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Black Milk Interview

February 25, 2009

upcloseandpersonal

Luckily for hip-hop fans both in Michigan and across the globe, Black Milk is a workaholic. Since his 2007 album Popular Demand (released historically on March 13, in honor of Detroit’s 313 area code), he’s been ubiquitous in the music scene. Not only did he craft beats for heavyweights like eLZhi (of Slum Village), GZA, and Kidz In The Hall. He also released several projects of his own: Black Milk Presents…Caltroit and The Set Up with Fat Ray. His most recent album, Tronic, hit stores in October and was hailed as one of the best albums of the year due to Black’s upgraded rhymes and the futuristic progression of his sound. And with the Random Ax—the trio of Black, Guilty Simpson and Sean Price—album impending, 2009 won’t see him slowing down. In an interview with MichiganHipHop, Black Milk talks about switching his style up, balancing a heavy work load, and his responsibility as one of Detroit’s musical ambassadors.

It feels like Popular Demand came out so long ago, but to a lot of people, that was their first time hearing about you. What did that album do for your career, and as far as familiarizing with you?
I mean, Popular Demand was the first official project I put out, it was kind of my first album. Sound Of the City was more like a Black Milk compilation where I was showcasing some of my beats with some other artists in the city, but that was something that was thrown together and put out there. Popular Demand came out with a real record label, them pushing you, you getting more exposure, and that’s why I got more light on me when that album finally dropped. Sound of the City set up Popular Demand, got me that underground buzz. As many projects as I’ve done, it does feel like it was two or three years ago, just doing so much this year and trying to keep the buzz going, trying to build up as much exposure as you can. 

Having so much other material in the works, did you feel a certain pressure to live up to what you had already built up to with Popular Demand?
Not really. A lot of people don’t know, but Popular Demand was done, like way before it came out, I was sittin on that album for some months, it got pushed back two or three times, so when it came out it was over for me, I was already moved onto some new shit, come up with something better than Popular Demand. I was already working with new musicians and getting new shit ready, I put out Caltroit, and I had been working on that for a long time. Yeah, so after Popular Demand, I was doing beats here and there on different people’s albums, and so the sound on Popular Demand is more “street”, more grimy, but still had that hip-hop feel to it. 

Did it trip you out to hear people going apeshit over stuff that you considered old, when you’re working on brand new material in the meanwhile?
Of course, when I first make something, I’ll be just as excited too, but after a while, a couple weeks depending on what kinda song it is, what kinda track it is, I might be over it, but by the time I released it, it was brand new to people. So of course people were more excited about it than me because I’ve been sitting on it for awhile before I dropped it. But I feel different about this new album, Tronic. It still means something to me, to put that shit together in that short amount of time. I’m still listening to the album, I’m still following like everybody else. 

How short was the amount of time that you made Tronic in?
It was like about four, four and a half months. I went right in after the Setup I went right in and started from scratch. The Set Up came out in March, so March, April, May, June, July, August…I started working on Tronic at the end of August, so about five months. It’s a lot of time, but most people, not really. Especially the way I was making the album, I worked so many joints and so many beats, time was ticking and time was going by real fast, and by the time I knew, it was a month and I had three songs. Then another month passed, and I had a few more songs. So I did as much as I could in those five months to try and make a classic. At first I wasn’t gonna try and make an album this year, I was gonna take this whole year to work on this album, and do some incredible shit for ’09. But I thought, “Man, I’m not that established as an artist. I have to keep doing things, keep putting my name out there as an artist, so I won’t fall off and let the buzz die.” That’s why I just crammed it. 

Yeah, that was actually another one of my questions. Since Popular Demand, including Tronic, you’ve put out damn near four projects. I’m including eLZhi’s album The Preface, since you made most of the beats on there. How do you make such a large amount of material in such a small period of time?
Me, I don’t really do nothing but music. So I guess it’s not too hard when I’m always in the studio, always recording new songs, always doing new beats or whatever, so by the time a few months pass, I have enough material, or almost enough material, to put another project out there. If I’m not on the road constantly, touring or whatever, I don’t really do much else. This is my life. Once I stop making music, that’s when the bread slows up, you know? [Laughs] I gotta keep putting shit out. To keep making that money, for one. Keep paying those bills. I go all day every day, so that’s why I have a lot of material. 

What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve done so far? 
I gotta say Tronic, man. Like I’ve been telling everybody, it’s my best work. It’s the best thing out of all my projects over the last two or three years. I feel like it’ll have a long shelf life, longer than my other projects. Looking back, even though the shit I was doing was dope, I listen for the mistakes and stuff I did wrong, trying to improve on that, so there’s a few things I wish I could’ve tried again, some things I would of worked on. But I feel like I’m gonna be listening to this album for a minute and I’m not going to get tired of it for a while. I’d have to say Tronic is my favorite project. But The Set Up comes close too, a lot of people slept on The Set Up and I listened to that CD the other day, it’s ridiculous to me. 

Tell me a little bit about the direction you were trying to go with Tronic. I mean, what kind of vision did you have for the album?
Number one, I had to make sure it was better than Popular Demand. All the hype and buzz that was around that album, I got a lot of good response off that album, so I have to make sure that the second one like smashes Popular Demand. Not to make it sound wack or make it look wack, but for the improvement of the music, it can’t sound the same. I wanted to make sure the sound was different than Popular Demand. Most people hear my music think about it being so heavy and having a lot of soul claps and stuff like that, so I had to do some futuristic, celestial sounding shit, and it had to be more musical than me sampling off an MP and choppin’ up records. Anybody can do that, I have to use a different formula, a different technique and a different approach on how I make beats. That’s why I brought a lot of musicians in; one of the tracks I didn’t even produce. That was my whole mindset for this new album. This was just making like a timeless piece of work. This shit had to be timeless, had to be classic. There are a lot of people, a lot of artists. I was listening to a lot of albums that I feel are flashy hip-hop albums, and I was trying to figure out what elements made it classic to me, why I could still listen to that CD today, and take those elements and apply them to Tronic. Hopefully that’s what I did, hopefully that’s what people hear. 

What albums were you listening to?
A few albums that stay in rotation, some of them aren’t even hip-hop albums, but like I was saying, I’m really just listening for certain elements of their formula that they use that people will stay drawn to that album just because of certain little things. Like Water for Chocolate (by Common), DeAngelo’s Voodoo album, I even went back to (Slum Village’s) Fantastic Vol. 2. I went to some old school classics, some old school albums, some of Prince’s old shit, some of Stevie Wonder’s old stuff, classic stuff. So that was the kind of records and the kind of artists I was listening too at the time. Willie Hutch, listened to a lot of his stuff, and listening to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Most of the stuff I just named is real soulful shit, they don’t have nothing to do with futuristic shit. Like I said, I tried to keep the soul in it, while at the same time, have that same element of classic music, know what I’m saying?

Can you pinpoint any other specific elements with these albums that you felt you had to duplicate to Tronic?
[Pauses] I don’t know if I really want to say that. If somebody reads it, they’re gonna go and say “Oh, ok.” And I feel like I give out enough secrets anyway, you know, with the beats and stuff I make, I’ma hold that one back right now. [Laughs]

This album has a lot less guest appearances than you last album. 
That was another thing I kept in mind, trying to make it different than Popular Demand, and all the other projects I put out, they had a lot of “Featuring:” and it was mostly Detroit Hip-Hop people that I work with all the time. So I knew people were going to expect that, so I said I wasn’t gonna do that. The features that I do have, I wanted it to be people I either never worked with, or haven’t worked with in months. That’s why I got Sean P on there, Pharaohe Monch, DJ Premier, and I definitely had to do something with Ray, and that’s basically it. Also, I wanted to show people I could do the whole entire album by myself without it getting monotonous or just sounding the same. Each track on the album sounds different than the last, and that was my goal, to show mufuckas I could spit, and I could do it for a whole album. I’m not just a producer trying to rap, that’s another reason that I kept the features down. 

How much did you feel like you had to step your game up? What approach did you take to make your rhymes better, and to hold together an entire album?
It wasn’t that hard, know what I’m saying? Use some metaphors, some punchlines, I know that’s what the underground was saying they wanted to hear. Make them go, “Aw, he’s so dope with the lyrics!” So I was just gonna go in on the album and just come out rhyming. My thing is mostly about flow. Flow has a lot to do with my songs, and that’s how I did it.

So far, you’ve made beats for a lot of people. Who would you say are some of your favorite people to have worked with so far?
Let me think, I’d say Pharaohe: Pharaohe Monch. That was dope, as he was working on his comeback album. Being in the studio with him, he’s a real cool, down-to-earth dude, and just being able to work with him was dope. Also, probably number one is J-Dilla, getting the chance to do a few tracks and collaborate with him. With him being my biggest inspiration, that was a big deal to me too. That’s probably the main two. And it was cool to get Lloyd Banks on one of my tracks too, that was pretty dope. He’s an artist that’s different from most artists that I work with on a daily basis.

So who would you like to work with that you haven’t gotten to yet?
Aww, man, a lot of people in the game. Of course the Jay-Z and Nas, you know, people like that; top of the food chain, I guess you could say. Cats that I’m like personally a fan of: Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, MF Doom, Ghostface. Dudes like that. But not even all hip-hop, I want to do some stuff with some singers, some old-school guys like that. I’d love to get in the studio and do something with Stevie Wonder or Al Green. Legendary kind of artists that have mastered their craft, I want to do something with them. 

For your entire career, everyone has tried to compare you to J-Dilla. Do you think this new album is going to separate you from that?
Probably not, because I already see people still talking about, still comparing me to Dilla. Not even in a bad way; just the novelty of “Is he as good as Dilla,” or “He doesn’t sound like him anymore.” They find some way to compare me to Dilla, whether it be good or bad. I don’t really trip over it, I don’t really stress over it, but I want to make my own name. I want people to recognize that I’m iconic, I got a gift just as well. So hopefully, the Tronic album will be able to stop some of the comparisons. … It’s moreso of a feel when you talk about Dilla’s music. I might have a couple tracks that have a Dilla feel to it. I’m always going to have certain tracks that have that element of my music, because that’s how I learned how to make beats, by listening to him. So there’s always going to be certain elements, like the way I might program the drums, or the way the drums might sound, like the way I might do certain things. Certain things might have Dilla’s influence, of course, but overall I think this album took it to another level, to a different level, know what I’m saying. Not just different from J-Dilla, but different from a lot of hip-hop albums that’s out right now. So that’s how I feel about Tronic, it’s not just gonna separate me from J-Dilla, it’s a new sound that’s going to separate me from the rest of hip-hop, because nobody is really rapping over the kind of beats that sound like the beats I did on Tronic. It’s just a new sound, man. It’s just going to keep going, keep progressing and getting better. 

Michigan Hip-Hop is really popping right now, and you’re one of, if not the biggest figure in the area. What kind of responsibility do you feel, being in that position?
I think my number one responsibility right now is to just be consistent, by putting out good music. Great music, I should say. I feel as long as I can do that, everything else will take care of itself, you know? That’s all people want, at the end of the day. They want some fresh, new, quality music. I feel like I’ll be able to supply that, because I have so many ideas about what I want to do with music, and as long as I can do that, I think I’ll stay near the forefront. But that’s not really my goal, to be the number one hip-hop artist out of Detroit. I’m trying to be the number one artist in music history. [laughs] Or at least in the hip-hop game. I’m trying to compete with some of the bigger artists out here, and show a lot of people that I’m just as talented, if not more talented, then a lot of these people out here. That’s my goal. 

I’m really not trying to be number one; I’m trying to get the artists around me the same exposure that I’m getting. I want everybody to be on the same level. I don’t really want it to be like “Oh, he’s number one. … No, he’s number two, number three.” It shouldn’t be like that. It should be an even playing field, even though I know everybody’s styles aren’t the same. The next artist, even though it’s all dope shit, people are going to gravitate to one thing, one artist over another artist. It’s about having all of Detroit, all of the emcees and the artists and the producers out of the city at the forefront of the music game. That’s my goal, if I can play my part, bring in more exposure to the city, and improve Michigan as a whole. It’s not just about me, it’s more about the arts of the state of Michigan, its talents. I’m just lucky enough to be able to get my music out here. Everybody is going to be doing their thing in a minute.
Despite your career blowing up in the last year like it has, you’ve still made it a point to work with artists from the D just as much as artists from elsewhere. You have an album with Fat Ray, and Tronic has Royce and Fat Ray. Is that something you deliberately do, to make sure you work with artists that are from here?
Yeah man, I want everybody to get their shine. I’m a fan of Fat Ray. I’m a fan of Nametag, I’m a fan of Danny Brown, I’ve listened and checked with 14KT. Artists like that, I feel like if I put them on this project, not necessarily saying that the project I’m about to put out…If I put out a project, it just so happens it might blow, it might get some crazy exposure. Out of nowhere, everybody’s checking for the artists I have on those songs. If I have those artists on those songs, I’m giving them more shine just as well. I kill two birds with one stone. I put myself out there, gave myself more recognition, plus people out here getting some recognition too, that’s why I like to have a lot of my projects have the same roster, basically: the same guys I work with. I can keep them a part of whatever I’m doing, but right now I’m trying to showcase my rhyming abilities, that’s why I don’t have as many people featured on this album. 

Other than that, I feel like Detroit needs a producer, to really blow, to really get the shine it needs. Every region that you see doing their thing, at that time, they all had a major producer from that region. Or a couple, few producers that were doing their thing. The West Coast had Dre and DJ Quik, the East Coast had RZA and Primo. Getting down south, they got the Lil’ Jon’s and the people like that, Timbaland, Neptunes, cats like that. Detroit’s never really had a big producer that was popular, know what I’m saying? Of course J-Dilla was, but it seemed like he didn’t want that; he didn’t want to be at the forefront. He seemed like he wanted to play the back. And then you have Mr. Porter, he does his thing on a lot of big records, produced a lot of big artists, but he seems like he doesn’t want that shine either. So I was like somebody has to be that, that big artist, you know? That main person that’s poppin all through the industry, on a mainstream level and an underground level. So by the time that producer’s name blows up everywhere, whatever he brings in, whatever artists are under him, he’s going to strengthen that artist simply off the strength of his production. That’s how I feel, man. The producers that are in Michigan, you really need that exposure, it makes it easier for the Michigan artist to make it into the game.

2 Comments »

  1. L05 says:

    Black Milk is the shit. *Tronic on vinyl currently spinning*

    February 28th, 2009 at 11:38 am

  2. seville says:

    black milk all day long!!! dont sleep on the mitten!

    March 9th, 2009 at 2:48 pm

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