by Alex Shtaerman
In 1987 a song by a certain group some of you reading this may have heard of became forever etched in the consciousness of Hip-Hop culture. The group was Audio Two, consisting of brothers MC Milk Dee and Gizmo, and the song was an iconic B-Boy anthem by the name of “Top Billin’”. Defying genres and crossing into the mainstream at a time when most rappers were still struggling to get airplay, “Top Billin’” not only gained commercial success and global exposure but retained an unparalleled credibility among Hip-Hop aficionados and fans that has lasted a full two decades. Sampled and referenced countless times over the last 20 years, in 2007 Milk Dee’s voice can once again be heard as the driving force behind 50 Cent’s latest hit single “I Get Money”, as well as the “I Get Money Billion Dollar Remix” featuring none other than Jay-Z and Diddy.
Now for those of you who are ready to scream “one hit wonder”, remember that Leonardo Da Vinci is also best known for a single painting, it’s called the Mona Lisa and is widely regarded as the finest portrait to ever grace a canvas. But just like Leonardo was not only a painter, Milk Dee is not just a rapper. Following his recording career, Milk moved behind the scenes, producing numerous artists including legendary female lyricist MC Lyte, who also happens to be his younger sister. Milk has also scored films, had hits overseas and done remixes for the likes of Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson. Recently we had a chance to catch up with the man who may be responsible for at least temporarily postponing the demise of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s career. What more can I say?
RIOTSOUND.COM: Without being in the same realm as Hip-Hop heavyweights such as Run DMC, Rakim, KRS One, 2Pac, Biggie, Jay-Z and so forth, you’ve recorded one of the most classic and most definitive Hip-Hop songs of all time in “Top Billin’”. That puts you in a pretty unique position as far as Hip-Hop history is concerned. With that said, how do you view what your legacy and the legacy of Audio Two has been to Hip-Hop?
MILK DEE: I think about it all the time, how unique my situation is and how fortunate I am. Of course when I started [rhyming] my intentions were to be the best MC of all time, just like every MC’s [intention]. But everybody’s path is different and it’s kinda crazy the way that it’s going. I would have never expected it to be like this but I’m extremely happy about it. The most sampled Hip-Hop song of all time – wow, that’s an accomplishment. You know, I’m not Biggie but I have my accomplishment. And within that, people like Biggie and 50 [Cent], they use what I do and what I did to help propel them to another level. So it feels good. I think about a lot of the cats from my time and people don’t even know who they are now, which is a crime but that’s how it is. So I’m fortunate that people still know who I am because of the way [other artists] have sampled the music.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Now obviously we have to mention 50 Cent’s new track “I Get Money” and the “I Get Money Billion Dollar Remix” featuring Jay-Z and Diddy; first I want to ask you how you feel about the actual song, and secondly being that a sample of “Top Billin’” is pretty much the engine that drives “I Get Money”, are you being compensated financially by 50 and company?
MILK DEE: Initially the sample wasn’t cleared but [now] we’re in negotiations and we’re working it out. I’m never worried about being compensated for it. Really, if they put [the song] out before they clear [the sample] it puts us in a better bargaining position; I never worried about the money. As far as the song, it’s cool and they playin’ it insanely, you know, a whole lot. And every time it comes on I get calls and people are like, exactly what you just said like – yo, you know that you make that song, your part is what really makes it hot. They tell me that like – oh, you know you saved 50 – stuff like that. It feels good. To be a part of Hip-Hop now and not to have any new material out, that’s a real special and unique situation to be in – and [at the same time] I’m also making money from it. So I count my blessings.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You first burst onto the scene in the ‘80’s. What was the vibe like back then as far as Hip-Hop goes and what was it in particular that drove you to pursue Hip-Hop and become involved in the culture and start rhyming?
MILK DEE: Well, I started rhyming when I was nine and I would say my biggest influence was Kool Moe Dee. This is when there was no [radio] stations, no “Home of Hip-Hop” and all of that. It was an underground thing and if you could get your hands on a mixtape back then you had gold [laughs]. When I got my first Kool Moe Dee battling Busy Bee on the Cold Crush Brothers cassettes, that’s what made me wanna rhyme. Hip-Hop was a lot different [back then] than it is now; it was a culture back then. It was the graffiti, the DJ – which I don’t even know what happened to the DJs these days, or the graffiti for that matter – the MC, the clothing, it was just a way of life; but a real way of life, not a marketing way of life.
When the songs came out you would really be excited to get that new artist and when you got it and when you listened to it, it was like – wow, this is some hot shit [laughs]. We used to fiend for albums, I remember specifically – back in the days they used to release a lot of singles before an album came and Biz Markie is a good example – he had all of these singles out and we were fiending and waiting and counting the days like – yo! when is Biz Markie’s album coming out!!? So it was like a really good feeling that you would feel in your bones. Nowadays it seems like I don’t get that feeling. When I hear the new stuff I could take it or leave it, even the stuff that is great, even though I think most of it isn’t great. Here’s a question, 20 years from now, what’s going to be the “Top Billin’” from 2007?
RIOTSOUND.COM: It’s hard to say ‘cause nothing is hitting like that and resonating with the fans to that extent; plus the market is saturated with so much crap, it’s like wading through a swamp.
MILK DEE: Yea, it’s real hard to say, I’m sure that they’ll be playing something. It’ll probably be one of Jay-Z’s songs or “In Da Club” by 50 [Cent] or something, but it’s hard to even conceive that the music that’s created now can have that type of impact. You know, I’m not trying to be gassed up but on the real, like now a lot of the music is disposable. It’s like you hear it from the time that they play it and once they’re done you forget about it. And it’s not only the songs, a lot of the artists you [also] forget about. It’s like they just come and go. And also it seems like the artists don’t really care about the music. Back in the days they were doing it for the culture because that’s what they felt. It wasn’t so much money to be distributed around because of it. We were doing it because that’s what we wanted. Now it seems like cats do it just for the money and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that but I feel like it should still be approached at the maximum level, you know. There should be some rules, we need to hand out MC licenses [laughs], like you gotta take some classes or something or [at least] a history class before you start rhyming.
Cats don’t even know the difference between rhyming on-beat and off-beat these days. I read a comment on the web, somebody was talking about the 50 Cent remix [I did] and they was like – yo, the kid rhymes off beat – talking about me. And I was reading it like – really, is that off beat dude – you know what I mean? They think that off-beat is on-beat – you know, how could you say I’m rhyming off beat? That just doesn’t [make sense]. Say you don’t like the rhyme or you don’t like the voice but I don’t think that rhyming off-beat is really part of it. I don’t rhyme off-beat [laughs]. Yea, so [Hip-Hop] is a lot different. I would say it’s the feeling, the passion. The passion now is money and that’s what it sounds like.
RIOTSOUND.COM: I’m sure a lot of fans might want to know this – where did the moniker of MC Milk Dee originally come from?
MILK DEE: This goes back to – I was probably in the sixth grade. I was in the car with my uncle and aunt. My uncle jumped out the car to go in the store and when he was running across the street, my aunt, she wanted to tell him to get milk but he took the keys and the window couldn’t come down so she started banging on the window and she was just screaming – milk! milk! milk! I was in the car and I was just laughing because she was bugging out with it. So every time I would see them she would just start yelling – milk! milk! – and I would start laughing. So when it was time to become an MC, I was searching for a name that was unique and completely different. And of course as you know, at that time there was nothing like that. People used to be like – Milk? [laughs] Everything was just somebody’s name and then a “Dee” or something like that at the end. And I think I used the “Dee” because when you look at the milk container, it says “milk with vitamin D”. So every time you look at the milk [container] you also see the “D”. And plus my idol Kool Moe Dee had the “Dee” [in his name]. So I just added the Dee to the Milk and here it is, Milk Dee.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Following your recording career you also had a lot of success in moving behind the scenes in the music industry; can you talk about that as well as some of your experiences in recent years?
MILK DEE: A lot of people think that if they don’t hear you up front then you’re not in the business or you’re starving or doing bad or whatever. But over the years I’ve done a lot of production work, I did some remixes – you know, [for] Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Sinéad O’Connor. I also did a couple of movie scores. I did the score for Hell’s Kitchen with Mekhi Phifer, Angelina Jolie, William Forsythe and Rosanna Arquette. I also did the score for another movie called Civil Brand with MC Lyte, Tichina Arnold and [others]; that’s an all star also on that one. I had a really big hit overseas with an artist called Jason Downs, the song was called “White Boy With A Feather”, which I was featured on, and that was really big for us. Most recently, the Eamon album I Don’t Want You Back, the single [“Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back)”] was the 2004 number one played song in the world, we sold six million copies on the album, you know what I mean. So I’ve been still doing it. And actually right now we’re in the process of re-launching our label First Priority Music, completely independent. There’s some new Milk Dee material coming. We never stopped doing it but we kinda just fell more into the major [label] way of doing business. I’m excited now because we’re going independent again. It’s a big monumental move for me because I feel like the major [label] system stifles me creatively.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Just to catch up on some more history, you and Gizmo are also the older brothers of MC Lyte, who over the years has become universally heralded as one of the greatest female MCs of all time. As far as women in Hip-Hop go, it seems like we had some hope in the Golden Era but for the most part the notion of the female MC today is something that has become very twisted and marginalized. Being that you’ve had such a unique perspective with Lyte being your sister, how would you describe the state of events when it comes to female MCs today?
MILK DEE: Ok, first of all, I tell Lyte that all the time, she tries to be humble about it but I tell her like – yo, you’re the best female MC of all time. I think she knows it but she just tries to be humble. I think part of what’s going on as far as what we’re dealing with for the label [First Priority Music], is going to explore a lot of different things that people aren’t doing now. Right now female MCs is basically dead, like you said. And the ones that come out, they’re wack. So what can I say? And it’s funny too ‘cause I’ve learned so much from producing [MC Lyte] – I think it’s time for a new female MC and I’m going to use everything that I’ve learned as far as what a female MC is supposed to be when I’m producing that [next] artist. And I have one [in mind], I just don’t know if she’s ready yet.
And another thing, while we’re touching on that; I think part of what’s wrong with what’s going on today is the work ethic. I’ve worked with a lot of artists and I’ve experienced a lot of artists. I’m in the studio sometimes with artists that I’m not even working with, and it’s like, if the producer tells the artist that they need to kick the verse again, it’s like a problem [laughs], you know what I mean. They’re like – I’m the producer and I think you can do it better. And the artist’s like – well, it sounds hot to me. And I’m thinking, isn’t that the producer’s job to determine whether you do it again or not? And you’ll find with producers like Dr. Dre, and you’ll read when people are talking about Dre, even Snoop, they’ll say – Dre made me do the verse over and over like 30 or 40 times. The more you do it the better it’s going to be. I don’t believe in the – come to the studio with the paper, read the rhyme off the paper, do a couple of lines then punch in – you know, that takes away from it. How could you be an MC if they have to punch you in? You should be able to spit the whole song.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You can tell on record when they do that too. You can always hear it if you listen closely.
MILK DEE: Yea, ‘cause the vibe changes or maybe even the positioning of the mic. They can use the automation or whatever but Pro Tools can’t re-create the vibe of that [previous] take. And also if you doing a take and by the end of the verse it’s getting harder ‘cause you losing your breath or whatever it is, that adds to the emotion of what it is. If every line is perfect then it doesn’t really sound like you’re going anywhere. Not that they are [always] perfect, ‘cause really not perfect [laughs], but [when you do a song by punching in], it takes away from the emotion. And [artists] get mad at me ‘cause if they come in with the paper, I’m like – yo, we gonna have to re-schedule. We can punch verse for verse, do a verse, stop, then do another verse. I’ll accept that. But if you can’t make it through the verse or you don’t know that verse by heart, I don’t want you wasting my time.
What I do with my artists is I make them practice because practice makes perfect. I don’t believe in all of that freestyling. If an artist is at the radio station I’d rather hear them spit something that they wrote ‘cause I want to hear your best and I want to hear where you’re coming from. I don’t want to hear jumbled nonsense that’s coming off the top. Back in the days there used to be artists that could do that where it would sound like something that somebody might have written but these days it just sounds like, at least to me, like random nonsense. Yo, spit a rhyme you wrote, lemme hear your best. ‘Cause that’s how I wanna feel [laughs], you know what I’m saying. When I hear it I wanna feel like – oh man, wow. So that’s where I’m at with it.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Being from the Golden Era of rap, how do you feel about the whole censorship controversy that Hip-Hop has endured over the last few months following the whole Imus thing? Do you think there should ever be censorship in music, and even if your answer to that is “no”, do you think there are certain artists and corporate mechanisms behind them that do go too far and need to be checked at times?
MILK DEE: See, I have feelings on both sides of the issue. We were always censored musically, from the beginning. And I can accept that to a certain extent because I have kids, you know what I mean. And I don’t want my kids listening to things that are too crazy, so I can understand that. As a parent it makes it a little harder for me to do what I want to do because I do have a responsibility. I can’t just say anything. But artistically I feel like artists should be able to do whatever they want. They don’t have to play it on the radio. But what’s happening is, because of the way everything is, [companies] have no way of exploiting artists unless [the music] is on the radio or the internet. People won’t know it’s there or they might not know to search for it like how we used to search for music when there wasn’t an internet. How do you get your hands on a Kool Moe Dee mixtape if you’re from Germany and there’s no internet [laughs]?
RIOTSOUND.COM: Yea, that’s totally right, I never thought about it that way…
MILK DEE: People today aren’t even interested in exploring [that avenue]. There’s a whole lot of Hip-Hop groups that have excelled underground, like N.W.A for example. See, I appreciate groups like that, where they come out and they say whatever they feel like – we don’t care about radio airplay, “fuck the police”, this is what we want to do. I can get with that. I feel like that’s what I do in my own way. I don’t say [stuff like that] but I try to do music that’s unique and that I like. And that’s kinda the same thing, you just don’t follow the trend. So I can appreciate it. What’s going on today is the same as it was back in the ‘80’s. There was censorship then and there’s censorship now. We need to get to the point where the music can speak for itself. N.W.A was so thick and they put such an effort into making that [formula] work that they overcame the boundaries and they still ended up getting airplay even though the name of the group was N.W.A and even though the police was looking for them and all of that. So [censorship] is part of the game, it’s still the same. Actually I think music wise, industry wise, we’re back in ’88 all over again.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You mentioned you are working on some brand new Milk Dee material, what can we expect as far as that goes? And also, is there any chance the fans will see an Audio Two reunion sometime in the future?
MILK DEE: There’s no chance of an Audio Two reunion, Giz is chillin’ but we’re not working together anymore. The new Milk Dee material is stuff that I’m working on right now. I’m actually taking a break now to make this call. It was really hard for me to get back in the swing of recording just because I felt – let’s not get it twisted, I’ve always been rhyming and, like I said, I’m in the studio every day, I never lost my skills, if anything I feel like I’m better [now]. But, if anything, I just lost the inspiration to write because I felt like I would have to write something that fit with what goes on today. But with the overwhelming response that I get on my MySpace and when people see me, it kinda inspired me and gave me the courage to just do what I do. You know, either they gonna like it or not.
Right now I’m in a good position because it doesn’t really matter, I don’t have to do it for the money, I’m just doing it for the fun, for the culture and just doing what I want to do. So I’m back in. And I look at it like this; even if I just sell [my album] to all of the people emailing me and begging me to do a new album, if they all go out and buy it I’ll have good numbers. I’ll be happy to make them happy, so that’s how I’m approaching it. No fear, doing some Milk shit and [you can] love it or hate it, just like before [laughs].
RIOTSOUND.COM: For a 15 or 16 year old kid that’s into rap music right now but might not be up on the roots and legacy of Hip-Hop culture, what would be the one thing you would want that type of fan to know about what Hip-Hop is and what it represents?
MILK DEE: Passion. Hip-Hop is a culture that represents passion. Actually I can’t even say one thing, I’ll say passion and innovation. Like that’s a big difference too; back in the days we did what we had to do with what we had. “Top Billin’” was done with a foot pedal sampler and a four-track and we put it out. The DJs used to scratch records, they had to get creative with it. Now it’s like the same process, everybody has a computer with the Pro Tools. You don’t have to get creative or innovative and they’re not trying to be creative or innovative. I think that’s part of the foundation of Hip-Hop, innovation. Innovation and passion, that’s what I would tell [the kids] to do. And I think that they should also explore the history of Hip-Hop.