Detroit

"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

    

Madeleine Byrne: The promo material says John Yancey is all about Los Angeles, whereas Home was about Detroit. For me when listening to the record what came through were ideas about relationships, love and lust in songs like “Tokyo” and “Rose Gold.” What do you think about that comment?

Illa J: Well, I mean it wasn’t specifically about Los Angeles, but the vibe was, musically it was more Californian but as far as the subject matter the album is more personal relationships over the past ten years, not a specific time; all the experiences I’ve been through. I’m talking about a little bit of everything.

MB: You’ve got a real talent for evoking matters of the human heart, those songs I mentioned before stood out for me (“Rose Gold” and “Tokyo”). Could you choose one and explain what you were aiming for?    

Illa J: “Tokyo,” for example, is a straight-forward R&B song. The music comes first, it’s whatever the vibe is (I write to that), so for “Tokyo” as soon as I heard the beat it was R&B for me; the melody comes first, then I bring the words in, even when I’m rapping, you know rhythmically. I’m a singer, so melody comes first, but in terms of the subject matter, the music tells you. But we set ourselves up for those situations, ‘cause I pick beats that sound (a certain way). The subject matter just comes, the music brings it out.

MB: Let’s talk about “12 AM”  because the song has got a really different mood.

Illa J: Technically that song started the album, it was the first track we did. The one difference is that was the only song that was recorded in Detroit. Every other song was recorded in LA. That was the only one I recorded over the beat somewhere else, not in the studio – every other song was recorded in the studio. You definitely hear a different vibe on it because I was in Detroit the time I recorded that song.

MB: How is that vibe in Detroit different?

Illa J: A range of music inspires you differently … It’s hard to explain, but I write different things when I’m in Detroit versus when I’m in LA. It’s a different feeling I have, more “real life style”, it’s almost like trying to get out if I’m in Detroit, even if I’m good there’s a certain kind of energy that it brings out in me.

MB: What is it about that sound in Detroit, though, obviously your brother (J Dilla) is an important part of it, but how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know much about Detroit’s music scene?

Illa J: Honestly, if you go back and study Motown, you’ll understand it all. The drums are heavier in the Motown stuff, they have like two drummers drumming at the same time. Don’t get it twisted it’s pop/Soul, pop melodies but if you listen to the full sound of it, it’s pop but still soulful, it has a certain feeling, you know what I mean? It’s nothing technical musically, you could have an electronic beat if you do the right thing to it and it could feel soulful, it’s all about your individuality and what you put into the music.

It’s just that Motown musical feeling, and definitely that 9-5 grind that we grew up around is ingrained in us as well, but I think it’s one of those things you absorb the kind of environment that’s around you. If you listen to Snoop and all of them, one thing I find in Cali – not all of them – but a lot of Cali artists have got a laid-back kind of vibe in their songs. It makes sense. They got palm trees to look at every day, the sound might be similar to Detroit the funk of it, but it sounds more laid-back; ours is more gritty, that’s what it is. We got snow and all that stuff. A lot of these beats are made in winter ‘cause you don’t want to be outside (laughs).

MB: I understand that the production is sample-based, did you use any live instrumentation on any of the tracks?

Illa J: All the production is done by Calvin Valentine, though on the next album I’m going to do the production; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was younger, but you know my brother had just passed when I started, and it was so much of a comparison thing. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t produced my albums, but at the same time I like working with other producers ‘cause on my solo albums I can then focus on my song-writing and my vocals. Calvin Valentine did all the music; he’s a talented producer and solo artist as well. It’s all sample-based, even though some tracks don’t sound like it. Calvin plays around with it, he plays on top of it and builds on it.

MB: Thanks for mentioning Motown before because you can see it’s a big influence. One of your tracks (“Rose Gold”) includes a reference to Smokey Robinson, you had a song called “Sam Cook” – no e at the end -  on your last record, Home. Your dad is extremely important too in terms of this. As far as I understand it, he wrote The Spinners’ song “It’s a Shame” is that correct?

Illa J: Yeah, yeah, he ghost-wrote that song. I mean it’ s the same thing today, you have songwriters who write songs, but they pay them to not give them the credit, they pay them upfront because they don’t want to give them the royalties from it, or whatever. My dad sold that song to The Spinners.

MB: I saw in an interview that you’d sing with him when you were growing up and here’s a quote: “My dad would wake us up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder.” Could you talk some more about your dad and how he has inspired you in terms of your music?

Illa J: He’s the musical foundations. Don’t get me wrong both my mom and dad are musical, my mom sings too, but my dad is the one; there wouldn’t be a J Dilla if it wasn’t for my dad. He was a songwriter, he played piano – both his parents played piano. His group went on the road with The Harlem Globetrotters way, way back in the day. He was making moves back then. I don’t know how to put it but basically everything me and my brother have done is inspired by my dad, because he never had a chance to have solo success. Motown wanted to sign my dad but he didn’t want to take the deal from Motown. He knew all the people there. They wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to sign with them for whatever reason.

MB: Can you recall any conversations with your dad when you’d talk about music, something you might remember to today?

Illa J: I mean, we talked about music a lot of times, it’d be hard to break it down to one conversation, but it was just one of those things; my dad had it, James had it, not so much conversations but schooling us to jazz. I started off with jazz because of my dad, I listened to a lot of vocalists growing up, the obvious ones – Stevie Wonder all of that stuff, cause if you’re growing up in Detroit you’re going to hear all of that – as far as our household I heard a lot of a cappella jazz, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six of Paris. They were back in the day, even before Manhattan Transfer before anyone even knew who Manhattan Transfer was, they did a whole album with Quincy Jones (Les Double Six – Rencontrent Quincy Jones, Columbia, 1960)

putting words to it in French. One of the dopest a cappella jazz groups ever. My dad put me up on them, you should check them out. I grew up with a lot of a cappella jazz – just jazz period, more than any other music I learnt jazz first.

(Here’s an announcement from the Stones Throw website marking the event of Beverly Dewitt Yancey’s death in 2012. In a later email Illa J passed on this information about his father: “Beverly Dewitt Yancey. Born West Virginia, October 8th, 1932, played music all his life, both his parents played piano for silent movies. He had a band called "The Ivies." They put a record with an A and B side, “C’mon" & "Sunshine." Motown wanted to sign his group the Ivies.”) 

MB: I saw that you had experience singing in church, but it sounds like you had more of a jazz education than church/gospel ….

Illa J: No, no, no all of it at the same time; all of it at the same time, that was the household, we went to church on Sunday, I was in the church choir. It was a full musical background. Jazz was the household, I was in choir as well, I got a lot of training from that. I didn’t realise till later that was a lot of good training: rehearsals, I’d go to my mom and dad’s rehearsals and Sunday choir. Not judging but it wasn’t like Catholic church where it’s just (breaks into falsetto trilling singing) it was the real thing, it was soul like real music. That was good training everything I would end up doing later, not until five or six years ago I really started to master my voice, working with my vocal coach.

I was always a singer first, I feel like people are like oh so you’re a singer now, no I’ve always been a singer. I just could rap, rapping was always something I could do I’m musical, I grew up writing poetry, so writing was never anything, but it was always singing for me.

MB: I don’t want to avoid speaking about your mom, how would you describe her influence on your music?                      

Illa J: Musically my mom was a singer, so she’d tell me different singers to listen to, to practice, but like as I say my dad was the musical foundations. I understand they both did music, again my mom sings too, but my dad was the musical inspiration for everybody. He was the musical master. He even got her more into jazz, ‘cause he was helping her as a singer. He heard her voice and wanted to work with her. My dad was the man, musically; on the music thing, he was the one.

Obviously, they made us, but it is what it is, my dad is the man. People don’t know that, they never mention my dad like that, like you can’t talk about J Dilla without my dad. No, he’s the one (laughs). Of course, I say this to mom, show love to my mom, but really my dad is the one, I’m a spitting image of him. I would not be able to do anything musically without him. I’m most conscious of him because he is more of a song-writer, you know melody side, music period – the jazz chords, the rhythms, I took all of that and the singing stuff ‘cause I was a singer like when my dad was in a group.

They had an a cappella jazz group that’d record at our house. This happened even before I was born, so my brother would play drums for them when they were singing, but I was singing, learning my notes, taking the harmonies.

MB: What ages are you talking about here?

Illa J: All my life, as far as I can remember, before I could talk (laughs) music was around. It was the main driver: it was like brush my teeth, watch TV, music. It was always a big part of our lives.

MB: One of the songs “Sunday” on the new album, the harmonies in that song are fantastic. It’s quite different to the other songs, what’s the story behind it?

Illa J: Well, it’s technically an interlude, but we didn’t want to call it an interlude, no it’s just a shorter track. Each track touches on personal stuff and stuff with my brother, a lot of it is relationships based but also how your life affects your relationships. “Sunday” is everything coming together near the end, I went through all these things, but I’m still here. All those things weren’t in vain, I learned from it, how to get myself back up and keep going. Literally “Sunday” is like church, it ends almost like a gospel song, that song was like all the stuff I’ve been through the album and you get to that song and it’s like Sunday, literally (laughs).

MB: On Twitter you call yourself: “Singer, rapper, songwriter, alien” Frank Nitt, of course had a song on the first Yancey Boys album called “Alien Family” where he’s talking about how Jay Dee really loved aliens and how “the Jackson Five from Mars” could be a description of your family, what is it with these alien references?

Illa J: To me, it makes sense, Frank used to call my brother alien, honestly for me it has nothing to do with that, my dad’s favourite channel with the Sci-Fi channel so we grew up with that, Science fiction movies, scary movies and all that stuff. I’ve always been into extra-terrestrial (stuff) … space, aliens all that type of stuff. In a personal way, I always felt, ah different (laughs) I’ve never fitted in, even around my people, I still have my weirdness, I always felt like I never fitted in fully. I feel like an alien in that way, I actually have a tattoo too on my left arm, it’s an alien (laughs). I just got it this year.

MB: And you also got a tattoo of 1932, the year your dad was born, right?

Illa J: Yeah, but it’s tied to both themes: it’s the year my dad was born and the age my brother died. I was 19, he was 32.

 

MB: The new record is quite international – you’ve got references to Ukraine, Japan, Paris, London and other places – Home your previous album was apparently about finding your own voice, about going home, “a spiritual reference about the journey of finding my own voice” is the way you put it. Now Detroit is still important to you, I’d expect, even though you’re based in LA. Do you go back there often?

Illa J: No (laughs), but it’s still important. I love it, it’s my home. I know that’s where I became who I am today, it started there. It will always be home base no matter what, I just don’t see myself living there at least not right now.

MB: The video for “Home” was filmed I think at your actual childhood home, is that right?

Illa J: Yeah, it’s the very first home, it’s the house I literally grew up in, and the house I’m singing in front of was when I was a baby, I was only a baby there. The first house in the video, the very first house they show I lived there a lot of years, a lot of my growing up – my teenage years – were there.

MB: There’s another song I’d like to speak about from that record, “Seven Mile,” it’s an interesting contrast; “Home” is like a rousing, stirring song, “Seven Mile” is completely different, much harder but funkier too in a way. Could you talk about how the songs work together?

Illa J: For me that album has got a dirty soul type of vibe to it, Home wasn’t just the title it was more of a vibe, by the end of the recording it came through as a common theme, so it didn’t make sense to call it “7 Mile.”

One of my favourite things is titling songs with a word that’s not used in the song. Sometimes a title just describes the vibe of the song. “7 Mile” – the street Seven Mile in Detroit is one of the crazy streets to drive on, the street is really messed up, really bumpy; that was the purpose of the video driving down, it’s more about the vibe and the feeling.

It’s almost like they’re taking the drive, it’s a tough road and they’re going get through. “Home” is more a spiritual realisation, like I went through all that stuff and I’m finally home, it’s about making it home. I made it, back home, it was kind of real, cause even though I was then technically still living in Montreal, I had to come out here, I had some shows in California, so that’s how I was able to record it.

By the time the album came out, I was moving back home, so it was really spiritual; it was for real, home. Now it’s full circle with John Yancey because it’s the first album in a while that has my last name in it, Yancey in the title, since Yancey Boys and it’s ten years later I put out this album, John Yancey.

It’s full circle, it’s almost where I wanted it to go originally, there’s more singing on this album, I’m still rapping, but there’s more singing. The singing is very present. That’s what I want people to see, oh yeah, he’s a singer, for the longest time people were looking at me like a rapper, and I’m like no I’m not a rapper.

MB: You’ve always been a singer, where does this feeling come from of thinking that people see you as a rapper first?

Illa J: With The Yancey Boys album … people still don’t get it, it’s like once you rap, automatically you’re a rapper. The only way to get around that is to not rap, that’s what worked on Home. I rap less, then they have to pay attention to my singing, I don’t know what it is. I listen to music a lot and I’ve been doing it for years, the average listener they’re not listening like that, you have to do so much more for them to get an understanding of it.

Even with this album, it’s like (people still call it) a hip-hop album, but it’s not. It’s a weird type of vibe, it’s a total hip-hop vibe, but if you really listen to it it’s not an underground hip-hop album at all (laughs), but I will still be put in that category. They’ll call it an underground rap album, and I’m like, no it’s not, go back and listen to it. It’s damn near a soul/R&B album with rapping on it, if you really listen to it, it’s not an underground rap album. I want to get out of that category, what is underground rap? What is conscious rap?

I make music, that’s it. I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, R&B, ‘cause there’s good music everywhere. There’s wack music everywhere, there’s wack music in underground rap, people are like I’m from the underground, so they feel like they’re better. No, there is great pop music, people get it twisted like oh he’s making pop music, he’s selling out, it’s like no, I’m making music for everybody. You’re actually limiting yourself if you go in a specific genre. It’s not like yeah, I’m hip-hop, I make music.

MB: One thing that’s interesting about this is that everybody goes on about how the rap in Detroit is hard, with the techno-influence etc but Slum Village which you were a part of, touring and recording with in 2012-2013, was all about melody and changing the lyrical content, your brother J Dilla had heaps of tracks about relationships, about lusting after women, you know …

Illa J: Exactly.

MB: So, what you’re describing is kind of surprising as in Detroit there’s a long tradition of singers teaming up with rappers.

Illa J: Thank you, yes. If anything, that is our history: Detroit musical history is pop music, pop Soul music is what it is, it’s weird it’s got to the point where it’s only this underground rap thing, ‘cause it was different late 90s/early 2000s. Even some mainstream artists wanted to be called underground cause it was a different thing then, now it’s just like a turn-off when it’s underground cause it’s going to be overly conscious.

When there’s a song with rapping it’s like they just wanted to hear themselves rap and I’m like where’s the song? I can’t see it. Every song on my album has a specific topic. Every single song is very specific, “BTW” is about me travelling and doing music and trying to have a relationship, “Enjoy the Ride” is about someone going through some shit but still enjoying the ride, “Tokyo” is what it is … Everything has a specific topic. You won’t be confused, I guarantee it, you won’t be like what’s this song about. I worked very hard on my writing to get away from that, in the rap world it’s easy to stray away from the topic and you end up rapping for two minutes about … what? (laughs)

MB: Bringing it back to Slum Village, there’s a connection with what you’re doing now I think in terms of their music, the focus on melody, talking about relationships. What do you think about that idea?

Illa J: I definitely represent their vibe, it is what it is, T3 is my brother and Young RJ is my brother. I was very influenced by them ‘cause that was my introduction to a lot of that type of music ‘cause you know I was telling you about my dad, I was listening to whatever music my dad was. When we were younger we didn’t have access to explicit content (laughs) you had to get some permission, or sneak out and buy a CD to get some explicit content, I had no idea what else was out there outside what my parents were playing on the radio, so all I heard was Stevie Wonder and all that stuff and jazz and things like that until I was seven, or eight or nine and could sneak out and grab my brother’s cassettes and all of his quote, unquote explicit music, all that rap stuff that was out at that time.

Slum was my introduction to that type of music, they have influenced me their whole style, if you listen to my records you definitely are going to hear the influence of Slum Village – it is what it is, no Slum Village no me (laughs). It’s all the same story, I can’t tell my story without saying something about Slum, even in my career, they play a big part.

I was working with them for three years, I was only on that album in 2013, but I was actually technically working with them for longer. We did two straight mixtapes, Dirty Songs 1 & 2, two full complete projects but they were released as mixtapes and was touring with them the same time. Evolution in 2013 was the only album, even though I was working with them the two previous years. A lot of things I learnt from them was in the studio, that’s where I learnt a lot of things from Slum. I really got way better as a recording artist.

MB: To close let’s bring it back to your album, John Yancey, there are two strong references to your brother on it: the songs “James Said” and “32”.

Illa J: “James Said” basically, cause on the hook I sing, “like one won’t do” ‘cause he had a song, “Won’t do” on The Shining album. It was me writing my verse, building on that – again it represents how it was when I was younger and I was trying to be my bro in a way, you know what I mean? It’s almost me trying to take him on but at the same time I’m talking about me and what I went through, on the hook you can see it’s like the younger me, learning, going through stuff.

“32” is the most direct, in that song I’m actually talking to James, literally talking to James. “James said” is more a reference to my brother, “32” is me talking straight to my brother and when it comes on you can hear his voice, that’s his voicemail. (You can hear it at the end of track, Sunday) That’s his actual outgoing message, then you hear him talking under my singing when the song starts, you hear me singing, “The things we go through are …” (sings) The voice under that talking is him, that’s James talking.

MB: It’s very powerful, I thought it was his voice.  

Illa J: The point of that song is that I’m 32 years-old and he died when he was 32 years-old and that’s trippy as hell, I’m 32 now, that’s crazy and talk about the whole 1932 thing as well in the verse. The point of that song is that I’ve never had a conversation with my brother as a grown man …

(and with that the line cuts).      

"I'm my own competition," an interview with Black Milk, following the release of FEVER

First published at Passion of the Weiss, April 5 2018

Rather than stay wedded to the early-career production style that made his name furnishing beats for Slum Village and other Detroit artists (Royce da 5’9, Danny Brown, Elzhi) and provided the soundtracks for his solo albums from the mid-2000s on, Black Milk has always preferred the more adventurous route.

His 2014 EP, Glitches in the Break, for instance, sounded like little else he’d done to up until that point: deconstructed, driven by bass-lines and disembodied vocal samples, with each track offering sharp contrast to the next. Accordingly, the impressionistic portrait of hometown Detroit, that same year’s If There’s a Hell Below…, similarly marked a new direction.

In the four years since, Black Milk has been pretty quiet, aside from his near-constant touring with his live band, Nat Turner and the group’s 2015 release, The Rebellion Sessions. After an extended period living in Texas, Black Milk is now based in Los Angeles, where he recorded his most recent LP, FEVER, along with additional sessions featuring local musicians back in Detroit.

Many of Black Milk’s core lyrical interests return on FEVER, with the MC expressing concern about the way social media dehumanizes and distorts relationships (“Laugh Now, Cry Later”), schools churning out ill-educated fools (“True Lies”), racism and police violence (“Drown”); but FEVER never dips into the raw, more experimental style of past releases, preferring instead to play with a late ’70s jazz-funk sound, which imbues the album with an air of chic refinement and definite cool.

MB: I remember the last time we spoke, you said that you were interested in developing engineering skills. How do you assess your development here, not just as a producer, but as an engineer?

Black Milk: I feel I’ve grown as both a producer and an engineer. I’m always in search of new things, different things, that I can add to what I do to make it sound better. As a producer, that’s pretty much my day to day, trying to figure out things, or working out ways to create an even better sound to what I’ve done in the past. Not necessarily better, but to expand it, you know, and see if I can push it to its limits even more; that’s the way it is.

MB: You’ve mixed your previous recordings, right?

Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve mixed all my albums. I’ve always mixed my music, produced my music, and created it. This is not a new task that I’ve taken on. I think with the last two or three projects the difference is I’ve become more focused on engineering, more than anything. Of course, I’ve always mixed my stuff, but I wasn’t as focused on the engineering side as trying to produce a great track or produce a great beat. Producing is second nature to me at this point, but I feel like I need to have more strength in mixing as an engineer.

MB: Now, the title FEVER. I’ve read that you chose the title because of the current climate in the US, but it’s also the name of one of the most famous songs from the twentieth century, written by Little Willie John in 1956 and covered by so many artists, from Peggy Lee to The Cramps. You haven’t mentioned this, I’m wondering why.

Black Milk: [Sings] “You give me fever…,” that song?

MB: Yeah, surely making a link here is intentional?

Black Milk: No, that wasn’t intentional, I didn’t even have that song in mind when I chose the title. The way I come up with any of my album titles is I try to find a lot of different phrases that sound good to me that also look good on paper, “fever” was one of words out of a long list that I had. I like the way the word looks; I like the way the letters are, and I wanted to do a one-word title, I didn’t want to do a long album title. Of course, I knew about the song “Fever” and an earlier album with the same name, but it had nothing to do with why I titled my album FEVER.

MB: FEVER isn’t a standard hip-hop album. When creating the music, were you thinking about how it fits in a genre? To me it sounds a lot like late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz-funk, Quincy Jones, The Blackbyrds, etc.

Black Milk: Well, I look at myself as an artist that is seen as someone who is original, you know, making music and art from the heart and from a real place, a true place. That comes with rewards and sometimes, consequences, I don’t know if “consequences” is the right word, but it’s like you’re going to find yourself in situations that lead to certain kinds of struggles or hurdles in terms of pushing through and getting exposed to a more mainstream audience.The flipside of this is that when you create something that’s unique, different, and in a lane of its own, it gets respect, not only from your fellow musicians, but from a certain kind of fan who appreciates individuality. That’s more important to me when it’s all said and done. When I look back at my legacy I want to feel like I stayed true to what I wanted to do and was able to still make a career and a living off the work and it coming from a real place. A lot of artists you’ve just mentioned I think that’s what they were doing, so I’m in good company.

MB: I hear what you’re saying, in some ways it’s true, but in other ways it’s not because there seems to be a real resurgence in this sound, say the various recent Robert Glasper projects. Do you think that there is a kind of revival of this sound happening now?

Black Milk: Yeah, there’s definitely a revival of not only the sound but it’s a revival of artists doing what they want to do and challenging their audience, challenging their fans. I think this is because we live in the Internet age. Now more so than ever you can be an individual because if you’re good at what you do and know how to market and promote yourself online you can create an audience in a bubble, in a world that has nothing to do with anything else outside of that bubble and people will find you. They will come inside that bubble, that world and support that. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.We live in a time now when everyone can be who they want to be and if they do it well they can create a world for themselves and people who enjoy what they do. That’s where I am now, I’m more focused on creating my own world and whoever enjoys what I do in my world, they can be a part of it. I don’t ever have to worry about competing against anyone else: I’m my own competition.

MB: Something interesting about your career is that you have a very strong international presence, and this might bring a different audience. A recent show you did in Paris was at a jazz venue, this is also why I asked about jazz-funk because it seems there’s a space for people who are not only ‘real hip-hop heads’ to connect with your work because it’s different. Is this something you’re thinking about as well?

Black Milk: Yeah, that’s something I’ve observed with this new album. I feel like I’ve seen more musicians follow me and comment on what I’m doing. I’ve seen more people in general who are not necessarily in the hip-hop space support the music and follow me on social media and comment on the music. That’s where I want to be.I want my music and myself as an artist to cross over into that world of live music and musicians. The hip-hop world is cool and it’s great, I’ve developed a good reputation in the hip-hop space, but I feel like my music—especially at this point—there are more layers to it than a hip-hop beat and some hip-hop verses. I’m trying to up the musicality on what I do. That shows with my new album as different kinds of people, different kinds of audiences gravitate towards it. Hopefully when I do the tour for this album I’ll see an even more diverse audience in front of me when I’m up on stage.

MB: Another link with that era is the sample on “Will Remain” from Rare Silk, their song “Storm” from 1985. This seems to be the only obvious sample on the record, is that correct?

Black Milk: That was just one of those records. I’m still looking for samples, that’s still part of the process, I still love chopping up samples so sometimes when I come across a record to sample, I feel like it’s just so good that I would be do a disservice to the track if I tried to chop it up, or disguise it or do too much to it, I prefer to just leave it alone. That was one of those tracks where I loved the vocal sample so much I didn’t want to do anything but add drums, and a little bit of music around it. I didn’t want to manipulate it that much to lose the feeling that made me gravitate towards it. That’s why I left it kind of obvious.

MB: That’s one of the outstanding tracks on the record for me, I like the way you make things out of sync, or a bit off-kilter and there’s a very interesting drum/bass interaction going on as well.

Black Milk: I found Rare Silk’s “Storm” on YouTube. I’d never heard of it and I was like, I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard it ‘cause as a producer I’ve heard of most things, so when I found it I put it to the side ’cause I knew that I was going to use it eventually for the album. I went to Detroit and had the musicians put the guitar part down, the keys on top of it and felt like I needed to make a record that would represent the feel of the beat and the feel of the track. I tried to write a hook, but felt that the vocal sample was so good, I just left it alone, just let the sample breathe by itself.


MB: The classic hip-hop elements on the record are subtle, which is refreshing, even on the single “True Lies.” The hook is kind of different. Is this something you’re trying to do as well, to write songs that are different from the classic hip-hop formula?

Black Milk: Yeah, it’s conscious as I try to create some flows and cadences and structures that aren’t the norm, so with “True Lies”—that’s my personal favorite on the album—that’s one of the reasons why because the hook is broken up. I leave space between the track and my verse, just to let the track breathe. I think I’m going to do more of that in the future with songs I create where I use my voice like another instrument on the album. I know people often say this, but I didn’t want to over rap, or do too much vocally where it took away from the track. I just wanted to my voice to weave in and out of the beat.

MB: That comes through when you hear “True Lies.” It’s a change in delivery, especially the pausing, it seems like it comes from live performance where you’re keeping some space for the audience response. You’re performing with a live band all the time. Is this something you now factor in when writing songs?

Black Milk: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that is something to keep in mind. I’ve done so many shows over the years and now have a good idea of what moves people, what rhythms and vibes move a room. I definitely keep that in mind. When I’m on stage I do songs that are a little bit more laidback, not overly hyped. I think that’s when I captivate the room the most. That was one reason why I made some of the new music a bit more spaced out and smooth, relaxed, not overly aggressive and in your face ’cause I knew for the most part that’s what works well live.

MB: There are other great musicians as well, but let’s start with the drummers [Chris Dave and Daru Jones] and bass [Malik Hunter] as they are the key parts on the songs.

Black Milk: In terms of working with Malik, I’ve been working with him a long time, he’s part of Nat Turner, my live show. On this album he played bass and my guitarist also played bass on certain tracks, Sasha Kashperko, he’s my guitarist and played some bass on some songs.Daru Jones played on about four tracks, including the song with Dwele, “2 Would Try.” The beat was pretty much already made but I got Daru to play on top of the drums I put down. On the song you can hear the muting in and out of his drums and my drums, my drums are regularly programmed MPC drums. I also had Chris Dave, another well-known, iconic drummer play percussion on “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and “Drown.”

MB: The instrumental “DiVE” is an extraordinary piece of music. When I was listening to it I felt like the drums had a West African percussion feel to it, the drums are just great.

Black Milk: Thank you. I think that was the last track I put on the album. I already had the beat. I don’t know, the samples led me to make that kind of drum beat when I put it together and got my guitarist Sasha Kashperko played the guitar part over it.
MB: How do you make the decision as to whether a track is going to be sample-based or live?

Black Milk: I don’t know, almost every track has a live element. I just always feel that way. The live texture of a horn, or drum or bass, you can’t really duplicate the feel in software, just as a drum machine can’t duplicate the feel of someone playing, you get close but it’s never exact. I always love the energy of someone playing live on a track because most of the music I love from back in the day is live, so I like to try and incorporate that in some way into almost every track I do if I can.Even a track like “But I Can Be” is a track that started off as a melody from a Parliament/Funkadelic record that I had everyone playing on. I then took what they played and I used it like I would use a sample from a record, chopped it up, reprogrammed it, turned it into a different key, and turned it into something totally different from what they played. That happens a lot too where musicians might play something; I don’t use what they play in that moment but take it and manipulate it, turn it into something totally different. It just depends on the track, it depends on the mood of the song.

MB: Earlier, you mentioned the song “Drown.” I think it’s an interesting song because it’s impressive musically, but it has a political dimension as well; you’re talking about police violence and racism. Can talk about this track because I don’t think it’s gotten much attention?

Black Milk: I feel the same way. It’s probably another one of my favorites. I felt like I needed to address what is still going on with police and the black community, the relationship between the two and other things that have happened over the last couple of years.I felt like I needed to do it from a perspective that hasn’t really been spoken about, to talk about the idea that anyone who is part of a police force and sees the injustice that is happening and they’re not doing anything to make it better, or getting people who shouldn’t be in a police problem out of there, I feel like they are part of the problem as well. If they see something and don’t do anything about it. I felt like this was something I wanted to mention. In terms of production I had a track that I’d sampled and beat that I felt was perfect backdrop for that song.

MB: It’s not didactic, you’ve kept it subtle. In interviews, you’ve talked about your need to be “simple” and “bold” on FEVER, but the stronger songs are the ones where the message is more nuanced. “Drown” is a good example of that.

Black Milk: Yeah, I definitely didn’t want the album to come off preachy. I wanted to speak about a number of topics, but consciously wanted to do them in a way where I didn’t come off holier than thou or up on my high horse, pretentious or coming off like I’m better than everyone or judgmental.I think judgmental is the perfect word because a lot of times you have rappers who talk online all day giving their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong and it comes off annoying. It gets to a point where you just want to say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and then you listen to the music and you feel they’re trying to tell you what to do, you know? Everyone has a certain way that they live and a certain way they look at life, so I just wanted to say it in a way that feels like I’m not attacking anyone.

MB: The final words of the album are powerful: “Everyone is a potential victim.” One thing I noticed about the record is that the songs finish quite abruptly, and then this also has a very abrupt feeling; it leaves you feeling a bit destabilized. What’s going on there?

Black Milk: With that phrase, “Everyone is a potential victim,” it’s basically just saying that after everything I’ve said on the album, all the things I’ve talked about, I kind of felt like no matter who you are, what level in life you have, if you’re not part of the powers that be that control the world or the situation we live in, everyone is a potential victim. That’s what that little phrase meant at the end: No one is better than anyone at the end of the day, we’re all human, everyone is a potential victim to the powers that be.

MB: That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?

Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah and that was the last, literally the last piece that I put on the album. I found that little piece of dialogue the night before I turned in the album. I just felt that would be a pretty perfect way to end the album.

Detroit Project

Not so long ago the UK newspaper, The Guardian published a story about an American artist ‘bringing a Detroit family home’ (to the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the sarcastic Brits commenting BTL enjoyed the ambiguous headline. What, they asked, the artist had adopted an entire Detroit family and took them home, as if they were pets for Christmas? 

No, the artist and newspaper subs were forced to reply (and later change the headline): the artist had moved a ‘family home’ from Detroit which was then rebuilt in Rotterdam. 

When thinking about this so-called ‘Detroit project’ I thought about this artwork and how deep the association between Detroit, decay, dispossession (what some call 'ruin porn') is now among outsiders and how all other aspects of the living city - and the people who live there - are overlooked in the process. 

If I'm honest, when I think of Detroit I have zero visions in my mind. And yet the city intrigues me, mainly because such intractable (musical) genius has emerged there, despite or maybe because of what one of the interviewees here described as ‘the struggle’. This idea sustains me.  

If I think about the music that matters to me personally - Alice ColtraneStevie Wonder (circa 1972-1980) ...

and when I was younger, Patti Smith, The Stooges - everything of real importance musically from the US somehow seems to come from Detroit. Interestingly, this then continued with hip-hop, in that the track that brought me back to the genre was Black Milk's 'Everyday Was' from his landmark 2014 record If there's a hell below ...

When I first heard that piece of music, it was as if air divided in my chest.  

First up/featured is the gifted MC Nametag Alexander who burst into my consciousness with one of my preferred hip-hop tracks of the past few years, 'Hookless' (feat Mahd, prod. by Nameless).

Then there's an interview with Detroit record label boss, Jay 'Pauly' Lovejoy from BenOfficial Music; a composite interview - a Detroit mix - between Nappz Julian, Maj James and NateOGDetroit and to finish a very cool conversation with Loe Louis from Detroit's Laswunzout - one of the seminal, pioneering hip-hop acts from the city that soldered the so-called Detroit sound.* 

Hope you like it. 

*Been around enough hip-hop journalism/culture to note the competitive edge - it should be noted that none of this is a 'hot picks'/a top-5 (flashing lights, flashing lights) or anything else: my mind doesn't work that way, some of this is friend-related, some of it is related to chance. 

Black Milk Interview

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, first published 1952)

 

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: 

“I went to war last night/
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic/
I’mma do it till I get it right/
I went to war last night
(Night, night, night, night)/
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

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: 

“Duckin’ every other blessin, I can never see the message/
I can never take the lead, I can never bob and weave/
For my nigga that be letting ‘em annihilate me/
And the sound is moving in a meteor speed

From a 100 to a billion lay my body in the street/
Keep my money in the ceiling let my mama know I’m free … ”
 

  II.

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

 

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’).  

“MUHAMMAD: ‘I mean, considering the position – because Dilla’s the foundation of Slum Village – so you’re coming in and taking up, filling up a void, you know, obviously. There has to be a level of musicianship that comes to match it.

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know, at the time – that was a lot of pressure for me. And because Dilla was already 10 years ahead of everybody musically, especially when it comes to beats. So it was like, ‘Alright.’ And then also I was kind of, you know, Dilla was my inspiration, so you heard a lot of his influence in my beats at the time (…) 

(J Dilla) came up to the studio a few times and I met him and we kicked it a little bit and he just basically – he heard some of my stuff and he was like, ‘Yo.’ Gave me that nod like, ‘Yeah, you on that path. You doing your thing.’ You know what I’m saying, like, ‘Keep doing your thing and you have something there.’ So after that, I heard him spit over one of my tracks. They did a song called ‘Reunion’ and that was the first time I ever heard Dilla rhyme over one of my beats. And man, that joint, that was like, you know, I was in heaven. Like, I was good after that. I didn’t have to do anything else, you know, at that time, cause Dilla was everything to me.’”

— Black Milk, interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Frannie Kelley, ‘Black Milk: ‘It’s not really a cakewalk’ ‘Microphone Check’ NPR, January 08,2015

   

‘All Mighty’

Q: ‘Do you remember the first beat you created?’

Black Milk: ‘First beat …I kinda do but I kinda don’t. Even though I’m from the late 90s, early 2000s era, I still experienced the whole pause tape thing. That’s how it started off: taking two cassette tapes and trying to start one, taking one piece of a sample from one tape and loop it onto another one. I did a little bit of that. It’s definitely dedication. That’s all for the love (laughs). It went from having that to having a little karaoke machine, fucking Casio keyboard and recording that bullshit-ass cassette tapes to buying an actual W-30 Roland sampler and going to the MPC 2000 XL.
— Black Milk, interview with Bryan Hahn ‘Black Milk talks secrets to sampling, Detroit’s legacy and working with Jack White’ January 14th, 2015, www.massappeal.com

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’.

“MUHAMMAD: ‘And in line of what’s happening in Ferguson or other parts of America and even the world, it’s a powerful record, man.

BLACK MILK: ‘And you know what? The album was done before the whole Ferguson thing happened. And when it did happen, I had a few thoughts like, ‘Man, this album is kind of representing all the craziness that’s going on right now. It’s kind of touching on that.’ But I didn’t want to use that as like a-

MUHAMMAD: ‘Platform?’

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, I don’t want to use it as a platform, but I did have those thoughts, like, man I’m kind of touching on some of those things that’s actually happening right now.”

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: 

“Yo, this life is bigger than me, feel weighed down by a hundred boulders/
Got family in my hands, crown on my head, city on top of my shoulders. ”

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:

“Two shots to the head, two shots till we dead/
Just what this kind of life might bring/
That’s what this kind night might mean/
You clock or be glocked in, OGs here, no stopping
As long as breath’s in my lungs waving white flags ain’t never the option.”

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: 

“And I did that, lived by a code, live for tomorrow/
Walk down the streets where empty hollows stray, sidewalks where broken bottles lay/
I did that, went from boom-bap in the day, go rap round the neck/
Double track and the deck, lay it back on cassette …”

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.’ 

“Black Milk: ‘Yeah, you know growing up in Detroit that’s just part of what you do, cause that’s all you hear. That’s all we heard in the ‘90s, you know, what I’m saying and that’s interesting too. I’ve had a few conversations about – it was a show we had – I actually have a song on the new album called ‘Detroit’s New Dance Show’. Like looking back at it now as an adult, man, that’s kind of crazy that it was a show that had kids from the ghetto meeting up at this club, you know and dancing to all this crazy Euro electronic music, Kraftwerk, and all that stuff. At the time we didn’t know what it was, but looking back at it, man, it was kind of wild. ”
 
'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.’