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Hip-hop producer and rapper Black Milk is easy to pull for. He hails from Detroit, a hub of American heartache. The ideas of representing and tradition—-specifically of carrying on the beat-making values of the posthumously celebrated-en-masse J Dilla—-are not lost on Black Milk (born Curtis Cross). His work is mostly outstanding. He’s pensive and humble over the phone.
“I try to represent Detroit in a certain light,” Milk says. “It’s more about knowing the culture and history that everyone remembers. It’s about details, about putting out quality because I have a lot to live up to.”
A consistent collaborator with revered underground Detroit talent, Milk sees his thriving network as dependent on a collaborative climate wherein business transactions take a back seat.
“That’s never been an issue,” Milk says. “If you’re part of my circle I don’t even think about a person paying me [for beats]. Royce Da 5’9’’, Elzhi, we come together for the love of music. I want Detroit to have dope records.”
Milk’s best track is “Long Story Short,” the opening number on 2008’s excellent solo effort Tronic. Beyond the arresting smorgasbord of synthesizers, piano lines, and knocking drums, “Long Story Short” is a comprehensive, vulnerable autobiography: Milk was born in 1983 and delved into hip-hop at 17, first experimenting on tape decks and karaoke stereos; his early attempts at stardom were done in conjunction with a security-blanket clique he was destined to painfully leave; his big break stemmed from a close buddy’s gig as a roadie for Slum Village who spent the tour trying to hand over a CD-R of Milk tracks and eventually succeeded; this led to hometown tours with D-12; the late Proof’s unhinged live performances inspired him to develop his stage persona.
“I wrote [“Long Story Short”] because I felt a void in people misunderstanding where I was coming from as a writer. I had to start from the jump and tell the story how it’s supposed to be told,” says Milk.
The elephant in the room, however, remains Black Milk the emerging rapper versus Black Milk the brilliant producer. After a pulsing rundown from birth to 2008 on “Long Story Short,” and Album of the Year, a 2010 follow-up LP written entirely about Black Milk’s eventful and sorrow-filled 2009, the rapper half of Milk’s brain might be overstretched. After all, the list of good rapper/producers is notoriously short.
“I don’t worry about running out of things to say,” Milk says. “My creative process is never calculated, and there’s always words…Actually people tell me I write my best stuff over other people’s beats and I believe it: My brain focuses solely on the rhymes.”
His current solo tour features a tight unit of Milk, his DJ Bill Sharp, keyboardist Ab, and drummer Daru. The quartet is built to emphasize Milk’s beats, stabbing the hard parts like backing horns in a soul band.
“We’ve been relentless,” Milk says. “We just did 12 shows in eight days in Australia. The crowd reaction is about the same down there, but the summer weather is a huge bonus.”
Black Milk performs with SmCity, Gods’illa, and X.O. at U Street Music Hall on Sunday. 9 p.m. $20.