By now, a lot of people know that Detroit MC and producer Black Milk wasn’t trying to be a cock by naming his latest solo record Album Of The Year. He simply needed a catchy title for an album that directly addressed a difficult 2009 for him; a year that saw his friend and collaborator, Baatin from Slum Village, pass away, and his manager suffer a near-fatal stroke. But it wasn’t a total coincidence that Album was a real contender for its self-aggrandizing title. Marking a departure from the well-received, glossy, synth-laden production of 2008’s Tronic, 2010’s Album displayed Black Milk, who easily gains comparisons to J Dilla, mixing live drums and other instruments over his soulful, sample-based production to create huge beats that propel his highly personal lyrics. Still rightfully riding hype from Album and recreating the sound at shows with a live band, Black Milk found time to collaborate with Jack White on the first hip-hop single for White’s Third Man Records and record a live performance at the Nashville venue. In addition, he produced and is featured heavily on the long-awaited full-length from Random Axe (due June 14 on Duck Down), a super group he’s in with fellow Detroit MC Guilty Simpson and Boot Camp Clik MC Sean Price.
He managed to find a few minutes to talk to The A.V. Club before his show tonight at Reggie's about how the White collaboration came about, getting an organic sound, and how “Chewbacca” is unfortunately not a song about Chewbacca.
The A.V. Club: How was Nashville?
Black Milk: Nashville was incredible, man. Going down there to work with Jack White and collab with him, it was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had in my career. It was definitely great to be able to go down there and go to his house and get in the studio. It was kind of like a dream, like an unexpected dream come true that I didn’t even have planned on my to-do list. He actually hit us up about collabbing. So I went down there, me and my band, and we collabbed with some of his musicians, got in the studio, came up with a couple of songs, and the songs came out great. I ended up doing a show down there on the last day at his Third Man Records venue. It was dope, and everything went perfect.
AVC: You’re the first hip-hop artist to record for Third Man Records.
BM: Yeah, it was definitely a big deal to me for him to reach out and [for me] to feel like I’m talented enough to be a part of what they’re doing. I know a lot of times, especially when you’re working with musicians, some people don’t totally respect the craft of doing hip-hop music. So it was dope to go down there and have [White] show love and respect what I was doing on my end.
AVC: Do you think your live band set-up had anything to do with that?
BM: I think that definitely played a part. I know he listened to the last album, Album Of The Year. I guess having a little bit of that live element in the music, I don’t know if he knew about the show or not, but just having a live element, he’s probably able to connect with the music.
It’s funny, because I asked him, “How did you know I exist? I know we’re from the same city, but you a damn rock star, so how did you even come across my stuff?” The song he came across, that made him check for me, it was a song that was just a straight loop with really no live music involved with it. He said he came across the song “Deadly Medley,” with me, Royce Da 5’9”, and eLZhi. He was like, “Yeah, man. I heard that track, and I thought it was so, so sick.”
AVC: Did you bring in anything other than the bass, drums, and keys you usually work with?
BM: I had my guys with me, which is bass, drums, and keys, and he actually called a few of his musicians to come through. It was basically a horn section and a guy that played the fiddle. It was kind of crazy. It was dope, and the chemistry was real good. We kind of jumped right into it. When I got to his house, we went to his studio, we talked for a little bit and then jumped right into the recording, just started jamming out. The idea came, and we just ran with it. The songs came out dope. I think they might be trying to drop the 45 sometime this month.
AVC: You’ve been touring with live musicians for a while. How did incorporating live musicians on Album Of The Year change your production process?
BM: Of course it changed it, me just adding that element to the music. But the process is still pretty much the same as when I first started making beats. Everything starts off with the MPC. I still dig for old records, I’m still chopping up break beats, chopping up samples. That’s how the formula starts. That’s the foundation of every track. Every song starts with me just tracking out the beat and hearing what live elements I want to add on top of what I’ve already done on the drum machine. I don’t add live music to every track, but it’s definitely a big part of my formula today, and it’s going to continue to be a part of my production.
AVC: The drums on Album sound amazing. A lot of people described them as organic. What were you hoping to achieve by using live drums?
BM: I didn’t really have a particular goal or sound in mind. It was really more just me experimenting till something great came out of it. I’d do what I do on the beats side, and then I flew my guys in to work with me. They’d just jam out, or I’d have an idea of what I want them to play with the track. We just keep working it until something magical happens. You end up definitely creating an organic sound, like a style of hip-hop I really haven’t heard on anyone’s records. It was dope. It happened without me trying to force it to happen.
AVC: Pitchfork said your rhymes on Tronic were “unspectacular,” but no one seems to be saying that about Album. Would you attribute that to how personal you get on the record?
BM: Definitely. This album is clearly the most personal so far of all the projects I’ve dropped. I think people were able to relate to some of the subject matter. I think some people were surprised, or just thought it was dope to get a more personal side of my writing.
I’m going to continue to do that. You go through different things in your life, and it changes the way you write and the way you think about music. I’m going to continue to progress with the production side and the writing.
AVC: Even though it’s a play on words, it takes a lot of confidence to name your album that. Knowing that you were going to put that title out there must have really motivated you to create something special.
BM: I didn’t have that title from the jump. I was into the album already, thinking of titles, and it kind of just hit me. After thinking about what I was talking about on the album, everything that was going on, I thought it was definitely a title that would grab people’s attention. I’m not really trying to use that as a gimmick. It actually did represent something other than me naming my album Album Of The Year just to cause some kind of controversy.
But yeah, it had people talking in a good way and in a bad way. On top of that, I never feel threatened musically by anyone or any other artist. I feel like I’m in a position where I can call my album Album Of The Year, and it can live up to the title. See what I’m saying? Because I think I’m one of the few artists who’s actually putting out music that has a certain quality to it that music lovers don’t hear a lot. I’ve been pretty consistent with putting quality music out. So I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t feel any pressure to make anything too crazy, because this is what I do. I would try to make something timeless and great anyways, whether I titled my album that or not.
AVC: Random Axe’s debut is coming out in June, but it was originally scheduled for late 2009. What caused the delay?
BM: It’s kind of hard to put a project together when you have me and Guilty out here in Detroit and Sean and Duck Down out on the East Coast, so it was kind of hard to create an album, or at least the album we want, with cats living on two sides. Not only that, Guilty is doing his solo stuff, and I’m doing my solo stuff, and Sean doing his solo thing at different times, dropping albums at different times, so it’s a combination of all that stuff.
We finally got it together and were able to piece the album together little by little. Now it’s done. I’m satisfied with the album. It’s definitely a back-to-basics album, just straight-up rhymes and straight-up dope beats, but the chemistry between me, Guilty, and Sean is definitely there, and I think that kind of chemistry is going to separate the album from other hip-hop albums that might come out.
AVC: You announced the release date with a word jumble competition.
BM: Oh, yeah. That was Duck Down.
AVC: That must be a first of some kind.
BM: It was kind of crazy. There were about 400 entries from people trying to figure it out. I forget the cat’s name that actually won.
AVC: Some of the song titles jump out right away. For someone who loves ’80s movies, I really hope that “Chewbacca” and “The Karate Kid” are literal.
BM: [Laughs.] Are they literal? No, the titles came from when I was kind of in a rush to wrap the album up and turn it over to Duck Down. Sean and Guilty, they be dropping these crazy little similes and use crazy little references, you know, using crazy little punch lines. So I was just taking the words or any phrase that jumped out at me from them, and I’d use that as the title for the whole song. Like “Chewbacca,” that’s the first word that Sean says on that song. He be having those funny-ass lines, so that’s how the titles came along.
AVC: How do you feel about the “super group” tag being placed on Random Axe?
BM: I don’t really get off on titles like that. I’m definitely not going to walk around like, “Yeah, we’re a super group.” Random Axes is just—we three dope MCs that’s great at what we do and came together to do some dope music. If people look it like a super group or a super trio or whatever they want to call it, it’s fine. It’s all good.