Over the past few years, Detroit hip-hop artist Black Milk has generated critical claim and gained a following for his innovative style and wild live performances. 2008’s Tronic and 2010’s Album of the Year (both produced by him) saw him bring live musicians into the fold. Black Milk has also worked with various artists including DJ Premier, J. Dilla, Lloyd Banks, and Canibus among many others. Just recently, Third Man Records founder and former White Stripes front man, Jack White recruited Black Milk to cut a seven-inch single for the label. “Brain” and “Royal” finds Black Milk combining his trademark changing tempos and fresh lyricism with White’s penchant for garage rock. The result is one of the most exciting sounds you will hear all year. I recently caught up with Black Milk before he embarked to Europe for a show. He will later be on the Rock the Bells tour with such hip-hop heavy weights as Ghostface, Raekwon, and Nas & Common.
Randomville: You’ve recently cut the single “Brain” with Jack White. How did that come about?
Black Milk: We actually got an email from him saying he wanted to work with me. I didn’t believe it was him at first. We talked everything out and I went down there for a couple days and jammed. The craziest thing about it was working with an artist of his caliber.
Rv: You’re both originally from Detroit. Both of the songs on the new seven-inch have a strong sense of both garage rock and soul – two musical styles associated with Detroit. Was that a conscious decision? Or did it happen organically?
BM: It came organically. I brought my band. We had that funk/soul vibe and he picked up on that vibe. It all came together great. I knew the expectation was high. We did it and made two incredible joints (“Brain” and “Royal Mega”). I’m great at what I do and he’s incredible at what he does with the garage rock thing and once we started jamming the magic and chemistry clicked pretty fast.
Rv: I was amazed at “Royal Mega.” It changes tempo mid-way through. I can’t recall that ever happening in a hip-hop song before.
BM: That was kind of crazy. I do a lot of beats change-ups and people know me doing something crazy and changing tempos. It was kind of crazy that Jack wanted to put that in there. We were on the same page.
Rv: Detroit has a huge legacy of music. Do you feel that you’ve tapped into that at all?
BM: Hopefully people will see that there are two artists that have a huge level of respect. People hold Jack White with respect. And people look to me. I’m always trying to take a step further and be innovative. It’s a natural progression.
Rv: White’s Third Man Records is known for their vinyl pressings. Is this something that appeals to you?
BM: I’m also a producer so that’s one of the main creative processes. I’m one of those people that is inspired and appreciates the whole history of vinyl. That was another great part of working with Jack White – the collector. It’s where I started from –the wax.
Rv: With your Album of the Year you made an effort to use studio musicians and sessions musicians. Is that collaborative? Or do you have tracks ready and then give them to musicians? If so, how does that work?
BM: I was always starting to use the session musicians. Album of the Year was the album where I wanted to make it sound more live, organically. But the way we did it on Album of the Year was pretty different. It really doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop album. Everything starts off with making the track. If I hear a line or melody, I bring those musicians in and play them the part that I hear in my head. We were able to build chemistry. That’s when people get the music is when they see the live show. It’s all about the creative show.
Rv: When you’re writing – what’s your process like? Do you freestyle? What type of sound are you looking for when you create your beats?
BM: I try and piece something together. Most of the time I’m just trying to find a flow within the beat and then the words come. The first albums were trying to feel the music. Later I was trying different concepts and make songs people can relate to. Most of the time the beat comes first, then the words.
Rv: You’re known for your energetic live performances. How does the live show differ from your studio work?
BM: When you’re up there on stage there’s more room to improvise and do different things with the songs that you didn’t do on the record. You might get a slightly different version and we might do crazy twists and turns in the show. It makes it more fun for us. That keeps us from being bored with the music – to be able to flip it and play something different. Each show it gets better and better and I leave it open to the musicians’ experiment. I trust that they’re going to do something I’m going to feel.
Rv: Your music is a mix of genres. Who are your inspirations?
BM: Hip-hop producers. DJ Premier, J. Dilla. Also, James Brown, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sly & the Family Stone. Those are the musicians who I aspire to be and be on that level and stay innovative and fresh.
Rv: What else are you working on?
BM: I’m working with a few artists. Getting a lot of buzz. “Black and Brown”. Doing some projects. Jack White with the seven-inch. Some side instrumental projects – no words. Each instrumental album – that has a different concept. It has its own individuality.