A city once rarely discussed in hip-hop circles, Detroit has risen to the top in recent years on the backs of Eminem and Jay Dee. And given that the Motor City is now referred to as a breeding ground for hip-hop superstardom, it’s only natural to ask who’s next to shine. Even before his debut full-length, Popular Demand, was released in March via Fat Beats, many were calling Black Milk the next Dilla. Truthfully it’s far too early to make a statement like that, but there’s no denying his incredible talent as both a producer and an emcee. The twenty-three-year-old has found success as a part of B.R. Gunna and has worked with some of hip-hop’s most respected artists, including Pharoahe Monch, and its most commercial: We sat down with him hours before he opened for Lloyd Banks in New York City — the first of what will likely be many solo performances here — to talk about rhyming versus rapping and his future in music.
[more:]When did you first start making beats?
I started in ’99. High school, in the eleventh grade. Around that time I started taking it seriously, buying equipment.
And then you started rapping afterward?
I was rapping before I started doing beats. I was always trying to be the dopest lyricist, but I found my ear for music. Right now I prefer to do beats and produce.
How old are you now?
Was making music something that came naturally to you?
I had a few older cousins who were into it and were rhyming and had their own studio set up and little equipment. I messed around on that and took to it, found an interest in it. It became a hobby, and then I became more serious with it. Then got my own equipment and took it from there.
What was the hardest part of getting into that?
Well, I had odd jobs in order to save, to stack the bread in order to buy the equipment. I guess you could say the grinds, which led to the beautiful part of it — to finally get your own and have it in your basement, to create your music how you want to make it, man.
How did you come up with the name Black Milk?
[Laughs.] In Detroit, the groups got unique names. You got cats like Slum Village and Eminem, and at that time I was looking up to all these dudes and I was like, “I’m gonna have me a crazy, unique name.” I wrote ’em on a piece of paper and Black Milk stood out, and I just stuck with it.
You previously did work with Young RJ as B.R. Gunna. What’s happening with that group right now?
Do see yourself working with Young RJ again?
Well, like I said, hopefully. I ain’t saying no. It ain’t no beef shit. It’s cool, but it’s just a lot of other little bullshit in the back scenes I can’t mess with.
How’d you guys meet?
Through Slum Village. When I first started going up there, bringing beats to them dudes, Young RJ’s pops owned a label they were on, Barak. So I started seeing him and just started kicking it.
What’s the production process generally like from start to finish?
It’s just like everyone else, man. I just go get stacks of records and bring them back to the lab and listen for what to chop up, to loop up. On breakbeat albums, get the drums. You know, do what everyone else do, but it’s the technique. Whatever your method is to making beats, that’s what makes your sound different from everyone else’s, because everyone is doing the same thing: sampling into the MP. But the way I EQ — the drums and the samples, the highs, the mids, the lows — that might make my sound different from someone else’s.
Do you see yourself continuing to sample or do you think you might start making your own keyboard loops, et cetera?
I do that now. I love the soul records, though. The people who influenced me were Premier, Pete Rock and Dilla. Those were three cats that did it for me. All those dudes sampled, so that’s how I’m into sampling things. Right now, not for this album coming out but for the next album, I do want to get into more live instrumentation, like live horns, live guitars, drums. But right now I love to chop up a record and flip, especially when you flip something that people are familiar with, a sample that everyone knows.
When you’re sampling, do you ever worry about having to get clearance?
Sometimes, but I try to stay away from those records, the Aretha Franklins and Al Greens. I already know that’s going to be a lot of money to try and clear those popular artists, so I use abstract shit most of the time. If I do use those artists, I’m chopping the hell out of it.
What’s your favorite part about making a beat?
The drums. Finding the right drums and stacking drums, and making sure that shit is hitting right. Break beats. I love drum sounds.
What about making a beat versus writing rhymes. Does one come easier?
Well, most of the time the beat comes first. I usually won’t be at the crib, writing just to be writing. I usually do the beat, then the words will come. That’s the process, the flow. I usually try to think of how I’m gonna style over the track or flow over the track. That’s my first thing, because I’m more of a fan of like Busta Rhymes or Ludacris, because those dudes come with the crazy styles or the crazy flows. I love patterns.
Do you ever make a beat and want to save it for yourself as opposed to sell it?
A lot of shit I rap on, I don’t think a lot of people — well, people know I work with Slum Village, but the shit I do for myself, even though it’s soul and Slum do soul, it’s not the same. I don’t think they’d spit over the same tracks I spit over it. It’s a little different. I might loop up something, might not put no drums in it. And Slum, they do soul music, but I’m a little more experimental.
Have you ever given someone a beat and were disappointed with the outcome?
Yeah, that happens sometimes. You give someone a track and they end up doing some whole other shit over it. Sometimes it depends on who’s doing it. If it’s a big artist that’s bigger than you, you ain’t gonna step to him, but it happens sometimes.
In recent years, a few major Detroit hip-hop artists have died. How much pressure do you feel to carry the torch, so to speak? Do you feel a burden of responsibility to be the next to come up from Detroit?
Is tonight your first time performing in New York?
I’ve performed a couple times here in New York, but this is the first time on some solo shit. When we was doing the B.R. Gunna thing, we performed here a couple of times — SOB’s and a couple of other places. This is my first solo show though. It’s about to be crazy.
You’re opening for Lloyd Banks, right? How’d you link up with him?
Yeah. The promoter heard about me and was feeling what I was doing and got at us through my manager. It’s kind of big. It’s a good look.
You’ve also worked with Pharoahe Monche. How’d you link up with him?
That was through my man Denaun Porter of D12. You know, I think he executive produced Pharoahe’s new album, Desire. Pharoahe was in town and Denaun called me over to the crib and then kicked it to Pharoahe for a bit, had the beat CD and played some beats, and the next day Pharoahe had a track. He picked one of the joints and knocked it out. It was a wrap, man. Then he called me up a couple weeks later and was like, “I want another one.” Got another one and knocked it out. So I got two tracks on the new album. One track called “Let’s Go” and another one called “Bar Tap.” As a matter of fact, I saw Pharoahe last night and he was playing me some of the album. It sounded real dope. It’s coming out in the beginning of April.
Are there artists out there that you’d like to work with that you think would be a good fit for your beats?
I’m willing to work with anybody who’s willing to work with me, but I got my favorites. Hopefully I can work with Ghostface, Nas, MF Doom. That’s about it.
How would you compare your upcoming full-length, Popular Demand, versus the Broken Wax EP?
It’s not too different. I’m trying to keep everything in the same vein. I put out a compilation in the summer of ’05, Sound of the City. They were feeling the music on that joint, so I didn’t want to change up the sound too much. So I’m trying to stay in the same lane with Broken Wax and the new album, but after the new album I might tap something a bit different.
How challenging was it to make an album on your own versus working as part of a production team?
Not too hard. Like I said, I was already writing and recording songs before I even got into the B.R. Gunna situation, so I’d be at the lab by myself anyway.
Would you put out a straight instrumental record? Like a DJ Shadow, RJD2 type of deal?
Yeah, I want to do that in the future, on some experimental shit where people are not going to expect it. It’s not going to be like what I did in the past. Experimental shit with instruments and all that. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of working on it now, just to have tracks to the side for an instrumental album, man. Hopefully it’ll go down in the future.