We’ve been feeling a lot of Detroit Love lately. Well, we always have time for the D, of course we do, but Carl Craig’s recent project which he showcased on Boiler Room has our minds particularly focused on its musical contributions and character. There’ll be more from Craig on this topic here in the very near future, but in the meantime we’re very happy to present this conversation between BR contributor Laurent Fintoni and Detroit legend Curtis Cross aka Black Milk – who is not only one of our favourite beatmakers, but recently did one of the very best BR broadcasts of 2014.
Growing up on the West Side of Detroit, Curtis Cross first got a taste for music in church. The sound and soulfulness of gospel and its live musicians, especially the drummer, left an indelible mark on the young Cross that informs the music he would ultimately come to make under the name Black Milk. Growing up in the 1990s, Cross began to refine his tastes in hip-hop towards the independent sound epitomised by local acts like Slum Village and compilations such as SoundBombing. At age 15 he began writing rhymes and within a few years he was also making beats. By the end of the decade he realised that production was his calling and decided to try and make a career of it.
It was with Slum Village, the Detroit rap group originally formed by T3, Baatin and Jay Dee, that Cross would first make his mark in the hip-hop world. It was fitting. The group had been Cross’ favourite growing up, and Jay Dee was his production idol. At first though, he didn’t even know they were a local crew. It was his cousins who helped him join the dots and who also schooled the young Cross in the art of beatmaking, letting him play with the Roland W30 sampler in their home setup. Years later, through his cousins’ connection to Baatin, Cross was introduced to Slum Village and began to work his way up the hip-hop ladder.
Since his debut in the early 2000s, Cross has become a quintessential rapper/producer in the same vein as El-P or Pete Rock. He’s worked with some of hip-hop’s most acclaimed MCs, from Slum to Pharoahe Monch, been a part of a handful of groups, including Random Axe with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price, and released six solo albums. While continuing to record vocal albums and performing with his live band, in the past couple years Cross has also begun to step away from his position as MC/producer to focus on the music. In 2013 he released his first instrumental project, Synth or Soul, and performed his first solo set of all Black Milk beats. Earlier this year he hinted that his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below, might be his last rap record for a while. Certainly there is an instrumental version of If There’s… coming out for Record Store Day this year, and at least one new instrumental project slated for release in 2015.
I spoke with Cross shortly after his move to Austin, Texas. The conversation touched on his Detroit roots and relationship to Detroit’s electronic legacy, the early days with Slum, the evolution of instrumental projects and the role of the producer in today’s hip-hop landscape.
LAURENT FINTONI: You’ve mentioned Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing as early influence, which represented a very New York/East Coast type sound at the time. What was it that attracted you to that sound?
BLACK MILK: I don’t know… I guess… the actual sound of hip hop! (laughs) The sound of the genre. Growing up somewhat on gospel, soul and funk music it kinda ties into hip-hop. Hip-hop evolved from those genres of music. I’m a big fan of drums, and hip-hop is the one genre where the drums are placed in front of the track. Drums is the bottom of the beat but also the most important part of a track in hip-hop, versus rock or country or whatever.
That’s what attracted me to hip-hop music in general. It’s funny because today most of the stuff I listen to is… I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop. Most of the time I‘ll listen to soul, funk, rock. A lot of stuff from the 1960s to the 1980s. So now my influences and inspirations have shifted to old records, all the way. I don’t really get inspired by modern hip-hop right now.
“That’s why most producers from Detroit, you’ve heard all of us touch on electronic music, on soul, on weird, leftfield avant-garde shit. In other regions there was always sort of a one sound but Detroit has done it all.”
Did techno have an impact on you growing up?
Oh definitely. Ain’t no way it can’t have an impact on you growing up in Detroit. We used to have this show called the New Dance Show. And another one called The Scene. It’d come on like 7 in the evening and it was just people… kinda like a Soul Train type thing, but a ghetto ass version of Soul Train. People just dancing to house and techno shit, Kraftwerk. People from the hood. When I was younger, watching this, I didn’t know about techno or genres or who Kraftwerk was. I knew people were dancing to it on TV and the DJ was playing it so…
Growing up with that and just hearing certain things on the radio, there was a big mixture on the radio back then. That kinda sticks with you once you get to a certain age. All of the cats that produce music from Detroit who were exposed to that type of stuff I think were influenced. It was natural. It’s music to us! We’ve been around it for so long.
You can hear it… you can hear some of those elements in the hip-hop beats.
That’s what makes Detroit style of production a little more progressive. When it comes to music nobody really discriminates against one sound or one genre, we like all that shit. The rock, the jazz, the electronic, the hip hop. There’s not one sound with us. And you can hear it in the music. I think that’s why most producers from Detroit, you’ve heard all of us touch on electronic music, on soul, on weird, leftfield avant-garde shit. In other regions there was always sort of a one sound but Detroit has done it all.
You see people like… Kanye’s thing, him working with Daft Punk, a lot of people in the mainstream who don’t know what’s up thought that was a big deal, but it’s like… cats were sampling Daft Punk records in 1999, 2000! Slum Village’s “Raise It Up” is a Daft Punk sample! Stereolab too. We was on that a long time ago. That’s the kinda place Detroit is. Not saying you can’t do it now, I’m just saying that Detroit is this kind of city. What we incorporate in our style of production really has no limits.
Why is Detroit such an important city for American music in your opinion?
I guess it’s the way the city is… the environment of the city, the landscape, the type of job people work in a city like Detroit, auto plants, it being a blue collar city and having a blue collar attitude, a blue collar personality. In some way it got into the music, that attitude is in the music. Motown music has a specific feel, a specific colour about it that you really can’t duplicate anywhere else. You listen to the east coast in terms of hip-hop, or even older music, it has a real cold feeling to it, a dark feeling to it. And you listen to the west coast and it sounds like the sun is shining, you know? But if you listen to Detroit it has a little bit of everything, probably because we’re in the middle of the country.
I don’t know what causes that… but the blue collar attitude for sure, from the Motown days all the way up to now. We’ve always kept a certain attitude and approach towards the music. Kinda like a underdog, we always been the underdogs in a lot of things, and I guess that’s why we kinda over… you know, over analyse or over critique, we very detailed with what we create.
Do you think it’s difficult to be a successful artist in Detroit?
It’s another reason why the music comes out the way it does. There’s not really any opportunities for a musician or artist… versus living in a place like New York or L.A. where you have the labels, the whole industry. The industry is not really in Detroit so it puts you in a place where you feel like you have to go above and beyond to really be heard and get noticed. It gives you the attitude to make really undeniable music that’s gonna connect in every way. There’s not really any distractions in Detroit, and I think that’s another reason why the music sounds like it does. Not really too much to do in the city but sit in the basement or the bedroom and just make music all day, practice and work on your craft. That’s another reason why I think it has a unique sound like it does.
How did you meet Slum Village?
My cousins. Same guys who introduced me to the beats and were real good friends with Baatin. They went on tour… they were roadies for one of Slum’s tour and they had one of my beat CDs. They played it and Baatin heard it. When they got back home from the tour I got called to the studio, they were working on the next album and it was around the time when Jay Dee was leaving the group to do his solo thing. They were looking for beats, whatever, whatever… went up there, played them some beats and they picked a couple and I would kinda come up to the studio all the time when they were working. The rest is history.
After Dilla left, myself, Young RJ, Waajeed and Karriem Riggins did beats for Slum. And then after the Trinity album it was me and RJ doing most of the beats. A lot of crazy moments, a lot of competition, stepping it up. Eventually I got around to meeting Dilla, which was probably one of the craziest days ever in my life. I look at him like ‘yo this is the beat god.’ So he had came up to the studio one time… we were cool chilling with him, letting him hear some stuff. He already had heard the stuff I’d done for Slum and I met him around the time of the fourth album, Detroit Deli.
They was doing a song together for the album, where they was kinda talking about… this is when everything kinda got crazy with Slum and the group. Baatin was run out, a lot of drama at the time. They ended up getting Dilla on one of my beats, I remember them telling me ‘yo Dilla gon spit, he liked one of them joints that you did, he loved the joint, he gon spit a verse on it’ and that was the “Reunion” beat. The first time I heard it in the studio when they got it back from him and I heard Dilla rap over one of my tracks, that is still to this day one of the craziest moments in my musical career. To hear my idol… I did something good enough musically that made my idol feel like he wanted to get on it and be a part of it. That was real dope.
How do you see the evolution of the beat tape and this idea of beats and instrumental as a valid side of the music?
It’s kinda crazy to look back at it. With me, and probably a lot of producers, especially being from Detroit, that was kind of a norm. I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop music with raps, most of the time if I am listening to something hip hop related, it’s just the instrumentals. It’s always been a thing. I listen to beat projects like they’re albums, you know. In Detroit that was kind of a normal thing, beat CDs would float around the city from different producers and cats would ride around to producers beats.
There was one cat… damn what was his name?! Houseshoes would know… it was Dilla and this one other cat, I can’t think of his name right now, they were the two best cats in the city. Every time one of them had a new beat tape out, cats were on it, they was trying to get it. Every time Dilla had a new beat CD, it was like Christmas for a lot of us. Seriously. You can’t wait to hear the CD because you know there’s going to be something on there that’s going to crack your head. Dilla changed his sound every few months, so each CD sounded different, he would take these turns, switching it up, you never knew what the next CD was gonna sound like.
“But it was also a time where producers felt they still wasn’t getting enough shine so they had to say their name on the record, and I feel Just Blaze was probably the first person to tag his beats”
Beat CDs… we didn’t really look at them as projects or… official albums back then. I think that when the producer started getting more into the forefront, Just Blaze probably had a lot to do with that. Once there was a time when a certain group of people would read the credits and they had know who did what. But it was also a time where producers felt they still wasn’t getting enough shine so they had to say their name on the record, and I feel Just Blaze was probably the first person to tag his beats with his [imitates] ‘Just Blaaaaze’ at the beginning. Anytime a beat came on you’d hear it. Jay Z, whoever, all the Rockafella cats.
After that you start seeing a trend of producers tagging their beats, you know? There’s always a little tag at the beginning of beats, especially in the commercial world. Maybach Music, producers tagging their music is like a normal thing. We’re all kinda used to it. Back then some people probably looked at it like ‘producers need to stay in the back.’ But it did help the producer be known, it let the average person who’ll never read credits or see who’s doing what behind the scenes know, it put the spotlight on the producer. I think that’s kinda where producers began creeping into the forefront and be looked at as just as valuable as the MC.
It went from that to producers doing interviews and people started to want to know more about who the producer was. Then you had cats like The Neptunes that started doing their own projects. They was producing for a lot of rappers but then they had their own thing on the side, their N.E.R.D thing. They weren’t necessarily instrumental projects but they were just like… Then you have Kanye and he’s letting it be known that he’s a producer and a rapper. In the early days cats wasn’t trying to really listen… if you were a producer trying to rap you got laughed at. No, you’re supposed to produce you can’t rap, it just doesn’t work like that.
But you know, Kanye he kicked down the door for that shit. He was another reason why… he opened the door for a new generation, showed that producers can rap, can do both, can do multiple things. He kicked that door wide open in the commercial world. He played a part. And over time it grew. Instrumental album type deals. And I also feel like the MySpace days, that opened the door to let artists of all kind, no matter what kind of creative thing you did musically, MySpace let you have a platform where you could be exposed. The internet, period, did that and helped artists of all different styles and music expose themselves to the world but I think MySpace was the first real platform. When it happened, it was game on. Anything goes. And then with the whole social media thing it continued to take up from there.
So you play shows where it’s just beats?
Sure, I did it first at a thing in Austin called Exploded Drums. They bring out cats from different places to showcase their music and while it’s happening they have some really great motion illustrators that shoot crazy visuals over the walls and ceilings of this warehouse. It was a real dope vibe. That was my first time doing that kinda performance. I brought my MPC 3000 and my SP–303 and just played off those machines, my laptop and a mixer, going back and forth. It was a good time. I plan on actually doing more of those.
All these years I’ve been doing music and putting out projects but I only just got around to putting out my first official, strictly instrumental project not long ago. I always wanted to do a straight beats project but never had the time to really do it. It dropped on Record Store Day, it’s called Synth or Soul, and that’s the first of many. I have so many projects and ideas that are instrumental driven, so I definitely want to do more of that stuff.
Do you feel you had to keep the MC/producer duality to help cement your name in the industry?
I think it all helps. It’s good to be able to multi task, do more than one thing, especially in this day and age. I feel like with me personally, I been fortunate enough to juggle between being able to hold my own as an MC and as a producer and having a strong performance on stage, having a great show. And now going back to doing my instrumental thing. It helps having all these strings. I can admit there’s still people who don’t get the whole instrumental thing. When I put out Synth or Soul earlier this year a lot of people loved it and a lot of people were still like “yo you gon rap over these beats?” Nah y’all don’t get it, this is not no rap shit, it’s another creative side of me, telling a story with the music only, not with the vocals.
“It is still somewhat of a challenge putting together an instrumental project because no one really wants to listen to a four bar loop for three minutes. You still have to arrange.”
That’s what I’m trying to get people to understand, those who still don’t fully get it. You can still tell a story with just the music. It is still somewhat of a challenge putting together an instrumental project because no one really wants to listen to a four bar loop for three minutes. You still have to arrange. Verses, hook, bridge, etc… you still have to do that with the music. It gotta build into something, breakdown, sounds coming in and out, so people won’t get bored. It’s interesting to see how it’s all unfolding and it’s crazy to try and make people understand you can still tell a story with just music, no lyrics.
Do you agree with the idea that instrumental music also allows you, as a listener, to enter a different mental space?
I see certain images and colours when I listen to beats. It’s all vibrations. Any sound is a vibration. Your voice, a snare, a piano note… it’s all vibrations. Certain things move me in different ways. Certain vibrations give off different things in my mind: pictures, stories, colours. With me, when I’m creating or trying to work on something, I’m always thinking of what vibe I want the project to put out. It seems like the past two years it’s what I’ve been on, more so than making beats.
It’s why I disappeared for a bit, I wanted to take time to really study the engineering side of music and production. Learning how to get certain vibrations out of those speakers that’s going to make people feel a certain thing. I went back to a lot of records and albums that I love and tried to understand how they got this sound. I tried to understand what I felt and why, and what vibrations came across. Taking it from there and trying to duplicate that vibration. That’s where engineering came into play, understanding equipment. Certain EQs, pre-amps, consoles, tricks with compression, all of that. Learning how to get it right, whether it’s a drum, a sample, whatever… know how to capture these specific elements.
“Going back to Dilla, that’s one of the things he mastered. He knew how to EQ certain things, the snap on a snare, the bottom on a kick.”
I think if you can do that as a producer you’re a few steps ahead of everybody else. That’s one thing most producers I think might not necessarily be attuned to, you know? Engineering. I can make beats, that’s nothing, but now I’m at a point where I’m looking for specific vibrations, specific things in my music. I feel like, going back to Dilla, that’s one of the things he mastered. He knew how to EQ certain things, the snap on a snare, the bottom on a kick. And he didn’t have no SSL or Neve console in his basement on the east side. Whatever he was using he figured out to get a specific vibe out of his music, out of the sounds, and that shit just… it amazes me.
Most people have crazy mixes on beats but they’re using high-end type shit, like a Dre or a Just Blaze. But it’s kinda insane that Dilla was able to capture those vibes, to get a certain quality out of his music, with basically the MP and whatever other secret piece of equipment he had in the basement. And that drives me to no ends, it lets me know it’s possible to get a certain feeling and make people feel things, you just gotta know the specific details and you gotta know the science behind engineering and vibrations, all that shit. How to get to those things. That’s what I’ve been on these past few years. And people might not even hear the difference, but it’s me going back to being kinda nerdy about it. Just for me, so I know I’m hitting a specific mark when I make those beats.
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