relate.” When you can connect with people and people can relate to what you’re talking about, you kind of gotta keep feeding them that. As an artist it makes you want to continue to kind of stay on that wavelength. So that’s why when I went into this album I kind of was like, “I’m not necessarily going to make this a concept album, but I’ma keep the visual part of my lyrics there.” The descriptive part and that certain energy, so when you listen to the record you can kind of already see the video in your head, or the movie playing in your head.
DX: How often do you write according to a beat as opposed to just sitting down and writing a song for the sake of it?
Black Milk: Most of the time it starts with the production and the beat kind of tells me where to go lyrically. That’s how it starts the majority of the time. But you know, every now and again I might just have an idea or a concept — honestly, coming off of No Poison and going into this album and seeing how people reacted to more of the storytelling type of stuff, it made me kind of think of some story ideas beforehand, before I even got to the production. I guess tracks like “Story And Her” on the new album where I’m like, “I’ma do this girl type of track, but I want it to have a twist to it. I don’t want to have a generic type of just girl song for the album.” So that ending part, that was more me coming up with that at first before the production, ‘cause I had the first half already and I was like, “I’ma put a twist on this at the end.”
DX: So more often than not, you’ll just go in, make a beat, and then figure out what you want to rap over it?
Black Milk: Yeah. But most of the time I let the production tell me where to go. I’ll make the beat first.
Black Milk Discusses Working With Pete Rock and Random Axe
DX: I’ve gotta ask you about Pete Rock. Was collaborating with him something you had in mind specifically for If There’s A Hell Below?
Black Milk: You know what, not initially, man. That was like one of the last records I recorded, if not the last recorded for the album. But the reason why I asked him to get on the record is ‘cause we was already going back and forth on some, you know, just communicating on some production stuff. Pete’s the type of person he’ll send me a text with a beat playing in the background, like a little video text with just a few seconds of him just playing a beat in the background like, “Listen to this,” [laughs] and I have to send him something. You know how producers and—you know, that nerd beat shit, like “Check this out,” and trying to keep inspiring each other with beat stuff.
So yeah, man, I was working on the album, and like I said, we’ve been communicating for the past couple years going back and forth. So when I made the record I think he might have just sent me one of those kind of texts where he’s like, “Yo, listen to this track,” and I was like, “Man, it’d be dope if I had Pete Rock spit a verse on this shit.” So I was like, “Yo, I got this record, I’m trying to finish up this new album. It’d be an honor to have you on the record.” And he was down, I told him direction and he checked it out. He was flipping over the beat, he thought the beat was like — it was crazy to have him react like that to one of my tracks. Pete Rock is a living legend. So yeah, he laid the track down, and that’s how it went down.
DX: Tell me if I’m reaching on this. You mentioned earlier that if two songs don’t sound the same, you’ve got it down to science where you can make an interlude or something and make them connect seamlessly. So with regards to that, at times, on one or two tracks, there’s sort of a vibe like Pete Rock, The Main Ingredient style interludes between tracks. Is that safe to say or not really?
Black Milk: That’s definitely safe to say. That’s the whole idea of putting interludes in between tracks. That shit is Pete Rock shit [laughs]. That definitely stems from Pete Rock and [J] Dilla. Pete Rock and Dilla, they was, for me being big fans of their music, they were kind of known to do that. To tease you with a track that plays for like 10 seconds and then fade out, it’d be like the greatest shit and then you be upset that it didn’t play out longer [laughs]. But yeah, man, that’s definitely Pete Rock inspired. He’s the master when it comes to putting crazy beats between songs just like fuckin’ your head up. You be sittin’ there just rewinding those few seconds.
DX: The track “Hell Below,” first question is who is Gene Obey?
Black Milk: That’s this artist that I was working with; a vocalist and I kind of had him like — just using his vocals to add a little atmosphere around the track.
DX: Categorically, how would you define this one? Is it Hip Hop? Is it a mix of different kinds of music? Is it something else completely?
Black Milk: Yeah, man, it is a mix. It comes off jazzy with the samples and being really melodic it comes off kinda jazzy. But I wanted to make a fast-pace kind of drum to it, so that’s what I did. And add little horns here and there. So it’s kind of a mass of some like Jazz/Hip Hop/Jungle type of mashup [laughs].
I made that track where I was at a point where I was just making different batches of beats on some experimental shit. That was just one of the ones, ‘cause I was actually working on another project also; a little side project. But that was one of the ones that the creed or the vibe I was going for on the other project kinda bled into this project at that moment. So that’s why I made that track, and that track kinda represents being born into hell. Not necessarily born into hell, but an environment that you really don’t have no control and hope. When you’re born into certain situations like being from the hood, that’s something you have no control over. So that’s kinda why I faintly have — you can hear kids voices kinda like going in and out in the back of the track ‘cause that’s kinda what it is. But like I said, when you’re young, you don’t even realize that you’re living in the hood or that deal. You’re just living. So that’s kinda what that track represents, man. You can hear the baby being born at the beginning of the track.
DX: What do you listen to outside of Hip Hop?
Black Milk: Yeah, like Gary Newman. You know, all that UK, German type shit. I don’t really know anyone — at least none of my friends — that just listens to one genre of music. You have your preference, but for me Hip Hop is always gonna be my core just because I grew up in the environment that the music that was played most of the time was Hip Hop and R&B and Soul. Just growing up in a certain type of environment where you in school with kids and everybody are just into Hip Hop it’s naturally going to be my core. But for the most part I enjoy everything. I have a love for damn near every type of music probably, except Country [laughs]. So it be hard when I come across certain people, Hip Hop fans that only love Hip Hop. Like, that’s cool, but it kind of throws me off a little bit. I don’t see how you can only love one genre.
So yeah, me getting inspired by all these different sounds and types of music is just naturally going to come out through the music that I do. It’s always gonna have that boom and that bap to it, but you know, there’s just times I’ma take that turn.
DX: This is a technical question. On “Scum” the Random Axe track, I’m just curious, why the beat changes for you, Guilty [Simpson] and Sean [Price]?
Black Milk: I don’t know, man. For one, there are a lot of beat changes on this album period. It’s a lot of different little switchups, and I guess I’m at a point where that’s just something I like to do. I guess I’m just getting bored quickly when I listen to a three-minute record that has the same beat looping around. At times, depending on the record and where I want to go, that’s what I’ve been into lately, is just like, doing records and drastically changing it up. Switching the track up midway through the song. So with that one I already knew like, “Man, I just want to rap over three different beats. I want the beat to keep changing. I don’t want to do just one beat and then us all do three verses or whatever. So yeah, I just wanted to do something different and kind of make it feel like somewhat of a—I don’t really want to use the word “cypher,” but that’s the only word I can think of right now. But somewhat of a cypher, ‘cause that’s kind of the only moment of the album where it’s not on some super conceptual, deep in thought type shit. I just wanted to have an album where it’s just straight up cats is just rapping. I tried to drop a little bit of something in my verse, tried to put a little bit of substance in my verse [laughs]. But for the most part it’s just, I already know Random Axe is about—Random Axe and Black Milk are two different things. Random Axe is about just straight up bars. Just bars and beats for the most part.
DX: That’s what’s up. Are there any plans for another Random Axe album?
Black Milk: Yeah, hell yeah, man. That’s kinda what that song is for too is just to kinda let people know that Random Axe, that wasn’t just a thing we did, or a moment we had that we put behind us. We gonna definitely get back in the studio and work on another one. So that particular track was just to gear people up, and the people that are Random Axe fans, give ‘em a little excited like, “Oh shit, okay! [There’s a] possibility for another album. It might be on the way.” So yeah, that’s definitely gonna happen. I’ve been talking to P, I’ve been talking to Guilty, and they ready too.
Black Milk Reflects On The Last Decade
DX: You got any tours or—I hate to ask about music already, but what’s on the horizon?
Black Milk: Well yeah, right now we’re definitely going to put together a long tour run at the top of next year some time, so we trying to put that together now. The band, and me I rock with Nat Turner, so we’re gonna try to put something together. Then on the music tip, right now I just kinda want to focus on production and producing for other artists, man. I’ve dropped a lot of solo material between two albums and Glitches In The Break, I dropped a lot of solo material these past couple years. Now I just kinda want to perform, do these shows with that material and produce for other rappers. I’ve been talking to a lot of different cats, sending beats out to a lot of different cats that’s on the up-and-coming, some that’s really buggin’ right now. So hopefully one of the beats stick, ‘cause I feel like I never really got a chance to get my producer shit off with other artists ‘cause I was always focused with my solo shit, and me as a Rap artist. For me personally, it’s kind of hard for me to try to juggle both at the same time: to focus on producing for other people and producing for myself and trying to make sure all of that shit reaches a certain standard musically. It was kinda one thing at a time, but now I just banged out two solo albums, let me focus on hearing someone else do their thing over some of my tracks.
So that’s kinda what the next year is. I’m focusing on producing.
DX: So when you say producing for other artists, is it on a freelance tip, like something for their albums, or would you ever consider a compilation where you’re not spitting and it’s just friends and other emcees coming in and rapping over your beats?
Black Milk: Yeah, man. I got that exact idea in mind. We’re doing a project where I’m bringing other emcees in, or if I’m just doing one track for a person on their album, or hopefully, possibly even a full project with one of these artists. It depends; I’m open for all of that. Just production. Just straight up production, man.
DX: Your discography is so impressive and you’ve made great music on your own, as well as with some of the games best. It’s been almost 10 Years since Sound of the City. What’s the past decade been like for Black Milk?
Black Milk: Damn, man. That’s a good question. I don’t know. If anything it’s been a learning experience. That’s another thing, kinda going back to the last question, “What’s to come in the future?” Me, I’m at a position now where I started a label, Computer Ugly, and this new album is actually the first time I’m releasing a project totally on my own, through my own label. Fat Beats did the distribution, but this album is totally under me. So yeah, these past 10 years have kinda been like a crazy learning experience as a musician and just as a person in general. So now I kinda feel like I’m at a place where I can kinda use some of the things that I’ve learned and pass it down to a new artist that’s just coming in the game that might not have as much experience as I have in this industry on an Independent level and on a Major level. So that’s kinda where my head is at too: keeping my eye open for an artist I might feel has the gifts that I could probably help him and guide him to get to that next level. So yeah, these last 10 years I definitely feel like I can look back at ‘em, and it’s crazy that 10 years fuckin’ passed that fast ‘cause it doesn’t feel like that long ago when I dropped Sound of the City and shit like that. And definitely on a creative level ‘cause I feel like [there is] so much more I want to learn about just music in general, and so many places I still feel like I haven’t gone musically that it feel wide open. So it’s like, “Damn, man, I’ve been doing this thing for 10 years and it still feel like just the beginning” [laughs].