Exclusive: Black Milk describes the impact of his mellower sound and live instrumentation on "No Poison No Paradise" as well as his 2012 work with Jack White & Lauryn Hill.
Black Milk continues to become a true force in Hip Hop. With each album he releases, he gains a little more popularity, while also upping the ante, both in terms of production and rapping. On October 15, he dropped his latest solo effort, No Poison No Paradise through his Computer Ugly Records imprint—a subsidiary of Fat Beats.
On his last album, Album Of The Year, Black Milk utilized live instrumentation, a rarity in most Hip Hop circles. While it was ultimately deemed a success, No Poison No Paradise marked a return to the chalkboard.
“This time around it was just me with the MP, some records and that’s it. So that’s probably another reason why this album sounds a little stripped down, which I like,” explains Black Milk. “It sounds [like a] somewhat back-to-basics type deal, but still progressive at the same time.”
During the interview, Black Milk touched on a number of subjects, from the new album’s creative process to working with his favorite Detroit artists. Perhaps most exciting was his humble assertion that he is one of the top three Hip Hop producers in Detroit, as opposed to number one. In any event, No Poison No Paradise marks a continuation of Black Milk’s trend of consistent, technically sound Hip Hop.
Black Milk Explains His Lyrical Strides On “No Poison No Paradise”
HipHopDX: Everything sounds more natural on this one, which is not to say that it wasn’t before. Do you credit that towards No Poison No Paradise being mellower than some of your previous efforts?
Black Milk: Yeah man, definitely. That was one of the conscious things in my brain when I went into the album. Lyrically, I wanted to take a more toned-down, darker vocal tone over the beat. So yeah, that was definitely a conscious effort. And I like the way it sounds. It just sounds different; my delivery on this sounds different from my delivery on past records.
Plus I took a lot of time just kind of sharpening my skills engineer-wise over the past year-and-a-half, so I took a lot of time doing that. I think that was another reason why I found a certain vocal range to rap in, and I kind of found a nice range that sounded good like, “Okay, this my space right here. This is the place I need to be in.” So that’s kind of how it was all put together.
DX: Yeah, you said you were conscious of it. Was there any particular reason why, or did you just want to do it that way?
Black Milk: Well, I knew I wanted this album to feel a little mellower, or have a little darker vibe than my previous works. But that was one of the main reasons I wanted to go toned-down with the vocal approach. But there’s still a couple of records on there that are more upbeat, uptempo and sound more like Black Milk on past albums. But for the most part, it was a little more laid back.
DX: On this album you rap alongside Black Thought on “Codes And Cab Fare.” What’s the transition been like, being known as a producer who also raps, to all of a sudden rhyming alongside an all-star like Black Thought?
Black Milk: Man, I’m kind of fortunate enough to do that throughout my career. [Laughs] It challenges me as an emcee to put [Black Thought], Sean Price, Royce Da 5’9 or Elzhi on a record. It puts me in a position to ensure my lyrical game is up to par and know what I’m saying next to theirs when I get on these records with these guys. I’m also kind of showing people that I can hold my own weight with these emcees that people consider lyrical heavyweights. So that’s another reason why I do it too, ‘cause it’s fun to get on records and challenge yourself in a somewhat friendly competition, like, “Yo, who can pull off some of the best bars on the album?”
But with the Black Thought record, that record was kind of more of an introspective record. There was more storytelling to it, and it wasn’t just me and Black Thought rapping about Rap…just rap-to-rap type shit [laughs]. He wanted that type of record, and he kind of wanted me to send him something where he could go in on some bar shit and just rip it. But he was like, “Man, next time send me that shit, so we can just…” He told me, “Man, I didn’t know you wanted me to do some storytelling type of record [laughs]. But it still came out dope, and he still liked the record. So there’s not too many of those kinds of songs on this album where it’s just straight bars, and almost every song on this new album is a certain concept throughout.
DX: That segues perfectly into my next question. What prompted you to go with the first-person narrative concept?
Black Milk: Well, originally I think the production kind of lyrically pushed me into that direction to write songs like that. I’ve been telling people… It started with some of the first couple records I made—the record “Sunday’s Best, Monday’s Worst” that I actually leaked out earlier this year. That sample was kind of a Gospel sample. On one of the beats, I did a soulful sample that was saying a certain thing on the hook with the other beat, and it just kind of told me what to say. It was easy for me to write to those couple tracks. And on the Gospel joint, [I was] kind of talking about how I grew up with religious parents, but sometimes kind of got traded to the streets and the direction of the streets, just from friends and peer pressure. Then on “Monday’s Worst,” I’m showing how this character gets older and turns into a person different from the values he was raised by.
So yeah, man, those first like three or four records that I recorded kind of pushed me into that direction of storytelling. And when I noticed that I was doing that, I was like, “Oh shit! I made somewhat of a concept album, even though I don’t want it to be too conceptual. But I’m just going to build off of these two songs and create a certain vibe with the rest of the album so it won’t sound all over the place.” So that’s how it came together, man, and it was more so just the production that pushed me into that space.
DX: Along those same lines, with “Deion’s House” you’ve got lyrics about fatherhood, being a father, and your relationship with your father. Is that exemplary of what you were saying about the new direction you were taking creatively?
Black Milk: Well that record in particular, “Deion’s House” was me talking from a friend’s perspective that has a bad influence on the main character of the whole album. It’s saying how he knows he’s somewhat of a bad influence on this character. But at the same time, he wants this character to see the light, and he feels like the reason he’s a bad influence on the character is because they didn’t have the same upbringing with both parents, and stuff like that. That’s what “Deion’s House” is about: I’m speaking from one of the characters friend’s perspective.
So yeah, I don’t know why I took this turn or went this direction on this album, but it just kind of happened that way. It definitely wasn’t on my mind when I first started, like, “I’m gonna do a concept album. I’m a just tell a lot of stories.” Like I said, the production felt that way, and I just started writing. And it’s weird too, because I feel like it’s easier for me to write conceptual songs versus just a 16 of just Rap bars. But if I have a particular beat, the words just come to me easy, versus just trying to sit there and write some real lyrical type shit.
Black Milk Explains His Use Of Live Instrumentation
DX: Yeah, that definitely speaks to your development of your lyrics and rapping in general. So the new album is called No Poison No Paradise. What’s the significance of the title?
Black Milk: I wanted to figure out a way to say the words good and bad I guess—good and evil. I was trying to think of a title that could represent those two sides, like the yin and the yang, light and darkness, or whatever the fuck. I don’t know. I was just playing with a lot of words and No Poison No Paradise kind of came to mind, and I liked the ring to it. So that’s pretty much how the title came about.
DX: Changing gears a little bit, on Album Of The Year you experimented heavily with live music. Did that creative process carry over for this album?
Black Milk: Yeah [there is] a little bit of the live instrumentation on this album on certain parts. Actually, the song “Deion’s House” is one of the records where it is all live music. It’s actually this band from Detroit named Will Sessions—they produced that record—they actually replayed the whole sample. Then you got songs like “Perfected On Puritan Ave” where it has the live horns and that Jazzy, fusion influence on it. So yeah, a little bit of live instrumentation here and there. It wasn’t as much like how it was on Album Of The Year. I think one of the reasons why was because I wasn’t in Detroit when I recorded the majority of this album, so I didn’t really have access to musicians and some of the singers I usually work with…just people I collaborate with. This time around, it was just me with the MP, some records, and that’s it. So that’s probably another reason why this album sounds a little stripped down, which I like. It sounds like a somewhat back-to-basics type deal, but still progressive at the same time.
DX: Have you been using a live band during concerts as well?
Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve been on the road with the band since...shit, since Tronic. Maybe about four years now, I think. I got a three-piece band playing with me—well technically four. I got a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player and a deejay on stage with me. Ever since I added the live band element to my live show, I never went back to just me and the deejay. I like the freedom of having live musicians on stage, and the freedom of being able to take music in any direction I want to depending on the vibe of that particular show versus being confined to the deejay playing one beat, you rapping your raps and you can’t really go anywhere else but there. So that’s why I keep the live element to the stage show.
DX: I hear you on that. By using a live band during shows, how would you say your stage presence, or your shows in general changed with the live band? And does that affect improvisation or other spontaneity on stage?
Black Milk: Well yeah, that’s basically what I meant: having enough freedom to do something spontaneous. Like I said, it just all depends on the show, the crowd and the vibe. We can cut it at a certain point, or we can extend the show as long as we want to, extend a song as long as we want to, extend a beat or whatever. The fun thing about having a live band, man, is just when I do these shows, half of the songs that I do, we flip the beats entirely. When people hear certain records and then I see them after the show, they’re like, “Oh shit, I didn’t even know that was that song until you got a few bars in, and the beat changed, and the beat was so different.” So it’s always cool to be able to split the track entirely with the band and go somewhere totally different with it. People still enjoy it.
DX: That’s what’s up. Switching gears again, tracks like “Sonny Jr. (Dreams)” and “X Chords” are cool beat-only tracks with no lyrics. Could you ever see yourself making a full-length instrumental album, like Donuts?
Black Milk: Well I actually just did earlier this year, man. I dropped the instrumental project called Synth Or Soul—I dropped it on Record Store Day in April. It was a limited run with the vinyl. I think we only did like 1,000 of them, and we sold out all of the 1,000 copies. I think Fat Beats is doing a repress of it. But it was my first official instrumental project where the concept was like, the first half was all Electronic-based, sample-based beats, and the second half was more Soul sample-based type tracks. And it did well…people responded to it well. It was only 12 tracks. I’m definitely going to do more, and I plan on doing more next year, but longer with more tracks on it. So yeah, that’s definitely going to happen. Like I said, I just set it off earlier this year with the first project.
DX: You’re releasing this album through your new label, Computer Ugly. How did that get started, and what’s going on over there right now?
Black Milk: Well Computer Ugly, that’s kind of the perfect segue, ‘cause the instrumental album actually was one of the reasons I started Computer Ugly. The concept of the whole instrumental thing is me and this illustrator, his name is Upendo, and he’s done a lot of art design: from Gatorade all the way to [J Dilla]. He did The Shining album cover, all the way to his clothing line, LeRoy Jenkins. Some people might’ve seen Jay Z wearing some of his stuff.
So me and him was kind bouncing art back-and-forth off of each other. He’d send me some of his illustrations, I’d send him some music, and then we kind of thought of the concept, “What if we made art-inspired-music, or a music-inspired-art type of project?” We created this group called Fuzz Freqs and Colors, and that’s how all the instrumental projects... He’s doing the artwork, and of course, I’m doing all of the beats or whatever. So with the Synth Or Soul project, I was like, “Man, I want to put this out myself,” and that’s when I created Computer Ugly and dropped that. I definitely have more projects on the way, and No Poison No Paradise is the second project in the catalog. I have a few more things I’ll probably drop at the beginning of next year, so Computer Ugly is just another brand, another way for me to drop side projects.
DX: Do you still have a relationship with Fat Beats at all?
Black Milk: Well yeah, the new album is coming out on Computer Ugly/Fat Beats. Our relationship is still pretty good after all these years. Fat Beats held me down, been able to get behind me with the projects I’ve done and let me have creative control. So our relationship is still pretty cool.
Black Milk Discusses The Current State Of Detroit
DX: This is not a “gotcha” question by any means, but straight up: are you the best producer coming out of Detroit right now?
Black Milk: Am I the best producer? Oh man, I don’t want to say yes to that, man [laughs]. I’m definitely one of the best. I’m definitely top three. You have cats like Waajeed, and you have cats like Karriem Riggins that I look to as… Those dudes are incredible also, so I don’t know if I want to say I’m the best, ‘cause that would basically be saying I’m better than them. I don’t want to come off like that, man. But at the same time, I feel like I can do whatever any other producer in Hip Hop can do musically. I definitely have some of the best skills when it comes to production. So yeah, I’m definitely top three out of Detroit. I’ll let people decide if I’m number one or not [laughs].
DX: For sure. And then along those same lines, other than Eminem, who is Detroit’s best emcee right now?
Black Milk: I mean, I’ve always been a huge fan of Royce Da 5’9, and he is like an inspiration when it comes to rhymes and just lyrics. I still listen to “Bar Exam 2” when I need a little inspiration, just want to go in on the writing tip. But Royce is definitely one of my favorite and top emcees out of Detroit, and I got to say Guilty Simpson also.
DX: It’s no secret that Detroit has fallen on some pretty hard times right now. How have you been giving back or helping out your city during this rough patch?
Black Milk: You know the thing is, artists, we give back in a few different ways—whether it’s giving back on some… I’ve done some community service stuff, but I ain’t really said nothing about it though on a public basis. But from that to just representing the city all the time, when it comes to being out here in these different cities, or in the music is another way also. But it’s going to take more than just artists; it’s going to take the community itself and politicians. It’s going to take a lot to get the city back where it needs to be, and who knows how long that’s going to take.
But I feel like no matter how hard times fall on the city, it’s a certain attitude and a certain pride that people from the city still have. I think people from all over the country feel that energy, and people still represent Detroit no matter what, no matter how hard luck we get.
DX: You’ve been lucky enough to work with dozens of artists, including Jack White from The White Stripes. Do you feel special in that you’re getting props from notable artists outside of the Hip Hop genre?
Black Milk: Yeah, that’s always cool, ‘cause it’s always unexpected. That’s never really my intention, outside of whatever. But when it comes, it’s dope. So being able to get in the studio with him, or to hear that he appreciates something that I’m doing musically is really dope. So it’s cool to get in the studio with a cat like him. I was even fortunate enough to get in the studio with Lauryn Hill at the end of last year, and we were working in the studio for like two-to-three weeks actually. So yeah, I don’t know how it is that I end up in these interesting positions with these different artists. But clearly, I’m doing something right musically that’s putting me in these different places.
DX: Tell me a little about that project you guys did, because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it.
Black Milk: Yeah. It was a thing where he had his label, Third Man Records, and he puts out a lot of one-off type projects with regular artists He might do the production while the other artists does the vocal part, and do crazy vinyl-type things from 45s to 12s and all this crazy art design stuff. So he reached out to me to come to Nashville to do a couple records, and he told me that he’d always wanted to work with a Hip Hop artist from Detroit, but he didn’t really know who made the most sense with what he did until he came across my stuff. He produces too, so he’s looking at me like, “Okay, this guy produces, so we definitely connect on some level,” and I think that’s what it was. He told me he heard the song “Deadly Medley” that I did with Royce da 5’9 and Elzhi, and he was like, “Man, I love that shit [laughs].” That was the song that really made him call and say, “Let’s get in the studio.”
So I went down there with some of my band members, linked up with some of his band musician’s friends, and we got in the studio and jammed out for a couple days. We made a couple records, he pressed “Live At Third Man Records” up and put it out on his label. Simple as that…that’s about it. That was definitely one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had in music. It was intimidating at moments, but we finally found a certain chemistry, and it was pretty damn crazy sitting in the same room as this fucking huge Rock star [laughs]. It was kind of crazy.
DX: How big of a fan of Detroit sports are you?
Black Milk: I try to keep up as best I can, especially with the Lions and the Pistons. So I’m not a super sports Stan or fan, but I definitely try to keep up and see where the teams is at when the football and the basketball seasons are going.
DX: The Tigers are about to make some noise in the playoffs, the Lions look good and Pistons are poised for a big turn around. Which, if any, team are you most excited about right now?
Black Milk: I think the Lions, man. They was looking good last year, and like you said, they’re looking pretty good this year. I think we definitely got to stop making the small, stupid mistakes that we make sometimes. I think we’re our own worst enemy on the field sometimes. But I think out of all of Detroit teams, the Lions is the ones I’m most excited to see what we do these next two-three football seasons in the future. It’s going to be cool to watch it and see where we take it. Plus we’ve got the young guys, so that’s always good too.
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