After selling a ton of records, Mac Miller finally figures out how to make a good one
From the magazine: ISSUE 87, June/July 2013
Mac Miller is slightly salty. It’s the day after the release of his sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, and yet the 21-year-old rapper has been unable to find his own copy to purchase. The day before, the closest Target to his Studio City, Los Angeles home had just one left when he arrived. Mac dutifully gave it to a fan before confirming that this Target, and presumably all Targets nationwide, had only ordered somewhere between six and 10 copies each.
Mac is mystified at that number, considering that his previous effort, 2011’s Blue Slide Park, sold 145,000 copies in its first week and was the first independent album to debut at the top of the Billboard charts in 16 years. Conversations with Target staff proved less than enlightening. “They told me that they do algorithms,” he laments. “I was like, Word…uh…just take my album and put it in an algorithm. All this hard work just for a fucking algorithm!” Fortunately for the Target employees of the world, this is roughly the peak salt content of Mac’s attitude. Even in the face of this under-shipment catastrophe, the young rapper whose birth certificate says Malcolm McCormick has very little to be unhappy about.
It’s early in the afternoon, but Mac and a half dozen of his closest homies are chilling in the mansion he now calls home as if it were still morning. It’s one of those mansionesque mansions, complete with an infinity pool and a breakneck wind of road that Mac calls “the worst driveway in hip-hop,” listing off the many rap star pals of his who have struggled backing out of it. Once you clear it, the poolside kiddie basketball hoop and scattered sprawl of bikes reveals the Blank Check fantasy of the situation.
With tattoos crawling out of his T-shirt and a dark shadow of a beard, Mac could pass for any young skate rat in America. His clique is comprised mostly of childhood friends, many of whom hail from his pre-fame rap crew, East End Empire. Some are in town specifically to celebrate Watching Movies’ release, and others are permanent residents. Odd Future rap enigma and Mac collaborator Earl Sweatshirt is also present. All parties are dressed in a manner that falls somewhere between streetwear chic and laundry day desperation. Most are lounging appropriately hard, as if doing so were the only option on earth.
Not Mac, though. He’s already holed back up in the same place he’s spent the better part of the past year—his home studio. The room overlooks Mac’s pool, which overlooks magnificence, but shut the door and the sunlight is completely devoured by the dim glow of red lights. Mac chain smokes menthol American Spirits and sits diligently at the flat-screen monitor in his bare feet. He’s been making his own beats since moving out here, buckling down on what was once just a hobby. Friends rotate in and out, and Mac somehow balances holding court with being completely absorbed by whatever eight-bar loop he’s working on or writing to. In an era when rap producers brag about being able to knock out a beat in mere minutes, Mac spends hours on end, making incredibly minor melodic tweaks or running through soundbanks of crowd noise and farm animal sounds (“This sound is called ‘30 Donkeys?!’”) for appropriate atmospheric flourishes. Blunts are passed perpendicularly to this process, and at any given moment, one of his guests could be prodded to hop in the booth by the ever looming question of, “You got some raps?”
Mac himself began writing raps at eight. Born to a photographer mother and an architect dad, he grew up in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He describes his family as reasonably well off—“I didn’t struggle to eat food, but we weren’t rich.” He also includes the caveat that Pittsburgh is a “grimy-ass” city, where the condensed geography doesn’t accommodate the typical vision of middle class segregation.
By the time he hit high school, he was staying up until dawn on weeknights to write rhymes and sneaking out of the house to enter freestyle competitions at local venues like the Shadow Lounge. “I was known as being this little white kid who could rap,” he recalls. “When I was 15, I used to walk my ass to East Liberty and be in ciphers with motherfuckers twice my age.” After kicking around this local scene, Mac linked up with local label Rostrum Records in support of his fourth mixtape, 2010’s K.I.D.S. Based very loosely around the Larry Clark-directed teenage drama of the same name, the tape samples the film’s 16-year-old protagonist, Telly, extolling his deep passion for “pussy” on its intro. But whenever Telly says the word itself, Mac overdubs him-self saying “music!” Mac’s K.I.D.S. treated ’90s boom-bap rap in much the same fashion, scrubbing all the obscenity out of some of the grimiest shit of all time and leaving only a family-friendly shell behind.
“When I made K.I.D.S., I remember being scared about it coming out and texting [Rostrum Records VP] Artie [Pitt] like, ‘This shit is too happy and mainstream, it’s too pop-sounding.’” Mac remembers. “And then it just blew the fuck up. I was on tour three days later.” The hits followed in quick succession. “Nikes on My Feet,” a sneaker-head anthem built around a Nas sample, hit 36 million views on YouTube. The video features a particularly clean-cut Mac happily snap-ping his way through some sort of Gap commercial sock-hop scene without a hint of irony.
K.I.D.S. landed at the crest of a rising tide that was coming to be known as frat rap. Similarly happy-go-lucky white kids with names like Sammy Adams and Hoodie Allen had all begun to gain traction while playfully rapping about hangovers and marathon marijuana sessions, obsessed with an endless, nonspecific party. This emerging scene was self-contained and self-sustaining, a world that curiously existed almost entirely separate from the old guard of (predominately black) hip-hop. These were mostly white rappers, building mostly white audiences—though Mac’s Rostrum labelmate, and fellow Taylor Allderdice High School grad, Wiz Khalifa found success with this same crowd, as well. Where previous white rappers needed an in or cosign to find mainstream acceptance, frat rappers were floating in a parallel culture that was theirs and theirs alone. And while many people were crowing about artist independence in the internet era, they were making legitimate star turns without major label backing, radio play or mainstream press. They moved so silently through social media corridors that even the hippest blogs remained mostly oblivious to their rise. At the same time, much of that music—some of Mac’s output included—was so saccharine and awful that the world would probably be better off if it was never made at all.
“You’re called Mac Miller so much and you are Mac Miller so much that you’re no longer who you are.”
Mac now paints the events that followed as a blur. “Dude, I was 18 years old and I got thrown onto the road for two-and-a-half years straight,” he says. “There was no chance of normalcy.” There were more mixtapes, and more quietly massive hits—“Best Day Ever,” “Donald Trump,” “Frick Park Market.” If you weren’t paying attention, the chart-topping debut of Blue Slide Park might have come as a surprise, but its success was all but written in stone. It was Mac’s coronation as an artist, and also a generational statement about the potential of pop music (or at least this particularly narrow strain of pop music) to thrive outside of the existing industry machine. Still, it was bittersweet in that it established him as the most visible of the so-called frat rappers, the head of a movement that he represented easily but that didn’t exactly represent him. “That was never me,” he says. “I never went to college, I was never in a frat, I was always uncomfortable at college parties. I didn’t even go to parties!” He claims to have stumbled onto the persona, but it’s a believable one. Likability and cordiality remain a big part of Mac’s appeal; he’s deeply concerned with making people in the room feel comfortable, and being the carefree party dude is the easiest way for a teenager to project those desires.
During one of our many conversations, when the subject of race comes up, it becomes apparent Mac has never fully processed his skin color’s role in his rise. “People look at me like I really capitalized off [my whiteness],” he says. When I ask him if he thinks he did, he turns sheepish: “Not intentionally.” He continues, loosely skirting the question. “I think white kids saw me and were like, Holy shit! That could be me. I think I was an easily relatable person. I probably still am. But [on Watching Movies], you hear a lot of fucking insecurity about who I am.” While Mac’s social and creative circles are about as post-racial as anything is in this day and age (and have been for the duration of his career and maybe his whole life) his actual audience is white teenagers. This itself is not a punishable offense, but as he attempts to up his cool factor, he may need to distance himself from the first wave of fans that initially bolstered his career.
By old guard hip-hop standards, Mac’s rapping was considerably far below decent in the K.I.D.S. and Blue Slide era. His voice was thin, his flow strained. But in the modern hip-hop landscape, his core audience was too clueless or indifferent to chide him for his ineptitude. Now, as he surrounds himself with a group of much more traditionally talented (black) rappers, he’s clearly working overtime to keep up. The end result is awkwardly charmed, the sound of his wide-eyed desire to find himself and find acceptance. Where other rappers might downplay their pop-rap past or blame it on outside influences as they mature, Mac has no qualms or regrets about that stage in his career. In fact, he’s particularly zen about it. “It’s on me. I portrayed this,” he says, while sarcastically mimicking the underhand snaps from his “Knock Knock” video. “So what? There’s something I can appreciate about [that]. I was 18 and able to craft hit records at an independent level.”
There are no hits on Watching Movies. It’s deeply insular, the sort of wordy, exploratory and formless rap record that would’ve only exchanged hands via hissy tape dubs in the ’90s. On “I’m Not Real,” he raps, I don’t exist/ Hieroglyphs/ Pyrotechincs/ Metaphysics. The production is smoky and downbeat, as is his delivery. It’s not quite the departure that the press has made it out to be—Blue Slide Park, which was critically reviled, and the Macadelic mixtape that followed, were not without their fair share of navel gazing and noodly beats—but it’s an undeniable improvement. Watching Movies is a concise and focused affair—far from a masterpiece, but also the increasingly rare high profile rap album that has no interest in being one. Much like Mac himself, it’s also better at asking questions than answering them. On “Aquarium,” he literally asks, Is what I do important in the grand scheme of things? and of his audience, Will you follow me wherever my mind goes? With all its stoned pondering, Watching Movies perhaps feels like a more authentic college rap record than anything he made before.
By proxy, so much of Mac’s Los Angeles life feels straight out of freshman year. The space he occupies looks like a dorm room exploded onto luxury. Empty bottles of orange juice line the kitchen’s marble counters, days-old garbage bags pile up underneath. In the studio, there’s a giant wooden Buddha head sitting watch in front of a large blanket adorned with the image of Jimi Hendrix. Beanbag chairs and pillows make up most of the furniture.
He’s making new friends, too. Odd Future’s Left Brain and Hodgy Beats stop by late one night. Left Brain adds some drums to a sample Mac’s been working on and then Hodgy throws a verse on top. Vince Staples, whose recent Stolen Youth mixtape was produced entirely by Mac under his Larry Fisherman alter ego, rolls through a few times, but seemingly with no desire to make music at all. At one point, Staples half-jokingly teases Mac for only ever inviting him over to coax him into rapping. LA stalwarts Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul are also said to be regulars of the Mac compound, as is Dame Dash’s nephew, Da$h. New homies intermingle with the old ones, and a ton of music gets made.
For the most part, though, Earl Sweatshirt is the rapper who appears to be the most present in Mac’s life. Earl produced two tracks on Watching Movies and raps on one, but it’s clearly a friends first, collaborators second relationship. Having known each other for just under a year, they’ve already developed the chemistry and comic timing of lifelong buddies. Many of their interactions go something like this: Earl leans in toward Mac with a sly grin. He shows him a photo on his phone or tells a strange story that begins and ends with a “dude.” Then Mac reacts with wide eyes and a gaping mouth or he punches his palm emphatically and Earl nods in approval. Many of these exchanges revolve around their real-life interactions with other rappers. Earl shares presumably true observations like, Freddie Gibbs has scary dogs, or purely imagined hypotheses like, What if Future was a very good swimmer?, then lets them bounce around for a few minutes.
Both of them were thrust into stardom as teens, and both of them are constantly performing, even if it’s for no one particular. They’re outright goofy and innocent in a way few rappers would allow themselves to be in mixed company. They are, for lack of a better term, good kids, and they don’t seem particularly concerned with concealing that fact, either. The 19-year-old Earl was serving time at a Samoan boarding school for “troubled youth” while Mac was becoming the Mac Miller of “Knock Knock” fame, and Earl says he has yet to hear any of Mac’s material besides the new album and what they’ve made together. “Who cares?” he asks.
That’s that freshman year blank slate. It’s a time for establishing adult identities, not revisiting childhood ones. Mac’s tracing a lot of the steps one does at that time in one’s life. He talks enthusiastically about spirituality but only in very abstract terms. At one point I ask him to expound on his spiritual beliefs and he answers with excited, borderline gibberish: “Just like…just a weird like…yo man this is just how it’s supposed to be!” To which his Pittsburgh rapper friend Vinny Radio chimes in: “You should’ve just pointed at the Buddha head.” Mac clarifies, “Everything to me is like a religious something. I just see little things now and I give them a lot of power.” Mac was experimenting with drugs too, but he’s calmed down since his highly publicized and once daily syrup sipping habit became a problem. The common line from the press was that he turned to the drug after Pitchfork gave Blue Slide Park a scathing 1.0 out of 10 review, though Mac attributes his addiction more directly to the general weight of being Mac Miller. “You’re called Mac Miller so much and you are Mac Miller so much that you’re no longer who you are,” he says of his experience being cast in the national spotlight as a teen. “You’re just this picture painted.” In any case, Mac now jokes a lot about this stage in his life. During this time he grew a full beard and put on a few pounds. He’s since shed both.
As Mac grows, his natural likability remains steady. Even in the service of introspection, his charisma carries Watching Movies, except this time it’s connecting with both fans and critics alike. Pitchfork gave the record a serious bump to a solid 7.0 rating, and even with the distribution difficulties, it sold a very respectable 102,000 copies in its first week. The audience is either warping to reflect his new image, or just growing up with him, following him where his mind goes. “I’m in a less fragile state of my growth now,” he says. “I have a better grasp on how to balance it, how to make Mac Miller really be me.”
“I think white kids saw me and were like, Holy shit! That could be me. I think I was an easily relatable person. I probably still am.”
Later that Wednesday, the sunlight is beginning to set on Mac’s permanently darkened rabbit hole studio, and he’s not completely over the Watching Movies distribution fiasco. Throughout the day, these frustrations come out in quiet waves of dejection. He’ll trail off from an unrelated conversation, vocally remind himself of the empty shelves, then briefly spiral down hypotheticals in the name of his very loyal fanbase: what does this mean for a kid in Pittsburgh who can’t find the album? Or the one planning on buying 10 copies and posing with the receipt on Instagram? He makes it his mission to find a copy before the day’s end.
Mac drives a black Mercedes rife with fingerprints on the tinted windows. He escapes his winding driveway with relative ease but seems shaky about directions as soon as he leaves his neighborhood, relying on the backseat navigation of his very bearded in-house studio engineer/apparent life coach Josh Berg (who Mac calls “my Rick Rubin”). At a nearby Best Buy, Watching Movies is nowhere to be found. Dejected, Mac takes inventory of the more visible rap releases of the day. He fondles a small stack of Kanye West’s new album and counts the Born Sinners by J. Cole. He approaches an employee who asks awkwardly, “You’re looking for your album?” No dice. The same clerk pulls Mac aside for a quick photo op before he leaves to the next chain store.
As the evening goes on, Mac’s spirits seem to rise, invigorated by the thrill of the hunt. He’s gleeful when people don’t recognize him, gleeful when they do. When another Target is sold out, he instead pulls a copy of Now That’s What I Call Music 46 off the shelf. “Wait, wait, wait! I’m on this,” he says, referring to a guest verse he delivers on Ariana Grande’s megahit “The Way.” After being shut out at a second Best Buy, he skips through parking garage and declares, “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time!”
Josh makes a call to the Los Angeles indie mega-emporium Amoeba Records, but the clerk has never heard of Mac Miller. She checks the computer and says that the album is “import only,” and thus won’t be in stock for another week. Not wanting to end the day empty-handed, he swings by the store anyway. Apart from one small pack of teens who pull Mac aside for a picture, the notoriously hip Amoeba clientele either fails to recognize him or is simply too cool to acknowledge his presence. But it’s here that he finds not just a few but several dozen copies of the album in the new releases section. It’s adorned with a “Music We Like” divider, an honor attributed to neither Kanye West nor J. Cole.
Mac gives Josh a round of high fives, throws his hands up in the air and does a victory lap around the aisles. Eventually, he lands at his own name in the hip-hop section and is elated to find not only Watching Movies and Blue Slide Park but also CD-R bootlegs of a handful of his freebee downloads. Regardless of the legality behind it, he’s visibly awed to see these things that he had previously created only digitally willed into the physical realm. He snatches them all up and then slides into a nearly blind, storewide buying spree. He grabs albums by Quasimoto and Tyler, the Creator. He moves outside of hip-hop and pulls down a David Ruffin album and an acid house compilation. He hits the “unusually experimental” vinyl section with particular excitement, grabbing fundamental weirdo records by the likes Jandek and Oval for seemingly no reason other than being impressed by the artwork. He buys a David Lee Roth record then later asks the question, “Who is David Lee Roth?”
There’s something endearing about seeing this childlike curiosity indulged in a large record store with an apparently unlimited budget. At one point, he blurts out, “I can’t believe I’ve never been here before!” This seems odd, given that Amoeba is a minor rite of passage for any self-respecting music buyer even visiting LA, let alone one who’s been living there for an entire year. When I ask him what he’s been doing with his life, if not going to Amoeba, he responds, “Uh…sitting in that room.”