Their music is rarely, if ever, heard on local hip-hop radio. But underground Detroit emcees and producers Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Phat Kat are doing something about that with new albums, a new tour and a continuing commitment to pay tribute to the late, great J Dilla.
If the recently departed hometown luminary isn't in their album credits directly, then their productions bear his influence and his famously untiring work ethic. Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) perfected a soulful, hard-snare sound by laboring over the elements of a sampled source, and in both sound and style it has become one of the principal undercurrents in Detroit hip hop. And yet, save for a few local radio jocks, Dilla's work and that of his collaborators remains largely unheard on Motor City radio.
Three new releases reveal both Dilla's legacy and the current sound of the Detroit underground.
On March 20, soon after what would have been Dilla's 33rd birthday, his famously rare and much-bootlegged Ruff Draft finally saw formal release through Los Angeles indie Stones Throw. Phat Kat's Carte Blanche appeared on San Francisco-based Look that same day, while the New York label Fat Beats issued Black Milk's Popular Demand March 13.
Dilla's influence on Popular Demand is part of an easily detectable tribute to Black Milk's producer predecessors.
"Even though I'm a young cat," Milk says, "I try to capture what people felt when they heard those albums. Whatever summer A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes & Life came out, whenever Pete Rock's Soul Survivor came out, what people felt when they heard that music, I try to capture those feelings. I'm not trying to re-create what they did, but the feel of the music, with soul to it."
Like both Pete Rock and Dilla, Black Milk uses silky, stitched-up soul samples on Popular Demand. "Three + Sum," a lazily driven recount of summertime sex romps, finds him pushing a string loop prominently forward in the mix while he keeps on top of frequent start-stop glitches in the beat; its dynamics, like a lot of the best elements of the album, resonate like another notable influence, Gang Starr's DJ Premier.
"I was blessed with an ear," says Milk of his sample-hunting prowess. He's since been inundated with production work. "It's a blessing, and people like what I do for a career."
"Sound the Alarm" is another Demand standout. Distinctive snare snaps clang against a droning bass melody that lumbers upward beneath the scratches and Milk's shout-along chorus. Then, after Milk bastardizes syllables for his own lyrical blend on the first verse, Guilty Simpson drops in and spits the same kind of scorching, self-affirming jabs that he delivered last year on Jay Dee's The Shining, as well as Dabrye's brilliant Two/Three. With his history of answering Detroit's guest spot calls with considerable flair, Guilty's anticipated solo full-length will finally wrangle for hometown airtime when it materializes later this year on Stones Throw.
"When people start supporting those records like they should, then the integrity of the rap game will officially be back in effect," Simpson says of Demand and "Sound the Alarm." "There's no (radio) support. It's basically all payola. We have a few DJs here in the city who are trying to rep Detroit hip hop, but when you have payola, and you've got a program director that's telling you to play this record eight times today, no questions asked, you're controlling a DJ's freedom to play good music. I think the creative people should be the ones eating off rap music. The playing field is leveled, because the cookie-cutter rap ain't even necessarily guaranteed platinum now, so I think it's time for the real shit to resurface. I think it's well on its way, and Black is a big part of that."
Black Milk will have a spot in Simpson's handpicked producer crop for his album, as will siblings Madlib and Oh No, Mr. Porter (D12's KonArtist), and of course, J Dilla, who left behind a wealth of material. But before his solo joint drops, Simpson has some things in the pipeline for one, both he and Milk appear on Carte Blanche, the new album from longtime Dilla friend and collaborator Phat Kat.
Carte Blanche matches Kat's dependably furious verses with crisp, bitter-cold backdrops courtesy of Dilla, Black Milk, Nick Speed and Young RJ. Aside from an occasional homophobic one-off, his vicious screed is aimed at faint-hearted contemporaries and the record industry that scorned him. Like Simpson, Kat also launches reams of ill-will at the lack of support most Detroit radio stations have shown this strain of the underground.
"I hate to say it, man," Kat says. "I love my city. I was born and raised here. But radio never, ever supported anything that we did. Detroit is a city of followers. Whatever is on BET right now, that's what the radio stations are playing. We're from here. We created the whole hip-hop culture in this city. And people never want to acknowledge it."
On "Cold Steel" a Carte Blanche entry not as focused as the axe-edged rhymes and dry drum breaks of "My Old Label," but angry just the same Dilla's rippling key drones suit some of the most malevolent rhymes he'd ever backed with beats. At times, Kat's album mirrors the deliriously thuggish, psychedelic aura of Champion Sound, the ripped-raw 2003 pairing of Dilla and Stones Throw's masked genius Madlib that was released as Jaylib. And while Dilla was crafting beats for that album, he was also working on the little-heard knocking breaks and chant-chorus formula of Ruff Draft, which became a much sought-after, German-distributed, vinyl-only EP.
On what Dilla intended to be a car stereo-friendly cassette tape, his shouts to friends ("Shouts") on Ruff Draft and generally funked-out bangers ("Reckless Driving") pack searing synths and hard beats. "Take Notice," a slinky, organ-rimmed Ruff Draft creeper featuring Simpson, is so powerful that Simpson ensured its slot on his upcoming solo album too. It's one of the bonuses that made it onto the now two-CD Ruff Draft set on Stones, and its prime mash of sinister keys and Guilty's stylish boasting land it miles from the watercolor blur of "Nothing Like This," Dilla's synth-looped venture into dreamy pop heard on last year's Chrome Children compilation from the label.
The breadth of work Dilla left behind only further illustrates his depth and curiosity as a producer. But for all the timeless contributions Dilla made to hip hop, it's hard to believe that paychecks and mainstream nonsense will prohibit his work and that of Phat Kat, Black Milk and Guilty Simpson from being heard on Motown radio.
And that's why on this spring's tour, "The Phat, the Black & the Guilty," Phat Kat has plans to make his discontent clear to program directors everywhere.
"The war has begun," Kat says. "For real. We're going to bombard the music industry with undeniably classic joints. It's not going to stop coming. It's about to be bad for a lot of people that are making garbage music. It's not acceptable no more."
March 31 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. Stone Throw's Ruff Draft listening party features Guilty Simpson, Black Milk, Phat Kat, Baatin (Slum Village), DJ HouseShoes, and more.
Dominic Umile is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org