Feature: Black Milk

Published in the March 8-15 issue of NOW Magazine.

Immediately after answering the phone, 28-year-old producer/rapper Black Milk starts laughing his ass off. It dissipates tension and is warm and contagious, but I have ask, between giggles, what’s so funny?

“Oh, because I answered with ‘Yeah, this me,’” he says self-deprecatingly in a Midwestern Detroit twang before chuckling some more.

If this were any other producer – a job that involves holing up day and night perfecting perfectionism – the laughter might seem an awkward tic, nervousness brought on by the glare outside the cave. But Black Milk, who entered rap as a teenage hobbyist emcee and went professional in 2002, is just in good spirits, even though it’s raining in New York City, the fourth stop on his first cross-continent tour.

He’s excited about returning to Toronto, which he salutes for being an outpost of Motor City rap fans.

“I’ve never had a bad show in Toronto. I don’t want to jinx myself,” he laughs. “I know cats appreciate Detroit hip-hop up there. That’s one of the first places word spread when we, Slum Village, Dilla were making music. And early in the game – the late 90s, early 2000s.”

Around that time, before his 2005 rapping/producing debut, Sound Of The City, Black Milk honed his style – neck-snapping drums and curious, soulful samples – with the group B.R. Gunna, and Slum Village and affiliates. He’s released three solo records since, most recently 2010’s Album Of The Year (Fat Beats), and served as beat-maker for multiple collaborative projects.

High-profile 2011 records Random Axe, with rappers Sean Price and Guilty Simpson, and the Black & Brown EP featuring squawky spitter Danny Brown, made it feel like Black Milk’s most acclaimed year yet, though he doesn’t necessarily agree.

“It felt like I took a step back last year because I was producing,” he explains before admitting good-naturedly, “but I can’t lie: I’m better at beats. I get it in as an emcee, too, but my strength is really in beats, because I studied music in and out. All that stuff, music theory, my brain just absorbs.”

He idolizes greats from back in the day, especially when it comes to live performance: P. Funk and George Clinton, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Prince.

“Of course, back then it was nothing but live music,” he concedes. “I don’t want to sound pretentious or like I’m trying to downplay hip-hop, but as a musician myself, in order to incorporate some of that [style of] performance I had to bring in a band.”

Performing with a keyboardist, bassist and drummer gives the Claps And Slaps Tour an atypical rap show vibe, he says. “Those three cats and me just get up there and rock out. It’s a lot of live musicianship going on, onstage jam sessions. It makes tracks feel bigger, and we can extend and flip a song.”

He’s elusive about a forthcoming solo record since he’s got more pressing commitments on the horizon: an R&B EP with singer Melanie Rutherford and some rap instrumental projects to be released later this year. Downplaying his drive with another laugh, he insists the latter will be “a twist on the concept – not just a stack of beats.”—ANUPA MISTRY