There are few people in hip-hop more technologically savvy than Detroit’s own Black Milk. So when we were looking to explore the intersection of music and technology, we knew who to call. With his sixth solo album, No Poison, No Paradise, set for release on Oct. 15 under Fat Beats and Computer Ugly Records, we caught up with the eclectic, top-tier producer to discuss his love of analogue instrumentation, his growing fascination with digital instrumentation, and what fans can expect from the new LP.
Interview by Zoy Britton (@ZoyMB)
In your instrumental album Synth and Soul, your song “Computer Ugly” seems like a complete homage to your love of analogue instrumentation. In a recent interview you mentioned that the MPC3000 is your favorite drum/sample machine. Did you use that machine to create a lot of songs on No Poison, No Paradise?
Yeah, I used the MPC3000 for the last two or three projects I’ve done. Synth and Soul was completely done on it. I think the first project I did on the 3000 entirely was the one I did with Danny Brown a couple of years ago, Black and Brown.
Your song “600” off Synth and Soul sounds like some epic violin solo gone digital, which is reminiscent of classical inspiration. Then on the single “Perfected on Puritan Ave.” off No Poison, there’s a lot of jazzy instrumentation going on. My question is who or what is your inspiration here?
It’s funny because I love jazz music, but I haven’t really gotten a chance to build an extensive and in-depth catalogue of jazz music to get really familiar with jazz musicians. Of course I know the greats—[John] Coltrane and [Miles] Davis and those kind of cats—but it’s funny because I’m not a huge jazz head like that. But the older I get it seems like I’m starting to take that time to get into the jazz genre and understand who’s who, what’s what, and who is behind different albums.
For the last few years most of my time has been spent doing soul records, electric records, prog rock, so I’m just now getting into the jazzy stuff and samples like that. I kind of steered away from the jazz when I first started because it seemed like the jazz music had kind of been run through by hip-hop music and sampled a lot so I kind of, when I go to the record store, go for the weirder records that other producers probably aren’t using.
Can you name some specific artists or pieces that influenced No Poison? Like any artists or tracks you had on loop during the making of the album?
I feel like for my last solo album, Album of the Year, I watched a lot of live performances and bands from the ’60s, and that’s why that album had a lot of live instrumentation. But on No Poison, No Paradise I just started; there wasn’t really any album or tracks that I specifically listened to, I just listened to a bunch of beats and started putting lyrics in and it just all came together. I didn’t even have a specific sound in mind, this album is more so a collage of my last three solo albums where I got a little bit of influence from [various genres].
What brought you to this jazzy sound then? On “Puritan Ave.” there’s even a brief jazzy interlude where it’s just like a chorus of saxes going crazy. What brought you to that point musically?
Yeah, for that particular song that’s definitely the moment in the album where things get a little jazzy because of what I was saying in the track, just kind of reminiscing about being back in my old neighborhood, being young and what not. That was kind of the background music I was hearing in my head; what I heard the song being told over, something dreamy and jazzy. I was thinking somewhat of a Spike Lee type film in the record, but I know that [in Lee’s movies] in the background he has like a jazz theme going on and that’s just kind of what [I had in mind]. Like if a Spike Lee movie was written via a rap song. But yeah, that’s one moment in the album where things get a little jazzy. It’s probably the only moment or like two times that happens in the album, but I like to mix it up and that was just the song I decided to put out.
Your preference for and love of analogue instrumentation is a well-known fact, and you referred to digital instrumentation as a backup plan of sorts, but did you find that you turned to digital means often during the creation of No Poison, No Paradise?
I mean, even though I use an MPC3000 or drum machine, it’s still somewhat digital. It’s not like completely analogue, it’s just the interface that’s different, but I edit and mix my songs a lot in Pro Tools so that’s all digital right there. I do use outboard analogue gear first when I track my music and the sound and then transfer it into Pro Tools and do the last bit of editing and mixing in there. I definitely have the best of both worlds. I don’t want people to get the perception that I’m anti-digital, it’s just a personal preference—I like to feel the EQ and turn knobs versus clicking on a button.
And the process doesn’t necessarily change, it’s more so like musically what direction I want to go in. Like if I want to dig into records that have more of a synthetic, electric sound then it will sound more digital, but it’s still coming off vinyl and analogue in a way. I think it’s more so the style of the music that makes people feel like I’m going in a digital or soul direction, but it’s all just music to me.
Did you find that your first experience creating instrumentals via analogue was more enriching or fulfilling than your first experience using digital instrumentation? And how were the experiences different?
Yeah, I think that’s the reason why I have all these pieces of equipment from the ’80s and ’90s, because when I started off there wasn’t really FruityLoops and people weren’t really making beats off computers yet. I started making beats in 1999-2000, and most producers were still on drum machines or keyboards. So that’s why it’s a part of my current setup and why I haven’t completely switched over to digital. Digital is definitely convenient when you’re trying to move fast and edit things a certain way, and Pro Tools is the standard [industry program], so you definitely have to be somewhat digital. But I’ll always have some kind of analogue piece in my setup no matter how far I go with this.
It’s funny that you say that because I haven’t been putting out too much music these last couple of years; I’ve just been in the lab working, fine-tuning, and figuring out some things. And I’ve been more focused on getting the engineering part down. I feel like I can turn on a drum machine and turn out some dope beats or whatever, but sonically I wanted to get to the place I felt I needed to be. I was hearing my music a certain way in my mind, and I knew that the only way I would be able to get closer to that is to learn certain things and manipulate frequencies in a way when it comes to engineering the music and pulling certain vibrations out of those speakers. The older I get I keep challenging myself to try to push this thing forward even more.
That’s definitely the way it should be when it comes to pursuing one’s passion. I wanted to talk a little bit about No Poison’s cover art which was created by Dallas artist Joonbug. What was the inspiration for that cover, and how did you guys come to an understanding where your ideas met his illustrations?
I’m a huge fan of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, so that kind of answers your question about No Poison’s album influences. That is not to say that anything on No Poison sounds like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, but they were on heavy rotation and all of their crazy, colorful, animated artwork was also an influence for the album art—in particular their albums Hardcore Jollies and Cosmic Slop. I just wanted to do something like that where it’s kind of like dark but animated, and kind of feels fun yet sinister all at the same time. So I just feel Joonbug knew what direction I wanted to go with it and he knocked it out the park. I think people aren’t going to understand until they see the full vinyl because the artwork doesn’t just stop on the front cover, it wraps around all the way to the back of the vinyl and even goes through the inside. It’s super detailed and crazy.
Last question: What would your dream app be? Like as a musician, what components would make up your everyday dream app?
That’s a good and hard question at the same time. I feel like they have something for everything already. Maybe an app that organizes all your records, because I have a crazy record collection and it would be great to be able to take a picture of vinyl and have the app automatically organize them by album title, artist, every little detail. Because right now since I have so many albums, if I’m listening to an album and it has a specific sound but there’s nothing else on the album I want to sample, then I’ll just make a little sticky note and put that right on the vinyl jacket so I can remember. So it would be great to have an app that could do that for me—with great detail.