With firm footing in Detroit hip-hop, Black Milk turns his ear to jazz

For the last decade, you'd be hard-pressed to find many hip-hop producers who could flip a sample like Black Milk. The Detroit wunderkind has made a living from finding the most obscure parts of old songs and manipulating them beyond recognition, making brand new creations and slinging them to rap’s elite. Pharoahe Monch, GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One – all have enlisted Black Milk for soundscapes for their raps. He even got a shout-out from rap icon Dr. Dre after creating an album with Dre protege Bishop Lamont.

But this year, Black Milk lead his band, Nat Turner, for a jazz record. No samples, no raps; just live instruments and an undeniable vibe. It’s a new challenge for sure, but Black says it is a necessity for his expanding creativity and to meet the standards of the greats.

“That’s where a lot of artists fail at: when you become somewhat jaded or bored, and your interests starts to fade,” said Black Milk, born Curtis Cross. “All of the artists who are great right now, or who were great in the past and had long runs, that fire in them remained to be a student of the game,” he said.

Black Milk cut his teeth by mastering the MPC beat machine and getting his sample-based offerings to Slum Village and building his own budding solo career. His Popular Demand debut in 2007 earned praise for his soul samples, garnering comparisons to mentor and Detroit legend J Dilla. But for the following year’s Tronic, he expanded his production by integrating electronic sounds into and enlisting Detroit musicians like Dwele and the Will Sessions band to add live instruments that would supplement the beats made with his equipment.

Impressed by the way they helped, he decided to bring a band for the album’s tour: friend Aaron “Ab” Abernathy on the keys, fellow Michigan native Daru Jones on the drums, and manager HexMurda as the DJ. Those same improvements made their way into his live performances, and for Black Milk, there was no going back.

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“Just having those extra elements added more dynamics to the show, and gave me more room to be a little spontaneous and improv on stage – more flexible, versus if it was just me and somebody on the turntables,” Black said. “Once I really seen how the crowd was reacting to me having those guys on stage, because they’re great musicians, it made me feel even better. The spotlight doesn’t have to be on me for the whole show.”

With Album of the Year, his 2010 full-length, Black Milk decided to go all-in with live instruments. He was still using his drum machine to build the skeletons of his songs, but the band members were even more involved this time around – album highlight “Round of Applause” sees him in bandleader form, rapping three verses before spending the song’s last two minutes hyping and directing the players.

Since then, live instruments have arguably become just as much of a staple in Black Milk’s music as samples are. On No Poison No Paradise, Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper and Dwele collaborate for a jazzy instrumental interlude. And a music video from Album of the Year introduced Black Milk’s music to Jack White, who called him to collaborate in 2011 for “Brain” and “Royal Mega,” the first hip-hop song from White’s Third Man Records.

Meanwhile, Black Milk and Nat Turner have become one of the best live shows in hip-hop. Abernathy came up with the band name in 2012, after the man who lead a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Abernathy plays keys, and serves as the band’s music director for performances. Washington, D.C. native Malik Hunter plays bass, securing the gig after pulling a guitar from the wall to play during soundcheck at a gig Black and the band had at Guitar Center. Detroiter Zeb “Z” Horton plays drums; he auditioned to replace Daru Jones, who later joined Jack White’s crew after a scheduling conflict forced him to choose between the two bands.

For The Rebellion Sessions, Black Milk took a different approach with the band: instead of laying down a beat and having them fill in the blanks, they did everything from scratch. Black says that they would have jam sessions, and play until they “caught a moment” that they would build on. The method was completely new to Black, who is more used to executing the lion’s share of his ideas on his own. His new task, he said, is pinpointing everyone’s skills and putting them to use to execute his visions.

“I’ve never had real training with music theory; everything I’ve ever done musically has been by ear or how I feel. I know a little bit of something, but I’m not like the musicians I play with. They know theory, they know the language of music, they know the science of that shit. That sometimes becomes a challenge in terms of me trying to communicate what I’m hearing in my head, and sometimes not being able to communicate it in a way that a trained musician can understand,” Black said. I might have to get behind the keys myself and figure it out to give them an idea of what I’m thinking. I might have to get behind the drumkit and play what I’m going for, or find a record that can give them a better understanding for what I’m going for on the track we’re working on. It can be more of a challenge than me doing my producer hip-hop thing.”

A listen of the album shows that the challenge was worth it. The Rebellion Sessions is a short, satisfying collection of moody, stripped-down grooves that show allegiance to Black’s hip-hop roots without being restricted by them, and showcases the skills of the musicians without losing cohesion. Music publication Pitchfork described it as “nuanced black music without borders,” while recalling influences from Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The band is currently touring Europe.

Black Milk and Nat Turner are also at the forefront of a trend that sees hip-hop musicians integrating live music more. They certainly aren’t the first; groups like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and others have always integrated jazz and live instruments into their music, to varying degrees. But the explosion of the Internet made way for a generation of producers who work almost entirely on beat machines and computer programs, and recent years have jumpstarted a different direction now. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy darling To Pimp A Butterfly has given huge new visibility to jazz musicians Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Thundercat, who all contributed to the album, and it’s not uncommon to see most rappers bringing full bands with them on their tours now. Black Milk is still in top form on the MPC, as he showed with a beat set while on a recent solo tour with Slum Village, Guilty Simpson and Phat Kat. But he knows that live bands are the wave of the future.

“Me and Ab have a theory that when the 20s come around, that’s all you’re going to see,” he said. “And if you’re not a person who has some understanding of musicality, you’re going to get left in the dust.”

Fortunately, Black Milk and Nat Turner have a head start.

The Rebellion Sessions can be purchased online here at Black Milk's official Bandcamp page. Tour dates, including a July 8 stop in Lansing, can be found here.

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