Black Milk Talks Random Axe, Jack White and Lyrical Growth on 'If There's a Hell Below'

Black Milk Talks Random Axe, Jack White and Lyrical Growth on 'If There's a Hell Below'
Black Milk initially built his reputation on his production skills, but on his new album If There's a Hell Below, due out on October 28 on his own Computer Ugly imprint, the Detroit-reared hip-hop artist continues developing his narrative approach to MCing. His last album, 2013's No Poison No Paradise, was his first album-length attempt to break from "rapping about rap," a trend that continues on his new material.

"No Poison was more like a story that was being told in, like I say, third person, but the new album is me telling different stories and kinda talking about different episodes in first person, like being more literal and what not," the man born Curtis Cross tells Exclaim! "I definitely wanted to keep some of the same story element concepts and vibe with the new album, because I don't know man, it's just something that I've been naturally doing with my lyrics lately."

If There's a Hell Below features a number of tracks where Black Milk, who now resides in Dallas, is reflecting on the producer/MC's upbringing in Detroit from his current-day perspective. "Gold Piece," featuring the inimitable Bun B, is a song reminiscing on precarious youth over a vintage soul soundtrack. And "Story and Her" initially appears to be a rote story of Black Milk running into a childhood crush, but has a twist.

"That's the thing about me right now. When I'm telling these stories, it is somewhat, of course, something that I've experienced, but at the same time I guess I still have a side of me where I want to entertain people or make them feel some type of emotion," says Black Milk. "So I say what I've experienced, but then just take it off [into] movie shit, like I'm writing a script, damn near like. Let me take a whole different turn and you'll be like 'Damn, what the fuck?' I think that's cool too and I think it's needed."

If There's a Hell Below also continues Black Milk's ongoing commitment to challenging himself as a producer. Electronic synth sounds pervaded Tronic in 2008, while 2011's Album of the Year focused heavily on live instrumentation. "I feel like I'm at a point where I've mastered how to do the sample-based stuff and incorporate live music," he offers. "And doing it to the point where it feels effortless, but it's still progressive at the same time. That's what I wanted to do."

"Scum" featuring Black Milk alongside his cohorts in the group Random Axe, Sean Price and Guilty Simpson, sports a different beat tailored for each MC.

"It's just doing something different, man," say Black Milk talking about the collaboration. "I think I'm gonna continue that style. You just get to that point when you get tired of doing the same format for a song where you play the beat and you might change something on the hook [and then] go back to the regular beat. Now, I'm kinda like where I want the beat to keep changing throughout the song."

Black Milk says "Scum" is a taste of what's to come on a new Random Axe project. "In 2015, we're definitely looking to knock out another Random Axe album," says Black Milk. "So me and P and Guilty already been talking about that. The song on the album is just to prepare people and get people ready like let 'em know that we're about to get back in and start working again."

Another collaborator on If There's a Hell Below is Pete Rock, who contributes a verse to the jagged beat of "Quarter Water."

"Me and Pete — we've been going back and forth for the last three years now, just sending production to each other just feeding off each other," says Black Milk. "And Pete Rock — it's like, man. Next to him, Dilla and Premier, those are the next two guys that really influenced me so it was fuckin' great to finally do some work with him and hear him rap on one of my tracks. That shit was dope as hell. It was cool that he came through like that. Now I can say I've worked with my three favourite hip-hop producers of all-time: him, Premier and Dilla."

Black Milk's prowess as an artist has attracted artists from outside the hip-hop sphere who appreciate his work, including fellow Motor City native Jack White, who tapped Black Milk to produce a collaboration for Record Store Day back in 2011.

"Even though he does rock and I do hip-hop, we were still like-minded when it came to creating. Meaning we take it serious and there's a certain standard that we're trying to reach. So just being around him in the studio while we were recording a couple of songs, we didn't even really say much to each other. We were just in the moment. I was definitely in awe. I couldn't believe it was actually happening."

Black Milk intends to continue to focus on producing for others after he releases If There's a Hell Below, nodding to the relentless work ethic via double-time rhymes he describes on the meditative "What It's Worth" and is clearly content with where he is at creatively.

"The last couple of records have had a darker tone to them," he affirms, "but at the same time I don't want it to come off as sad, because that's not what I am right now. I'm not sad about anything."

Tonight (October 23) Black Milk plays Toronto's Tattoo venue, and you can see all his upcoming North American stops here. As of press time, you can also stream If There's a Hell Below over here on the New York Times.