By Jerry L. Barrow
To steal or not to steal, that is one of the questions I got into with Black Milk, Detroit’s rising star behind the boards and on the mic. For the past few years he’s been turning heads with beats he’s done for Slum Village, Elzhi, Pharoahe Monch, GZA, Torae, Skyzoo, Guilty Simpson, Fat Ray, Royce Da 5’9 and his own solo projects like Sound of the City and Popular Demand.
On October 28th his new CD, Tronic, drops on Fatbeats Records and Nodfactor.com talked to the man who has been compared to the late J-Dilla about his beats vs. his verses, sampling Prince and under what circumstances is it ok to steal drums from another producer.
Nodfactor: What was the first beat you made, and on what?
Black Milk: I can’t remember what the sample was but it was on some Korg sampling keyboard. I made beats on that board for like a month before I bought the MP. The first beat I made on there, I know I stole some Dilla drums that were open on Phife’s solo [Ventilation] album. I went ahead and snatched those.
Wow, most producers would not admit to that…
I can say that now because that was back when I first started making beats and I didn’t have any records or breaks. I was just trying to learn the machine, to sequence and time everything. But I dare not do that today. I am against sampling other producer’s drums. Especially if they some custom drums. If you sample a break that everybody’s fucked with that’s cool. But if you sample some drums they took time to EQ and stack and they sounding good and you just rape them, that’s wack as hell. I’ve heard of big name producers that have done that. Go make your own damn drums. I didn’t make these drums for everybody to steal. Unless I leave them open on purpose. There’s certain tracks on this new album that I left the drums open on purpose.
?uestlove loves to leave open drums on his R&B cuts and I snatch those from time to time…
Ok, this may sound like I’m contradicting myself but I feel like that’s kinda different, cuz you’re sampling from an actual drummer. Especially a drummer like ?uest love that can do whatever he want and make whatever drum sounds he want. I could see me snatching a snare from ?ueslove if it was open. But if a beatmaker like me stacked like three different snares from who knows where and EQ’d the shit and got it sounding a certain way, don’t take that.
Hmmm, that should spark some discussion on the ‘net. So tell me about the new album Tronic…
I feel like Tronic is the best work I’ve done yet. The difference between this and Popular Demand is that PD was a feel-good, soul chop album. On the new album everything is stepped up, there’s only one song that has a soul sample. I’m using more live instrumentation. It’s a little futuristic, using more synth sounds. Everything is more upbeat, uptempo. The soul is still there with live instrumention over the samples. The hard drums and break beats are still there. People will notice even in the rhymes I’m talking about more stuff, how I feel about what’s going on in the industry and what I’ve been going through the last couple of years. That’s the jist of the album. I can guarantee that people will like this more than popular demand.
When you say live instruments do you mean actual piano or VSTs?
I brought in live musicians on about four different songs. The first track on the album, “Long Story Short” I got my man playing live piano and Dwele playing horns. A bass player is playing on a couple of tracks. One track “Give The Drummer Some” has live bass and keys in it. I tried to cut down on the sampling. Even though I didn’t want it to sound like a sample. I kept them kind of clean.
Is the move away from sampling more of a creative or business decision?
It was more of a creative decision and wanted to step out the box a little bit. Caltroit doesn’t sound like Popular Demand, every project has its own sound to it. I wanted to show people that I could step outside the box and not be predictable. I hate doing the same thing twice.
You said that your rhymes have gotten better. Did you have Pharoahe or Sean Price proof read them for you?
Oh hell naw, I ain’t got nobody looking over my rhymes or ghostwriting. The punchline verses weren’t hard for me to do. People that know me from Dirty District Vol1 2. days know that I was on some lyrical shit then, but when PD came I was on some feel-good flow type shit. So I think cats forgot that I can actually spit and hold my own on tracks with Pharoahe and Sean Price and Royce.. I wanted to show [people] I was just as good at rhyming as production. Also I think my tracks overshadowed my rhymes sometimes.
So tell me about the making of “The Matrix…”
I came with the track and it had a futuristic feel to it, electronic Moog synth but still kind of hard. I laid my rhyme down and sent it to Pharoahe and he did his thing on it. Had Sean P throw the 3rd verse on there. The whole DJ Premier thing was hooked up through Fat Beats. Got on the phone with Premier and I didn’t want to tell him the name of the song at first, I just wanted him to do his thing but I told him and the next day, I don’t know how he found a sample that said “the matrix,” and put down the legendary cuts.
When you listen to cuts like Guilty Simpsons’ “My Moment” with the heavy synth and drums you draw a lot of J Dilla comparisons. Where does that inspiration come from? Do you have a ouija board in your studio?
[Laughs] Some of that inspiration comes from a lot of the electronic records I have. From Tomita to Walter Carlos, a lot of different artists that mess with those crazy, spacey sounds. But I didn’t go as far left as I wanted to, I still gotta have something on there for people that have been feeling shit I put out.
What makes you stick with the MPC 2000XL with all the upgrades out there. You like switchin’ out discs?
I messed with the 3000 on certain tracks but the MPC in general I’m comfortable with it. I wanna try some of the new programs but I just haven’t had the time. I don’t have a couple weeks off to just master a new program. A couple of my boys have been trying to get me to try out Reason. But right now I’m stuck on the MP.
Who engineers your stuff?
I mix all of my own tracks. I got my Pro Tools set-up. I go to one studio out in Detroit called The Dish or I’m at home. I know how I want my stuff to sound. The Engineering side I’m still learning though. I get tips from my engineer friends and build my knowledge up. I hate depending on anyone to do any of it for me. If I could package it up and do my own art work I would do that too [laughs].
What is the method behind the madness of a Black Milk drum track?
I dunno man. People can tell when it’s my track but I don’t have a set formula that I use for a beat. It’s more so of a feel that I have that I can’t put my finger on it besides making sure the drums are smacking. I sample all kinds of stuff from rock to soul. “Give the Drummer Some” was inspired by Fela Kuti and James Brown. I just wanted to do some funky shit. For Detroit producers like Dilla and Wajeed it’s just a feeling…
How much music training have you had? I listen to the breakdown on GZA’s “7 Pounds” and it sounds like you’re having so much fun.
I have no musical theory training what’s so ever. I’m hoping when I have free time, like a month to just learn, I can sit down with one of my musician friends and learn the proper way to play music. Everything I’ve done has been by ear. Just listening to music over the years and old school records your ears get trained to how to structure a track. Especially if you pick up on stuff fast. I listen to so many styles of music I know how to structure this note or this chord.
One of my favorite tracks of yours is “Let’s Go” for Pharoahe Monch. How did you put that together?
Just found some rock stabs and chopped up some break beat drums. It has that classic hip-hop bounce to it, had a lot of energy to it. Eventually I hooked up with Denaun and Guilty Simpson told me Pharoahe was in the D and I went over and dropped some tracks off at the studio. The next day Pharoahe hit me back and a few weeks he was workin on the “Bar Tap” track, that’s on there too.
Were you surprised to hear a David Axelrod sample on a Lil Wayne record? [Dr. Carter]
I didn’t even pay attention to that, it’s crazy. I think that’s the best track on that whole album but I didn’t know what the sample was from. I like how that track builds up and everything. That track was dope.
What do you listen to when you’re just chillin?
Most of the time it’s not hip-hop. I get tired of listening to rap. Most of the time I’m listening to some Prince or Willie Hutch, or D’Angelo. Stuff that’s real musical. Rap stuff I’ll listen to Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, timeless projects. Everything I put out I want it to be timeless.
Speaking of Prince, you did a whole mixtape of beats with Prince samples.
I didn’t even put my name on it. I just put it on a zip file and threw it out there. First it was an idea that came from one of the guys at Fat Beats to keep the buzz going. I thought it was wack at first even though Prince is one of my favorite artists of all time, besides Stevie Wonder. Prince isn’t the type of music you sample, it’s just dope shit you listen to it and learn from it. But after I thought about it I said it would be a challenge to flip some Prince beats because nobody chops up Prince, because of the clearance issues. For two, it’s not easy to make a dope ass beat out of Prince. So the first one I chopped up “All the Love You In New York” so after that I started chopping up samples for a couple weeks and threw it all in a zip and said here you go. I can’t use it for nothing [laughs].
And you played the song you sample at the end…
I definitely had to play the track out at the end cuz it would have been pointless to chop it and people not know which Prince song it was. My favorite one out of all those was the “When Doves Cry” sample. That was always one Prince joint I wanted to sample with that breakdown with the crazy keys. It came out dope.
Go out get Black Milk’s Tronic on Fat Beats Records now!!