Producer's Corner: Black Milk & Elzhi
Strength in Numbers - The blue collar workers of Detroit might be struggling just as much as the motor companies right about now, but one thing is for sure; the Ds Hip Hop acts ruled the underground music scene in 2008. Two names that were constantly on best of lists this year were Slum Village member Elzhi and producer Black Milk for their definitive and creative contribution to Hip Hop in '08.
With albums like The Preface and Tronic to their credit it is hard to ignore the flawless dexterity the duo displayed. Heading up not just a movement but a way of life has always been the favorable choice of Detroits "Lords of the Underground." They feed off each others talents and with Elzhi, as one of the genre's most respected lyricists sharing both a label and a manager with one of Detroits hottest producers right now, you can just expect the madness that has commenced to continue on.
Talking production, wordplay, "Colors" and just how these guys all move together to make Detroit Hip Hop heard, Elzhi and Black Milk talked with HipHopDX's Producer's Corner to pop off the '09 with bowing down to two kings of '08.
HipHopDX: 2008 and was a great year for you both. How do you summarize it for yourself?
Elzhi: It is grind time basically. As you know, The Preface [click to read] was just a stepping stone leading up to what is really going to go down in '09. It was really all about creating that buzz so people can get ready for the new stuff. The new Slum [Village] project is coming out; the new album is still in the works, so there is just a ton of stuff going down.
Black Milk: 2008 was the best year musically for me because my debut album Tronic [click to read] was my best piece of work that I have put out musically, out of all my projects. It was a great year and then on top of that, America getting a black President that was the cherry on top. It was great year for me.
DX: Do you feel that you have brought a new lease of life into the Detroit Hip Hop scene this year?
Elzhi: Basically, Slum is the foundation I feel for underground Hip Hop; a while back we did a compilation CD called Dirty District, we did two of them and we showcased people on that project before anyone had had a chance to showcase them in the world. Artists like Guilty Simpson [click to read], Marv, Theron, Phat Kat [click to read] the list goes on, and everyone, including Black and including Hex, they look at Slum as that foundation so that when the Slum to their projects it is a big event.
I felt like from what we have laid down, we have set an example of the people who will go in and do their thing. Like you said, in '08 everybody dropped an album and that was a good look. We have been working hard for a long time and we have been around the world like three times and just to see everybody get their foot out there was just amazing.
Black Milk: I dont think that I brought a new lease of life to the Detroit scene, as every year we drop at least a couple of projects that are dope and chilling on the underground Hip Hop scene. I just think it gets better each year as everyone is growing musically; from the producers to the emcees. It will only continue to get better. '09 will be even crazier when you look back on '08, as that was nothing.
DX: Fat Ray said his "Take Control" track which you produced was the "new" Detroit sound, is that what you were looking to do, create a new sound?
Black Milk: I am really not trying to create a new sound for Detroit. It is just that I am always experimenting with new sounds and new styles of music and I am always listening to different genres of music to try and incorporate that in my sound that I have already have. My sound is going to continue to change and switch up, it will never stay the same and I will never put out a project that sounds the same as the last project. It is more so of a feel really when you listen to Detroit Hip Hop, and when you listen to my music; it is not really a sound. I cant describe the sound that people were hearing but I know there is a certain feeling that we have that no-one else has unless you are from Detroit. I guess it is the atmosphere out here.
DX: Do you find being a producer and working with different artists and then working on your own projects that you have to change up your style for each individual project?
Black Milk: I do what I basically feel or what I want to do with the beats but there will be certain times where I have certain artists in mind and I will do a track to kind of cater to their sound and I will send out the beat CD. When I am doing those CDs though I usually try to have a mixture or a variety of different styles of beats.
DX: How do you approach your own projects?
Black Milk: I do it different as each artist has a sound of beat that they sound good over, you know El might not sound as good as I sound over a certain track and vice versa. Everyone has a certain pocket they fit into so I always try to bring something fresh and something new that I can style and flow over that isnt extra-lyrical. So I do go in a different direction with my own projects as most of the time the beats that I use myself are beats that artists might not pick.
DX: So your beats are the ones that other artists havent used?
Black Milk: Yeah, its crazy as some people think that I keep the best beats and store them for my own projects which isnt the case.
DX: But dont you feel when you make a beat and then use it for your own project, why the artist didnt want it in the first place?
Black Milk: I mean I do think about that sometimes but I am not going to drop no names [laughs] but you send beats out to major label artists and I know everyone has got a certain sound they want for their album; but I be sending out some heat and sometimes I wonder why they didnt pick something. I mean it doesnt drive me crazy but I do wonder and then I am curious to know what they heard. But then when the actual album comes out, it be disappointing.
DX: When you use something that has been passed on by another artist, do you go in and tweak it a bit to suit you, or have you sent it out perfect where there isnt much more you can do to it?
Black Milk: No I am definitely going to go back in and add some more sounds to it, or mix it a little different and build it around the vocal, thats basically what I do. For my album, I tweaked it all the way until it was time to be mastered and then I had to go into the master to re-tweak it as some things just werent sounding right. I mean I am always nit-picking at a track until the time is up.
DX: But when do you stop tweaking though? I cant help but think Dr. Dre is just on a fiver year tweaking session with Detox right now [laughs.]
Black Milk: [Laughs] Never. Its crazy as you always hear something you could have done better. The average listener might not hear what you hear, but as a producer, you want every nook and cranny to be perfect. I know if I had a lot of time like some artist have where they can take a year or two to just record, I can't imagine what sort of music I would be making. I just try to make the music as good as possible with only four or five months in between projects.
DX: Our big Hip Hop magazine here in the UK has you, Black and Fat Ray in the Top 10 albums of the year which is a great look.
Elzhi: Yeah that is, but trust us, the new stuff we are doing is going to be so incredible. This year's stuff was just showing people what we could do and as Black was saying, from his Tronic album, the stuff is about to get ridiculous.
DX: Do you all feed off each other?
Elzhi: Yeah, and its crazy being up under Hex and knowing the kind of talent that he has under him like Black, Guilt, and then hearing the music that is coming from these cats, it is really about to happen for the D including Royce [Da 5'9"] [click to read], T3 [click to read] and the new Slum stuff. I hear a Guilty song, like you said; it makes me want to step up my game. He then hears a song from me and he thinks the same so it works vice versa.
Black Milk: The music does keep us competitive, you know I see El and his lyrics and it makes me pick my pen up. As long as we have that we will continue to drop great music as no-one is going to slack off ever.
DX: I dont get the impression that you would let each other slack off though.
Black Milk: No, we wouldnt. Because if El dropped a wack verse, I would tell him and if I dropped a wack verse, he would tell me. But you know people dont really feel like they can do that anymore and be opinionated, give advice, but we can let each other know the real.
DX: Being that you both have the same manager in Hex, you share the same label; do these factors come into your work together?
Black Milk: With me and El, that is family so it s nothing for us to get in the studio together to knock something out. It does make it easier when we have the same label and the same management as we can get stuff done and release music when we want to. Hopefully it will continue to be this way as it is the easiest way to release music.
Elzhi: You know we were working together even before that but yeah we have a focus now. It is not just us doing freestyle work; it is now that we have a team so yeah those factors do come into what we put out.
DX: What do you think is crucial for a cohesive working relationship between a producer and an artist being that you worked closely together on the Preface?
Elzhi: Well you know one of the reasons why a lot of the music is done by Black, and not to say that in the future I wouldnt do an album with just Blacks beats, this time around I was working on a strict time schedule and I only had four, well three and a half weeks to get an album completed. Since Black was right there, I was able to pick from beats that was looked over in the past, a couple of new tracks and that is the reason why you got to hear a lot of Black on this Preface album. I like to do things many ways. I have been doing this for a long time so if I could do a project with just one producer that is cool, but if I could do a project with lots of producers, thats cool too. It is all about what you are looking for and the kind of sound you are going for.
Black Milk: Of course there has to be a certain type of chemistry, you know a god vibe and once you establish that and you get in the studio that is when the music comes out well. You get to be creative and you get to be more opinionated. El and I have that and we have been working for so long and outside of the music he is family. But I have that with everyone I work with in the D, you know we all vibe off each other and everyone is cool and we are friends and as long as we have that we are going to continue dropping this great music that we have been putting out these last few years. All we have is us at the end of the day, and we know how the industry works and we have to all work together to have the spotlight put on us.
DX: Back in the '80s it was primarily one producer handling the bulk of the production on a lot of albums, then people were doing things differently in the 90s and into the 2000s. There have been a lot of albums lately back to the old blueprint of one producer pretty much handling the bulk of the tracks, do you think money comes into that?
Black Milk: My favorite albums are those produced by just one or two producers like a J Dilla album or Kanye [West]s earlier stuff, you got the same vibe throughout the album as there was just one producer. On the major side, they are going to have big names on the album as they are trying to sell albums, I am not sure how much in the major label world you will see the one producer one artist projects but I think on the underground scene you are going to see that a lot more as it is getting back to that. It just sounds better and you can hear the cohesiveness from start to finish and that is why I like to produce those types of albums. The next album I have coming out with Sean Price [click to read] and Guilty, you have three artists but only one producer but you can hear the cohesiveness.
Elzhi: It could as far as if a rapper and a producer get a budget to work together, so they look out for each other to be able to get the project done. So in that aspect, I think money can play a part but other than that, man, people who make music are just trying to make the best kind of music that they can make. If you are looking at it from the commercial standpoint, they get all types of producers but they are big name producers to draw people to the project. As far as what the underground does, we basically just try to make the best possible music we can make and if it comes from this guy or that guy and if they have that heat we just try and use it.
DX: Funny you consider yourself as an underground artist Elzhi, as you always appear to come up in conversations when discussing the best rappers out there today.
Elzhi: [Laughs] Man, I just really enjoyed that golden era of Hip Hop around '96 and even '98, it was music that was innovative and new and fresh, but it wasnt just the music, it was the look and the attitude, how people dressed, how people carried themselves and now I feel like that is missing. You can walk into a club and just see people in there; maybe a bunch of underground rappers, some commercial rappers but they all look the same. Not trying to separate or nothing, but back in the day, people made a choice. I am not tripping on the commercial world as there are some people out there I do like, but the majority isnt my case. It has to go back to people standing for a movement and I am willing to work from the ground up to build the movement back up and I feel in this case, money played a part in the way that people dont come off the way that they used to. Everybody is trying to get the fame, get the quick cash and when you look at groups like De La Soul and Souls of Mischief, just because they laid down classic material, they are still able to tour without an album and people need to start looking at that. If you lay things down the correct way you are always going to be able to go on the road and perform. It is the commercial artist that isnt in the game anymore because they dont have the strong following they cant go out and tour like that but at one point in time they were seeing a lot of money. It has to be a movement again and people have to be proud to say I love Hip-Hop. That is why I consider myself an underground artist.
DX: Your "Colors" joint was runner up on HipHopDXs "Verse of the Year" award [click to read], what was the premises behind that track?
Elzhi: Really, I play with words and I am known for that, so what happened was, I was sitting back and I had a metaphor and I had said "make green like yellow and blue," and I had that for a long time and never really used it, but then I brought it back and then I started thinking of all the words that have colors in the words like blue jeans, red handed, black belt and I decided to put it all together to make a song, you know just like short little tales and that was how it came about. I look at myself as a chemist when it comes to words.
DX: Was that something you were born with or was it something you have had to work hard at over the years?
Elzhi: I cant say it was something I really had to work at, but in that early era in the early nineties there was so much going on and around that time I was still trying to find myself. I went through a gimmick stage where I was on the Bush Babies tip and then certain artists like Rakim [click to read], brought that out of me, you know their wordplay. Kool G Rap [click to read], Special Ed, Big Daddy Kane [click to read], Rakim all amazed me, hearing those cats and seeing what they were doing with the doubles, had me really appreciating that as they took the time in their craft to take it to another level and I kind of built off of that, taking it to a whole other level. I am not going to say it is a gift, but the first rap I wrote was off the top of my head, I didnt write it down as it was something I memorized in my brain. I thought I was odd at the time because no one did that and I felt kind of funny so I stopped doing it. So I started writing on paper but it just didnt feel right, so I went back to writing in my head.
DX: Nowadays wordplay is quite limited which is probably why you are up there with the commercial rappers. "Guessing Game" was another joint that took it to another level.
Elzhi: I have always been a concept rapper but I never got a chance to show case that as certain people would want me to do the Slum stuff or certain people just wanted a hot 16. But those kinds of concepts were me doing things that had never been done, so the new stuff that I am doing now is even wilder than that.
DX: As an emcee and as a fan why do you think we lack the wordplay in Hip Hop today?
Elzhi: You know what, for one reason, if you look at the commercial world, not too many artists in that world are even bothered by wordplay. They are trying to say something that is appealing whether it be money cars clothes and bam, they make a single. They are not concerned with that at all but you do have certain cats that do wordplay, Phonte [click to read], MF DOOM, Jay Electronica, but for the most part it is something you have to work at and for the most part people arent willing to work at it like that. So they go off and do their own thing and I am not saying you have to be incredibly sweet, the only way you can go and be incredibly tight is if you use wordplay as there is a lot of sweet rappers out there, but I think Detroit is holding the wordplay game down as it is just a foundation. I remember kicking it with Proof, and we got cool back in the day during The Hip-Hop Shop days through wordplay, me going to an open mic and he hearing the wordplay. We got cool through that, and through that me and Eminem got cool and through that me and Royce got cool and Guilty and so on. It is a Detroit thing; every rapper in Detroit is big off wordplay.
DX: Well its like earning your stripes isnt it really?
Elzhi: Detroit is real tough man, it is a real tough cities in more ways than one where you have to come right and if you dont, well then they are going to let you know about it and it aint going to be too nice. I knew I had to earn my striped from back in the day, Hip-Hop Shop, Fat House, One Two One Two, Ebony Showcase, just to name a few places. I had to go in and out and say my piece to make sure my presence was felt for people to feel me. So nowadays, people know what I am about so they show me that respect and that is whats good.
DX: What is more important to you today, Black, integrity or money?
Black Milk: I have to say integrity because if it was about the money I could sit in front of my MPC and bang out hundreds of cheap synthesized beats. It is all about me building a fan base and creating my own lane and when people look back and see what Black Milk has done, they can see a catalogue of great pieces of work.
DX: What is the future for you?
Black Milk: Just master my craft musically and I still feel that even though I have dropped some crazy joints I have the room to get even better. My main thing is just figuring out my formulas to get my sound perfected. Also be creative and drop more projects which expose you to the sounds of Black Milk, not just all Hip Hop beats. I would like to give people something alternative. I will be touching on some different genres and artists out of Hip Hop and that is the future.