A Conversation with Black Milk

I was blessed with the opportunity to interview producer/rapper Black Milk last week, in advance of his upcoming Albany show. The interview ran exclusively for Beat*Shot Music, and I am reposting it below. (I'm so excited about this experience, love how it came out and almost have it memorized at this point. Thank you to everyone who shared + took a peek!)

Growing up in the music smorgasbord that is Detroit, producer and rapper Black Milk was exposed early to the sounds that inspired him to learn to create his own. With soul, gospel and funk leading him to discover hip hop, it became inevitable for the young producer to develop a refined ear as he practiced his hand at production, intrigued specifically by the drums and live musicianship.

Playing an integral role in Black Milk’s career was Slum Village, originally formed by T3, Baatin and the legendary J. Dilla. Introduced to Dilla by way of his cousin, Black Milk began building his impressive production credit list, over the years working with Slum Village, Pharaohe Monch, Lloyd Banks, eLZhi, Danny Brown, KRS-One, Slaughterhouse, GZA and Jack White, to name a few. In addition to his solo career, Milk also was a part of several groups, including teaming up with Sean Price and Guilty Simpson to create as Random Axe.

Between releasing six solo albums, executing endless collaborations and touring extensively with a live band, Black Milk has been keeping very busy over the past decade, all while remaining dedicated to his craft and producing quality music.

On Sunday, September 13th, Black Milk will be making a pit stop in Albany as part of his extensive touring this year, as joined by his live band Nat Turner. Black Milk and his band will perform as part of the  latest collaboration between Beat*Shot Music & Pig Food Records – the Flea Market – hosted at the Hollow Bar+Kitchen.

Keeping it true to the designation of a flea market, a variety of arts, crafts, pottery, comics, clothing, jewelry and more from local vendors will be available for sale. Supporting the soundtrack of the evening will also be Giant Gorilla Dog Thing and Grizzly Gato, with DJs Nate Da Great and Trumastr behind the decks.

In advance of the Flea Market, Beat*Shot contributor KC Orcutt took some time to chat with Black Milk about his creative process in the studio, balancing being both a rapper and a producer, what he looks for when he’s thrift shopping, reflecting on the good times with the late Sean Price and how he prepares for a live performance. Let’s dive into it.

KC: What type of environment and tone do you like to set before you start working on a new project? What’s the vibe like?

BM: Ahhh, the vibe. When I’m starting a project, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music to try to catch a vibe, you know, ‘til something catches my ear. I look for some kind of energy while listening through different albums and songs and artists until the idea strikes me or the inspiration strikes me to create something or feed off of something that I heard and make it my own. That’s kinda how it starts, just listening to a lot of music, until you come with a new idea, out of all the different things you just heard.

Given that your music is inspired by so many different genres, how do you organize your music collection for sampling and so on?

It’s funny because I really don’t have as many records as people might expect me to. Compared to a lot of others, I don’t have much. I probably have around 1500 pieces of vinyl. The thing about me, with that kind of stuff, I don’t really keep vinyl or albums that I don’t listen to or that I don’t feel like there’s anything on there for me to use or sample. I know a lot of friends of mine keep everything that they purchased over the years, I don’t really do that. I try to keep stuff that matters. *laughs* With iTunes, I’m the same way. I got a few special and rare records I keep but I don’t let it get too crazy or unorganized.

Do you like to be given a direction when collaborators ask you to assist with production, or do you prefer to take the creative lead?

I like to play the role of the producer when I collaborate with other artists. It’s always good when you’re working with an artist that lets you do your own thing, have creative control and lets you do your job as a producer, as opposed to trying to control or micromanage every piece of the session, or detail of the song. I definitely like to be in control when it comes to the actual beat that’s being made, the actual mixing, the way the vocals are delivered. Yeah, I like to control all of that. *laughs*

Being both a rapper and a producer, do you enter the studio with an intention to focus on one before the other, or let it take an organic direction? What does your process look like?

I definitely feel like, well, not even feel, I mean I know, I am more of a producer at heart, so I don’t really think about writing songs on a daily basis or even on a weekly or monthly basis. I only try to create songs depending on the project, if there is a particular track that really strikes me or hits me in the moment or its time for me to actually put together the album. that’s when I get into song-mode and writing-mode. My day-to-day consists of mainly production and working in my studio, coming with beats all day, listening to samples and albums. My mentality is more so production-based majority of the time.

How do you prepare for performing in a smaller city, like Albany versus a bigger city? Ever play at a flea market before?*laughs*

Never played at a flea market before, that’ll be really interesting. I mean, how do I mentally prepare, I guess it’s like this: me and my band, Nat Turner, we’ve been performing for so long, a couple years doing a live show together, so at this point it’s not even a thing where I have to mentally prepare. I feel like the actual show and me as a performer on stage is so instilled in my DNA, I can turn on the performance aspect of me as an artist. I can cut it on and cut it off whenever, at the drop of a dime, you know. We’ve been touring heavy this year, so I’m already in that mind frame. We’ve been doing so many shows and the show has been building for so long. We’ve been adding so many different elements and just getting better as musicians and players; we’re getting better over time.

In light of Sean Price’s recent tragic passing, are there any special memories or experiences you would like to share from working together?

Yeah, uh. Man. So many. It’s hard to just pick one out. It’s more so just like, he was just one of those people that.. he just had a certain energy about him.. how can I put this into words.. Just everybody loves him. One of those people, no matter what he did, no matter what he said, no matter how crazy he was or how crazy he acted sometimes, for whatever reason, people just loved Sean P as a person, outside of his rap, outside of his music. You know, in addition to being a talented emcee, it’s a rare thing for a person to have a special energy about them, that really attracts people, y’know what I’m saying.

Some of the best memories were us being on tour. The most memorable thing that comes to mind was when we first started working on Random Axe, me him and Guilty, and we were in Detroit together. I remember we didn’t have a lot of time, and that was our first time getting in the studio together. We had a week. The first 3 or 4 days, we didn’t do anything. Not one song, not one lyric, not nothin’. It was… awesome.

We were just joking around for the first four days and we didn’t get shit done! It got to a point where, especially with him and my manager, they were older guys, so they were telling all these crazy stories and street stories and jail stories so they were connecting on that level and there was nothing but jokes and laughs.

It got to a point where we had to ban my manager from coming into the studio because it was distracting! P, is just so good with the pen, we had like 2, 3 days left and he banged out like 5 or 6 songs. That’s how so good he was, he could fuck around and have fun and when it was time to turn the mic on, he would just get it done.

Running with the flea market theme we have going for the upcoming show in Albany, what do you look for when you’re shopping or at a thrift store or what have you?

Most of the time I’m looking for shirts. Thrift stores always have the best shirts but unfortunately a lot of the time they don’t have my size, usually too small for me. But that’s the main thing I look for at thrift stores. T-shirt junkie except those usually have to be brand new *laughs*

Have you been to Albany before?

Nope, I’ve ever been to Albany, this will be my first time. I’m excited to come out there.

Much love, respect and gratitude to Black Milk for taking the time to chat with me. September 13, The Hollow, 7pm, $10. See you there.