Detroit’s Black Milk is a rap superhero. Even the alliteration in his legal name, Curtis Cross, sounds like a comic book vigilante’s alter-ego. In his nine years as a solo artist, Black Milk has blossomed from a post-Dilla hometown beat hero into part of a select class of hip-hop artists moving forward while embracing the foundational elements of the genre. From the beats to the raps to the mixes, Black is a self-contained behemoth.
If There’s A Hell Below… is his sixth solo album and a good reason for me to get its author on the jack for an interview. Along with plugging the amazing new album (you can stream it here), Black also opens up about no longer feeling like a new artist, his long term vision and just how he feels when every damn review and write-up feels the need to mention James Yancey. – Sweeney Kovar
You’re not the new cat anymore.
Nah, I’m not. I was just telling somebody too, it’s kind of weird that some of these younger cats look up to me. It’s weird hearing someone say ‘dog I was listening to Tronic in high school.’ Damn, you went to high school in 2008?
How does it feel to be past that realm of ‘new artist’?
It feels good to reach a place in your career, in your life, in your artistry where you have this certain level of, I don’t even want to use the word confidence, more of a certain level of ease. You find yourself and what you want to be and who you really are as an artist and as a person in general. That’s the good thing about reaching this point.
In the beginning you’re trying to find yourself. You really haven’t lived alot of life yet. You’re in your late teens or early 20’s kind of going with the flow of everything, which is still great too because there’s a level of rawness there. That’s always dope. At this point I like being able to feel like I’ve carved a lane and I know what I want and I know my place in the game. I have a clear vision of what I want out of this shit.
So the newest effort is the new album, If There’s A Hell Below. That’s obviously a Curtis Mayfield reference but after hearing the album it’s also a nod to the content of the album and the perspectives we hear.
The title is of course a Curtis reference, the way he says it on the record is ‘if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go.’ I took the title and wanted it to mean something slightly different. For a lot of people if you take that phrase, ‘if there’s a hell below,’ a lot of people feel that this is already it. We’re already living it, we don’t have to wait for the afterlife.
I’m talking about the typical inner-city lifestyle and how you can reach a point where you kind of find the joy, a certain level of happiness within that hell. That’s kind of what that meant. I wasn’t trying to get too deep but it just kind of went there.
Did the concept come before the music?
I was already working on the music before I had the title. I knew I wanted to have this album be somewhat of a continuation of No Poison, No Paradise but at the same time I didn’t want to make it as conceptual as that album. I definitely had some of the records before I decided on the title.
I wanted to ask you about some of the features. You started off very in-house with the features. Slowly but surely since Tronic you’ve started reaching out a little further out. The two features that stood out to me most were Bun B and Pete Rock. How did those come about?
I wanted to throw people off a little bit. I knew Bun was going to be one of the ones that would get people interested. That joint came out dope. He’s also a living legend in hip-hop, that was awesome to say I was able to record a piece of music with him.
Pete Rock was just, man I’m a fan of Pete Rock! After Dilla’s it’s Pete. After Pete it’s Primo. Those are my top three. It was cool to be able to work with him. Him and I have been going back and forth, communicating over the past two or three years. Towards the end of the album that was one of the last records I recorded. It kinda just hit me like, ‘damn I should get Pete and see if he wants to spit on one of these tracks.’
Most people when they think of Pete they think of beats. Why did you choose to get him to rap?
I don’t know man. Maybe because most people think of him for beats. I made the beat and at first I wasn’t even making a beat for the album, I was just making a track. It was dope so I thought I might use it. I start writing some words to it and at the time when I made it Pete and I were already sending little video clips of beats in the studio to each other. Not necessarily of him making a beat, he’ll send a clip of him in the studio with a beat playing. It just clicked, like ‘damn I should have Pete fuckin’ rap on this shit.’ He was down.
It’s always cool to have people do something that’s not necessarily the main thing people know them for. Even when I worked with Primo on Tronic, I could have possibly even bought a beat from him but I preferred to have him play his cuts over one of my beats.
By the way, on that particular track “The Matrix,” I remember hearing a rumor that he didn’t know it was called “The Matrix” but he still put that scratch in. Is that true?
You know what, I think I had the title for the track already. I think I told him and he somehow found a phrase of somebody saying that to make it work. He’s a genius for that shit.
There is something I heard on one of the tracks on this new record, a line of yours. You say something along the lines of fans not letting you live out of the shadow of your hero. I took that to mean people always referencing Dilla when they reference you.
I never really talk about it. I don’t ever really mention how I feel about having all of the comparisons to Dilla and always having to live with that. I guess it’s just in the moment, when I was writing the rhyme it just flowed out like that in that moment. Or I might have read something. I might have seen a review of some shit, a write-up on a blog or something.
I feel like alot of fuckin’ writers and bloggers are lazy. Not just in my situation but in general. I can say that because I’ve seen it happen a lot. Do your fuckin’ research on an artist. It’s cool to drop Dilla name in there but it’s kind of obvious that they drop Dilla name in there just to make people want to read the write-up even more.
Of course Dilla’s my biggest influence. He’s my favorite artist of all time. But at the same time, at this point in 2014, c’mon! You gotta put dude’s name in every single last write-up? My shit don’t even sound like Dilla at this point. You might hear a piece here and there or one element here and there but for the most part…c’mon.
I feel like ever since Album Of The Year, I’m working with sounds and music that Dilla didn’t really touch on. Album Of The Year don’t sound like a Dilla-influenced album. No Poison, No Paradise don’t sound like a Dilla-influenced album. The new album doesn’t sound like a Dilla influenced album. That line was me just trying to understand that. I know I may have a certain vibe and there may be certain pieces here and there that are reminiscent of him but I feel like at this point I’ve created my own lane, my own sound. Sometimes it becomes annoying. I’m not necessarily mad about it. It’s just fuckin’ annoying.
Something else I’ve noticed since right around Album Of The Year was your MCing, it seemed like that aspect of your art has progressed rapidly. There was a time when I looked at you as a producer first and now I think of you as just an all around hip-hop artist. Was there a time when you decided consciously that you wanted to develop the writing more?
I think anything I do creatively I try to get better at, whether it’s producing or writing songs. I’m always in the motions of trying to become a better artist in all parts of my craft.
I think what made it really change was me getting a little older. I reached a point, especially now, I don’t really want to rap about rap anymore. I’ve put out alot of projects, alot of songs and I’ve reached a point where I feel like I’ve lived this life and seen enough to where I have things I can look back and reflect about and tell stories about. I’ve travelled, seen other cultures and I can write things that have more actual substance.
Early on, some artists have a certain amount of experience when they reach their first album and some artists don’t have as much. In the beginning I was happy just to be making music. It was all spontaneous, it was all just raw. I miss some of that rawness and spontaneous that I used to have early on. I feel like every artists loses some of that naturally once you step into the game and you get that first fame and you get that first hater and you get that first good review–
That first check?
Yeah, it does something to you creatively. You can’t help it. No matter if you have a ton of people that love you and praise you, that’ll still affect you creatively.
I feel like at this point I don’t have the desire to rap about rap. If I’m writing a rhyme it’s going to have some kind of substance. It doesn’t have to be super deep but it’s going to have some kind of content in there somewhere.
Speaking of MCing and not just rapping about rap, I wanted to talk with you a bit about, God bless the dead, Baatin. Over the past few years I’ve been listening to a lot of his stuff, solo and with Slum, and it slowly dawned on me just how ridiculous and out of this world he was as an artist. How do you reflect on Baatin now?
I always looked at Baatin as one of the most creative people I knew. He just had too much talent. It was crazy to see him go at that time.
On the artistry level he was ahead of his time. His style was really abstract. He was one of the first people I heard that did weird shit with flows and did different voices. Sometimes he would rap in a whole different language and he’d do it all dope! On top of that he could sing! I hate that he didn’t get a chance to expose that part of his artistry, him being a dope singer. That dude was filled with too much talent. He’s one of my favorite artist of all time. He’s just unique and there’s nobody like ‘Tin. Nobody can duplicate what he was doing.
Working with him was great. He was one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met. Super chill and super nice. He might take a while to lay his parts, he was definitely somewhat of a perfectionist but I miss that dude. I miss his creativity. That shit used to give me a feeling and I haven’t really felt that since him.
I also wanted to talk some about Hex Murda’s crazy ass. I know you’ve spoken about him in other interviews but since his stroke I see he’s still an integral part of the Black Milk team. How has working with him been since his health issues?
It’s definitely not what it was before he had the stroke. Hex still has his mind though, his mind is still right. It’s more so just on the physical level but even with that he’s getting stronger these days.
Hex still has all the smarts. People see him on social media, he’s the same dude. He still has a lot of things for me even though I have assistance from other people when it comes to being on the road, I have a tour manager now, and other stuff he can’t do physically. For the most part, when something comes along I pass it to Hex to let him handle it. That’s what it is. He’s still in his right mind so he’s still crazy as hell.
You’ve spent some years away from Detroit recently.
Yeah, I’ve been in Texas.
What led you there?
I’ve been in Texas for the last year and a half, two years but I still go back and forth to Detroit all the time. The only reason I came to Dallas is because of my relationship with my girl, she’s from out here. I felt that it was an opportunity to breathe some different kind of air for a minute. I’ve been in Detroit my whole life. Not only that, I feel like these next few years I’m going to be moving around a little more to different parts of the country and soak up different vibes and different energies than where I’m from.
Does being away from home make you think of home more?
Yeah, I do miss the D at times. It gives me a whole different perspective on Detroit, being away for a while. When I go back to visit it makes me look at the city different. I feel this vibe that is home. I can’t really get it nowhere else.
A few people have asked me if it’s affected me creatively. I don’t think so. I feel like I’m doing everything I would be doing. I’m the kind of cat that looks two years down the line of what I want to do and where I want to go. Even though I might be putting something out in the present day, I’m already like four or five projects ahead in my mind. These last few projects I’ve been doing in the last couple of years have been in the making in my head already. At this point I feel like I could live anywhere in the world, as long as I got my set-up, my workstation and some records I could get it in, I’m good.
Detroit, structurally and politically, has had issues for a number of years. How is it for you being away from home and seeing what’s been going on with the Emergency Manager and the recent water shut-offs and all that?
It makes me feel fucked up! As a person that loves the city so much and just knowing the history of Detroit and how much history is in Detroit, it’s just wack as hell to see it spiraling out of control. The people that run the city can’t get it together to run the city the way it should be ran and the people that suffer are the citizens living there. I feel somewhat helpless. What could I possibly even do or contribute but talk about it?
I don’t think anyone wants to see the place they were born and raised, their environment, just go to shit. I was just out there not too long ago and they’re trying to get things moving but it’s still going to be a long process.
Your first album was with Fat Beats and you never really went to any other label. You just established Computer Ugly in 2013. How long have you had the idea of building your own like that?
I always had that mindstate from the beginning. I think alot of artists have that vision or see themselves having their own infrastructure at some point. The timing had to be right. Even though I wanted to do it, am I ready to do it? That was the thing moreso.
I started Computer Ugly last year and at that point I felt comfortable enough, prepared enough and experienced enough to where I feel I could start this label and if I come across another talent I can give them some exposure to the world. I feel like I kind of know how to handle that type of situation. I’ve learned so much being in the industry myself.
Honestly it came about because of Synth Or Soul. My last contractual album was, I think Album Of The Year might have been my last album under Fat Beats. I still wanted to work with them so No Poison was like a one-off. I wanted to make an instrumental project before No Poison but I didn’t want to release it under any label or pitch it to any label. I wanted to test what it would be like if I put it out myself. Synth Or Soul was really what pushed me to go ahead and create my own little thing, release something small and see how it goes from there.
After that we did No Poison, No Paradise with Fat Beats and If There’s A Hell Below… is like my first official solo rap album released under Computer Ugly even though Fat Beats is still doing the distribution for it. I have more ownership than I had with previous albums.
What’s the aspirations for Computer Ugly?
Last year I was thinking to myself that I didn’t want to pigeonhole it into just a music label. I wanted to look at it as just a brand of some kind. Where whatever I thought of that could be dope artistically, it could be released through Computer Ugly.
I know what I want the aesthetic to be and what I want it to feel like and the sonics on the musical level but I’m still chipping away. It’s still pretty early. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we want Computer Ugly to represent. If I’m going to be a part of it of course it’s going to have to reach a certain standard. That was another reason why I was hesitant to do the label. I’m a fuckin’ terrible critic. I feel like I’d never sign nobody. I’m hard on myself. Most of the shit I do, of course I like it but I’m still very critical. I’m even worse with other people’s shit. I might be the last person that needs to be starting some kind of music label because I’m not gonna sign nobody, I’m just too picky.
With that said, we have been looking at working with a few artists. I’ve released–it’s funny because it’s all non-hip-hop shit so far–I’ve released this project with this artist named Mel, from Michigan. The Burning Stones shit. That was actually the second project off Computer Ugly.
Right now we’re working with this singer named Sudie. She’s more indie-pop, kinda R&B vibe. She’s super talented man, from singing to producing all her own records to even just playing the piano. She’s super talented. So far it’s all been instrumental projects here, some soul stuff over here and now we’re working with some more indie-pop type of R&B. I haven’t did any straight up hip-hop shit yet. I’m definitely keeping my eye open and I definitely want to work with some new, younger talent.
Was Glitches In The Break not on Computer Ugly?
I forgot about Glitches. That was a Computer Ugly release too.
Can you tell me a little about that project because that might be my favorite shit you’ve done.
A few people have said that. You know what, I knew I wanted to release something on Record Store Day of this year. Synth Or Soul was last year’s Record Store Day and Glitches was this years. I remember thinking that I wanted to get something out for every Record Store Day.
Glitches was one of those albums were, after we dropped No Poison, where I was feeling like I didn’t want to do some instrumental shit. I wanted to do some small rapping shit, an EP-type joint. When I knew that was the direction I was gonna go musically, the next thought was that I wanted to tap into, kinda what I was talking about a minute ago, my early way of thinking. I wanted to do something that was more spontaneous, more raw, more striped down and not so deep in thought or conceptual. I was coming off a heavy dark album so I wanted to do something more light with more of a feel-good vibe to it. It kinda feels like some basement shit, finding some dope loops.
We all love that type of energy and I’m glad I was able to tap into that place that felt like that earlier feeling that I used to have when I first started. It’s good to know I can go there if I really want to. It’s a psychological thing too, I don’t know why it happens. It seems like not just me but alot of artists, some artists I like, it seems like when you go into a project that you know is going to be a smaller, kind of whatever project it does something to your brain where you don’t think as hard. That rawness and that spontaneous type of element comes into play and you can feel it in the music.
Why is Fat Ray so slept on?
*Laughs* I know man! Ray is my dude, I was just talking to him a couple of days ago. Ray is another killer from Detroit that people don’t even really know about like that. I know everybody knows the Guilty’s and the Royce’s. Ray hasn’t had the opportunity to get that shine like alot of other MCs from Detroit. I fuckin’ love the way Ray spits. His voice is just so dope.
Is there The Set Up 2 potential?
I don’t know if we’re necessarily going to do a Set Up 2…
I didn’t mean like a part two, that’s corny.
That was actually why I threw him on a couple of records on Glitches. Let me just start off small this time and feature Ray on a few records. Let’s see if there’s any hunger for Ray’s music. I actually definitely did get some responses like ‘Goddamn, I didn’t expect to see Ray’s name on here.’ That’s when people started talking about The Set Up again. We actually sold the few remaining piece of vinyl and CD that we had left after Glitches. I’m always going to work with Ray. Hopefully if we can make sense of releasing a project, I’m definitely down to do that shit.
Do you produce your features in the true sense? Do you give feedback or coach folks?
I try to do it as much as I can. Me being away from everybody, there’s no other way to do it but through the email joint. Even with that I try to give some kind of direction within the email or even if I have to do some kind of reference myself and send it to them. I might tell them to spit it like this or this is the melody I’m hearing. I might send them a voice memo. I try to do as much as I can when I’m not in the studio. I definitely prefer to be in the studio working with artists and musicians versus not.
On the low you’ve developed one of the strongest live shows in hip-hop, I think. Can you tell me how you’ve developed your live show?
I think Tronic had a lot to do with it. Tronic was the album where I started figuring out how to incorporate live musicians into my music. Album Of The Year was damn near full blown live instrumentation. I think after I got a taste of it with Tronic and started spending more time around musicians instead of MCs and beat makers, I started getting all these ideas.
It started off with me working with my homeboy Ab. He had a few players and I invited them to do a gig with me. I’ve been working with and performing with a band since ‘08. I’ve been doing that for a while now at this point. Our chemistry is just there, we’re professional now.
I like the live element too because you can do something in the moment and do some live stuff on the spot that you can’t do when it’s you and a DJ, unless you’re just doing a freestyle out of nowhere. For the most part I like having the possibility of us changing up on the spot or just the drums going or just the keys going or I might tell them to switch the whole beat up in the middle of the show. I love that.
How did Nat Turner end up being the band name?
That was actually Ab and them. That’s the name of his band, the band is his. That’s why it says Black Milk and the Nat Turner Band. Nat Turner is his thing, that’s all Ab. He’s starting to do solo work and solo gigs where it’s just straight up Nat Turner.
Do you already have an idea of what the next project is?
I’m looking at the next couple years and I think I want to focus more on production. I definitely want to start on this new Random Axe album. I’ve been talking to Sean Price and Guilty and we’ve been talking about getting together to piece this second album together. That’s why I featured them on this record. I wanted to show people that the whole Random Axe thing is not dead in the water. We’re still going to do some more work together. I’m excited to jump back into that.
I’m also trying to produce for other people more. I feel like I’ve never really had a chance to focus just straight up on production. I feel like all the time it’s Black Milk this or Black Milk that. I’m either working on some shows or doing my own album. The way I work it’s kind of hard for me to focus on too many different things at once. I want to just be on some beat shit for the next couple of years. Straight up beats. I’ve been doing alot of beat performances as of lately and those have been having real good turnouts. I’m feeling that kind of vibe also.
Over the years have you had folks not from your inner circle reach out for beats and you not be able to accommodate them?
Yeah man, I have. Lots of time it’s either schedule or different things affect it. Most producers that only focus on producing, it’s just a different lifestyle and a different way of thinking when all you think about is beats all day and all you do is send beats all day or fly out and be with this rapper and be a producer for a month or two. I never had that kind of freedom and I kind of want that.
That was another reason I banged out two albums back to back like that right now because I knew I wanted to just focus on having my name in the credits for the next couple of years. There’s alot of newer artists that’s buzzin’ and that’s reaching out to me for beats. I’m excited to share stuff with them and hopefully something sticks and they like something. I got a whole lot of text messages like, ‘you gotta send that folder of beats.’
Have you ever considered doing work the other way around, you rappin’ on more outside production?
I’m always with that. Man, for whatever reason, I feel like I write my best verses when I’m rappin’ over somebody else beat, I don’t know why. I was just telling someone that. It’s just weird like that.
I think the reason it doesn’t happen alot is because I usually already have a certain vision and hear my album a certain way. I might have certain cats send me a batch of beats but it would just be certain specific things that I’m trying to do with an album so it can be hard to get an outside entity fit whatever aesthetic of the project I’m working on at the time. Sonically it’s naturally going to sound different because it came from a different machine, it was programmed a certain way. I’m real particular with that type of stuff.
I have had outside production on projects though. On Tronic, Colin Munroe produced the “Without U” record and Will Sessions from Detroit did the track “Deion’s House” on No Poison and I think they did another track on another project too. I’m always working with those guys.