There’s no denying that some of the best (if not the best) hip-hop has come out of Detroit. The Motor City is where Berry Gordy founded the legendary Motown record company, and it’s been cited as the birthplace of techno music. So, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest names in the industry call this diversified metropolis home.
One of Detroit’s most talented offerings may not be a household name just yet, but his impressive discography includes collaborations with artists including Slum Village, Elzhi, Guilty Simpson and Danny Brown. Curtis Cross, better known to fans as Black Milk, should already be on everyone’s most wanted list. If There’s A Hell Below, his epic sixth studio album, proves he belongs among the city’s elite. With each release, the hip-hop producer/emcee has been able to take pieces from its predecessor and improve upon it, revolutionizing his own sound.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble recently found time to speak with Black Milk to find out more on his influences and learn why this record could possibly be his last for the foreseeable future.
Who/what put you on to hip-hop?
That question could go a couple different ways. Growing up in a certain kind of environment, you automatically kind of just get exposed to hip-hop music. Me being from the hood of Detroit and growing up throughout the 90s when hip-hop was at its height, it was just around me. So, of course, I just adapted to being into hip-hop music like all the other young people that was around.
The time where I got put on to, I guess you could say, hip-hop music that wasn’t necessarily mainstream, that was around my freshman year, my high school years. That was kind of the time that I got around other kids that exposed me to other artists that were indie or underground, and that was around ’97.
Did you have a musical upbringing where there was a lot of music in your house?
Yeah, definitely. Music in the house from soul to gospel. I got most of my hip-hop from people outside of my household. My parents are very religious, and I’m the oldest, so I didn’t have an older brother or sister that was helping me. There was definitely a lot music shit going on with my parents, both of them singing and being singers and all of that, so it was always around.
How do you feel your Detroit roots influence your sound?
I think the environment of Detroit alone influences me. The landscape, the air, the colors of Detroit. The city being kind of grey, and the weather, with it being a more cold type of city. The working class, it being a blue collar city, an industrial type of city. I think that kind of plays a part in some of the elements in the music when using certain kinds of sounds.
And then, of course, the actual music history from Detroit affects me and my sound from, of course, Motown, and then you go to the 80s and the electronic techno scene, and go from that to the Detroit hip-hop scene from the Eminems to the Slum Villages to the J Dillas and everybody that came up out of that scene. And, of course, all of those different eras and different genres, even the rock scene, all of those eras and different genres of music that’s come out of Detroit is definitely in my music in some kind of way one way or another.
A lot of Slum Village fans think Dilla ran production on the “Reunion” track, but that was all you on the Detroit Deli album. What was it like working with Dilla so early in your career?
Ah, man. It was cool. It was awesome ‘cause I was already a Dilla fan then when he was alive. I already thought Dilla was the greatest beat maker I had ever heard in my life early on. So, yeah, it was an honor and a pleasure. Kind of still one of those…I still feel like, even though I’ve accomplished a lot of different things, that’s one of those moments. Hearing him over one of my tracks is still one of the most personal and best moments in my career. To be a musician and to say that you were able to collaborate in any kind of way with a person that is your biggest influence in music, and a person that you look up to more than any other musician or music artist in music history, a lot people can’t say they’ve been able to do that.
Yeah, a lot of people have worked with Dilla port-mortem.
Right, exactly. So, Dilla was that to me even before a Prince or even before Stevie Wonder and even before Marvin Gaye. Those guys are still up there in my top ten, but Dilla is, for whatever reason, number one like whatever he is, something about what he did in his music, it just connects with me more than anything.
So, you just mentioned Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Who else would you name as music influences?
Yeah, those guys [laughs]. I would say Prince is definitely another big influence. Not more so just in sound, but more so his genius and his…
Yeah, right. Exactly. His innovation. I feel like any artist that kind of brings something to the world that’s never really been done or brings a sound or some kind of artistry that’s never been kind of seen or heard, and people still gravitate towards it and connect with it for whatever reason, and it still feels familiar when they hear it or see it, that’s always amazing or interesting to me because a lot people can’t say that they’ve been able to accomplish that thing. That’s a real hard thing to accomplish, to bring something that hasn’t ever really ever existed.
Everybody has people that came before and will always have elements of some artist that came before them in their artistry, but to be able to take stuff from the past and re-innovate and reinvent it, that’s always impressive to me and hopefully I get to that point in my lifetime.
No doubt. How do you feel If There’s A Hell Below differs from your other albums?
You know what, I feel like If There’s A Hell Below and No Poison, No Paradise, which was the album before it, they’re kind of similar. If There’s A Hell Below – I don’t feel like it’s extremely different than No Poison because I was just on a certain vibe for both of those albums and in a certain zone for both of those albums, so they’re still kind of similar, but I still feel like I progressed just a little more. Maybe not necessarily a progression, but I progressed a little bit more so in the fact of not necessarily creating music but just bringing a body of work together. I feel like each album gets better.
Do you feel like you experimented a bit more?
Yeah, there’s parts where I experimented a little more, but I think it’s more so about me just growing as a producer and as an artist and knowing how to make twelve, thirteen or however many songs come together and all of them make sense and make a cohesive project.
You’ve said that this will possibly be your last rap album for a while. What else do you have planned for the future?
Right now, I’m trying to put my focus more on producing with other artists for other artists. It’s kind of where my head is. These last couple of years, I released a nice amount of solo projects, whether it was two albums or a couple EPs and some side projects. So, yeah, right now I just want to kind of focus on production. I really never got a chance to, I guess you could say, put my production, or get placements, on other artists’ albums because I’ve always been focused on my own solo work and solo career and solo touring here and there. Now I want to kind of really take this time to make that happen.
You’ve worked with hip-hop heavyweights Black Thought and Dwele on past albums, and you collaborated with others on If There’s A Hell Below like Pete Rock and Bun B. Who else do you hope to work with in the future?
Right now, I kind of feel like I’m open to work with anyone. I don’t really have anyone in particular that I want to collab with like, “Oh I got to get to this person.” What I can say, I do want to and hope to work with a lot of the new up-and-coming artists. I’m feeling a lot of the stuff that’s coming out with the newer, younger artists. So, hopefully, I’m able to collab with some of these new cats that’s just on this new wave.
Even though there’s still certain heroes of mine that I would like to collab with and have that rap fantasy dream song with, but for the most part, I’m kind of more focused on and hoping to grab the attention of some of these newer, younger artists. And I’ve actually been sending beats to certain artists. I don’t really want to mention too many names. I don’t want to jinx myself [laughs]. But yeah, we’ll see what happens.
Nice. What is touring with live band Nat Turner like?
Ah, man. That shit is great. It’s awesome. That’s one of the things I do love to do outside of the actual studio recording is just getting on stage and performing songs and watching people react and sing along to the music and just bring that energy. Having a live band gives me a chance to kind of reconstruct the songs that’s on the actual album and present them a different kind of way. I feel like I always want the live performance to be a different experience than you get when you listen to the studio album.
So, sometimes a song might sound totally different than how it sounds on the album just because in the live environment, I want it to feel a certain kind of way. But yeah, it’s always fun rocking with the band and being out on the road. I work with Nat Turner, a group of really talented musicians, and we’ve been touring and playing together for five or six years now, so our chemistry is pretty great.
Any favorite cities that you’ve played in?
I don’t know. All of them are different in a different kind of way. I love playing for the crib. I love playing for Detroit. That’s always fun because I get a chance to bring out people from home that I can’t bring on the road with me. I get to bring them out when I’m at the crib and make it a big event. But yeah, New York and L.A., Toronto, those places are always good too. Toronto’s dope. Even Montreal, our last two times in Montreal, those fans kind of wile out up there in Montreal. They bring a lot of energy.
Yeah, I wasn’t able to make your show here, so I hope you come back soon.
Yeah, we were just at Webster Hall. New York is always fucking awesome. I love fucking with New York, so we’ll definitely be back.
I hope so. Is there anything else you’d like to share or promote?
We still out here just trying to promote the album. There’s still people who have been kind of passive with the response. We’re going to do a couple more videos for the album and drop them probably at the top of this year sometime. I plan on doing a video for this song called “Story and Her” on the album. So, yeah, just promoting a little more and definitely look out for an actual big tour to come throughout or a little before the summer.