There are very few artists in hip hop these days who are balanced when it comes to both emceeing and producing, with many who try often excelling at one while falling behind in the other. Detroit’s Black Milk is one of these few, and while he has always been a stronger producer, previous projects have seen him really come out into his own as a rapper, sharpening his pen – so to speak – and forming a style which is as diverse as the beats that have made him such a vital player in hip hop.
You could say he’s cut from the same cloth as the legendary J Dilla, though in the past few years the man born Curtis Cross has crafted out a sound and style has brought him into his own lane, giving the world hugely underrated gems like No Poison No Paradise, If There’s a Hell Below, and this year’s The Rebellion Sessions, a long overdue collaboration between himself and live band Nat Turner bringing hip hop back to its jazz and funk roots.
The exploratory sound of Rebellion Sessions has continued to push Black Milk into the hearts and minds of those that really value the artistic and imaginative side of hip hop, that and Cross’ tireless work crafting beats, one of which was used earlier this year by Danny Brown for “Really Doe” – a standout posse cuts with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt. With buzz high this year, it’s then perfect timing that Black Milk plan a tour for Australia and New Zealand, with dates kicking off mid-November.
“This tour will be a little different”, Cross told me in a recent interview ahead of the tour. “It’ll be like a production hit, more a live producer-slash-rap set, it’ll just be me.” While he won’t have Nat Turner to back him up, these shows will allow Black Milk to explore and experiment, seemingly with material both established with fans and cuts yet to be released. “I’ve been experimenting with performing live beat sets and playing music in general, music that I feel like I never get a chance to release to the public, so it’s always an interesting thing to be able to do a set where you’re playing music that a lot of people just don’t know [yet]. Getting their reaction is like an experiment”.
The artist will be taking to stages like The Zoo and Transit Bar, the intimacy and solo nature of the show demanding for the kind of simple but effective set up expert beatmakers seem to thrive upon. “A lot of the time lately I’ll just be up there with a couple of drum machines, my laptop, a mixer, maybe my MPC”, Milk says. “I say maybe my MPC because I’m not sure if I’m able to bring it all the way over there or not, but that will be the basic set up”.
Though Cross started writing rhymes as a youth it was production that ultimately drew him into the music industry, an area in which he excelled, often under the tutelage of the late, great J Dilla.
“I got introduced to production through my cousin”, recounted Cross. “I’d definitely be writing [rhymes] first, but he introduced me to hip hop production because he was doing a bit of it himself, messing around with the equipment he had at the time. For whatever reason I just kind of grew more of a passion for making beats, [opposed to] to the emcee side. I still loved to emcee, but there was something about the whole process of digging for records, sampling records, chopping them up, emulating sounds, chopping up those sounds, and just making music production.”
Of course, Cross then developed a penchant for rhyming over his own beats, becoming a one man band of sorts which resulted in underground classics like 2008’s very well received Tronic which opened the gate for him to then evolve as a producer as well.
“Being able to write my own lyrical content over my own production became a thing, so that’s how it all started and all the time I’ve just tried to progress the way I produce music, the tools I use to produce music. I started off with just the samplers, drum machine, and then went into the live bass and bringing in other musicians [to the studio]. I’ve come a long way since the first days of me tapping around on my little keyboard”.
Part of the mass appeal of Black Milk’s work is that you can actually hear the growth from record to record, this isn’t someone who is riffing on the same formula over and over again. From something like Album of the Year to No Poison No Paradise it’s not hard to notice Cross’ scope widening, him going deeper with his rhymes and beatmaking to create these really beautiful, layered soundscapes, lifting the soul in his music. I asked him if this growth came more naturally, or via a concerted effort to improve, particularly when it comes to his rhyming.
“I think it’s a bit of both. I’m the type of artist who is never satisfied”, he said. “Even though I create stuff that I like – I love the music that I make – I’m always trying to become better as an artist, in all aspects whether it’s production or lyrically. It’s definitely a conscious effort to want to get better. In terms of content having more substance, having more concepts to it, I think that’s more about getting older. You get to a point in your life and your career where you’ve lived and experienced different things and you want to express that. When you first start out you’re still young, you haven’t experienced different things, different people, different relationships; you haven’t really gone through those ups and downs yet. When you get older you have a lot more to talk about so it’s one of those things that I’m at the point where I have different stories to tell and different ways of expressing them. There’s more content there”.
Cross seems to credit structure as an important part of his development as a rapper. Previous albums have seen him make better use of concepts or themes, and giving himself those kind of frameworks makes it easier for him to express himself.
“The words flow way better when you have a topic to write about,” continued Cross. “Versus when it’s a track that’s all about bars: who can write the craziest lyrics, metaphors and similes – though I still love doing stuff like that. I think when I actually have a particular subject or concept, I can just write [the song] in minutes, I can just paint that picture and write what I see in my head.”
With a sound that’s constantly evolving, I would think Cross’ recent physical expansion outside of Detroit would have an impact on his productions, though the result of moving to cities like Texas and California are yet to be heard.
“I’m actually out here on the west coast in Cali right now, so it’d be interesting for me to see if the environment plays any part in the music I create. But so far, I’m not sure. I feel like when I left Detroit, the albums which were made after I made that move were already planned and prepared, I already had an idea of where I was going to go musically. I also think me being in Detroit for so long, being influenced by that environment…I feel at this point no matter where I move, I’ll always have that kind of sound in me”.
The spirit of Detroit does seem like a common thread tying together all these emcees and producers that come out of the famed Motor City. Whenever I chat to an artist from Detroit I’m always interested in talking about the consistency that’s so common with those that branch out of the diverse scene. Guilty Simpson credited it to the empathy people have with Detroit, seeing as the city has gone through so much, and Curtis agrees that there is a certain underdog mentality that pervades the streets.
“I think it’s more so of an attitude, I feel like no matter what generation or era you came up in, for Detroit it’s kind of you have that same underdog mentality that you always feel you have to prove yourself. That mentality makes you want to be the best, you become really competitive. That’s the kind of vibe you have there, that’s why the music is what it is. For me personally, the stuff I was around at the time, there is just a certain level of freedom in Detroit. It’s a place where no matter what style you do – whether you do hip hop, electronic, street rap, or whatever – all of these worlds kind of combine and blend in Detroit. It’s a big city, but a small scene at the same time, so all different music and artists kind of cross paths a lot and collaborate. We’re very accepting, we have an appreciation for all different styles of music in Detroit, that’s probably why my sound goes in so many different ways”.
Black Milk’s diversity is evidenced by pretty much everything that has come from the man since 2005’s Sound of the City but studio albums aside, some of the most nuanced works from the artist are found on his side-projects, collaborations and EPs, like the joint he did as a duo with Danny Brown – 2011 EP Black & Brown. It laid the groundwork for this year’s aforementioned link-up which resulted in “Really Doe”.
“Danny and I have worked together before, he’s been on my projects, I’ve been on his; we did that joint EP together and he just hit me up recently telling me he wants me to be a part of the new album. So naturally I just linked up with him and played him a lot of different tracks. He made songs to a couple of them but “Really Doe” is what stuck. It was crazy because the guys that he has featured on it are artists whom I’ve never worked with, but emcees I was hoping to collaborate with one day. Being a fan of Earl, Ab, and Kendrick as emcees, and hoping to one day get some production over to them guys, it was kind of crazy to me to have all of them on one record at the same time. I love the way the song turned out.”
“Really Doe” is not the first track Black Milk has produced for another emcee, but having a solo career to keep him busy prevents Cross from the traditional life of a producer, even though sending out beats to other artists is something he wants to do more of.
“I think it’s a thing where me being an emcee and having a solo career, touring, and having my own band, I can’t live like a traditional producer in terms making beats all day long. Sometimes I wish that could be my day-to-day, just making beats and sending beats out everyday. It gets challenging in terms of having your own solo career and trying to produce for other people, but that’s definitely been my focus lately, to get more production to more emcees. Hopefully this “Really Doe” record kind of opens that door, where more artists want to get a beat from me.”
Artists would be wise to look to Black Milk for a beat too, and its not just because “Really Doe” has gone down as one of the hottest records of the year. Talking to Cross it’s not hard to see why his productions always sound so considered and experimental, a product of an artist who is always thinking about where he has been and where he wants to go. When I wrap up asking how he himself would describe the evolution of Black Milk he responds:
“I think with most artists, especially producers, you hear so many different sounds and you see so many visions in your head, where you want to go musically. It’s always a never-ending journey actually making that stuff come to live. I think for me the plan is to definitely keep that live element in, also keep doing that hip hop element but finding a way to take it to the level of making it more of a composition, with more layers to the production. That’s the ‘now’ in hip hop, but I want to continue finding how to do it my own way. I’m trying to go back to the days of an album like Tronic but also having the music come from a more free, feel-good type of place. I think my next project is definitely going to be a lot more feel-good. My last couple of albums were more conceptual and kind of dark, I had to get a lot of stuff off my chest. Now I’m in a place where I feel like colours that are a lot of more bright, and hopefully those productions with have a lot more layers.”
Black Milk Australian and New Zealand Tour
Friday 18th November
The Zoo, Brisbane
Saturday 19th November
Hudson Ballroom (formerly Plan B Small Club), Sydney
Sunday 20th November
Strawberry Fields Festival, Tocumwal
Thursday 24th November
Transit Bar, Canberra
Saturday 26th November
Kings Arms, Auckland
Sunday 27th November