Interview: Mac Miller

At 21, Mac Miller starts to grow up.

June 05, 2013

"So how many times have you been the first white guy that a black girl ever had sex with?" Hot 97 program director Ebro Darden asks Mac Miller in April, when the rapper visits New York to celebrate the second season renewal of his MTV reality show. Miller's cheeks flush red, picking up the ruddiness in his four-day beard. He stutters and fidgets, leaning in and re-crossing his legs, then asks if they can cut this part out. Darden and co-host Peter Rosenberg take on an unsolicited parental tone, addressing Mac like a pet underclassmen, and promise they'll smooth things out with editing. Over the course of the morning, Miller has displayed a kind of low-key charm, but not the suave demeanor you might expect from a top-selling rapper (Forbes reports he earned $6.5 million last year), dotting his answers to tough questions with uhhhhs and I don't knows. He's got a bit of a lisp and seems exhausted by morning show backbiting. "Can you respect Angela Yee please?" he asks when Charlamagne Tha God, a host of Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club, interrupts and dismissively waves a hand fan at his female co-host.

After the Breakfast Club interview is done, Mac's manager calls him over to meet Power 105.1's new program director. "What'd I do?" Mac says to introduce himself, smiling with his eyes while his mouth hangs open. It's hard to tell whether he's startled or just playing dumb, but his cheerful ignorance lubricates the conversation. Another station employee calls her daughter, who's in class at middle school, and asks Mac to say hi. "Heyyyy it's Mac," he offers in a fried whisper. Mom squeals.

Moms love me cause I’m so commercial/ Fuck 'em raw cause I know they fertile raps Miller on "Guild," a collaboration with Earl Sweatshirt for Earl's upcoming album Doris. It's a gross line followed by an impressive run of rhymes about beaches and fleeces. As a rapper he's gotten better, notably in a way that his past critics—Pitchfork maligned Blue Slide Park, his debut LP, with a 1.0 rating—might appreciate. At the LA compound where he built a cavernous studio and filmed the MTV show, Miller has surrounded himself with hardworking artists like Earl, Flying Lotus, Vince Staple and Ab-Soul, playing host while soliciting input and absorbing techniques. Miller's new album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off (June 18th, Rostrum), blends this collaborative savvy with lighthearted production, clumsy singing and awkward talk about porn stars. If imperfect, the result is lovable. Here, he opens up about his desire to win over unbelievers, his discomfort talking about girls and who pays his cell phone bill.

Did you make Watching Movies with the Sound Off strategically, with the hope that people would take you more seriously? I don’t think that was part of the plan. The plan was: I’m putting out some music, maybe some stuff that’s cooler, a little bit more chill, something that people can really process and get something from. But I didn’t think that they would give a fuck. I prepared for everyone to still hate it. My music always changes from project to project, but I didn’t figure “S.D.S.” was going to go on Pitchfork. I didn’t think that any of that side of things was going to cover this album, because I figured they already didn’t like me. The only time Pitchfork wrote about me before I dropped “S.D.S.” was when they gave me a 1 on my last album. Which is fucking sick. At the time I thought it was so bad, but people were like, Actually that’s pretty legendary.

How does it feel to be acknowledged now? It was funny and awesome to sit there and watch all of these different websites and people, who have gone out of their way in the past to dismiss me, begrudgingly post “S.D.S.” The writers are saying that the song is sick, but always with this tone like, Ugh, fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this. Or they’re like, Sure, he’s getting better, but he’s no MF Doom. It’s funny to sit back and watch that, cause it’s not like aspects of what I’m doing now were never there. Maybe people got turned off by singles, or how I was perceived as the frat rapper dude. It’s funny to see them starting to shift their opinion, from like, Mac Miller is kind of tight, what? To like, Yeah, Mac Miller, I’d fuck with it. I’ve changed. I’m much more of a perfectionist with everything, especially my music. I used to just do shit. Now it’s like, You turned what up? I’m into every aspect, from creative to production to mixing. Sometimes it drives me crazy. I got a Jay Electronica verse for the album, and it’s incredible, but I was definitely bugging the fuck out of him when it came down to it.

Will you still enjoy playing your old songs live? Or will you stick to new stuff? For the past year and a half, when I do “Knock, Knock,” it’s fun, but when I say the lyrics, I don’t feel anything. You’re just kind of reciting. But this is the thing—it’s like the Beatles. The Beatles are not going to come out and not perform “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” For the next tour, The Internet is coming. They’re going to play with me and Syd’s going to sing with me, and it’s going to be a cool vibe. So much of the new show is gonna be about me and what I want to do. It’s not gonna be the show where everyone freaks out; it’s the show where everyone relaxes and watches. I’ve always wanted that type of show. If I see fans who went crazy with my old shit go crazy to “S.D.S.,” that will make me happy. But the illest thing will be that when I go back and play the old shit at the end, it’s still going to be nice. It’s going to be fun. At the end of the day, I don’t dislike those songs. They’re just me at 18.

You recently got out of a relationship you’d been in for for the duration of your career. Does the angst of that breakup show up on this album? I met my ex in eighth grade. We were together from the end of junior year till two months ago. I’m in that relationship for four years. When it’s that long, the first two years are one thing, but the second two years shit really gets hard. Especially with what I’m doing. Macadelic was all about us. This love/drugs stuff, how love and drugs are the same thing—our relationship was fucking me up. It made me think of myself as a bad person. We’re no longer together. For this album, I think that’s what I had to do. I just wanted to go into the studio cave that I built. It’s dark in there. There’s no concept of time or where you are. Separating myself from everything allowed me to explore my own mind.

You squirmed in an interview earlier when girls came up. Having been with one person for so long, do you think you know more or less about love than most kids your age? I’m uncomfortable talking about the relationship, especially on video, cause I know she’s going to watch and see my facial expressions and it’ll be bad. That was my first real relationship and it’s still not 100% over. With relationships, I think you never know if you’re seasoned or completely ignorant. I’ve learned a lot about myself from being with her, but I can’t tell if I know anything about love yet.

Can you tell whether you know a lot about music? I know I’m not shit. I play instruments and I’m working on this Velvet Revival jazz shit now, but I’m not good at any of it compared to where I wanna be at. But you always gotta strive to be better. I’m very critical of my own music. It’s not like I can’t enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I’m close to where I’m headed.

How did you get into jazz? There’s a sense of relaxation and this cool-out vibe about a bunch of people kicking it and playing in a band. That’s always been a dream of mine. I was really inspired by E. Dan, the engineer at Pittsburgh’s ID Labs, looking at his soul vinyl covers from the ’60s and ’70s. I love that dusty aesthetic. My favorite part of the You cover is that it has the vinyl outline on it. It looks like it’s been on the shelf for a while.

But it hasn’t been on any shelf. It’s a digital release. You do what you can with what you have. Maybe the next step is to print that shit up, but the reality of that project was I just wanted to put it out. I like putting some analog in the digital world. I enjoy the internet, though, cause I’m such a right here right now person. I’m impatient as fuck, which is something I gotta work on.

What else are you working on? How has your lifestyle changed over the course of making this album? I used to be so wide-eyed and I loved everything. I loved doing every interview, every club appearance, because I was so excited, like, Holy shit, I’m a professional. My whole life I’d wanted to be a musician. But it got to a point where that enthusiasm faded. I definitely went through what I would call a dark period. There was just a bunch of shit happening from my relationship, plus fucking touring all the time. Making this album, I sat in that cave all day. I was a nasty motherfucker. Never showered. Nasty facial hair everywhere, same clothes all the time. I gained like thirty pounds. Lean makes you gain a lot of weight. To do my MTV show, I didn’t want to sip lean. I was like, Damn, I’m fucking fat as hell. I’m about to be on national TV. I gotta get my shit together. I was just so obsessed with this album. Now I’m trying to clear my mind and stop tripping so much. I stopped drinking lean and started running. I changed my whole shit to get back to a healthy place. But you gotta go through the bullshit to know anything. Once the album’s out, it’s going to be so much weight lifted off my shoulders.

Is going through that “bullshit” and coming out of it in a healthier place something that bonds you with Earl? What’s brought everyone really close is that everyone’s always at my house. Sometimes people are tripping acid. Everybody’s experiencing things. Me and Earl have had many a conversation. My house is one of his favorite places to make beats. We’re definitely kind of pretty similar people. We’re both very nice. We’re trying to do good things, but also we try to be assholes at the same time.

Watching Movies with the Sound Off’s intro was produced by Earl, but then tweaked and distorted by you. Collaborating in the studio, do you all ever step on each other’s toes? No. We’re all close friends. No one’s gonna fuck up someone’s shit to the point that they’d be upset. They’re minor tweaks, but they’re major to me. The intro beat that Earl did went through a lot of different shit. He made something and left it on Logic, I took it and made it into the intro. At the end of the day, I’m the producer of the album and I have to make everything fit my vision.

"I changed my whole shit to get back to a healthy place. But you gotta go through the bullshit to know anything."

What is rap camp? You call a bunch of rappers and have them all come over. Everyone kicks it and does songs. People get on songs together that normally wouldn’t get on songs together, people meet each other, everyone is trying to do a good verse. I don’t always have the best verse, but I’m not gonna sit here and act like I never have the best verse. I rap my ass off when I feel like rapping my ass off. Alchemist is the founder of rap camp, he has that shit at his house. I low-key stole the idea from him, I’m just way less legendary. Alchemist has rap camp, I have like rap day camp. We had an Easter one. My mom came out, we had a bunch of rappers over and a couple people on my team made this huge Easter dinner. It was awesome.

Did you always think you’d be a big breadwinner in your family? I never thought I was gonna do something regular. I always thought I’d do music and college wasn’t for me. I was either gonna end up famous or a fuck-up, the asshole of the family. But I always believed I was gonna be able to make it happen. Shouts to my brother though, who does all my art. He designs everything. When I was younger, my brother was definitely the more well behaved kid.

How adult do you feel about your money? Do you still depend on your parents to handle things for you? My financial situation is very adult, but I have an awesome team. If I had to do regular people shit, pay my cell phone bill and remember to do things, it would be different. I’m lucky I have a have a whole team that does everything, like save money for taxes. I paid my taxes and didn’t lose any money. I don’t have to worry. But I realize I’m 21 years old and the president of a giant endeavor. It’s not a corporation, but it may as well be. There’s like a million people that in some way make money with me.

How much did you spend on building your home studio? It was a lot. Putting it together it had to be at least like 50k, which is crazy. But you know, you spend a lot for studio time, and this allows me to basically have unlimited studio time. Money spent on music is always never a fail. Having a studio at my house has changed everything for me. I’ve got two studios. There’s one downstairs that’s separate from the house; that’s the cave, the sanctuary. Then upstairs is the live room, which is like connected to my bedroom.

What happened to Pink Slime, the project you and Pharrell were working on? Pink Slime is going to happen. Combining me with Pharrell is like a big thing. We were going back and forth about what we wanted to project to be and I was kind of fighting to make the project like my album. Ultimately, I felt I had to do my album first. He was cool with that, he understands. Sonically, he was probably right about what the project should be. Now that I’ve made my album, I can do something different with Pharrell.

Whose idea was the MTV show? MTV’s. We sat down together and I came with all these ideas: What if we did like a funny ass dating show? What if I did the new Pimp My Ride. They were like, Why don’t we just do a show about you and your friends? That caught me off guard at first. I’m shaking off the frat rapper thing, I don’t want to jump into reality star next. But at the end of the day, I thought it would be a good thing for people to see who me and my friends are, because everyone has these preconceived notions.

Has anything aired that you regret filming? The Vegas episode. When I watched it, I was coming down in one of those states of mind when you hate anything you do. When you’re like, Fuck, I need to go to sleep, I suck. Can’t listen to your own music, you hate it. Everyone has those moments, they’re not just because of drugs. But I watched the Vegas episode and I was like, I’m like a fucking idiot. I was still working through problems with my girlfriend and there was a shot of me in a pool, with a girl coming on me and me being like, Cut the cameras off. I don’t even like the girl being on the episode. But that ended up being a lot of people’s favorite episode. That’s how shit works.

Interview: Mac Miller