In a small Southfield recording studio, two 19-year-olds are hard at work producing or co-producing four new albums for Barak Entertainment. Their projects include the much-anticipated fourth album from Slum Village, the debut full-length from Phat Kat (aka Ronnie Cash), a sequel to the successful Dirty District mixtape, and a new album from MC Breed (all are Detroit artists), plus their own remixes.
And yes, they are two years shy of legal drinking age.
Young R.J. and Black Milk (R.J. Rice Jr. and Curtis Cross) are not your average teens. For the past couple years they have been working tirelessly in the studio, honing a craft that takes discipline, dedication, and an ear for what sounds not just good in their minds, but radio-friendly good. Which is something many Detroit artists like Eminem and D-12, Slum Village, the East Side Chedda Boyz, Street Lords, and others have tried to attain, yet run away from.
In an industry now ruled by its producers (the Neptunes, Timbaland, Dr. Dre, et al.), the chances for commercial success for an artist with lyrical ability almost completely rest on those creating his beats and hooks. Major labels "encourage" their artists to seek the "help" of production masters, and they pony up the cash for it. Justin Timberlake’s debut solo album was, for example, produced entirely by the Neptunes and Timbaland.
With attention spans at an all-time low, the pressure to create songs with staying power for TV and radio has reached an all-time high. It’s a battle between the underground and mainstream, street cred vs. heavy rotation, hip-hop heads vs. the "TRL" crowd. Labels and artists are searching for that happy medium.
Enter Young R.J. and Black Milk.
In the few years the pair have been making beats, they’ve gone from co-production work on a couple tracks to full-fledged producers, handling a majority of the material on their upcoming projects. R.J. and Milk may have gone to separate high schools (Southfield and Cooley, respectively), but Barak Entertainment is their hip-hop university and both received early admission.
For Young R.J., music came naturally. His father, R.J. Rice, runs Barak Entertainment. For the senior R.J., music was in his bones. Papa’s group, R.J.’s Latest Arrival, experienced moderate success throughout the ’80s with hits like "Shackles" and "Heaven in Your Arms," but when the ’90s came around, he took a more business-minded approach.
R.J. senior built a studio in his home; the studio eventually moved to Northland Drive in Southfield. In 1993 he formed Barak Entertainment and handled production work for the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and Poe by day, and the newly formed Slum Village at night. His reputation from the previous decade had spilled over, and now artists, local and abroad, were coming to taste a piece of his Detroit pie.
Papa R.J. still stamps his seal of approval on all Barak productions, as many of them are a family affair. Papa and Young R.J. are father and son at home, but owner and producer in the studio. Papa taught son the foundations of musical harmony.
"The music bug hit me at 14," Young R.J. says, relaxing with Milk in the R.J. Rice studio. "I was always at the studio. I used to come up here every day after school. I even skipped school a couple times, to come to the studio and make beats."
While some boys spent days playing football or crashing in front of the TV, Young R.J. was practicing. Eventually the beat-making became a profession. Artists and producers coming to the studio exposed their work to Young R.J. and vice versa.
Young R.J. explains, "I was making cheap beats for people, mostly high school kids. Then, Phat Kat came in. He heard some stuff I was doing. He worked with me, saying I should try this or that, and we came up with a style, and I kind of stuck with it.
"Then people started looking at me a little more serious," he continues. "Timabaland was in the studio on an Aaliyah project. Then Jay Dee [of Slum Village fame] pushed me in that direction that I really needed to try and produce. Then I started working with T3 when he was working on Slum’s Trinity album, and he taught me a lot."
For Black Milk, the love of beat-making started as a hometown affair. A cousin handed him a copy of Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 1, the group’s 1995 debut. Three songs in, the kid was sold.
Young R.J. met Milk around the time of Slum’s Family Tree 2001 tour, when a tape of Milk’s beats made it onto the group’s tour bus, and back to the offices of Barak Entertainment.
Both R.J. and Milk started toe-dipping in the pool of musical production, but eventually made their mark with the Dirty District mixtape, a Sequence Records’ 2002 release. The collection showcased not just Young R.J. and Milk, but some of Detroit’s finer lyricists including the members of Slum Village, Phat Kat, Que Dee, Fuzz, Ten Speed, Brown Shoe, Guilty Marv, and others. The project was Barak’s (and its extended family) response to the recent "DJ Clue and Funkmaster Flex-style mixtapes," which sounded too "nice and clean" and defeated the original purpose of a mixtape.
"We all thought it was time to bring a real mixtape," Young R.J. explains. "Bring it back to that time period when tapes got old, and developed that dirty sound."
Milk adds, "The whole concept was to make it seem like a real mixtape, instead of a put-together album."
While Dirty District might have been a proving ground for the pair, it’s their upcoming work that could launch them to a level of status and achievement. Just listening to their own projects, Young R.J. and Milk bob their heads in the knowledge that what they are creating could be what commercial rap radio is looking for. The sound coming out of the monitors is exactly what these two strive for: a rough and rugged, gritty feel that translates in the club as effectively as it does in your car. This is music meant to make you move.
And it’s not just what’s on their boards; it’s what in their heads that have the pair so in tune with making music that has mass appeal. Both have their own distinctive styles which, when combined, equal the industry’s two favorite words, radio and friendly. While many in the hip-hop community would consider this sell-out behavior, the irony is they never had an underground sound or appeal to begin with. Being so young and new to the music industry, Young R.J. and Milk haven’t had the time, or the chance, to sell out. These two have stuck with their vision since day one.
As far as production standards go, the pair have learned from their past mistakes, and improved on what already works. Their musical tastes are broad in one sense, but limited in another. They listen to all the rap and hip hop they can, as long as it’s not older than a release from A Tribe Called Quest. They are in essence abandoning the original foundation of hip hop, and applying a new one. Gone are the days of a disco break-beat with a rhyme smacked on top. They refuse to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they are going to design a new mode of transportation.
Young R.J. explains, "I have my own sound and Black has his own sound, but me and Black can make it work — make our sounds work together."
Just what is that particular sound? "It’s real up-tempo most of the time. If we do an R&B track, it’s still going to move," Milk says.
"We trying to be innovative; mix old with the new, because you gotta be up to date,” explainsYoung R.J. "You got people like Pharrell [of The Neptunes] and Timbaland who changed the game, so you can’t stay back in ’98. We’re working with samples and sounds other people wouldn’t even mess with, they’d skip over it. We’re trying to make it happen with whatever little scraps we got."
Black adds, "We know we’re young, but we also listen to the radio. We know what the people around our age is feelin’, because we’re in that age group and buy most of the albums."
Young R.J.: "Like certain sounds only work on commercial radio. That’s why most commercial radio sounds the same. We take that all into consideration, and at the end of the day, we come up with something that’s still our sound and something that the consumers will like."
Black: "We take our beats and try to find out what element can just take it over the top, and people won’t be like ‘That shit’s just crazy as hell,’ but still you know, they’ll be like ‘Dang!’ They can still feel it, and it can get radio play."
So what (or who) is going to stop Milk and the young R.J.? How about the Detroit rap and hip-hop community itself, where the blame for failure is tossed in all directions — whether it’s local radio stations not doing enough to support the city’s artists, to the artists simply not making music that translates?
"The city will not blow up like it should. I feel like there is some type of aura holding us back," Milk says. "I feel like every year is our year. There’s so much talent here, that’s the crazy thing."
"I think Detroit is like crabs in a bucket," R.J. says. "When they see one about to make it to the top and climb over, there is always going to be one or more trying to pull it back down."
So how is it that these two are going to stand out from the proverbial bucket of crabs? Simple, they plan to discover that fine line between underground and mainstream.David Valk is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org