On street corners and message boards around the world, rap fans have hailed 2008 as the year that Michigan's underground hip-hop scene went "overground." With some artists' albums finding success on flagship indie labels (i.e., Guilty Simpson's Ode to the Ghetto on Stones Throw Records and Buff1's There's Only One on A-Side Worldwide), others landing major label contracts (Big Sean preparing his debut under Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam), and both veterans and newbies getting a shot at receptive audiences, it finally looks like the work started by such deceased Motor City rap pioneers as James "J Dilla" Yancey and Deshaun "Proof" Holton are starting to pay off.
But it's producer-emcee Black Milk (born Curtis Cross), who stands at the forefront of this movement. The 25-year-old — whose new disc, Tronic, hit stores last week — has placed beats with both superstars and indie staples. A number of artists have enlisted his cocksure flow as well.
"My number one responsibility is to be consistent with putting out great music," Milk says. "As long as I can do that, everything else will take care of itself. And I feel like as long as I'm breathing, I'll be able to supply that."
Starting his career with his now defunct local group Ten Speed and Brown Shoe, Milk got his first break through mainstay Detroit rappers Slum Village. After hearing a CD that featured several of Milk's beats, Slum borrowed a Milk beat that'd eventually become "What is This," from their 2002 album, Trinity: Past, Present and Future. After that, Milk produced other Slum songs, both as a soloist and as half of B.R. Gunna, a duo he formed with fellow Detroit producer Young RJ.
In 2005, though, he began his solo career by releasing Sound of the City, a compilation disc that paired his backdrops with rhymes from some of Detroit's hottest staples. Broken Wax, an EP of solo material, dropped the following year, and he released Popular Demand, his proper solo debut, to critical gushes in 2007.
"Popular Demand actually came out on a real record label — Fat Beats — so that helped me get more exposure with them pushing it and promoting me as an artist," Milk says. "I've put out so many projects this year that it feels like about two, three years since Popular Demand came out. But I'm just trying to keep the buzz going and build up the name."
And he's not kidding about all those projects. Indeed, since the release of Popular Demand, Black Milk has flooded the market. Along with placing beats with such key rappers as Lloyd Banks, GZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan) and Pharaohe Monch, he's also produced several projects primarily on his own. Caltroit, a collaborative LP with Los Angeles emcee Bishop Lamont, hit the Internet as a free download last December and subsequently followed as an official release with additional songs in January of this year. The Set Up, an album that paired him and Detroit emcee Fat Ray, was released in March. This past summer, Elzhi — half of the aforementioned Slum Village — dropped his debut, The Preface, with Milk producing 13 of its 16 tracks.
"I don't do nothing else but music," he says of his hefty output, "so I guess it's not too hard when I'm always in the studio, always recording new songs, and always doing beats. By the time two or three months pass, I've got enough material to put another project out. If I'm not on the road touring, I'm in the studio. I don't do much else. This is my life."
As successful as he's been with his other endeavors, though, Milk thought it essential to switch up his sound on his new Tronic disc. In the past, some critics claimed Milk had a limited repertoire. His "go-to" formula of hard-hitting drums and samples of soul records paired with an in-the-pocket flow created constant comparisons to fellow superproducer J Dilla. Those comparisons weren't just a result of his sound, either. Milk began working with Slum Village once Dilla had left the group to pursue a solo career — and because Milk's solo career gained steam around the time of Dilla's death in February 2006, claims of the "torch being passed" were made.
After listening to seminal albums from rappers Common and the aforementioned Slum Village to legendary soul singers Stevie Wonder and Willie Hutch for inspiration, Milk reinvented his sound. He kept the funk and soul that helped build his reputation, but also incorporated synths and electronic elements to make his beats sound more futuristic. He also brought live musicians into the studio for the kind of richness that real instruments could supply.
"Most people hear my music and they may think about it as soul chops and soul claps — stuff like that," Milk says. "I wanted to do some left-field type of stuff but still have the soul in it. I also wanted to make it more musical than just me sampling. I wanted this one to still have a classic, grimy hip-hop feel to it but not a grimy sound.
"I don't really trip over it or stress over" the J Dilla comparisons, he continues. "I just want to make my own lane and for people to recognize that I'm my own talent. I've got a gift as well. I'm going to always have a certain J Dilla element to my music because I learned to make beats by listening to him. But, overall, I think this album won't just separate me from J Dilla but it's also help to make a totally new sound for hip hop."
Milk also decided to trim the number of special guest appearances; Popular Demand saw Detroit's top-tier emcees rhyming alongside him. On Tronic, only two of the disc's 14 songs feature guest emcees. "Losin' Out" sees Detroiter Royce Da 5'9" (who he's only minimally worked with before now), while "The Matrix" has NYC staples Sean Price and Pharaohe Monch. Canadian rocker Colin Munroe lent the chorus and the beat to the silky "Without U." But otherwise, the mic stayed firmly in Milk's hand.
"I wanted to show people I could hold an entire album down by myself," Milk says. "I needed to prove that I could really spit and that I'm not just a producer trying to rap."
Despite Tronic's "solo album" nature, Milk's still keeping it in the family. Next year promises to be even busier for him: The first quarter of '09 sees an LP from Random Ax, a trio featuring Milk, Detroiter Guilty Simpson and Sean Price. Also in the works is an album with internationally lauded Pontiac emcee One Be Lo, as well as an album with Elzhi and Royce Da 5'9". While he's hoping to collaborate sometime with Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder, Milk insists that he'll to stick to his roots and represent proudly the city that raised him.
"I'm a fan of Fat Ray," Milk says. "I'm a fan of Nametag. I'm a fan of Danny Brown. I'm listening to 14KT. Artists like that are dope as hell, so if I put them on a project that might get crazy exposure, then I kill two birds with one stone." He pauses. And then he says, "That's not my goal — to be the No. 1 artist in the D. I'm trying to help other artists around me to get the same exposure that I got."William E. Ketchum is music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org