iSPY Magazine Stage

The Magazine

February 27, 2012

Record Stores and Restaurants with Emcee and Producer Black Milk


Having collaborated with the likes of Jack White, Danny Brown and Royce da 5’9” and about to embark on his first U.S. tour, Black Milk’s future is a blank page that he’s looking forward to filling.

Curtis Cross is never idle. His mind is always moving a million miles a minute – thinking, creating, putting pieces of potential sounds together. It’s this kind of relentless creativity that makes him so good at what he does. And there’s no denying that he’s good – not only can he craft clever, insightful verses, but his masterful production has a way of tying everything together in the perfect package, striking just the right chord of fresh and familiar –between new sounds that make your ears perk up to tracks that almost instantly feel like old friends.

Born and raised in Detroit, Curtis Cross – or Black Milk, as he is known in the music world – has his fair share of street cred. And as not only an emcee and producer but also a multi-instrumentalist who has collaborated with the likes of J Dilla, Danny Brown, Royce da 5’9”, Invincible and Jack White, it’s safe to say that he has earned his musician credentials, too. Yet he still retains one quality that seems scarce, almost unpopular, in the larger hip hop word: humility. As we chat about everything from his influences to his accomplishments, I don’t hear even a tinge of arrogance. Instead, he talks about the artists that he respects, lessons learned and potential for growth. How refreshing.

“Jack White emailed my manager. […] At first my manager didn’t believe it was Jack White, so they went back and forth for a little while before he finally realized that it was actually him.”

Could he brag? Absolutely. But it’s the fact that he doesn’t and that, instead, he seems to see his musical career as a continual journey of growth and improvement that speaks volumes more about his greatness than it would for him to constantly be pushing his credentials in the face of his audience. And maybe that’s because, unlike many hip hop artists, he doesn’t have anything to prove. Instead, he’s fueled by the music itself as an art form and by the spirit of Detroit competition that keeps him pushing on.

What have you seen over the years in the local music scene in terms of growth, and where do you think it’s going to go in the future?

It seems like it just gets better each year. And if not necessarily better, it definitely gets more progressive and innovative. There’s always something new and fresh coming out of Detroit.  Music from Michigan in general has this certain purity to it that kind of separates it from music from other regions. I think another thing that separates the artists here from other places around the world is that the artists here really focus on their craft. It’s kind of a competition. They just want to be the best – even if it’s just the best on their block or the best in their area or on their side of town. I think that having that spirit is why there are so many great artists that come out of the city. Being the best rapper, being the best singer, being the best producer, being the best dancer, being one of the best musicians – I see that in the Motown era. I guess the same spirit got passed down to the generation that came after.

What are some of your favorite local hangouts?

I don’t hang out that much. I don’t really go out when I’m here since I’m gone so much. I guess my favorite hangout is the record store. I go to buy more records to make more music – like Street Corner in Southfield and Encore Records in Ann Arbor. I look for records that have the craziest covers. Most of the time those records have some music on it that you can chop up that I’m going to at least like. I’ve been record shopping for so long now that I can just go into the store and grab a stack of records without even listening to them and come away with stuff I can use in my music. I also like to hang out in downtown Detroit and go to Bucharest Grill. They have some of the best Chicken Shawarma that you’ve ever tasted in your life. Restaurants and records.

You’ve collaborated with Danny Brown. Tell me about that.

I did a collaboration with Danny last year. We did the EP, “Black and Brown,” which kind of stemmed from a song on my last solo album, “Album of the Year.” I’m a fan of Danny’s emceeing and his style, so I hit him up. He came to the studio a few times, laid some lyrics down, wrote a few tracks and I remixed all of the tracks he recorded and did my producing thing. Danny’s a star. It was a great collaboration, and hopefully we’ll do some more work in the future.

I know you’ve also collaborated with Invincible.

Invincible and I have known each other for a while. It was only a matter of time before she and I did something together. The song came out dope. Invincible is definitely one of the top emcees from Detroit, and I know everybody respects what she does.

And Royce da 5’9”?

We did a few songs before we collaborated on “Deadly Medley.” It always feels like an event when we release something together. Royce is like my favorite emcee. When I have someone on a song or feature them, I usually move on after and find someone else to work with, so for me to have him on two albums back to back – on “Tronic” and “Album of the Year” lets you know how much of a fan I am of Royce. When it comes to lyrics and emceeing or if I need some inspiration to get my pen flowing, Royce is the first artist that comes to mind that I want to listen to. He’s a lyrical beast.

How did your collaboration with Jack White come about?

Actually, Jack White emailed my manager and said, “I’m interested in working with Black Milk.” At first it was funny because my manager didn’t believe it was Jack White, so they went back and forth for a little while before he finally realized that it was actually him. We talked to him for a minute, and he was like, “I want to bring Black Milk down to Nashville and do a recording with him.” It was one of the craziest music experiences I’ve had in my music career. I went down to Nashville with my band members, the guys I play with, and went to the studio in his home. It was a crazy experience seeing him walk out the door and thinking, “This is really happening. I’m really about to make music with Jack White.” It was kind of messing my head up. Once we got in the studio and had a little small talk, I asked him, “How did you even know I existed? How did you come across me and my music?” He told me that he came across one of the video for “Deadly Medley” that I did with Royce da 5’9” and said he liked the song a lot. He had been wanting to collaborate with a hip hop artist from Detroit, but he didn’t see anybody that would really make sense and compliment what he does until he came across my stuff. He said, “It seems like doing it with you out of all artists makes the most sense since you produce, too. You’ve got a certain quality to your music.” I just appreciated it. I thought, “I’ve been doing something right for a musician like Jack White to understand and like what I’m doing.” So, we went in the studio with him. He had some of his musician friends come over, and we jammed out for a little while. We laid a couple of tracks down. The next day we were back in the studio and laid some vocals down. That was it. The third day I was there, me and my band actually did a show at the Third Man Live. They have a little venue where they let people come and perform. It was a crazy experience to get to work with him and hang out.

Are you working on another album?

Not necessarily working on another album, just kind of in the creative process and experimenting in the studio. I’m trying to figure out what sound, what style I want for my next album. I kind of took a step back from trying to rush another album. I want to take my time with this next one and make sure I can make a statement. I want to really focus on making the project better than the previous project and taking it up another level.

Any idea which way you’re leaning as far as inspiration goes?

I always tend to go back to artists from back in the day to get inspiration – old cats that created this sound of soul music. I get inspired from their talent and from their live shows. I try to take some of the ideas, apply them to the hip hop format and make it fresh. I look toward a lot of the legends from back in the day when it comes to trying to get inspiration, and, of course, my hero J Dilla, I listen to a lot of his music, too, if I’m trying to get some kind of spark, energy or inspiration.

Take me back to 2009. I know that was a rough year for you. 

It was a pretty crazy time with Baatin of Slum Village passing away unexpectedly. I was also going through family issues with close family members passing away. My manager, HexMurda who was a close, close, close friend of mine had a stroke. It was a crazy emotional rollercoaster with a lot of ups and downs. But it came through in my music. My last album is pretty personal …way more personal than the records and albums that came previous to “The Album of the Year.” I felt a lot of feelings that I really never had felt in my life, and it was a lot going on all happening at once. It was definitely hard. I made it through, produced some good music and moved forward. Before that, my music was trying to meet popular demand feel-good soul music. I really wasn’t going through anything in my life to make me get really deep and dark and personal. All of that put me in a position where I had to tap into really personal emotions and bring it out on the record. It showed me I had something else in me that I didn’t even know about. People respected it because a lot of people could relate to the stuff I was talking about.

What’s on the horizon for you right now?

I’m about to start my first U.S. tour of my whole career. My last real show in Michigan was a while ago – back in September 2010. [During my next one,] we’ll rock out. It’s going to be dope. There will be a lot of funk, a lot of hip hop, a lot of soul. Aside from working behind [the scenes], stage is probably my second love. I love to put on a great show and see fans with their hands up and singing the words to the song. I rock with a band, so my show definitely has that live element to it. In terms of recording, right now I’m just working on a lot of instrumental stuff. After that, I’ll start working on my next solo record. It’s just kind of like letting the music take me where it’s going to take me. I don’t like planning or trying to force anything.

Black Milk will perform on Tuesday, March 6 at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Doors open at 9 p.m. Cover is $15. Ages 18 and up.

About the Author

Amanda Slater
Amanda Slater
Amanda is the Editor in Chief of iSPY Magazine.

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