Black Milk's roots are firmly planted in the Detroit underground hip-hop scene. Cutting his teeth with artists like Slum Village and the late, great J Dilla helped develop Milk's musical palette. He approaches hip-hop with soul, both metaphorically, as evidenced in his lyrical content, and literally, as it's an obvious influence on his sound.
In a little over a decade, Milk has carved out a path that wanders and weaves around the straight and narrow, never conforming to the trends of mainstream hip-hop, and that's exactly what makes him an intriguing artist. His extensive catalog is filled with ambitious works, such as 2008's Tronic, 2013's No Poison No Paradise, and his newest effort, If There's a Hell Below, out on October 28. Those are just a few of his solo records. Milk also has done seven collaborative albums, as well as extensive production work for other artists.
In order to become an artist who's well-respected, unique, and acclaimed, it helps to be unpredictable and intelligent. For starters, Milk has never done anything expected and his innovative sound, which blends hip-hop with jazz, and electronica is just one example of how well his musical mind works. It was Milk's distinctive prowess that caught the attention of Jack White, a collaboration Milk spoke to us about.
Milk also spoke with us about his new album and his future plans, which might disappoint some fans.
Metro Times: The title, If There's a Hell Below, implies a lot. What mood or idea were you trying to convey on this album?
Black Milk: Yeah, I mean it's definitely a play off the Curtis Mayfield title, but also it's a play on words where I wanted to flip it in a way where the meaning is if there's a hell below for some people, they're already living it. The album covers topics of inner-city life, growing up in certain kinds of environments, certain kinds of neighborhoods, different things you see. I'm telling different stories on different songs, just trying to paint that picture. For some people, this is it. They're already living in it and trying to find those moments of clarity and those moments of happiness. The album is also a continuation of my last album, No Poison No Paradise, which dealt with the same things conceptually. This is not a concept album, but it talks about similar things. At this point in my career, lyrically, I've been telling a lot of stories and getting more personal with my raps.
MT: Personally, what were some of the things that influenced the album?
Milk: It was more so just life. The last couple of years, I've been wanting to take a different approach lyrically and life in general being my inspiration. I'm 31 now, so I can look back and see all the different things I've been through in my music career, in my personal life, what I went through as a youth. I feel like, at this point, I have a number of things to talk about versus when I first came out with my first album, still growing as a person and an artist. Just being able to say, "I've lived a little life and have a few stories that I can tell."
MT: Having more life experience gives you a different perspective when it comes to writing music.
Milk: Exactly! I think when you first come out as an artist, it's more spontaneous and you just have that raw energy about you. That's the one thing I kinda miss. After being in the game for a little while, that stuff begins to leave you. Stuff starts to become more calculated and strategic and you start over-thinking things. You try to capture that energy that you had back when you first came in as an artist. At this point, I love knowing that I have experience with a lot of things. That's the flip side of it all.
MT: What do you have planned for the shows supporting the new album?
Milk: I've always brought live instrumentation to my live shows. I have the band, Nat Turner, with me, which is a three-piece: keys, drums, and bass. Me and those guys have been rocking out for the last five years now. I don't want to brag, but that's one of the things that I feel most confident about. I feel like I have one of the dopest hip-hop shows out there. I'm proud of the chemistry me and the band have created over the years. That's one of the fun parts that I still enjoy a lot, stepping out onstage and performing live. We just expect the unexpected [laughs]. There's a lot of different styles, not just straight, up-the-middle hip-hop, but incorporating a lot of different things, from soul, a little bit of a rock element, a little bit of an electronic element, with the core being hip-hop.
MT: Playing with a band adds a lot to the live setting.
Milk: Being able to change up on the spot, depending on how we feel and being able to do something live by playing into the moment versus if it was just me and a DJ, I would be confined to the record.
MT: What urged you to play with live instruments?
Milk: I started incorporating live music with my production before I even took it to the stage. Around 2008, I put out an album called Tronic and I brought in a few musicians to play on a few of my beats, trying to mix it up. Working with them opened my mind to different ways of approaching production and a different way to approach my live show. I took chances. It started off with just a drummer and a keyboardist, then it ended up being drums, keys, bass. Then, it ended up being drums, keys, bass and a DJ. I like to have that live element. It gives me a few more layers to the production. It makes it sound a little bigger and gives me more room to do different things. I'll always use some kind of live instrumentation in my production, even if it's just a little bit.
MT: If There's a Hell Below is going to be your last solo rap album for a while?
Milk: Yeah, I kinda want to take some time and focus more on production and producing for other artists and see how that goes. That's the plan. The plan might change, depending on how I feel or if I get inspired by something. Right now, I put two solo albums out, back to back. At the end of last year, No Poison No Paradise, and now I'm about to drop another one. It was kind of planned, put out two albums, back to back, then fall back on producing for other artists. Over the next year or two, it's just focusing on that. Even doing instrumental projects and doing instrumental shows, I've been doing a lot of those, where I'm bringing a drum machine onstage or a couple other little gadgets and just playing music. I love that type of energy. It's a different type of energy and a different kind of vibe from my rap performance.
MT: Do you feel the need to take a break, re-group, and find the inspiration?
Milk: Yeah, that's exactly what it is. Sometimes, you go so hard and you put out so many projects, at least with me personally, you kinda start getting a little ... I really don't want to use the word bored, but that's the only word that comes to mind [laughs]. You get bored with it. The interest is not as high as it was, so you take some time to try to experiment with something new, a different direction musically. I do that every two to three years. I just want to something different and not the same format, same arrangement. It works with some people, which is cool, but for me I kinda get bored quick.
MT: Plus, experiencing life and having something to talk about.
MT: Do you have any production projects lined up?
Milk: There's a significant amount of artists that I'm sending productions to right now. Some up-and-coming artists that are buzzing right now, younger artists, so I'm in the process of sending beats to all these artists. That's what I want to do. I feel like being focused on a rap career, it took me away from producing for other artists and that's something I wish I had more time to do. I've worked with different artists, but if my rap career wasn't running my time, I could produce for even more artists. That's what I definitely want to do at this point, especially with some of these newer emcees that are coming out. I feel like there are some real dope younger cats that are doing some good work.
MT: How did the collaboration with Jack White come about?
Milk: He just reached out [laughs]. It was kinda that simple. He sent an email over to my manager, saying that he was interested in working with me and doing a couple records with me for his 45 series that he puts out on his label. At first, we didn't know it was really him [laughs]. We were like, "Nah, this can't be real!" but it was real. He wanted me to come down to Nashville and said I could bring my band. So I went down there, went to his home studio, met him, and it was kind of a crazy experience. We got in the studio, me, my band, him, and some of his musician friends, and we just jammed out for a while. I ended up kinda directing the jam session, telling everybody what to keep playing or change a little bit until we came up with a couple tracks. I wrote a few rhymes, and it took a couple days to record the vocals. It was an amazing and different experience. I asked him how he knew who I was, because he's a huge rock star, and I'm just an underground hip-hop artist [laughs]. He told me he came across one of my videos, a song I put out called, "Deadly Medley" with Royce da 5'9" and Elzhi. He was like, "I really like the track." He was already interested in working with a hip-hop artist from Detroit, but he never came across the right one and made the most sense for what he did. He came across my stuff and knew I produced, so it made sense. We actually performed at his Third Man live venue, a lot of people came out. I didn't even know if I had fans in Nashville [laughs]. They recorded the performance to 12-inch and put that vinyl out also. It was a great time and a really dope experience. He was a really cool, laid back, nice dude.