Black Milk is the best double threat to come out of Detroit since the late, great J Dilla.
Coincidentally, it was with Dilla’s old group, Slum Village, in the early ’00s that Milk first made a name for himself by taking over Jay Dee’s production reigns on Trinity, Detroit Deli and Slum Village alongside the likes of Karriem Riggins, Wajeed and Young RJ. That’s right: his first gig was to fill the shoes of one of the greatest producers of all time for his favorite group of all time. Only in Detroit can that type of pressure produce a diamond.
While Dilla’s name always seems to crop up in conversations about Black Milk (sorry, Milk), Curtis Cross has quietly carved out his own legacy as a multifaceted creative force. Known for his hard-hitting drums, live instrumentation and obscure sample choices that leave no genre unflipped, Milk has released six solo albums and collaborative projects with Danny Brown (Black and Brown!) and Sean Price and Guilty Simpson (Random Axe) while putting on one of the best live shows in hip-hop with his band Nat Turner.
Besides the consistently quality product, one of the keys to Black Milk’s 16-year career is the way in which he evolves and experiments (on both sides of the booth) with each new release—whether it’s writing and recording a powerful concept album like No Poison No Paradise or composing a sample-free instrumental jazz album like The Rebellion Sessions. Black Milk isn’t just a beatmaker who knows how to rap; he’s a bandleader who can perform.
With his new album FEVER out this Friday (Feb. 23), Black Milk isn’t souring anytime soon. “It’s a lot of shit going on in the world right now,” he says of his upcoming LP. “The title FEVER is based off the hot and high temperatures that we’re seeing with all of the different social issues that’s happening right now. I’m speaking on some of those topics and expressing how I’m maneuvering through this era that we’re in right now.”
Here are the stories behind five of Black Milk’s biggest songs.
Slum Village — “The Reunion” ft. J Dilla (2004)
Sample: John Abercrombie “Timeless”
“Man, that one’s crazy because the beat was so simplistic in terms of the way it was put together so fast. It was just a loop that I came across by listening to some records, one of those dollar records that just had one little part that I chopped up. It wasn’t even nothing too amazing or groundbreaking [laughs]. I just looped it down and threw a kick and a snare on top of it.
"That’s how a lot of the records that people gravitate towards the most actually come about. Something that you don’t really put a lot of thought into. But, for whatever reason, you capture a feeling that people like. And all the records that you do put a lot of time putting together hoping that somebody will dig, they be the ones that get looked over [laughs].
“I actually almost deleted that beat because I didn’t think it was anything crazy. But when I put everything together on, at that time, a CD [laughs], it was just a 15-second interlude. It wasn’t even a two-minute-long track ’cause I didn’t expect [Slum Village] to want it. But they heard the track on my beat CD and were like, ‘What’s that one?! The quick one?’ So I brought the beat up and put extra little stuff around it.
“They had the concept of talking about their issues within the group at that time. Nobody said any lies; it’s [Baatin] in that song. They were just speaking about the drama that was going on at the time within the group between all three of them. I guess they just felt like they had to get it off they chest and put it on a record.
“The way they was able to get Dilla to drop a verse on it was amazing. I was blown away. Like, jaw dropped to the ground in awe. ’Cause Dilla wouldn’t have jumped on the track if he didn’t think it was dope. So getting that stamp of approval with that particular track—and some other tracks of mine that he had heard at the time—was amazing.
“Dilla was like most producers: a recluse, a homebody, at the crib making tracks. He wasn’t out like that, coming to the studio all the time. So you didn’t really see him much [laughs]. If you wanted to see him, you had to go to his house.”
Black Milk — “Deadly Medley” ft. Royce da 5'9" & Elzhi (2010)
Sample: Blackrock “Yeah, Yeah”
“I think that was one of the last records that I recorded for the album. I knew I wanted Royce and El on a song, but it took me a while to find the right sample, the right beat. I was coming across records where I was like, ‘That’s dope, that’s cool.’ But it just wasn’t the shit.
“I eventually found that [Blackrock] record on YouTube. It wasn’t a thing where I was digging through records at a store. I was just searching around on YouTube and I came across the ‘Deadly Medley’ sample and I was like, ‘Oh, this is it right here.’ And yeah, it worked [laughs].
“El actually came to the studio to do his verse. Royce, I think I might have emailed the track to him and he recorded his verse at his studio, and he sent it back to me.
“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily intimidating [rapping on a song with Elzhi and Royce]. You just know that you have to bring your A game [laughs]. I took a few days to put the verse together. I didn’t hear their verses beforehand, so I was strategically crafting something where no matter what they say, I’ma be satisfied with what I say. I know a lot of rappers, they’ll wait ‘til they hear the features on a record then they’ll write their verse. But I like to just put my best foot forward, record my verse and send it to whoever’s getting on the song with me.
“People love that record, man. Anytime we perform it live, it always goes off.”
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Black Milk & Jack White — “Brain” / “Royal Mega” (2011)
“[Jack White] reached out to me, to my people and wanted to collab. Of course, I wasn’t going to say no ’cause I was already a fan of all his records. I was like, ‘Hell yeah! That’d be really dope.’ I went down to Nashville with my crew and met up with him at his home studio. We got in there for a few days and just kinda jammed out with some his musician friends and the musicians I brought down. And we came out with a few records.
“I actually performed at his venue, the Third Man Records venue that he has down there in Nashville. I did a show and it was a great time. Real great time.
“I was curious [as to how he found out about me] as well so I asked him that same question like, ‘Yo, how did you even come across my music?’ And I think he said he came across the [‘Deadly Medley’] video and liked it. He said he had been wanting to work with a Detroit hip-hop artist for a while, one that made the most sense for what he does. I guess me being a producer and a vocalist, he probably felt that we could find some common ground in the creative process.
“I was basically [running point] in the studio. He just let me determine who plays what and how it’s played. All of those guys are obviously talented musicians and everybody was jamming out. It was a thing where they was just playing and if I heard something that I liked, I would tell them to play that part and I'ma chop it.
"We never discussed doing a full project. He brings a lot of artists to Nashville with his label and they work on a few records. He has this 45 series where he just puts out these 45s with all kinds of different artists, and I was just one of the artists that was part of the series.
“Which is my favorite song? Damn, that’s a hard one. Ummm… I don’t know. ’Cause one of the songs—I can’t think which one—I really love the beat. And the other I really like my verse on. Probably ‘Royal Mega.’ But I like ‘Brain’ a lot. I don’t know, man! [Laughs]"
Random Axe — “Chewbacca” ft. Roc Marciano (2011)
Sample: Tangerine Dream “Tangram Set 1”
“My manager at the time, Hex [Murda], he was working on Guilty Simpson’s album; he manages Guilty as well. He and Guilty wanted to get a Sean P feature on his album. It was over one of my beats. They made it happen. Then Hex had the idea of like, ‘Man, it would be crazy if all three of you did an album together.’
“So [Hex] talked to Duck Down and Sean P to figure it out. I don’t think Sean P was too familiar with me and Guilty’s music, but he did his research and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, these guys. They know what time it is.’ [Laughs] Once we got the green light on that, we dove on in.
“I started sending beats Sean P’s way and he’d send back verses. Then Sean P flew to Detroit for like a week to work with me and Guilty and Hex, and we was just knocking out music. As much music as we possibly could while he was in Detroit. Then he went back to New York and I took everything that was done in the studio, in terms of all the recordings, and I did what I did to it.
“[‘Chewbacca’] was another one of those beats that was thrown together as a quick interlude [laughs]. I can’t even remember what the sample was but it was just something that I looped up while exercising. I like to exercise on the drum machine where I’m just making beats at a fast pace. It was one of those tracks that I just threw together. The vibe of it was dope so I decided to save it. And sure enough, [Sean and Guilty] messed with it too and they jumped on it. And then we decided to get Roc Marci on it.
“[That week in Detroit] was a ton of jokes, man. Anybody who knew Sean P or is a fan of Sean P knows he’s a comedian [laughs]. He loved to crack jokes and talk crazy shit, so it was a lot of that all week. After the first couple days, it got to the point where we had to tell ourselves, ‘No, we need to focus in’ [laughs]. But yeah, Sean P was an interesting guy, man.
“[‘Scum’] was like the start [of a new Random Axe project]. I did that record to spark everybody’s interest, to get fans of Random Axe excited that the next one was on the way. So I thought it would be cool to set it off on my album. Rest in peace Sean P, man.”
Danny Brown — “Really Doe” ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt (2016)
“That was another YouTube sample [laughs]. That was when I was digging online heavy. I’ve found myself in the last two or three years going to the record store less and less because I’ve been finding so much stuff online. But yeah, that was one of those simplistic samples that I didn’t really have to do much to but put some gritty drums on there, but with my touch and my swing. It’s simple but it’s raw. I love that beat a lot.
“It was on the batch of beats that I had sent over to Danny when he was working on [Atrocity Exhibition]. He mentioned to me that he had sent some beats over to Kendrick to just kinda go through ’cause I guess he wanted Kendrick on the album, and that was just the beat that Kendrick picked! [Danny] hit me back like, ‘Yo man, we about to do this posse cut.’ I was excited because I had hoped to work with every one of those guys at some point in the future. It was kinda crazy to have all of them on one record [laughs].
“I think Danny just allows a producer, especially a producer like me that likes to push the envelope a little bit, he allows you to really get experimental with the beats. His verses, his voice and his flow are so crazy. He allows you to do crazy stuff musically. So that’s what I really like about working with Danny. A lot of times as a producer, you don’t really get to take it there with your beats. The artist you’re working with might not allow that type of energy. But Danny definitely does. That’s fun for me.
“Oh yeah, man. I’m going to be sending Danny some more tracks soon. Now that my album is out the way, I’m about to be sending out a lot of beats to a lot of different people. There’ll probably be another Danny Brown/Black Milk collaboration at some point.”