Barry Jenkins wrote the first draft for his big screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk in 2013. Completing a script didn’t guarantee film production; permission from Baldwin’s estate to adapt the source material was still required. Just like sampling in music, a transformative collaboration between new creatives and old intellectual property calls for clearance.
Michael Millions, much like Barry Jenkins, didn’t know if permission would be granted when he decided to rap over instrumentals that sampled “The Line” and “Brown Sugar” by neo-soul and R&B legend D’Angelo. The two songs in question—“Water,” produced by Namebrand, and “Blacksugar,” produced by EPTheOutkast—couldn't cause any trouble sitting on his hard drive, but to place either record on his 2018 album Hard to Be King signaled another battle entirely.
As an independent artist without the financial support or resources of a major label, Michael knew he was facing an uphill battle to clear the records. Incredibly, not only did D’Angelo himself give the nine-year veteran verbal authorization, but he was the party who reached out to Michael, not the other way around. Oh, and the clearance didn't cost Michael a dime.
So how does a burgeoning rapper from Richmond, Virginia get on the radar of one of Richmond’s most celebrated musicians?
Over the phone, Michael Millions detailed the miraculous chain reaction that began with an interview celebrating D’Angelo’s 1995 debut album Brown Sugar and led to a conversation between the two.
The current system for sample clearance can be convoluted and costly and is often filled with discouraging stipulations by those who own the publishing rights. Occasionally, however, there are stories that show how granting permission can lead to a genuine connection between artists from different eras, different genres, but with mutual love and respect for music to allow undemanding coexistence.
This is one of those stories.
Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you start working on Hard To Be King?
Michael Millions: I worked on [Hard To Be King] half of 2016 and most of 2017. It was a lot of records recorded for the album. I did like 54 records. I’m a high volume recorder. When I get into that mode of creating a project I'm going to record like double the amount.
When did you record “Water” and “Blacksugar?”
It was closer to the end. Actually, both samples that we used on there came at the end. It just so happened they were two D’Angelo samples. I was just making records of feelings, records that vibed to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I was just being creative on “Waters.” It started off as an interlude, it had one verse, and I liked it enough to extend it.
Were you worried you wouldn't be able to clear the samples?
I was really afraid of those samples not being able to be cleared because we used vocals and certain sound clips of the samples that required having to clear them. Because of the samples that we used, a distribution company won't take the risk of putting that out on Spotify because they don't want to get their hands slapped either. We would 100 percent need approval.
Did you expect to get them cleared?
I do right by people and I'm always... I'm just a generally good person and so magical good things happen back to me.
Tell us how D’Angelo got in contact with you?
Months and months earlier, I was invited to do an interview with a woman named Alex Black. She does this visual interview [series] called Music Heals. Instead of the general Q&A about when [I] got started rapping, she would go out and buy your favorite album on vinyl and then discuss the music. My album was D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. I thought it was a real crazy interview. It was taped, we shared it, and everything.
Lou Barber, who is D’Angelo’s best friend and stage manager, contacted Monseé Woods, an industry level creative director and videographer from Richmond. Lou was asking about me because D’Angelo was trying to get in touch with someone from Richmond who may have my contact.
So you did the interview about Brown Sugar, D’Angelo or someone in his camp saw it, and they reached out to you?
Yes. They put the APB out. Started to look through people in Richmond who might know me.
What happened next?
Lou reached out to my friend Monseé, and he said, "Hell yeah, I know Mike. I’ll connect y'all." We got introduced in a text message. Then this other number called me back. Then I was on the line with D’Angelo.
We had a quick chat. He was like, "I like what you doing, I fuck with your music, I heard you got a new record that people are talking about." I told him I could send some records over and then mentioned that I might run into some trouble clearing them. He said to send them over. I sent them over. He was just like, "You won’t have any problems out of me dog, you from Richmond."
Lou followed up with me again after the record was released to let me know that they loved the whole album, not just the records I sent over.
What happened next?
So that was a verbal clearance. I didn’t find out until the next day why my album wasn’t on Apple Music, Spotify, etc. I spent the third on the horn across the pond. The good people at DistroKid assisted, and Jamiroquai’s camp said it was cool. The next day DistroKid launched my whole album. Normally, that process takes two to three weeks to happen.
I made my artwork look like a wave. But if you look at the wave, it's all of my credit information: where I got the samples or if we had other instruments or people on the album on that I just made my credit out in a way to show people that I had to go through a lot of shit with this one.
It’s unbelievable that your interview about D’Angelo led to a phone call from the man himself and sample clearance.
I would’ve never thought that would happen from me doing the interview. It came full circle. This book I read today is called Steal Like An Artist, right? In a chapter of the book, it says, sometimes you have to do things where you admire the artists you got things from and you should feel good when you do that. I remember when I did that interview, I recognized how it was the first interview that asked me about my favorite music and shit. Looking back on the video clips, I can imagine him seeing the conversation and thinking this is a cool dude. Just off my enthusiasm talking about how his album impacts my music.
He’s definitely an artist I’ve borrowed from, you know, in developing a sound or encapsulating the city where I’m from. He’s from the same streets we from. So it’s still surreal. I have a mural in my city, that’s surreal. I have these flashes in my life where I’m still processing these things that have happened based on decisions I’ve made musically. D’Angelo is one of those moments.
By Yoh, aka D'Angelyoh, aka @Yoh31