If soul music had a capital, it would undoubtedly be Detroit. The who’s who of acts that have passed through â€œThe Dâ€ and â€œThe House That Berry Builtâ€ is a long and illustrious list. Diana Ross. Michael Jackson. Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye. Al Green. Aretha Franklin. These are just some of the artists who became icons when they joined forces with Motown Records. The city’s love affair with soul doesn’t end there, though.
Detroit has also bred its share of rap superstars. The likes of Marshall Mathers III, who rose to superstardom under Dr. Dre’s tutelage, and James Dewitt Yancey (R.I.P), whose production defined (and continues to define) R&B and rap for the best part of a decade. It is little surprise that the city already has a new generation looking to claim their place in the musical canon.
25 year-old Curtis Cross, AKA Black Milk, burst into the consciousness of hip-hop heads the world over with his second album Popular Demand in 2007, and still managed to find time to produce for the likes of Busta Rhymes, Guilty Simpson and Pharoahe Monch. Format caught up with him a few days after the launch party for his third album, Tronic, to pick his brains about his collaborations, his influences and his favorite producers on the mic.
â€œBeats is the first love. I think I’ma fall back from the rhyming for a minute.â€
Format: How did you get into making beats and rhyming, and who were your earliest influences?
Black Milk: I got into making beats mainly through being around my family; cousins and friends who were into hip hop real heavy. When I was around them, they’d set up their little workstation and whatnot, and I got interested in it through that and finally started messing around with it myself. I had an ear for music and [was] listening to the type of music they were listening to at the time, y’know, a lot of Tribe, Outkast, De La – stuff like that- especially J Dilla and Slum [Village].
Format: You’ve got a few collaborative projects in the works right now – how did they come about?
Black Milk: First with Bishop Lamont- I was out in Cali for a Slum Village video shoot and he was out there slangin’ his CDs or whatever, and I kicked it with him and chopped it up. He came to The D for Proof [of D12]’s funeral and we met and got a chance to get in the studio while he was out here. We recorded a couple of songs, and after he left we got back in touch and said, â€œYo, why don’t we do a full project on some Detroit/Cali shit – some Midwest/West Coast and call it â€˜Caltroit.â€™â€ That’s how we hooked up.
I hooked up with Sean P[rice]â€¦. really, he was just supposed to do a feature on Guilty Simpson’s album, but my manager said that it would be dope if I could get Sean P and Guilty to do a whole project with me on the beats. Sean was with it; he was already familiar with a lot of stuff I was doing and he went to go check out some of Guilty’s stuff, and he was feeling it. It was a wrap- simple as that. He came up to the D, recorded some songs, and I’ve been sending him beats and verses back and forth, so we’re about halfway done with the album.
Format: Did you play any instruments before you started work on Tronic? Do you plan to learn anymore in the future?
Black Milk: I haven’t mastered any instruments. I play a little bit of keys and a little bit of drums. Hopefully if I do get some time I really wanna sit down and just learn music theory and really work more on live instrumentation, which could help me with my production, so definitely in the future I will.
Format: Detroit’s a very musical city. Do you draw influences from any of the other scenes out there like house and techno, or is it strictly hip hop for you?
Black Milk: Definitely. Being around a lot of electronic music; you’re influenced by it. I do like some of that type of music- I might hear a song and think it’s dope- and there’s a big electronic/ techno scene out here. It has influence on the music a little bit. It had an influence on this new album on the songs like â€œHold It Downâ€ and â€œBounce.â€
Format: Who are Black Milk’s top three producers on the mic and why?
Black Milk: I’d say first – lemme think – I’d probably say Havoc from Mobb Deep. From him being a dope producer, and making that classic dope Mobb material back in the day and he’s kinda underrated as an MC, too, he’s just as dope on the mic.
I’d also say J Dilla, of course. He was ridiculous on the mic, especially towards the end of his career; he was really stepping it up lyrically. Everybody knows that he was a crazy producer.
Third would beâ€¦I’d say Kanye West. He’s the biggest hip hop producer/ MC and he sold the most records out of everybody, so yeah, I’ve gotta put him on that list.
Format: You were touring extensively in support of your last album, Popular Demand. What were your favorite spots to hit around the world?
Black Milk: I probably have to say Europe. Going to Paris; that’s one of the livest spots. The two or three times I’ve been out there it was ridiculous. Amsterdam, Australia was ridiculousâ€¦
Format: What else is in the pipeline for you, production-wise?
Black Milk: Finishing up the Random Axe project that I can officially say is coming out. I’m gonna try to work on an instrumental project for next year. I’m also gonna try to work with a couple other artists and try and get into some R&B type stuff, but I want to do it with a rough, hip hop edge. I’m working with a singer called Melanie Rutherford, so hopefully I can put together a small project with her so hopefully I can put that out next year sometime.
Format: Melanie was on the second Slum Village album, right?
Black Milk: Yeah, yeah. She was also on my album too. She’s from the D; she’s one of the dopest singers out here. I really feel like her voice should be heard a little more. After that, Slum Village is gearing up to work on their next album, so I’ll definitely be doing some production for them, but that’s about it right now.
Format: Do you prefer rhyming or production?
Black Milk: Aw, definitely production. Beats is the first love. I think I’ma fall back from the rhyming for a minute. I’m just about to focus on production and doing beats and just the musical side and working on my craft even more, so I’m gonna put the rhyming to the side for a minute.
Format: What equipment are you using in the lab at the moment?
Black Milk: Still on the MPC 2000XL – the same machine I bought from day one, nine years ago- and a lot of old records and keyboards – that’s basically my setup right now. Kinda simple.
Format: Given recent events- I have to ask – What was Black Milk doing when America elected its first Black president?
Black Milk: I was sitting by the TV, like most people, waiting while the time was going past. Then 11 o’clock on the dot, the news came up on the screen: â€œBarack Obama Elected President,â€ so that was a great feeling, and it inspired and motivated a lot of people. I think it brought the country more together and showed what we can do.
Format: Can you finish the following statement: â€œBlack Milk isâ€¦â€
Black Milk: The future of music – y’know? A new sound in music; a new style in music, and just something fresh for your ears.
Sound Of The City, Popular Demand and Tronic are in stores now. For tour dates and more, please visit Black Milkâ€™s Myspace page.