The video for Black Milk’s new single “Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst” opens on a small brick house in Detroit. The camera slowly tracks inside to discover a sleeping boy, about to be unhappily awoken for church. The house, as it turns out, is the one Black Milk grew up in, and the video is an exact recreation of a familiar routine from the rapper/producer’s childhood. The song’s thesis statement comes from an old gospel record: “It’s never too late to get your values straight.”
Black Milk won’t disclose what he sampled for “Sunday’s Best” — he hasn’t cleared it yet — but he does elaborate on how it inspired his engrossing and ambitious fifth album, No Poison No Paradise. Born Curtis Cross, Black Milk earned his first big break before he turned 21, when Slum Village used several of his beats for their 2002 album Trinity: Past, Present and Future. (It’s easy to hear why — relying on hard-hitting drums and soul samples, he sounded like a viable replacement to Slum Village’s once-resident producer J. Dilla.)
As that gospel sample implies, No Poison tells a story of innocence lost, and is at least partially inspired by Black Milk’s childhood discovery of the affluent neighborhoods at the opposite end of 8 Mile Road from where he grew up — a discovery that made him feel more than a little cynical about those Sunday sermons.
Christina Lee spoke with Black Milk about growing up on gospel records, collaborating with jazz pianist Robert Glasper and helping lead the Detroit’s hip-hop scene.
It sounds like “Sunday’s Best” also samples a gospel record. Did you listen to gospel growing up?
Well, I’m not listening to gospel in the same way I was when I was younger. Right now I’m just trying to find crazy samples, something to take from production-wise. But when I was a younger man, having religious parents was a big part of my upbringing. Living in a place like Detroit, I was hearing other styles of music too, a lot of electronica and a lot of soul music and also just hip-hop. But the gospel music I heard when I was younger was artists like John P. Gee, artists like Commissioned, the Winans, Fred Hammond. That was a big part of my musical upbringing
One of my DJ friends, this guy named DJ Dez in Detroit, is a crazy record collector. He actually put me on this crazy new jam. When I heard it, I was like, “Oh, shit,” and I made the beat right there and then. Once I made the beat, I thought this would be perfect to talk about my upbringing, and then use another beat on “Monday’s Worst” to talk about how this same kid that has big dreams, but doesn’t believe in them because of his environment and circumstances. That’s kind of how the record came about.
So when you discovered this record, how far were you into No Poison No Paradise?
That was the first record that I worked on. Once that turned out to be a dope song, it kind of put me in a position where I was like, “I need to continue telling the story of this kid and his upbringing and his neighborhood and how he’s affected.” I definitely built much of the [album] off of those first two songs. That’s why the album is a little conceptual.
One line that really stood out was, “You never realize you’re in the ghetto until you get older.”
It depends on your household, but when you’re younger and you’re in not the greatest environment — like, you grew up in the hood or the ghetto — you don’t really know it’s the ghetto. You kind of feel like everyone lives like that when you’re younger. When you get older, you understand the separation between where you’re at and what other people are at. As a kid, you’re just enjoying life. You see your surroundings, but you don’t really understand where you’re from. That’s kind of what that line meant. Once you get a little older, it’s like, “Damn, I shouldn’t be living like this. Nobody should be living in these kinds of conditions.” You don’t realize that until you get older, step back and learn to expect more of the world.
How much do you relate to that line in particular?
I relate to it a lot, that’s why I said it! [Laughs.] Especially being from Detroit, and the neighborhood where I was from, the west side of Detroit.
I think a lot of the record is my story, you know what I’m saying? With “Sunday’s Best/Monday’s Worst,” the first half is more of my story and then “Monday’s Worst” — some of that is definitely my story, but I never got to the point where I was like, “Yeah I gotta go commit a robbery or shoot somebody at the club.” I never did that. That isn’t a part of my story. But that indecision’s in a lot of the album. I can say that about 70 percent, maybe 80 percent of what I’m talking about is definitely stuff I’ve seen or been through or gone through.
Do you remember the first time you realized there was another side to 8 Mile?
That was probably later on, when I was in my late teens — 18, 19, 20 years old. That’s when I started learning more, seeing more and understanding more, not just about 8 Mile but about the world in general.
So, around the same time that you were starting to get serious with music, right?
Definitely, around that time. I started getting into beats in my junior year, senior year of high school. I knew that this is what I wanted to do — “I don’t want to do nothing else but music.”
What was it like to work with Robert Glasper?
What that guy does behind the keys is genius. Unbelievable, man. I’m glad that he’s being recognized as one of the greatest of all time, winning Grammys and shit like that. It’s really dope, man. I did a bunch of stuff for Glasper’s remix album Black Radio [Remixed] and I told him that I wanted me and him to do something for my album, something that was a little more instrumental-driven. He and Dwele had actually linked up and we did a track together. The whole album is this character going through this dream, so I wanted them to do a track with them that represents that dream ["Sonny Jr. (Dreams)"]. That’s what me, Glasper and Dwele did: I had Glasper on keys, I’m handling the percussion, Dwele’s playing trumpet and the track kind of sounds like the character’s in a dream state.
I wanted to talk about some of your other collaborators on the record. What comes to mind when you think of Black Thought?
Underrated, as an artist and an emcee. I don’t understand why people don’t try to reach out to him more. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted him on this album. You don’t really see Black Thought features.
What about Dwele?
Two words: living legend. I think Dwele is gonna be one of those guys who, after all is said and done, people are gonna look at like Donny Hathaway — they don’t really understand his level of genius right now, but they’ll go back and be like, “Shit. I didn’t get him then, but I get him now.” That dude is super talented. It’s so different. He’s just out there.
As a producer you started with a very modest set-up of cassettes and a karaoke machine. What does your set-up look like now?
It’s pretty stripped down. I had a lot more a couple of years ago, but I made the move from Detroit to Dallas and I couldn’t bring a lot of what I had. Most of it is back in Detroit. So now I’m just down to my drum machine, the [Akai] MPC3000, a lot of records and a couple of synth keyboards. That’s about it, and that’s how this entire album was made. So to go back to, somewhat, how I used to do things when I first started off, I really challenged myself to create on a certain level.
Why did you move?
That move was more personal. My girl is from down here. But also, I kind of wanted to get into a different kind of vibe. I’ll be moving back to Michigan sometime in the future, in a few years.
Several years ago, you said the Detroit hip-hop scene lost crucial leaders when Proof and J. Dilla died. What do you make of the scene’s current state?
I think the current state is pretty damn great, and I think it’s about to get even better in the next two or three years, you know what I’m saying? You have artists like me, who’ve been doing this thing for a while. Then you have artists like Danny Brown that’s doing his thing right now. You have up-and-coming artists, young cats like Soul Force doing his thing. You got artists like Boldy James. There’s also Quelle Chris, the guy I’m on the road with right now. There’s a lot of talented dudes right now that’s bringing that Detroit energy but doing it with a new flavor, progressing the Detroit sound. Next couple of years, it’s going to get crazier. I think the Detroit hip-hop scene is gonna be dope in a way that it’s never been so in the industry before. I’m pretty excited about it. We have a certain attitude, just being from Detroit in general, where we always feel like we’re the underdogs. That gives us a certain mentality — we gotta step forward.