Detroit native Black Milk has been an active producer/rapper since 2002 as a member of hip-hop collective Slum Village. Production-wise, Black’s modus operandi can be described as Dilla-esque, but he doesn’t really imitate the late legend as much as utilize Dilla’s crate-digging approach to composition as a vantage point, which then gives Black an opportunity to delve into his own eclectic array of inspirations.
And eclectic they are: Black’s looming, ominous string section on “Black and Brown”, a cut from his latest solo LP “Album of the Year,” is just one example of his ability to make brassy pomp; move on to the following track, “Warning (Keep Bouncing)” only to hear a bizarre, off-kilter synthesizer pattern coupled with a whooshing drum progression. Creatively speaking, no rhythm or sample is off limits for Black—and he is all the better for it.
As a rapper, Black has a solid, self-assured flow that is tailored well to match his beat selection. He isn’t exactly a poet laureate when it comes to writing lyrics, but he does show some insight into his stark inner emotions (such as on the song “365” from Album Of The Year) as well as blindside listeners with some surprisingly vibrant descriptions: “Coolest flow, signal to my crew the cue to go/ With they fingers on triggers, gunpowder under cuticles,” he boasts on “Deadly Medley”.
Black Milk, who is currently touring the U.S., spoke with Passion of the Weiss about his preferred production techniques, his recent collaborative LP with white-hot Detroit MC Danny Brown titled Black And Brown, his philosophy when it comes to coping with pain and loss, and his greatest inspiration and mentor, J Dilla. — Interview by Alex Koenig
How do you identify yourself as an artist? Do you see yourself as a producer first and rapper second?
I know most people see me as a producer first. You know, what I’m known for the most is just production and doing beats for other artists as well as myself. I guess you could see me as a producer first even though I have a passion for songwriting just as well. But like I said, I spend most of my time behind the boards as opposed to behind the notepad. But yeah, that’s it, man: producer/MC, that’s basically the title that I go by.
What genres of records do you prefer to sample?
I don’t really have a specific genre that I go to; I like anything that’ll sound dope to my ears no matter what genre it is. When I go record shopping, when I go digging, I hit all the genres, shit, I hit all the sections up: whether it’s soul, whether it’s funk, whether it’s electronic, whether it’s rock, whether it’s prog-rock, whether it’s international, you know, I’m hitting everything. I look at it like there’s something dope in every genre. I always can find something to chop up; you know what I’m saying? I always can find a melody or a riff that catches my ear and I can make a beat out of it.
You’ve known fellow Detroit MC Danny Brown for a while and just released an LP with him (Black and Brown). It seems like he’s been absolutely tearing it up the last year or so. What has it been like to work with him?
It was cool, you know? Danny, that’s my peeps. We just got into the studio and it just started off with us doing a song on my solo album Album Of The Year. We did a song called “Black and Brown” and that song was one of everyone’s favorite tracks on the album, so we thought it would be dope to take that title and kind of flip it into a small project title and do a few more songs, you know what I’m saying? Danny came into the studio a few times and laid down some vocals on a few tracks, and I kind of went back and remixed and flipped all the tracks, did my thing and made it all come together. Yeah, there you have it: Black And Brown. It was a fun project. That project, like I said, was for the fans.
The first song on Album of the Year, “365”, contains the lyric “’09, hardest year in my lifeline.” In 2009, you lost your close friend and mentor in Slum Village’s Baatin and witnessed your manager Hex Murda nearly lose his life after a stroke left him comatose. Obviously having to endure these traumatic experiences was difficult, but looking at them today, do you think that they made you a better artist?
They definitely did. It kind of put me in a place where when all of those incidents happened, I wasn’t gonna talk about the usual feel-good upbeat things that I usually talk about on songs. It kind of put me in a place where I just kind of wanted to let out some dark lyrics and let out some dark aesthetics in the music, you know what I’m saying? And that kind of changed the dynamic of the album. That’s why you have songs like “Distortion” on there; that’s why you have songs like “365” and “Closed Chapter”. There’s just different tracks on there where I’m kind of like, being more personal than I’ve ever been on any of our projects. Album Of The Year was definitely the most personal project when it came to content and songwriting. So yeah, man, it was dope to know that I could dig in deep and pull that out of myself and put it down in the studio, and I think a lot of people appreciated that.
Much of your life and career has been defined by your friendship and collaborations with the late producer Jay Dilla. What are some of your favorite musical moments with him?
Hmm, the most interesting moment. I don’t know, this episode sticks out in my head: Me and another producer from Detroit named young RJ, we was working on a project called Dirty District Vol. 2, and Dilla actually came up to the studio– I think he was laying cuts on someone’s song on the album. After he was done doing his thing, we played him some of the album—he’s featured on that album, by the way–and it was just kind of crazy to see him sit there and listen to the track and get into the tracks. And after we was done playing the music. I guess we left him with a little inspiration cause I remember him saying vividly, “Yo, I can’t wait to get the crib. I’m about to make some shit tonight; I’m about to make some shit tonight.” So it was kind of a good thing and a bad thing because you know, putting Dilla in his zone. He’s the best when it comes to beats so it’s like, man, we just sparked a fire and he’s about to go home and make some crazy shit and probably crush what we did. But it was just dope to see him give us props on what we was doing.
Another dope moment musically was him rhyming over one of my tracks for Slum Village’s Detroit Deli album on a track called “Reunion”. Baatin was actually supposed to get on the track, but unfortunately he didn’t. But yeah, his (Dilla’s) verse on there was so crazy and that was like, the first time I heard Dilla over one of my tracks. It’s crazy because he’s my biggest inspiration. His music hits me like no other artist I’ve ever heard in my whole lifetime. So he’s like, my favorite artist ever, favorite producer ever– definitely a big inspiration on what I’m doing.