“I’m doing a little travelin’ right now – actually, I’m on my way to Denver,” said Black Milk in a late June phone call, as Missoula, Montana (scene of his live show the previous night) dwindled away in the rear-view mirror.
Black Milk & Nat Turner
When: 8:00 p.m. Jul. 17
Where: Schubas Tavern, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets: $17-$20 (18+over)
A markedly inventive indie rapper/beatmaker whose collaborations encompass marquee Motor City names like rapper Danny Brown and rock-guitar god Jack White, Los Angeles-based Black Milk had, in truth, been doing more than merely “a little travelin’ ” of late — he’d already spent six weeks traipsing the concert trail on an intercontinental jaunt dubbed the “Fever Tour,” named for his sixth and latest solo studio album. The tour launched May 12 in Europe and is set to conclude with a pair of early August dates in his native Detroit; Chicagoans will be able to catch Black Milk’s “Fever” July 17 at Schubas Tavern.
Fortunately, he happens to love the road. “It’s pretty crazy,” Black said approvingly. “Touring’s always great.” He shared some warm recollections of a Portugal tour stop where he, along with his four-piece live band — who go by the collective moniker Nat Turner, after the historical figure who led a storied 1831 slave rebellion — had appeared one month earlier.
“This was my first time being back there in a while,” said Black of that southern European nation, “and this was my biggest crowd, of all the places that I went to [among them Paris, Milan and Barcelona].”
Black Milk noted that he is eager to be playing Chicago again, observing, “It’s always a good time when I come out there.”
He’s been collaborating with a local hip-hop luminary, too: “It’s the rap artist Mick Jenkins,” Black pronounced. “We did a few records together, out in his studio, and hopefully they’re gonna be coming out sooner rather than later.”
The rapper-producer has barely hit his mid-30s, but Black Milk’s curriculum vitae is impressively lengthy — not too surprising, though, when you consider that the artist, born Curtis Eugene Cross in 1983, scored his first major credit while still a teen.
“He spent hours in his basement — at first with just a cheap drum machine and a home karaoke system, eventually moving up to more sophisticated MPCs and samplers — making tapes,” reads AllMusic.com’s chronicle of the path that Black Milk trod on the way to becoming a beatcrafter extraordinaire. “One of these tapes got into the hands of fellow Detroiters Slum Village, who … invited Cross to produce a track on their 2002 mixtape ‘Dirty District,’ as well as on their official full-length, ‘Trinity (Past, Present and Future).’ ”
With a co-sign this meaningful — an imprimatur from Slum Village, the titanic trio of rhyme-spitters who comprised one of Detroit’s most highly respected and substantive rap crews — Black Milk never looked back.
His tenure with Slum Village afforded Black the chance to kick it in the studio with his personal beatcrafting deity: late, great super-producer J Dilla, who was then working extensively with the hip-hop triumvirate. (Dilla, aka James Dewitt Yancey — ID’d by UrbanDictionary.com as “the Michael Jordan of beatmaking” — passed away in 2006 of a rare blood disorder.)
Black Milk’s own hip-hop production has for years been favorably likened to New York-bred Dilla’s, which is fully fine by him.
“Dilla is, you know, my idol,” Black stated, “and a big part of my sound, my influence — but you can hear my individuality as well.
“I think it’s the mentality Dilla had that inspired me,” Black Milk mused. “Both the mentality of, ‘I don’t want to ever be in a box,’ and of, ‘Always be trying to push the rhythm, push the music.’ And that rubbed off on me.” Black paused, then added, “Even with all of his ability, every few months he’d come with music that had pushed the bar [yet] again — reset the bar, I should say.”
Black Milk pointed out that his own “Fever,” released earlier this year on Mass Appeal Records (a label co-founded by seminal New York rapper Nas), was expressly designed to be at once more musical than previous solo efforts — “The vibe is gorgeous,” enthused U.K.’s The Guardian — and more consciousness-raising (he addresses murder-by-police and social media addiction), as well as deeply compassionate: “I’m trying to make music that people can relate to. For real.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.