Nothing is predictable about Black Milk’s music or modus operandi – and this includes his rationale for choosing ‘If there’s a hell below…’ as the album title for his most recent record. ‘When I was going through a lot of names that title just popped into my mind,’ Black Milk tells me over the phone from Detroit just days before starting his US tour. He then adds: ‘I wasn’t even listening to any Curtis Mayfield records at the time.’
‘You know when I’m thinking of song titles, my process is writing down a lot of different words, I’m real big on how stuff looks visually, that’s almost as important as how words actually sound, when I’m writing down titles – song titles, or album titles – anything that I have to give a name to, it’s almost as important to me how it looks on a piece of paper versus what it sounds like.’
Despite the obvious nod to Mayfield, the music of the 70s soul legend is largely absent on Black Milk’s album: ‘I redid the interlude on the album that comes over (at the end of) ‘What it’s Worth’ where you can hear me saying, ‘Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers …’ – I put an effect on my voice and tried sound as close to the actual record, but that’s the only part of the album where I reference Curtis Mayfield; other than that there are no actual Mayfield samples on the record.’
In interviews, Black Milk seems ambivalent about people taking this reference to hell too literally, as say a direct reference to his native Detroit. ‘The album is not really about hell, or being in hell,’ he says. ‘It’s about growing up in an environment that some people might think is a living hell, but finding happiness within that hell. That is what the title represented and when you listen to the music you can hear a lot of different scenarios that paint pictures of where I’m from.’
Black Milk’s most recent record offers an elegant refusal. There is no fixed point to relate to, no straight-forward autobiography, or authentic voice. The record is quicksilver slippery while remaining intensely personal: it is distant – a highly produced and artificial object, but still has an elemental force. What immediately strikes me in the record is the use of repetition and concurrent lack of resolution and release; the lack of foregrounding of Black Milk’s vocal-line and the desire to evoke an imagined, or perhaps felt, Detroit.
Throughout our conversation, Black Milk repeats how this record is not as bleak as his previous album, No poison, No paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly, 2013). It evokes a broken environment – where ‘grandma live longer than grandson’ - but it is also a place of tenderness and love. Black Milk explains, ‘Even though with the visual aesthetic and some of the sound aesthetic, the tone is dark, I wanted to have a certain energy in the music so that even if it had a dark overtone, it had some feel-good, or some vibrant colours in it, whether it is the music, the rap, or the actual beat.’
And yet the record’s achievement lies in its mood, the way the tracks segue together - and this mood is one of grey clouds and Detroit’s ‘beautiful ugliness’. It exists within the same universe as Massive Attack’s less radio-friendly offerings (Mezzanine) or Tricky’s more uncompromising solo albums (Pre-Millennial Tension or Nearly God) when asked about these UK artists, Black Milk mentioned that other than knowing they had a track called ‘Black Milk,’ he was ‘not too hip to their music and hadn’t had a chance to dig into their catalogue’ – but filtered through his key musical points of reference: hip-hop, techno and 70s soul music.
There’s a moment in Kendrick Lamar’s track, ‘i’ from his record To Pimp a Butterfly and video that embodies the dystopian Black Milk mind-space/aesthetic: Lamar passes a number of different traumatic incidents – a Black man being handcuffed by the police; a man with a gun to his head, ready to commit suicide; a man yelling at his wife, while the children run away - passing them as if a wanderer in a modern-day Canterbury Tales, around three minutes in, everything shifts. Leaning out of a car window and then jumping to a shot of Lamar dancing in his fluorescent white T-shirt; it becomes disjointed and broken-up.
Hard to follow, hard to understand – the words have become a spitfire delivery - Lamar spits, literally with a kind of desperation:
The energy is basic here, formed by Lamar’s intense delivery and music that has suddenly become jittery; scattered.
Starting out fighting with some absent opponent (or is he trying to escape someone/something in the car) rolling and writhing, reaching out of the car window, a (Black) body in pain; hysterical and (apparently) out of control as he shouts out to the night.
This is light years away from Lamar’s previous celebration of California as a paradise where men from all over come for the ‘women, weed and weather’.
Towards the end, Lamar still leaning out the moving car window, looks up into the sky; his body is almost immobile –suspended, he is still:
My passion is really in production, making beats and the backdrop and the music for the album, so I spend a lot of time crafting the beat and looking for the right samples that flow together with other samples and making a cohesive project. It all starts with my going to a record shop and digging and finding vinyl, different records and trying to find different samples and themes that I can bring back to the lab and to make something out of it. Once I get the production down the lyrics follow. I kind of always let the beat guide and direct the lyrics and where I want to go with the song. It’s rare that I write a rhyme before I get the track. I let the music speak first.
Black Milk first made his name producing the seminal hip-hop group from Detroit, Slum Village after the late J Dilla left to focus on his solo work. (During the interview, he became animated recalling how Slum Village’s album, ‘Fantastic, vol.2’ from 2000 is ‘still’ his ‘favourite hip-hop record of all time’).
Busting up pre-existing conventions found in any form of popular music, whether it be rock or jazz let alone hip-hop ‘All Mighty’ starts with an excessive, ridiculously excessive beat that on first impression sounds like a drum-solo – smashing and crashing and bashing (more Animal from the Muppets than Max Roach) before Black Milk comes in, as he told former A Tribe Called Quest MC, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and NPR Music Editor, Frannie Kelley in January, ‘to vent’.
No concession is made for the rap when it comes in; no lowering of the beat to make space, so that together it sounds messy, but intense, with all the elements kept at the same level.
Black Milk’s tracks often have clearly defined sections and ‘All Mighty’ is an extreme example of this; first starting with the beat-induced excess and then a sharp change at about 1’15” where the music transforms into a gentle electronic reverie, with female backing vocals.
Throughout the rap is highly mannered, stopping on key words – to provide emphasis in a strange, unnatural way, stopping either before or after the word. He even includes a kind of Steve Miller reference, with the ‘ticking, ticking, ticking’ part. And then at the end is an instrumental interlude; an elegant stylistic diversion …
‘On the last couple of albums, my production has gone to a place where I create a song that isn’t just the traditional verse hook, verse hook. I like to break the songs up, break the monotony and do something more spontaneous and throw you off a little bit when you listen to it and put stuff in that you might not expect,’ he told me.
‘Now I try to mix up the format so that it doesn’t get too boring, just to give the listener something spontaneous that jumps at them and is not what they expect and that’s what I tried to do with ‘All Mighty’.
This track describes how Black Milk felt starting out: 'Trying to capture the feeling you felt/When it was just you feeling yourself/No interviews or album reviews good or bad/Just lyrics and beat that played in the back.'
Looking back on his career seems to be on Black Milk’s mind at the moment, as he often returns to this in interviews.
As he told me: 'I’ve been producing for a little while, for over ten years so now I know at this point what people respond to and how they respond to certain themes, certain sounds and certain frequencies and feel at this point that anything you hear from me is purposefully done.
'I’m very conscious of what is going on, how things sound and the nuances of the albums I produce versus when I first started out as a new producer, in my early years when you just do stuff and everything is really raw.’
‘At this point if you hear something that’s super distorted or super jarring or super offbeat, it’s conscious,’ he continued. ‘Whether it’s super-complicated, or it’s just a four bar loop that’s really hypnotic (in that case) you might not want to change the beat at all.’
Black Milk has recently announced that he would like to focus more on production, not that he is stopping being an MC but that he wants to deepen his knowledge as an engineer. ‘No, I’m not quitting,’ he said in the NPR interview when asked if ‘All Mighty’ was a goodbye of sorts. The venting related to those days when you feel ‘Man, cats ain’t paying attention.’ Or they don’t understand,’ he explained.
‘What it’s worth’
Q: ‘What I find particularly refreshing and really different is the way you use repetition in your tracks, so that when you’re talking about breaking it up, there’s also a feeling of things not moving, for example if you listen to ‘What it’s worth’ this creates a difficult, uncomfortable feeling; is this something you think about consciously, do you think about the impact it will have as a feeling?’
Black Milk: ‘Definitely, that’s a perfect word – a feeling. Sometimes a track doesn’t have to be super-complicated, or technical, with me when I make music it’s all about a feeling. Sometimes you create a track, it can be a four-bar loop, but that loop is magic; it feels amazing so you don’t have to go out of your way to over-produce. Sometimes it happens, it depends on the sample, it depends on the song. I call it like little pieces of magic you find on a record you chop the loop up, it depends.
A track like ‘What it’s worth’ or ‘Leave the bones behind’ where I just looped the record up (it is) because I loved the moment (…) I know how it makes me feel, but sometimes with other people whether they like it or not, it’s interesting to see how people take music in, how it makes them feel – what it does to their brain, it’s always cool.’
In the video for ‘What it’s worth’ you see Black Milk side-on sitting on a chair, gesticulating in time with the rap – this is a bit strange, as we are unable to clearly see his face in the half-darkness and he seems constrained by the position.
A cliché certainly found in many hip-hop videos is of the MC, surrounded by other young men, usually in gritty urban contexts, making gestures with great force in time. In these clips, there is action and movement; it’s dynamic and an expression of group identity. In Black Milk’s video, he is limited in terms of his movement - he is largely still and he is alone.
(On the YouTube comments there’s a small rebellion among fans, split between those who like the video and others thinking it looks too low-budget, done on the cheap and that Black Milk should have shot the clip outside).
In my memory, I’d created an aesthetic link between the Black Milk video and a clip that perhaps doesn’t in fact exist from Tricky, for a track from the Nearly God album; leaving that to one side, the song links strongly with the distorted love song, ‘Tattoo’ from the UK artist, almost whispering low and guttural: ‘Colour me, colour me/When you’re sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor/There’s something uncontrollable/You sit there watching the door.’
Both songs express something deeply personal, a kind of inverted masculine energy where violence is turned inward, but the threat remains ambiguous.
It makes me think of the final moments of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator decides to lock himself up in a cellar, a place he describes as ‘the hole’ - to escape, to fully embrace his invisibility to others – but remains tormented by the chaotic, repetitive workings of his mind.
'I would stay here until I was chased out,’ the narrator decides. ‘Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.
In the Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley NPR interview in January, Black Milk was asked about the broader socio-political context in the US and how it relates to his record..
Or to be more precise, the context that is now symbolised by the video of a (white) police officer taking aim as a middle-aged African-American man ran away in South Carolina, before shooting him in the back eight times; or the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in a city park in Cleveland, Ohio by a (white) police officer, with no warning – the context that is now commonly referred to as ‘Ferguson’.
When I mentioned to Black Milk that listening to ‘What it’s worth’ was far from easy listening, and that the repeated sample with its oppressive sibilant sound was pretty unpleasant and felt aggressive, he laughed. But this discomfort is what makes this track so effective; you feel in a musical sense, how it might feel to be trapped – finding yourself in a place, or psychological space, where you can’t escape (call it ‘hell’ if you like).
(Here the title might have some significance too, being so similar to Buffalo Springfield’s track from 1967 entitled ‘For what it’s Worth’ – so memorably sampled by Public Enemy on ‘He Got Game’ in 1998 – that describes apparently meaningless political protests in the streets and also ‘Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line, the men come and take you away’).
Repetition is a key element of hip-hop production, if not the key element. (Indeed, there’s a whole conversation outside the scope of this article about the role of repetition in hip-hop, perhaps starting with James Snead’s influential essay, ‘Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture’ from 1981 …)
But usually the repetition is implicit, hidden almost and the producer’s skill lies in the fact that the arrangement of a looped sample appears seamless. The pleasure the listener gets from listening to a hip-hop record, built up from samples, lies in forgetting that it is a created artefact.
Here, the sibilant noise is so jarring that it becomes the dominant element – more important than the MC, more important than the intermittent melody in the background. That shrill noise, repeated endlessly, disrupts any pleasure of getting lost in the track, or even of identifying with the rap as something ‘natural’ and authentic.
Repetition here acts as a barrier, as a distancing effect. As a listener you are reminded of the elements in isolation – to the materiality of the music and the fact that it is constructed. For me the music is the perfect example of alienation, refusing any release or resolution as it is static – going nowhere – and therefore perfectly embodies what Black Milk is trying to express. The lyrics of ‘What it’s worth’ focus on Black Milk’s feeling of obligation to others:
At one point the bass-line that had until that moment provided some kind of melody, or comfort disappears. And it is at this moment that Black Milk raps:
Considering the context described before, the reference to his mom ‘looking at the time, hoping that her oldest son make it back inside’ is particularly affecting.
Towards the end, Black Milk raps these lines:
I asked Black Milk to describe how his production approach differed from MCs working on similar themes in the 1990s (Mobb Deep, perhaps, or Nas); hip-hop musicians trying to use the rough material of their lives and transform it into art.
‘It’s interesting to look back to where hip-hop production started and look at what it has evolved to now, 2015. I’ve been making beats since the late 90s, 98/99, so naturally coming up in that time my beats sounded like that time: boom-bap, drum-break and sample.
'Since then hip-hop has evolved a lot. Now you hear a lot more electronic sounds involved in production, you start hearing tempo slowdown, the 70 BPM, you start hearing more live instrumentation incorporated into the production versus the 90s, where it was just kick-snare and a sample.
‘Hip-hop production has evolved and I’ve been watching it also because my approach has evolved, my ideas have evolved and now I feel in 2015 and beyond there’s really no rules anymore, not just for hip-hop, but for music in general, especially if you’re an independent artist.
'There’s no set formula. There are still certain techniques, certain sounds and certain rhythms that affect the human body that you cannot deny, like four to the floor rhythm, or certain bass kicks. There are certain elements that still affect the human brain and when it hears it – that’s where I’m at as a producer: it’s the science of how people react to certain sounds and certain vibrations.’
Another key source for Black Milk’s experimental leanings and eclecticism as a producer is the city where he’s from; as NPR’s Frannie Kelley noticed it’s something that unites Black Milk with other hip-hop artists in the city, such as Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey – that is they’re not ‘shying away from the electronic, techno, traditional elements of Detroit.’
'Grey for Summer'
Q: ‘Could you sum up Detroit in three words …’
Black Milk: ‘Sum up the city in three words, that’s kind of crazy – let me think, ah ‘the beautiful ugly’ that’s what it is. That’s what Detroit is ‘the beautiful ugly’ it’s so much beauty within the greyness, there’s so much beauty within the dark side of Detroit, it’s so much beauty in the griminess and the grit. With all of the things that people might perceive Detroit to be quote unquote ‘a bad place’ there’s so much beauty that it made out of the struggle, it’s the landscape and the environment, the weather – all of those things play a part and make Detroit a beautiful, ugly city.
Q: ‘Grey for Summer, I’m wondering if that track sums up your feelings for Detroit …’
Black Milk: ‘It definitely does. Yeah, that song represents once again, like I said, finding the happiness, the good times, those bright moments within that quote unquote hell of an environment that’s what that song represents, not just my lyrics but also all the way to the beat, the way the beat sounds like it’s raining, the sound of the melody of the piano sounds kind of gloomy but it also sounds pretty and kind of beautiful. When I made that beat, when I heard that sample the first thing that came to mind, it sounds like Detroit … beautiful ugly, happy sad.
Q: ‘You refer to Al Green being in the background in that track, yeah?
Black Milk: Yeah, I do yeah’ (laughs)
By chance when first thinking about this writing about Black Milk, I came across parts of a documentary about Marvin Gaye on YouTube when he was living in a small-town in Belgium called Ostende in 1981.
In it, the supremely debonair soul singer is seen going for walks in the empty streets, boxing a punching-bag in a gym, recording an amazing version of ‘I want you’ with his band, while lounging about in a tracksuit and chatting with ruddy-faced locals drinking beer in the local bar.
One of them asks Gaye, ‘Where you from? Paraguay?’
‘I’m from America,’ Gaye replies (‘Paraguay,’ he says, shaking his head).
Earlier in the documentary, Marvin Gaye’s voice-over says, ‘I’m an orphan at the moment and Ostende is my orphanage. There are places where I’d probably rather be. But I probably need to be here.’
I went to Black Milk’s show with his group, The Nat Turner Live Band, in a satellite town outside Lyon on the 28th April; when travelling out of the city on the local bus, past villages (Town Hall, Baker, Café/Restaurant) and then housing projects, surrounded by empty fields, I have to admit I was not filled with feelings of great enthusiasm.
Unlike the super-controlled – or to use his word ‘micro-managed’ - sound on his record, Black Milk on stage with his live band is energetic, highly dynamic; encouraging the audience with calls out to get into the Detroit ‘up-tempo’ stuff and also channelling Marvin Gaye, citing a line or two from his ‘Inner City Blues (Makes me Want to Holler) from 1971.
Q: Let’s talk about precursors, is Marvin Gaye an important artist for you in terms of your work?
Black Milk: ‘I mean, almost any soul artist from the 70s you name is probably an influence on my work. I feel like I listen to more oldies than to newer music, or current music or hip-hop even: so people from Marvin to Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and Prince later all of those guys are some of my bigger influences. I’m rooted in hip-hop, I try to be as great as I can in the style of music I do like those guys were incredible in what they did in their style of music.
Q: ‘When you think about Marvin Gaye is there any particular album you return to?
Black Milk: ‘Let me think, one of my favourite Marvin Gaye albums is not one of his albums that is really popular, it’s In our Lifetime (1981) it’s one of my favourite Marvin albums, it was one of his later albums; Marvin, for me, is the best singer of all time, hands-down. When he came along and the creativity he brought to singing and artistry and layering vocals, it makes everything expand how it’s done and still today, so Marvin is definitely one of my favourites.
‘Almost you could name any producer or band from that era, you know, most likely I’m going to be a fan of their work in some way or another – the musicians, their style of playing in the 60s and 70s influenced me not just for my studio recordings, but more for our live show, when we have a band. Me and my band, we listen to a lot of older music, we kind of learn from what those bands in the 60s and 70s did from their style of playing to their approach. We study those bands from back in the day, if a person comes out sees my live show they will notice that and experience it, it’s not just a hip-hop show. The level of musicianship is rooted to something deeper than hip-hop production scratching the surface of a band playing, it goes deeper than that.’
At the end of the interview, I pressed Black Milk to think of another hip-hop album that sounded similar to or in a like vein to ‘If there’s a hell below…’ He hesitated before suggesting Common’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ with a laugh - an album that came out in 1999 (even though the two albums sound nothing alike really). ‘That album was a real big influence on me also, other than that that’s the only album I can think of, especially in this day and age there are not too many rap artists that are making music that has a lot of different twists and turns.’
Black Milk: ‘When I go into these albums, I just do what I feel, it’s never really something that is super-strategic, or super-calculated, I just go in into the album and let the music speak for itself and let the music guide me.
‘When I first started making music and producing a lot of my earlier stuff had a heavy Dilla, Slum Village influence on it but the more I grew, the older I got the more I learned I actually grew into my own sound and I feel like my last two albums really represent my own sound and what I do as an artist more than ever.
'I feel like my last two records sound like me, like I’ve finally found my voice. It feels good as an artist and a creator to have reached that moment, all that chipping away, you get to that one point in your brain, when you feel like, okay, this is what my music sounds like: this is me right here.’