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In The Lab with Black Milk

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

When the topic of the industry’s best producers on the mic comes up, one name that is often championed by underground heads is Detroit’s Black Milk. And rightfully so. His discography includes stellar production for some of his hometown’s best and brightest, like Slum Village, the late great J. Dilla, and the ever-popular and eccentric rising star Danny Brown. He’s also done tracks for Slaughterhouse, GZA, KRS-One & Buckshot, and his own supergroup Random Axe with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price, just to name a few. Not to mention his string of rock solid solo efforts. And earlier this week, Black Milk released his fifth solo LP, No Poison No Paradise, a concept album that details the trials and tribulations of its fictionalized lead character Sonny. It’s a brilliant effort that not only showcases Black Milk’s supreme production skills, but also his top-notch lyricism and storytelling abilities.

For our latest In The Lab feature, we caught up with Black Milk during some downtime on his current tour to talk about the making of No Poison No Paradise. And he took us behind the scenes into his Dallas, Texas home studio to discuss his daily work routine, how he taught himself to be a better engineer, how he prefers to write his lyrics, his process of demoing songs before he finalizes them, and much more, including his favorite spots to dig for samples in the U.S. and overseas, and memories of working with J. Dilla, rock & roll living legend Jack White, Sean Price, and Danny Brown. Step into Black Milk’s world below.

Studio Equipment

“I started off like a lot of producers, with just the pause tapes. Dubbing from one cassette deck to another, looping up samples or breaks or whatever you could find, and making beats like that. Then it went from the pause tapes to having the fucking Karaoke machine with the cheap ass Casio keyboard, making beats on that. Then it went to me buying my cousin’s sampler, I think it was a Roland W-30. So that’s when I started getting into sampling, and vinyl. I had this terrible ass record player. Then it went from that to buying an MPC 2000 XL. I bought one when they first came out, and I think that was like in 2000.

“It was rough in the beginning. [Laughs.] But once I got the 2000 XL, that was the machine I was on for the majority of my career. I’m on the 3000 right now, but my first solo three projects, and the stuff I recorded early on, like the stuff I did for Slum Village, I did on the XL. I didn’t start using the MPC 3000 until three or four years ago. The first project I did on the 3000 was Random Axe, with me, Sean P, and Guilty Simpson. That was like half and half. Some of it was done on the XL, and some of it was done on the 3000 when I first bought it. But I did the entire Danny Brown Black and Brown! project on the 3000. And then, this project is my first solo album that I did entirely on the 3000.

“The thing about the 3000 is it’s a simple machine. It’s not necessarily that it does anything amazing. I always wanted a 3000, because I knew Dilla used it for the majority of his career. There were myths that the 3000 is much warmer, and it gives the drums a more punchier sound, and that it has a better sequencer, so I had to buy one to see if those myths were false or not. When I bought one, I felt the energy that everyone was talking about coming out of the machine. It’s real comfortable, and it has a certain swing to it, and a certain color to it.

“That’s the thing about all drum machines. They all have a specific color. Like the 2000 XL, it sounds a little brighter when you sample the drums or whatever you put in there. It makes your stuff sound a little brighter, whereas the 3000 is a little more dark, dull, and warm. I love the 3000. I’ve tried a lot of stuff, like the Native Instruments machines, and making beats on Reason and Ableton Live, but I always go back to the 3000.

“My lab is pretty stripped down right now. Besides the MP, my Moog Voyager is another go-to for bass lines and dope synths. And I’ve got a couple other synth keyboards, like the microKORG. But it’s basically just the MP, a couple synths, and a bunch of records. I might have my live drum kit, or my Fender Rhodes, and play those on a few different things. But for the most part it’s records and my drum machine. I don’t really like to clutter my studio up with too much. I know some of my producer friends, they like to try everything, and have every system and piece of equipment on deck. [Laughs.] But I like to keep everything stripped down.”

Recording No Poison No Paradise

“This album was recorded all in my home studio. I took the last year and a half off to try and get better as an engineer, and get to a better place sonically with my music. That’s what I was doing this whole past time that I was taking off, just trying to polish up my skills as an engineer. And this album sonically is my best sounding album.

“This is also the first album I recorded outside of Detroit. I moved to Texas. I’m in Dallas right now. So I didn’t have access to the studios I used to work out of back home, and the musicians I used to work with. I was kind of in a room by myself for this whole album. But I guess it was a good thing for me to kind of be locked down and not have as much access to the things I’m usually used to.”


“In my time off [between the last album and this album], I was doing a lot of researching about frequencies, and EQs, and vibrations, and different types of analog and digital equipment. Seeing what equipment will work well for the sound you’re going for. Researching some of the best engineers in the world, and seeing what their tricks are. Thank God for YouTube too. I [would go on there] and research certain things to see how people would get a specific sound. Just a lot of research, and sitting in front of the speakers and listening. Tweaking, experimenting with compression and EQing. And I got to a point where I felt comfortable with where my sound was sonically that I wanted to record some new stuff, put some new stuff out, and see if people can hear the difference. I’m the type of person that wants to have the knowledge of how to take my sound to the next level, but I also want to have that raw element. That basement sound, too.

“I produce and engineer everything. It’s not because I don’t want to work with anyone else, I mean, I’m a little bit of a control freak. But when it comes to certain things, I like to be self-sufficient. I don’t like to wait on other people, or need other people’s help to get a certain thing accomplished, especially when it comes to music.

“I produced and mixed everything, but I had someone else master it. Chris Athens, he mastered the album. He’s like one of the best mastering engineers in the music industry. He’s mastered everybody’s stuff. He definitely put a good mastering on the album. He’s mastered some of my favorite albums, so there was definitely trust. I just sent him the album, and said, ‘Do what you do.’ And it came out dope.”

Daily Routine/Studio Essentials

“I’m a homebody. I really don’t go out as much as I used to like five or six years ago, when I was in my mid and early 20s. All I really do now, sun up to sun down, is make music. I get up, make breakfast, then I’m right to the lab, making beats, or just sitting there, listening to music. But all day, around the clock, I’m on my music tip, either trying to find something to inspire me to create, or actually creating. In between, I might take a break after five or six hours and throw on Netflix and take an hour to watch something on there. But then I go right back at it, and work for the rest of the night. Go to sleep, then do the same thing the next day. That’s how my routine is. [Laughs.]

“I had to catch up on Breaking Bad, so I was on that real heavy while I was recording this album. I was on Season One this year, so I had to hurry up and catch up on that before the last season started. That’s what I was mainly on. That, and House of Cards, 24, and different documentaries.

“Somedays, I might be on some practice shit, and bang out like six or seven beats, just messing around. But if I’m working on a specific beat for a specific project, I might work on [just that] for about a day. I might knock it out in a couple hours, but tweak it for the rest of the day.

“I really don’t need anything [specific in the studio], which is weird because I know other cats that need to drink something or smoke something before they get started. Or they need to take a walk around the block to get some fresh air. But I don’t have any weird traditions before I make music. I do what I do. I don’t need any influence or help. [Laughs.]”

Favorite Digging Spots

“There’s one spot I was hitting in Dallas, Forever Young. It’s like a big warehouse type spot with a ton of vinyl. I went down there a little and came up on a few things.

“In Detroit, you had spots like People’s Records, which was the best if you needed to find soul samples. Then you had Melodies & Memories, and they had a mixture of everything. Dilla used to hit that heavy. It was on the East side of Detroit. You had Street Corner, and they had one of the best selections in The D. A lot of rare, hard to find stuff. There was a nice mixture.

“That’s the thing about going to other cities. The record stores tell you a lot. How versatile the music scene and the musical taste is in that city. And that kind of let me know that Detroit’s music was really eclectic. You’d find some of the rarest electronic shit, soul stuff, prog rock, and a little bit of everything.

“You can always come up in L.A. They always got a lot of crazy stuff. You can always come up in New York, of course. But I think my favorite spot in the U.S. Groove Merchant in San Francisco. I actually hit that spot a week or two ago when we had a show out there. I always come up at that spot. Some of the samples on this new album I found at Groove Merchant, like the intro ‘Interpret Sabatoge,’ that’s a record I found there. I love that spot. Overseas, there’s a spot out in Rotterdam called Demonfuzz, which is bananas. I get so much rare craziness out there.”

Picking Samples

“When I’m digging, and I bring a pile of records back to the lab, it’s rare that I actually listen to a full album all the way through. I kind of skip through with the needle until I hear something. This is probably the first album where I didn’t have a real direction. With my first album, Popular Demand, I knew I wanted the beats to be soul sample heavy. With my second album, Tronic, I knew I wanted to have an electronic feel to it. And on my third album, Album of the Year, I knew I wanted it to have more live instrumentation incorporated into it. But for this one, it was like, let me listen to records, and whatever catches my ear, I’m gonna mess with it. And if I like it enough, I’ll make a song out of it. And that’s kind of what I did. And I ended up getting a mixture of all three of those albums, with a little live instrumentation here and there, and some soul stuff, and some electronic stuff.”

Recording with Live Instruments

“The few parts that have live music, like ‘Perfected on Puritan Ave.’ has a crazy jazz part, I wasn’t in the studio with those guys. I had to do the email thing because I was in Dallas. And then, on the song ‘Deion’s House,’ that was done by this live band from Detroit, Will Sessions. That’s the one track that they produced. Originally, I had a sample that I wanted to flip, but one of my friends that’s actually in the band, they replayed it and I heard it, and I was like, ‘Oh, let me just use y’all version since y’all already did it.’ It wasn’t too much of a coincidence, because I knew he had heard the sample before, and he had talked about them replaying it live. Then he told me, ‘We did replay it, and we were going to use it, but if you wanna rock with it, do your thing.’ So there was a lot of emailing for the live stuff, or telling some of the live musicians [what I was looking for via email]. Fortunately, it came out just as well as if I was in the studio with them.”

Perfecting Drum Sounds

“I think the way I EQ and mix [my drums is what gives them that hard, crisp sound]. I definitely have a couple specific tricks for chopping bass kicks and snares. No matter what kind of kick I sample, I have a specific way I compress and EQ so it’s always gonna have a certain punch, but also a round bottom to the bass kick. I learned this technique so from now on, they’re going to sound better. And not hard just for the sake of hitting hard. It’s like, they’re going to sit in the record and on the track in a specific kind of way.”

Developing the Concept for No Poison No Paradise

“Originally, it didn’t start out as a concept album. I didn’t have the [idea initially] to do a storytelling album. But most of the time when I record music, like I’ve done with my past stuff, I let the production tell me where to go lyrically. That’s how it started. ‘Sunday’s Best’ and ‘Monday’s Worst’ were two of the first songs I recorded for the album, and the beats were self-explanatory, telling me what to say. It was me finding this crazy gospel sample [for ‘Sunday’s Best’], and flipping this beat out of it, like, ‘This would be the perfect opportunity for me to write something about how I grew up in a religious household, with two religious parents. Then for ‘Monday’s Worst,’ I can flip it, and tell the story of how I got older, and how sometimes your environment and circumstances can push you away from the values that were instilled in you at a young age, and how you can get caught up in the streets, like some of the people that grew up in my neighborhood.’

“Once I wrote those two records, and recorded a couple more, I was like, ‘Damn man, these first few songs are telling a story. I need to go ahead and build the rest of the album off these three or four songs, and keep this aesthetic and visual for the album. So that’s when I took it a step further, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna put this character into the album and let him tell the stories of people that I’ve seen, and the experiences that I’ve been through.’

“I had some ideas [as I went along], but I was still kind of letting the beats tell me where to go. So when I made the beat for a record like ‘Dismal,’ I was like, ‘Oh, this is dark. This is perfect opportunity for me to write about the darker side of this character, or something about him going through a darker part of his life.’ The whole album is like the character is in a dream state, and he’s seeing all these different moments from his younger years up until his adult years. So that’s kind of what the album is all about. And the production was still telling me where to go, lyrically. And all these beats were brand new.”

Writing Raps/Recording Demos

“I’m definitely writing in the phone, like most people at this point. I’m in the notepad on my iPhone, there’s a lot of rhymes in there. It’s more convenient to write that way. I do prefer to write in the car. I take the beats in the ride and drive around and brainstorm a little bit, and start piecing stuff together. Then I’ll go in the lab, and pace the floor for three, four hours in a circle, writing while I listen to the beat over and over.

“This time around, I started doing a little two-track of the beat, dumping it from the MPC into Pro Tools, before I separate it and mix it. If I know I’m gonna use it, I’ll write my rhyme, and then demo verses, and then listen to the demos over and over for a while to let me know if I’m really going to use the song. For almost every song that’s on the album, there’s a demo version with me doing the verses on a hand-held mic, because I don’t want it to sound good. [Laughs.] I don’t want to listen back [after I record it properly] and be like, ‘Damn, I should’ve kept that verse.’ So I try to make sure [the quality of the vocals] sound kind of fucked up [so I don’t get too attached to the demo verses]. Then, if I like it, I’ll do it on the real mic, and make sure the delivery and the flow is exactly how I want it to be.”

Black Thought’s Feature

“I wanted to reach out to Thought because it’s weird, I don’t see him on enough features. Maybe people reach out to Thought and he’s denying them. Who know. [Laughs.] But I was fortunate enough to get a verse from him. I did the track, and I kind of knew that Black Thought would be perfect on this record, especially getting the introspective, storytelling side of Black Thought. So I reached out to him, and he messed with it, even though he wanted me to send him something harder so he could just spit bars. He wanted to do a record like that. But I told him I wanted to do some more conceptual type shit. And he did it, and the record came out dope. His verse is crazy on that joint, him rapping about being a cat from Detroit growing up. That shit was stupid.”

Working with J. Dilla

“When Slum Village was looking for in-house producers, I was one of them. They were still messing with Dilla from time to time on the beats, but that was the way I was able to work with him, because he was still coming around giving them beats for Detroit Deli, Trinity, and all of that stuff. So I ran into him in the lab, just kicking it and shit. And I was fortunate enough to have him spit over one of my beats, the track I did for Slum called ‘Reunion.’ When that happened, that was one of the greatest days of my life, because everyone looked at Dilla like the God. It was amazing.

“After that, there were a few other times where we got to collaborate on stuff, and he rapped over a couple of my tracks on the mixtape stuff I did for Dirty District. It was great to be able to work with one of your idols, especially before he passed. He’s like my biggest inspiration for what I do. He’s the reason I do what I do.

“I think people fully don’t understand his genius. You kind of have to be a producer that messes around with beats to understand how next level his process is when it comes to making beats. They might enjoy his music, but they might not understand what makes him greater than everyone else. It’s his technique, and little technical nerd things that you wouldn’t understand unless you make beats. [Laughs.]”

Collaborating with Jack White

“It was intimidating at first, because it was not only walking in to work with a musical genius, which I think he is, but he’s a superstar. He’s a rock star. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta have my game face on, and I gotta really be on point.’ I didn’t want him to regret working with a hip-hop artist, because I might have been the first hip-hop collaboration that he had. He heard my music through a record I did ‘Deadly Medley’ with Royce da 5’9’’ and Elzhi. And he told me, ‘I always wanted to work with a hip-hop artist from Detroit, but I could never find the right person. I feel like you’re the right person.

“So we went down there [to Nashville] and spent a couple days with him in the studio, with me and my band and him and his band jamming. He was a real nice dude, and real easy going. And he let me control the situation, in terms of me producing and directing where I wanted the music to go. Even when he was playing the guitar, he let me be like, ‘Yeah, keep playing it like that, Jack.’ [Laughs.] It was crazy. It was a cool experience.”

Studio Sessions with Sean Price/Danny Brown

“Sean Price is just jokes all day. Comedy all day. I always tell him, ‘Dog, you need to stop doing rap, and just go do stand up.’ When he first came to Detroit for a week to record for Random Axe, we didn’t get one song done for the first three, four days because it was nothing but jokes. [Laughs.]

“With Danny, people might think it’s gonna be a big party in the studio, but the times I worked with Danny, he was focused. He was ready work, he worked real fast and didn’t take all day writing. He might come in there and smoke something, but when it was time to work, he was focused.”

What’s Next

“I got a few projects in store. I don’t want to talk about them too much and jinx anything, but just know I have a lot of music piled up. At the top of next year, once the first quarter comes in, I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m gonna be dropping, from intrumental projects to collaborations with other artists, to more solo music.”

Pics via Black Milk’s Instagram, J DillaFool’s Gold Records, and MusikLives    

Previously: In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano