There was a time when Black Milk was coming up that fans still doubted his ability. At the beginning, there was only a handful of critics that really saw the Detroit producer/MC’s potential. After the release of his indie debut Popular Demand, any skeptics and fans not paying attention quickly began to take note, as Black Milk proved that he was not only adept at creating soulful bangers but that he could also drop some jewels over said bangers.
In 2008, Black Milk, along with working on countless collaborations with local talent like Elzhi from Slum Village and Fat Ray, dropped his second major album Tronic, which only gained him more ears. With Popular Demand, Black Milk arrived. With Tronic, Black Milk let people know he was here to stay. Fans were now building a considerable degree of expectation for Black Milk’s new album by the conversation-inspiring title Album of the Year. Black Milk sat down with HipHopGame to talk about creating Album of the Year, how he’s grown, what he’s been through since Tronic that’s made him a better artist and much more.
How did you come up with the title for your third official album Album of the Year?
(laughs) I came up with the title because I felt it fit with what the album was representing, especially when it came to the middle and end of the album. I’ve been reflecting a lot with what’s been going on in my personal life since my last release Tronic, from the ups and the downs. That’s one of the meanings with what the title represents. It’s different moments in time since my last album, which has been a year plus in time. Plus it’s me feeling that it can actually be the album of the year. The music is on that level and the music we created is just that good. It’s not far-fetched. It’s one of the best releases to drop this year. It’s funny because a lot of people felt that way about Tronic. But yeah, man, it definitely wasn’t a gimmick-type thing to get attention because I feel like I would have gotten attention from the music, regardless. I take a lot of time to make sure the music is a certain quality. But yeah, Album of the Year has a double meaning to it.
So you’re coming to our door if it’s not our top album?
(laughs) You could hear it in the tracks that already leaked out like “Deadly Medley” and “I Dare You.” I got a lot of eyes on me and it’s always good to see new fans asking who I am and they’re saying they’re sorry they slept on me before. It’s always good to see new people exposed to your music.
How do you think you’ve grown on Album of the Year?
I would say first, lyrically. The rhymes have stepped up even more. I felt like I had more to talk about this time around than my previous two projects, Popular Demand and Tronic, with me experiencing more in a year’s time since Tronic, from the death of Slum Village member Baatin to me getting in a car accident this year and my manager Hex Murda almost dying, having a stroke and losing a close aunt of mine. There was just a lot of ups and downs, man. I had more to express this time around versus on Tronic and Popular Demand. I really didn’t have a lot of hardships going on around that time in my life when I was recording those albums. That’s why they had a feel-good vibe to it. But this time around, you’re going to come across tracks with a darker, more grown-up feel to them. I feel like I have more to talk about. It’s good though. There’s a saying that artists make their best music when they go through things in their life and I can relate now. But yeah, the album is definitely not an emo album. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s depressing because there’s some moments where you get the real but then you have other moments on the album where you get the feeling that you get from me as an artist, the feel-good soulful vibe with the heavy drums. I feel like it’s probably my best project out of my three. If I had to choose, I feel like this is the best all-around project that I’ve put together. I can’t wait for cats to hear it.
Did you mean to pay tribute to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder on “Deadly Medley”?
Well, when I wrote that verse, it really wasn’t like a shout out to Michael Jackson. It was more so me playing on words with the “pre-teen Billie Jean’s” and saying my “human nature to expose MCs.” It really wasn’t shout to Michael but I guess it felt that way. But I didn’t really do that on purpose. And mentioning Stevie Wonder in that verse, that was just a line that came in my brain because Stevie Wonder’s “Girl Blue” is probably one of my favorite songs. It’s just some shit I was just fucking around with being on some lyrical shit. But they affected my life just how they affected every other artists’ lives in music. I was going bar-for-bar on this because I knew I was going to be on a track with Elz and Royce and I couldn’t fuck around. That’s what it was.
Do you feel like you have to go even harder than you normally do when you work with rappers like Royce and Elzhi?
I know I can’t slack. I know my sword gotta be sharp when you’re getting on a track with those two. To me, those are two of my favorite MCs and I definitely feel like there’s not too many cats that can get on the same song and hold their own with Elzhi and Royce in the world unless you’re talking about a cat like Eminem. For me to get on a track with those two dudes and hear people respond that everybody killed it and that I did my thing, I just try to let people know that it’s not all about the beats. That was another thing. I’m not just all about producing. I have that capability of actually bringing it lyrically. With most producer MCs, that’s a thing we fight most of the time because our beats overshadow our lyrical content most of the time.
But going into this album, I knew I wanted to do a song with Royce and El. I knew it was overdue and I had to dig through for this one sample that was just amazing from front to back and shut shit down in the game and get everyone’s attention. It worked.
A lot of producers have talked about making the transition from sampling to making original music. Do you see yourself making that transition?
I’m gonna be sampling forever. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do original music because there’s a couple of tracks on the new album that’s straight up original music with no samples. It’s just a lot of the music on the new album feels organic, even the ones that have samples in it. There’s one track on the album called “Over Again” that’s all original music with live drums and evertytihng. Everything is original. This other track “Distortion” is the same. I started the drum beat on the MPC and had a live drum player and guitar player come into the lab and I recorded them and had them play until I heard something that I liked. I’m kind of moving in that direction anyway but the sampling, I could never totally leave that alone because it’s in me. I go record shopping and dig for that jewel. There’s only so many loops and so many samples and jewels out here that need to be discovered and I’m going to keep searching for them, man. That’s a must.
How much do you dig in stores versus digging online?
I definitely dig online and search and try to find joints and try to find new artists and new names online on blog sites or YouTube. I do it both ways because I feel like stuff I can’t find at the record store I can probably find online and vice versa. I don’t want to exclude either one. I'm not going to stop going to the record store because I can sit in front of the computer and click a mouse. There’s stuff I could come across not being on a computer. But I do both. It’s like with the live music and the drum machine, live tracks and sampling and digging online and in the record stores. I always know where I can find things.
On “Warning (Keep Bouncing),” you’re switching up your flow, which is something you haven’t always done. How did you improve as an MC on Album of the Year?
I guess it just comes with time, man. Your songwriting ability gets better with the older you get and the more experiences you have. Everybody can relate to that. It’s part of life. I’m going to continue to grow as a writer and as a musician, period and different stuff I might see that would inspire me. And plus it’s that little challenge to still overcome. Sometimes I feel like I still have to show these cats that I can still bring it lyrically and that I’m not all about the production. It’s hard because I think people focus more on the beats and the production of the music much more than the lyrical side. Even though I make sure the lyrics are tight, there’s so much that goes into the music and I definitely realize how that can overshadow the artist. I think the music is just that good.
Do you see yourself as a producer first and rapper second?
I’m both. I’m both. I was MCing before I started doing beats. I’m definitely both even though I might produce more than I rhyme. But I’m both. I don’t plan on stopping rhyming or being an MC anytime soon. I don’t plan on stopping doing shows anytime soon and not rocking crowds anytime soon. The artist part of me is always going to be there on top of the production. I do more beats than I rap so I guess it’s always going to be like that.
Your drums have always stood out in your production. How do you go about getting the drums sound right to you?
Man, that’s another thing that just comes with time. I try to tell other up-and-coming producers that that’s the backbone and the heart and soul of a whole track, especially when you’re talking about hip-hop tracks. But yeah, man, I just got better and better with time and perfecting the sound of the drum and how it should come out your speakers sonically. It’s about learning EQs and learning engineering methods and different little tricks here and there with frequencies, nerd-type shit (laughs). But you learn that over the years and different techniques and how to stack drums to make them sound differently. I can honestly say I’ve come to a point where I’ve mastered making great drum sounds. There’s a lot of things I don’t feel like I have 110% mastered yet. I don’t feel like I’ve mastered production. I feel like I got a long way to go. I feel like I can make the best drum sounds though. I know what I hear in my head and what machines and techniques I can use to create that sound with. It took awhile for me to get to that level to where I feel like my drums are almost there to where they sound like J. Dilla, who I feel like is the Drum God or the Drum King. It’s almost there on that level.
You’ve said in the past that people have played up your relationship with Dilla. How much did you really learn from him?
I mean, see, that’s the funny thing. Dilla, I never sat in a room with Dilla and he taught me. I never was in the room with Dilla and he sat me down and taught me certain techniques. No one ever taught me anything about making beats or just really sitting me down. I had to learn by just listening and listening to Dilla and just finding my way and how to make it sound a certain way. I can see and I’ve always understood why people said I was Dilla’s protégé because I’m from Detroit and I have a certain swing on my beats that other Detroit producers that come from the circle have. But I think the music that I’m making now is so left of what Dilla was doing or whatever people consider Dilla’s sound, I don’t think the stuff I’m doing now sounds anything like it. Yeah, man, it’s still going to have that bounce to it and it’s still going to have that swing to it, but everything I’m doing now is organic, especially with this album. I haven’t heard anyone create the sound in music create the sound we created on this album with the musicians I’ve worked with. It’s definitely an organic sound. Dilla’s definitely the King of Beats to me and I’m still learning every day by listening to his music.
What was it like working with Mr. Porter on “Closed Chapter”?
That’s fam! It was a headache at first because I had to wait weeks and weeks for him to give me the hook but we finally got it done and we finally got some time to lay it down and it came out right. That’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. That shit came out ridiculous. Denaun, he’s kind of a mentor to me somewhat. That’s one of the cats I go to when I think I need some advice or when I think I need someone else’s opinion with what I’m going through in the industry. He’s been there for me. That’s family. He came through and laced the track and it came out real dope.
What is your favorite track off Album of the Year?
Man, that changes every day. That changes every day. One day it’s “Deadly Medley” and another day it’s “Black and Brown” and another day it’s the intro. Quiet as kept, I think my favorite track, I never skip this track, I always let this track play through all the way from front to back, is “Distortion” with Melanie Rutherford. That’s one of the tracks I get the most personal with where I break everything down and talk about the who and when. It’s not just my favorite because I opened up and showed people another side to me that they’ve never seen before. I feel like that track is also one of my favorites because it’s one of those tracks that’s all original music. I can’t believe that we made this happen and it all came together like our ideas. On the low, “Distortion” is one of my favorite tracks on the album and on top of that, I think the interlude that comes after “Distortion” is one of my favorite beats on the album. I have a minute and a half interlude that drops right after “Distortion” and that was the last piece of music I did before I dropped the album and the beat is bananas. I hope cats aren’t mad I didn’t rap over that shit because that beat is stupid!
Between Hex’s stroke, your car accident and everything else that’s happened to you since Tronic, how has your perspective changed on music?
It showed me that when I record or when I’m songwriting to try to give a little something or put something in the song and lyrics that the everyday person can relate to. A lot of my records are driven more by style and using my voice as an instrument instead of using it to actually attack a certain concept. Now I’m at a point where I’m experiencing certain things and it made me want to incorporate certain lyrics or just a song here and there that people can really feel and relate to and they can see that I’m human and it’s not all this and that, that I can show you a different side of what I can do lyrically as an artist. Yeah, man, it takes time. You gotta experience things to actually get to that level and I saw how people reacted to listening to those songs on the new album and they were saying it’s crazy how I’m coming with the new style. It let me know that I had to continue doing that and keep that a part of my rhyme scheme.
How’s Hex been feeling?
Oh, he’s getting better, man. He’s just working on his physical right now, trying to get his strength up. His brain is where it was before he had a stroke. All you have to do is check his Twitter page and see his timeline to know that he’s still in his right mind. But he’s going through a lot of rehab to get his physical strength up and hopefully it comes back pretty soon.
50 Cent and Kanye have been on Twitter but is anyone more entertaining than Hex on Twitter?
I don’t think so. (laughs) I don’t think anybody can compete with just being the most entertaining or having the most entertaining Twitter timeline. Most of Hex’s Tweets are on some fuck you shit or that Royce, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Elzhi are the best. But we need more people like that. He’s like Detroit’s biggest cheerleader when it comes to Detroit artists and he keeps it 100. Whether you believe it or not, it’s always the truth when Hex says it. I might not be able to say things because I don’t want it to affect my position in the game but Hex will definitely say it. He’s just a real dude, man, and he’s always been that way and he’s going to always be that way. You can definitely see that he doesn’t give a fuck when you look at his timeline on Twitter.
You’re performing at the closing show at Fat Beats. What do you think of the closing?
I was in shock. It just kind of came out of nowhere. It’s pretty fucked up that they closed that store down. It was one of the last stores where an indie artist could have a chance to have their music in the store. Now most indie artists, if they’re not in the Best Buy, they really have no chance to get their music in a store that gets a lot of traffic. And Fat Beats is one of those stores that got a lot of traffic and exposed people to a lot of up-and-coming artists. The whole industry is messed up now.
Do you blame fans not supporting the store for their closing?
If I had to point the finger, I think I’d point it at nobody, man. I really wouldn’t point it at the fans, man. I don’t know 100% all of the details why they’re shutting down, but from the little bit of info that I’ve heard, I don’t think they’re just shutting down because they’re not getting enough business. I think there’s more sides to it and more info to it. It’s not just because people aren’t buying records and people aren’t coming in to support the music. I can’t really speak on it 100% and give you some actual facts, but that’s the most I know about it.
What are you hoping Album of the Year does after the dust settles?
No. 1, I hope I gain more fans. That’s my main goal and that’s always my No. 1 goal when I put out music is trying to gain more listeners and more fans and build my audience up. That’s the No. 1 goal and 2, the way I look at this new album, I feel like it’s definitely something fresh and something new and something different and something innovative for the hip-hop genre, so hopefully cats get inspired and they want to try and take it there with their homies and hopefully it will challenge other artists and other producers to make something that’s a little more unconventional than the norm. That’s definitely where my brain was when making this album, trying to come up with different hooks and different patterns. I wanted to make Tronic times 10. I wanted to make something that sounds fresh.