Black Milk can’t believe the news he’s being told. Yes, it’s true. Detroit Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson has retired, calling it quits after nine prolific seasons in the Motor City.
The acclaimed producer and rapper takes pride in his hometown, but apparently, this bit of news has slipped past the Motown native.
It’s been a busy past few months for the touring musician born Curtis Cross. Once a solo act with only the backing of a DJ, Milk now performs alongside the band Nat Turner, a Washington D.C. based jazz trio comprised of a cross-section of American musicians: Aaron Abernathy, aka “Ab,” a keyboard player from Cleveland, drummer Zeb Horton, who also hails from Detroit, and D.C. bassist Malik Hunter.
Together, the foursome created an album that is unlike anything Black Milk had previously released under his name. Aptly titled The Rebellion Sessions, the live instrumental LP was recorded in just one week and released in April of this year.
Having allowed the album to marinate with his fans over several months, Cross is now touring the country performing with Nat Turner. Before taking the stage at an intimate, outdoors set in Lansing, MI, he sat down with DJBooth to discuss what influenced the Sessions album, and the possibility of a much-anticipated sequel to his most popular collaboration.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
DJBooth: What was the main inspiration behind the album with Nat Turner?
Black Milk: It really was just the shows and touring all these years with Nat Turner. Ab kind of put it all together. I was incorporating live music into my production [since his '08 Tronic album] and he was there to help me do that—especially with the live shows. I wanted to take what I was doing in the studio to the stage, and he kind of helped me with that. We’ve just been rocking out from then until now—almost ten years.
Has a concept album like this—live instrumentation with no vocals—always been in your mind?
While we were doing the live performances the shows started growing, our chemistry onstage started growing, and our fan base started building. I started noticing that there were people coming to the show who might not necessarily know who I was as an artist from my albums. After the show, they would ask, ‘Is it an album or is it a project?’ We didn’t have anything to give to them. Last year, I felt like we had to get in the studio and make a Black Milk & Nat Turner live album. Something to showcase everyone as musicians – and showcasing the band with the original material we can do on stage outside of my solo rap stuff.
What have you been listening to lately while on the road?
It’s always changing from the new stuff to the old stuff. I was into the Anderson .Paak album a lot. I liked The Internet album. Esperanza Spaulding’s album was crazy. Outside of that, I stay keeping old funk and soul albums in rotation. That’s just the norm. I’m always teaching myself or trying to get an understanding of what makes people respond to certain things musically. I study the greats and try to understand what made them great– and then incorporate it into modern day music.
Who are some of the greats you look up to musically?
Names you hear all the time: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc. In terms of bands, Funkadelic/Parliament is one of the bands me, Ab—all of us—look up to.
[Abernathy adds, “They’re kind of like the nucleus of our sound.”]
Their whole approach to music we connect to. That’s the same mentality I have in my music. Free, incorporating a lot of things; making this organized chaos musically. They’re one of the bands that we really get an expression from.
Your solo work has some of the hardest hitting drums in hip-hop. Who influenced this production technique?
For one, hip-hop music, in general, is drum heavy. Two, the producers that I looked up to early on—like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, J Dilla—had some of the best drum sounds in hip-hop. With Dilla in particular, sonically the way his stuff sounded was super unique. It always sounded good in any speaker. No matter what sound system you would put his music on, it would sit in the speaker a certain way—a good way. As a young producer at the time, that was always my number one thing in terms of making beats—the drums. Just making a great drum sound and groove. That’s my influence because that’s what they perfected. People say I have a sound to my stuff—I don’t know about that. I don’t really know what that sound is. Maybe there is a sound because I use particular equipment, and my setup might be different than what Dilla was using. So, of course, I’m going to have something unique about my sound—but I can’t really put into words what it is. It comes out how it comes out.
Have you spoken with or worked with Danny Brown lately?
I actually just spoke to him about two or three days ago. We got something coming on the way I expect people to be excited about. I can’t wait till it drops. Be on the lookout for that—and we’re going to have more stuff.
Black & Brown 2?
Possibly, man. We spoke about it. Us actually doing it is another situation—but I’m definitely with doing another Black & Brown album. Me and him already spoke about the possibility.
Are there other Detroit artists you connect with?
That’s the thing. Everybody’s kind of cool with each other, especially on the hip-hop side of things. I’ve been working with Danny Brown, Royce da 5’9, Guilty Simpson, Slum Village—all those cats. I haven’t done anything with Elzhi in a while, but probably will in the near future. That’s the dope thing about Detroit. Even though you have all these different sounds and styles in hip-hop, you can still find collaboration. We’ve never been a city that was separate in terms of the art. Everybody can still jump on each other’s tracks and make collaborations. Kind of like of the ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’ song.
Who are some younger artists to look out for in Detroit?
I haven’t really started producing for them, but there are a couple artists that I think are dope. Nolan The Ninja, he just dropped an album this month. He’s young, but his sound is really 90s. When I say the 90s, it’s not like the 90s mixed with a modern sound; his whole aesthetic is like, ‘Damn, I just found a cassette from 1993!’ Sam Austins is real dope. ZelooperZ has that hip-hop/punk thing going on with an electronic mix. I’m pretty pleased and interested where the new crop of Detroit artists is about to take the sound. Everyone knows the history of the Dilla era and the Slum era—and I can even say me, Guilty and Royce. I’m excited to see where these new cats take it. It feels like even though they have the sound of what is going in modern music, they still have a Detroit attitude. It’s hard to explain what it is that separates it from different regions and cities.
The Detroit Public School System is notoriously poor and corrupt, providing little refuge for youth growing up in the city. How do you feel about that situation?
I don’t have any kids, but that shit’s been bad since I was in school. It’s funny you mentioned that, though. I was in Detroit riding around two or three days ago. I wanted to drive around my old neighborhood and my old schools. Every last one of my schools – my high school, middle school, and elementary school—all were shut down. Abandoned, boarded up.
Would you avoid Detroit public schools if you had children?
Most likely. I probably would, to be honest. It’s fucked up when you got a city like Detroit that’s a big city, but the population is getting smaller. It’s messed up when the people that are in power let the downfall get so far gone, where there’s almost no coming back—or no way of repairing the city. While I’m driving through the city, thinking about the city, thinking about the school system—I still want to have hope but the reality kicks in. Is this really fixable? Can we really change this thing? Hopefully, we can.
How much influence do you think music can have on the city?
That’s the thing about Detroit. No matter how crazy things get in terms of poverty, art always remains strong. The art scene—whether it’s the musicians or actual artists painting murals—and the energy is always intact. It never goes anywhere. People from all over the world, when they come to Detroit, they feel that energy. Artists feel that energy. Even though they’re seeing these abandoned buildings, they can feel that creative energy. It gives them the inspiration to create. Even when you go overseas, people appreciate the Detroit sound. Detroit artists are damn near like a sub-genre of hip-hop. If you fuck with these Detroit artists, then you have a different kind of connection or are hearing things differently than other hip-hop fans.