For 27-year-old Detroit producer Curtis Cross — better known by the name Black Milk — things operate best in his life when everything is moving in organized fashion. Call it the assembly-line method of progress and personal growth. If his music is evolving and gaining more recognition, that's one part of the equation. If fame, respect, and paychecks are flowing, that's another part of the process. When family and close friends are OK, that's another. But throw a wrench in the machine somewhere and everything gets thrown out of whack. That's a reality that Cross experienced for the first time in his life last year when a string of events sent the typically jovial young music phenom into a place of deep reflection — and possibly pushed him to create Album of the Year, which hits stores nationwide this week, and is already being called his magnum opus.
For years, like Cadillacs rolling off the assembly line, everything in Cross' world flowed efficiently, and, basically, ahead of schedule. He's been on a constant ascent working to become one of the best hip-hop producers in Detroit (or anywhere) since 2003, and has essentially succeeded every step of the way. The world at large caught first glimpse of him when he released his Sound of the City EP in 2005, a project that was much loved by the press and gave Cross a solid foundation inside the underground hip-hop world. Around these parts however, Black Milk's name had been circulating even earlier from his BR Gunna days — the production duo that he and one-time friend Young RJ created alongside rapper Fat Ray. The trio were known and revered among certain rap circles for their witty-yet-gritty lyricism and beat prowess. Of course it didn't hurt that Young RJ is the son of Barak Records head RJ Rice. That connection helped Cross co-produce the bulk of Slum Village's 2004 release, Detroit Deli, and opened him up to producing for Phat Kat, Pharaoh Monch, and others. For a while, it seemed like the Cooley High School graduate was comfortable within the BR Gunna framework, but just as the group began getting video placement on MTV and working with the Dramatics for the song "Someone Good," Cross split for a solo career. Some might have questioned the move at the time, but it was the right thing to do. See, strong ambition was certainly a part of it, questionable business dealings within Barak also played a role (which would be revealed later), but either way, Cross' star power made him attractive to the labels who were regularly reaching out to him. Considering that he can arguably out-rap Fat Ray and produce beats better than Young RJ, sharing the limelight no longer made sense. Cross eventually signed a three-album deal with Fat Beats Records in 2006.
The Fats Beats deal kick-started a four year journey that saw Cross emerge as one of the most legitimately talented (and consistent) producer-rappers of the decade. Those are big words, but his music backs it up. Only fellow Detroiter and one-time Cross mentor, the late James "J Dilla" Yancey comes to mind as being better, but by the time folks listen to Album of the Year, some might wonder if the student isn't beginning to gain steam on the master himself.
Or hell, maybe it's something in the local water.
During our chat, just days after Eminem was at St. Andrew's judging a freestyle battle with Denaun Porter, Royce Da 5'9," Trick Trick and others, Cross couldn't help but admire how deep the talent pool in the city is. "I always say that we've got the most talented cats, emcees, producers, singers, or whatever, right here in Detroit," Cross says. "When it comes to music, we've got the best. I always said that, Hex [Murda] always says that, and it's the truth."
It was actually his manager and consigliere of the Detroit rap world, Hexmurda, who helped Cross get his record deal.
"When Fat Beats first called, I told T3 [of Slum Village] and said, 'Who should I have finagle it for me?' and he said Hex," Cross says. "I called Hex and he was like, 'Let's do it,' and then he got it done. I never had to sign no paperwork with Hex either. I give him his percentage and his fee when it's time. We cool like that. None of [his clients] have paperwork with him. He's someone where I've never gotten a feeling that he could be on some shady shit. I know he feels the same about me."
Just hearing Cross talk about Hex, you can hear the sense of loyalty that exists in their relationship. It's a subject matter that's uniquely personal for Cross to speak of because despite all of the success he's had during the aughts, 2009 was a far darker year than he'd ever experienced and Hex's health was front and center.
It started with the passing of close friend and musical companion Titus "Baatin" Glover in August last year. The death caught many off guard around the world, but it hit Cross especially hard. As he raps on the new track "Distortion" (featuring Melanie Rutherford): "And Baatin left us/ Had so many issues, first friend's funeral that I had ever been to." That verse alone from AOTY put things in perspective for Cross. "When I said that, it made me really think, I've never had to experience a close friend dying," he says. "Proof was like a friend of mine and I looked up to him ... and the same goes for Dilla, but Baatin used to come over to my mom's crib. He would come over, hang out, record a few songs and we really got to know each other. His death was totally different than anyone else's."
Losing a friend wasn't the only death Cross suffered in '09. A close aunt passed away also, a few hours after he was sitting in the hospital room at her bedside. And then Hexmurda suffered a debilitating pontine stroke on Sept. 13 last year that possibly rocked Cross' world the hardest.
"That shit was a nightmare," Cross says. "Scary as shit. One minute I was talking to him the day before, and he was cool. And then all of a sudden, I get a phone call and there's crying over the phone saying they took him in an ambulance to the hospital. Everything just changed drastically. That was the first time I had to deal with something like that where I had a friend who I talked to every day and all of a sudden here he is, almost about to die." As Cross recalls, the first few hours at the hospital were a whirlwind of emotion.
"Me, Royce, Pardime, Guilty, and eLZhi, we were the first ones there," he says. "We couldn't do nothing but stay at the side of the bed and pray. The machine was breathing for him, he wasn't breathing on his own. It was like, how did the strongest person we know end up like this? That really made me reflect deep. The doctors were preparing us that he was not going to make it."
But the doctors were wrong. Hex not only lived, but is recovering and will be at the AOTY release party on Sept. 18 for his first public appearance since the stroke. Speaking via e-mail, Hex says he appreciates Cross for standing by him during a difficult time.
"Black was always coming to the hospital to see me and I would always tell him to 'keep going'... even if I fucked around and died, he was going to be great," Hex writes. When asked if the discussion ever came up about him no longer managing Cross' career due to his stroke, Hex responds: "Not really. We already had a sort of contingency plan in place, plus Black had been my client for about five years so he was aware of the way I would handle certain situations. And at the end of the day, it's his career so he had to make the final decisions."
Cross's decision ultimately was to take Hex's "keep going" comment and run with it like a gazelle. He spent the next eight months working feverishly while writing, producing, and arranging what's arguably his best piece of work yet. The title itself, Album of the Year, is a double entendre that speaks not only to his greatest sonic achievement thus far but also these songs being a product of everything he'd experienced over the past 12 months. Recorded primarily at Studio 1 in Dearborn, Cross called in a group of A-list musicians and decided to tone down his signature drum programming and let instruments bring the music to life. It was a humble and risky move (just look at how much praise Cross gets for his drum-machine work), but there's a certain pop and rocked-out groove to these songs that hasn't existed in his previous work. But don't get it twisted; the dish-rag dirty Black Milk sound is still there too, just with a forward-thinking edge.
"Every song starts with the drum machine still. and the musicians came and played on top of it," Cross says. "Me being able to work with live musicians made me create a different sound. Something I haven't heard in a while. Working with my drummer Daru Jones, AB, Will Sessions, Monica Blaire, etc., having all these people around me helped put together an insane project. What scares me is what I can do next. Now that I have more of an idea behind musician language and music theory, my ideas are everywhere."
That's equally evident on songs such as the frenetic "Gospel Psychedelic Rock" which sounds like something the ghost of Jimi Hendrix musically arranged from beyond the grave. The lyrics are extraterrestrial and as vibrant as an early Basquiat original, the sound is dense yet fluid, and the musicians are playing tighter than gnat booty. "Final Chapter" featuring Cross' confidant and fellow Detroit standout musician Mr. Porter is equally soulful, rocky, and reminiscent of a Black Bottom Collective track. The sound is 100 percent Detroit, yet global at the same time.
If nothing else, Album of the Year has helped Cross face tough times and come out with a smile on his face. "People write and create the best music when they go through hardships in their life," Cross says, chuckling softly. "I understand that now. And I feel good. I think I'm moving at a good pace, I understand things better now." Then he pauses for a while, and adds, "I'm happy."
Black Milk plays St. Andrew's Hall on Saturday, Sept. 18, with Will Sessions and DJ Dez; 21 and older; doors at 8 p.m.