“I’m My Own Competition”: An Interview with Black Milk

Madeleine Byrne speaks with Black Milk about his development as an engineer, live bands versus sampling, and his approach to racial issues.
By    April 5, 2018

Rather than stay wedded to the early-career production style that made his name furnishing beats for Slum Village and other Detroit artists (Royce da 5’9, Danny Brown, Elzhi) and provided the soundtracks for his solo albums from the mid-2000s on, Black Milk has always preferred the more adventurous route.

His 2014 EP, Glitches in the Break, for instance, sounded like little else he’d done to up until that point: deconstructed, driven by bass-lines and disembodied vocal samples, with each track offering sharp contrast to the next. Accordingly, the impressionistic portrait of hometown Detroit, that same year’s If There’s a Hell Below…, similarly marked a new direction.

In the four years since, Black Milk has been pretty quiet, aside from his near-constant touring with his live band, Nat Turner and the group’s 2015 release, The Rebellion Sessions. After an extended period living in Texas, Black Milk is now based in Los Angeles, where he recorded his most recent LP, FEVER, along with additional sessions featuring local musicians back in Detroit.

Many of Black Milk’s core lyrical interests return on FEVER, with the MC expressing concern about the way social media dehumanizes and distorts relationships (“Laugh Now, Cry Later”), schools churning out ill-educated fools (“True Lies”), racism and police violence (“Drown”); but FEVER never dips into the raw, more experimental style of past releases, preferring instead to play with a late ’70s jazz-funk sound, which imbues the album with an air of chic refinement and definite cool.


I remember the last time we spoke, you said that you were interested in developing engineering skills. How do you assess your development here, not just as a producer, but as an engineer?


Black Milk: I feel I’ve grown as both a producer and an engineer. I’m always in search of new things, different things, that I can add to what I do to make it sound better. As a producer, that’s pretty much my day to day, trying to figure out things, or working out ways to create an even better sound to what I’ve done in the past. Not necessarily better, but to expand it, you know, and see if I can push it to its limits even more; that’s the way it is.


You’ve mixed your previous recordings, right?


Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve mixed all my albums. I’ve always mixed my music, produced my music, and created it. This is not a new task that I’ve taken on. I think with the last two or three projects the difference is I’ve become more focused on engineering, more than anything. Of course, I’ve always mixed my stuff, but I wasn’t as focused on the engineering side as trying to produce a great track or produce a great beat. Producing is second nature to me at this point, but I feel like I need to have more strength in mixing as an engineer.


Now, the title FEVER. I’ve read that you chose the title because of the current climate in the US, but it’s also the name of one of the most famous songs from the twentieth century, written by Little Willie John in 1956 and covered by so many artists, from Peggy Lee to The Cramps. You haven’t mentioned this, I’m wondering why.


Black Milk: [Sings] “You give me fever…,” that song?


Yeah, surely making a link here is intentional?


Black Milk: No, that wasn’t intentional, I didn’t even have that song in mind when I chose the title. The way I come up with any of my album titles is I try to find a lot of different phrases that sound good to me that also look good on paper, “fever” was one of words out of a long list that I had. I like the way the word looks; I like the way the letters are, and I wanted to do a one-word title, I didn’t want to do a long album title. Of course, I knew about the song “Fever” and an earlier album with the same name, but it had nothing to do with why I titled my album FEVER.


FEVER isn’t a standard hip-hop album. When creating the music, were you thinking about how it fits in a genre? To me it sounds a lot like late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz-funk, Quincy Jones, The Blackbyrds, etc.


Black Milk: Well, I look at myself as an artist that is seen as someone who is original, you know, making music and art from the heart and from a real place, a true place. That comes with rewards and sometimes, consequences, I don’t know if “consequences” is the right word, but it’s like you’re going to find yourself in situations that lead to certain kinds of struggles or hurdles in terms of pushing through and getting exposed to a more mainstream audience.

The flipside of this is that when you create something that’s unique, different, and in a lane of its own, it gets respect, not only from your fellow musicians, but from a certain kind of fan who appreciates individuality. That’s more important to me when it’s all said and done. When I look back at my legacy I want to feel like I stayed true to what I wanted to do and was able to still make a career and a living off the work and it coming from a real place. A lot of artists you’ve just mentioned I think that’s what they were doing, so I’m in good company.


I hear what you’re saying, in some ways it’s true, but in other ways it’s not because there seems to be a real resurgence in this sound, say the various recent Robert Glasper projects. Do you think that there is a kind of revival of this sound happening now?


Black Milk: Yeah, there’s definitely a revival of not only the sound but it’s a revival of artists doing what they want to do and challenging their audience, challenging their fans. I think this is because we live in the Internet age. Now more so than ever you can be an individual because if you’re good at what you do and know how to market and promote yourself online you can create an audience in a bubble, in a world that has nothing to do with anything else outside of that bubble and people will find you. They will come inside that bubble, that world and support that. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.

We live in a time now when everyone can be who they want to be and if they do it well they can create a world for themselves and people who enjoy what they do. That’s where I am now, I’m more focused on creating my own world and whoever enjoys what I do in my world, they can be a part of it. I don’t ever have to worry about competing against anyone else: I’m my own competition.


Something interesting about your career is that you have a very strong international presence, and this might bring a different audience. A recent show you did in Paris was at a jazz venue, this is also why I asked about jazz-funk because it seems there’s a space for people who are not only ‘real hip-hop heads’ to connect with your work because it’s different. Is this something you’re thinking about as well?


Black Milk: Yeah, that’s something I’ve observed with this new album. I feel like I’ve seen more musicians follow me and comment on what I’m doing. I’ve seen more people in general who are not necessarily in the hip-hop space support the music and follow me on social media and comment on the music. That’s where I want to be.

I want my music and myself as an artist to cross over into that world of live music and musicians. The hip-hop world is cool and it’s great, I’ve developed a good reputation in the hip-hop space, but I feel like my music—especially at this point—there are more layers to it than a hip-hop beat and some hip-hop verses. I’m trying to up the musicality on what I do. That shows with my new album as different kinds of people, different kinds of audiences gravitate towards it. Hopefully when I do the tour for this album I’ll see an even more diverse audience in front of me when I’m up on stage.


Another link with that era is the sample on “Will Remain” from Rare Silk, their song “Storm” from 1985. This seems to be the only obvious sample on the record, is that correct?


Black Milk: That was just one of those records. I’m still looking for samples, that’s still part of the process, I still love chopping up samples so sometimes when I come across a record to sample, I feel like it’s just so good that I would be do a disservice to the track if I tried to chop it up, or disguise it or do too much to it, I prefer to just leave it alone. That was one of those tracks where I loved the vocal sample so much I didn’t want to do anything but add drums, and a little bit of music around it. I didn’t want to manipulate it that much to lose the feeling that made me gravitate towards it. That’s why I left it kind of obvious.


That’s one of the outstanding tracks on the record for me, I like the way you make things out of sync, or a bit off-kilter and there’s a very interesting drum/bass interaction going on as well.


Black Milk: I found Rare Silk’s “Storm” on YouTube. I’d never heard of it and I was like, I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard it ‘cause as a producer I’ve heard of most things, so when I found it I put it to the side ’cause I knew that I was going to use it eventually for the album. I went to Detroit and had the musicians put the guitar part down, the keys on top of it and felt like I needed to make a record that would represent the feel of the beat and the feel of the track. I tried to write a hook, but felt that the vocal sample was so good, I just left it alone, just let the sample breathe by itself.


The classic hip-hop elements on the record are subtle, which is refreshing, even on the single “True Lies.” The hook is kind of different. Is this something you’re trying to do as well, to write songs that are different from the classic hip-hop formula?


Black Milk: Yeah, it’s conscious as I try to create some flows and cadences and structures that aren’t the norm, so with “True Lies”—that’s my personal favorite on the album—that’s one of the reasons why because the hook is broken up. I leave space between the track and my verse, just to let the track breathe. I think I’m going to do more of that in the future with songs I create where I use my voice like another instrument on the album. I know people often say this, but I didn’t want to over rap, or do too much vocally where it took away from the track. I just wanted to my voice to weave in and out of the beat.


That comes through when you hear “True Lies.” It’s a change in delivery, especially the pausing, it seems like it comes from live performance where you’re keeping some space for the audience response. You’re performing with a live band all the time. Is this something you now factor in when writing songs?


Black Milk: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that is something to keep in mind. I’ve done so many shows over the years and now have a good idea of what moves people, what rhythms and vibes move a room. I definitely keep that in mind. When I’m on stage I do songs that are a little bit more laidback, not overly hyped. I think that’s when I captivate the room the most. That was one reason why I made some of the new music a bit more spaced out and smooth, relaxed, not overly aggressive and in your face ’cause I knew for the most part that’s what works well live.


There are other great musicians as well, but let’s start with the drummers [Chris Dave and Daru Jones] and bass [Malik Hunter] as they are the key parts on the songs.


Black Milk: In terms of working with Malik, I’ve been working with him a long time, he’s part of Nat Turner, my live show. On this album he played bass and my guitarist also played bass on certain tracks, Sasha Kashperko, he’s my guitarist and played some bass on some songs.

Daru Jones played on about four tracks, including the song with Dwele, “2 Would Try.” The beat was pretty much already made but I got Daru to play on top of the drums I put down. On the song you can hear the muting in and out of his drums and my drums, my drums are regularly programmed MPC drums. I also had Chris Dave, another well-known, iconic drummer play percussion on “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and “Drown.”


The instrumental “DiVE” is an extraordinary piece of music. When I was listening to it I felt like the drums had a West African percussion feel to it, the drums are just great.


Black Milk: Thank you. I think that was the last track I put on the album. I already had the beat. I don’t know, the samples led me to make that kind of drum beat when I put it together and got my guitarist Sasha Kashperko played the guitar part over it.


How do you make the decision as to whether a track is going to be sample-based or live?


Black Milk: I don’t know, almost every track has a live element. I just always feel that way. The live texture of a horn, or drum or bass, you can’t really duplicate the feel in software, just as a drum machine can’t duplicate the feel of someone playing, you get close but it’s never exact. I always love the energy of someone playing live on a track because most of the music I love from back in the day is live, so I like to try and incorporate that in some way into almost every track I do if I can.

Even a track like “But I Can Be” is a track that started off as a melody from a Parliament/Funkadelic record that I had everyone playing on. I then took what they played and I used it like I would use a sample from a record, chopped it up, reprogrammed it, turned it into a different key, and turned it into something totally different from what they played. That happens a lot too where musicians might play something; I don’t use what they play in that moment but take it and manipulate it, turn it into something totally different. It just depends on the track, it depends on the mood of the song.


Earlier, you mentioned the song “Drown.” I think it’s an interesting song because it’s impressive musically, but it has a political dimension as well; you’re talking about police violence and racism. Can talk about this track because I don’t think it’s gotten much attention?


Black Milk: I feel the same way. It’s probably another one of my favorites. I felt like I needed to address what is still going on with police and the black community, the relationship between the two and other things that have happened over the last couple of years.

I felt like I needed to do it from a perspective that hasn’t really been spoken about, to talk about the idea that anyone who is part of a police force and sees the injustice that is happening and they’re not doing anything to make it better, or getting people who shouldn’t be in a police problem out of there, I feel like they are part of the problem as well. If they see something and don’t do anything about it. I felt like this was something I wanted to mention. In terms of production I had a track that I’d sampled and beat that I felt was perfect backdrop for that song.


It’s not didactic, you’ve kept it subtle. In interviews, you’ve talked about your need to be “simple” and “bold” on FEVER, but the stronger songs are the ones where the message is more nuanced. “Drown” is a good example of that.


Black Milk: Yeah, I definitely didn’t want the album to come off preachy. I wanted to speak about a number of topics, but consciously wanted to do them in a way where I didn’t come off holier than thou or up on my high horse, pretentious or coming off like I’m better than everyone or judgmental.

I think judgmental is the perfect word because a lot of times you have rappers who talk online all day giving their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong and it comes off annoying. It gets to a point where you just want to say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and then you listen to the music and you feel they’re trying to tell you what to do, you know? Everyone has a certain way that they live and a certain way they look at life, so I just wanted to say it in a way that feels like I’m not attacking anyone.


The final words of the album are powerful: “Everyone is a potential victim.” One thing I noticed about the record is that the songs finish quite abruptly, and then this also has a very abrupt feeling; it leaves you feeling a bit destabilized. What’s going on there?


Black Milk: With that phrase, “Everyone is a potential victim,” it’s basically just saying that after everything I’ve said on the album, all the things I’ve talked about, I kind of felt like no matter who you are, what level in life you have, if you’re not part of the powers that be that control the world or the situation we live in, everyone is a potential victim. That’s what that little phrase meant at the end: No one is better than anyone at the end of the day, we’re all human, everyone is a potential victim to the powers that be.


That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?


Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah and that was the last, literally the last piece that I put on the album. I found that little piece of dialogue the night before I turned in the album. I just felt that would be a pretty perfect way to end the album.