Imagine spending 20 minutes or so on the phone with one of the best producers in the game at the moment, talking about sampling and all things musical. That’s exactly what happened when we interviewed Detroit MC/producer Black Milk. Candid and humble, his answers gave a deeper insight into his newest LP and his general approach to the nuances of creativity. Read on.
1. You recently announced a North American tour for No Poison No Paradise. How are you feeling about it?
I’m feeling good about it. My last solo album came out three years ago [AOTY] so it feels good to have something new to release and promote, some new music, some new sounds, a new direction and it feels good to be able to go out and perform the record. So yeah, I’m definitely excited for people to hear the new music.
2. What can we expect from No Poison No Paradise?
Oh, a little bit of everything, man… especially like my last project. They all had different sounds. You know, my first solo record was more like soul-based, sample-heavy type records (which was Popular Demand) and my second solo album, which was Tronic, was more like electronic, more synthetic type production. My last album, AOTY, it was more live instrumentation so new one, No Poison No Paradise, I kinda captured all three of those feels, from the soul to the electronic stuff to the live instrumentation here and there. I feel like this time, it’s more polished. The engineers are better than they were two or three years ago and everything sounds better and crisper and the beats sound better. On the emceeing side, most of the music on here has a lot of storytelling, you know what I’m saying? A lot of introspective stuff and I kinda created this character that I’m basically telling a lot of my own stories and life experiences through and taking this character and using a lot of other people’s life experiences… It’s kinda like a dream state this character is in and he’s reflecting and seeing all these different moments in his life from a youth all the way to adult life so it’s a pretty different take in a different direction to my previous projects.
3. How did your collabs on the album come about?
This time around, I didn’t wanna get too many rap features but I definitely wanted to reach out to some people I hadn’t worked with yet so I reached out to Black Thought and he came through and gave me a verse for Codes And Cab Fares. I freestyled to Robert Glasper. He and I collaborated on a record where he’s playing keys and I did the percussion and I actually had Dwele come in and play trumpet. It’s more of an instrumental based type track. I had this up and coming artist, MC and producer, he’s also from Detroit called Quelle Chris. You know Quelle Chris? He is ridiculous, you know what I’m saying? On beats and on rhymes. So those are basically the main features and I didn’t want to do too many features because a lot of this stuff is storytelling and only I can tell my story.
4. What made you move from Detroit to Dallas?
Um… well you know, personal things made me move from Detroit to Dallas but I still go back and forth every now and again to Detroit. No matter where I go, Detroit is always with me and even with me being here, the environment doesn’t really affect the music to a certain extent so I’m still able to go anywhere in the world, set up my production studio and go in and do what I need to do.
5. Are there any artists in the UK that have caught your eye? What are your thoughts on UK hip hop?
The UK is like, musically, you guys know what’s up. You guys are always a step ahead, even a step ahead of the States a lot of the time. You guys are very into like a lot of that experimental and electronic stuff that I dig also and it’s funny because I have the UK in the back of my mind when I’m making music, especially my electronic-based records. But in terms of new artists, I’m not too hip to who the newest artists doing their thing over there apart from cats like Paul White. He’s one of my faves right now.
6. What was the first hip hop track that caught your attention?
First hip hop track? Wow! I don’t know, man, that’s a good question… I can’t necessarily think of the first hip hop track that caught my attention but I can remember the first album I actually bought that moved me to go and buy it in the record store and that was Bone Thugs & Harmony – E. 1999 Eternal.
7. Do you think it is important to have a musical background, whether it be classically trained or just learning an instruments?
I think at this point in my career, I feel the more information you know, the more advanced you can be and the more tools and weapons you can have in terms of production and music in general. Having that kind of knowledge, it can’t hurt; it can only help you. But at the same time, it’s a good thing that comes with inexperienced when it comes to music, there are a lot of musicians who are self-taught. I’m one of those people, actually. I just play by ear. Especially when I do my live stuff. I get live musicians to replay some of those melodies so some people are just gifted and fortunate enough to have an ear for music without having to be trained or knowing music theory but I’m definitely open to learn, hoping to get trained on certain things with keys, drums, guitar and whatever.
8. If money or availability weren’t an object, what piece of equipment would you want in your studio the most?
[laughs] I would probably get a 100 track Neve Console. Neve faders, Neve EQ’s, Neve compressors… all of that.
9. What would you say is your biggest musical accomplishment and why?
I feel like one of my biggest musical accomplishments is being able to have creative control over my music and being able to make music I’ve wanted to make for so long after all these years and being able to gain a fan base off of what I do and what I love. I think that’s an incredible accomplishment because a lot of artists aren’t capable or fortunate enough to be able to make music they want to make and make a living off it. So that’s probably the biggest accomplishment I’ve had – being able to make a living off the music I wanna make without any compromise.
10. Do you feel that your method / approach to sampling has changed over the years?
It always progresses, it always changes up a little bit even those I use the MPC 3000 to program most of my music. The techniques change, some of the gear changes a little bit but for the most part, it’s crazy when you deal with mostly analogue drum machines and living in a digital age, you’re competing with people making production from more of a digital side of things, you have to adjust with the times a little bit. I mean, even though I like to make what I make, I’ve never really compromised my music. I like to also know I can make something that’s what people call “relevant” to whatever time period we’re in. I like to do that with tools and gear I like to make music on, old or new.
11. Do you find it important to clear samples and what is the process in order to do so?
I don’t. Haha! I don’t clear samples. It got me in trouble a couple of times with different samples but for the most part, I really don’t even think about clearing samples. I might need to start watching my back a little more cos each album gets more bigger and I get more fans and it gets a little more popular. I just dig for records and if I like it and it moves me and I feel like I can make a dope track, then I’m still gonna chop it up. I don’t think about it when I’m digging. I’m always looking for obscure records so I don’t try to go for anything too popular.
12. It’s hard to pick a favourite track but do you have a monumental track in your career so far that still means a lot to you?
Erm… I would probably say the track I produced for Slum Village in 2004 for Detroit Deli called Reunion. It had a feature on there from J Dilla. When that happened, it was like a big deal to me because Dilla is like #1 in my book when it comes to production and a progressive producer in hip hop so for him to get on one of my tracks or for him to think it was good enough for him to bless, I was like “yo, that’s a pretty big deal”.
13. Do you have a favourite album that you have produced?
Favourite album… I don’t know. I know the fans have their favourite but I don’t know if I’ve produced my favourite album just yet. I’m already thinking about the next album, what I want to do and how I want to take it up a step further.
14. What five records that aren’t your own sum up your music career?
I’d have to say… Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2. That’s my favourite hip hop album of all time. D’Angelo’s Voodoo, that’s a huge inspiration for what I do today and what I was doing when the album came out. I’d have to say Stereolab’s Dots and Loops album… that played a major part in my creativity and the way I thought about music. Prince’s 1999 album. Prince’s whole catalogue but I have to pick one album. Last one would probably have to be… oh man, that’s a hard one. I’d probably have to say Wu Tang Forever. That was like, what, 15/16 years old when that came out. When I first heard that, it fucked me up.
15. Losing Out is one of our favourite tracks of yours. What was the creative process behind it and why did you chose Royce as a feature?
I mean, when I was recording Tronic, I already knew i wanted to get Royce on the album. I was like, whatever I put Royce on, the track has to be pretty damn amazing. I spent a lot of time searching for the perfect sample, the perfect loop to make a beat out of and when I came across that track, I knew it was it. Right when the needle hit the record, I knew that was the one. I just chopped it up, did what I did with it in the lab with it and I asked Royce to jump on the record and he did his thing and I kinda knew it was gonna get a great response from fans when they heard he record and i was right cos when it came out, it was one of their favourites and one of mine.
16. Do you think some of the EDM elements currently infused in mainstream hip-hop production takes away from hip-hop’s essence?
Nah, not really because that’s the thing about hip hop, it’s about evolving. It’s about the music constantly evolving. Whether people think it’s evolving for the worst or the best, thats their opinion. Hip hop music and production is always changing, almost every year. So yeah, It’s going through a phase right now with the EDM stuff. I mean, I’m not the biggest fan of it but I don’t hate it that much because Im still very much into electronic music but just not that side of it.
17. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Hmm, lemme think… damn, I don’t know. Haha! It’s probably to trust my own instincts as an artist cos I’m the one who has to reap the benefits and the repercussions that come with my art so me being the person that kinda goes with his gut and goes with his natural instants and usually makes the right decisions musically, that’s probably the best piece of advice I got.