Mac Miller: King of the Hill (2013 Online Cover Story)

Mac Miller is the future, and the future is now.

This feature is a part of Complex's "Man of Next Year" Week.

High in the steep hills of Los Angeles, past a security gate and an infinity pool, up a pristine marble staircase, and behind an all-white door, Mac Miller sits in his office. Feet propped up on his desk, the 21-year-old rapper leans back in a burgundy suede chair smoking an American Spirit Menthol. He's having a Tony Montana moment, but instead of cocaine, his desk is littered with weed crumbs. While Scarface's walls were draped with surveillance monitors—a reflection of the drug lord’s paranoia—Mac’s walls are adorned with blowups of magazine covers, gold plaques, and tour posters—mementos of his success. Here, the self-described “underground rapper” is literally the king of the hill.

There are cameras in the house, but they’re not watching for intruders. Instead, an MTV2 crew is here to record Mac and his friends for an upcoming reality show, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. It’s no mystery why a network would want to build a show around Mac. He’s the biggest white rapper since Eminem and one of the most successful independent rappers ever. His 2011 album, Blue Slide Park was the first independently distributed debut to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard albums chart since since Tha Dogg Pound’s 1995 release Dogg Food.

“Number one album, how can you be mad at that?” asks Mac. “No one can knock what I do because I did it all on my own. There’s no major label. I’m not a fucking put-together product.” While attending Taylor Allderdice High School, Malcolm McCormick joined a rap group called the Ill Spoken. He dropped his first solo mixtape when he was 15. In 2010 Mac signed to Rostrum Records, the Pittsburgh-based independent label that brought Wiz Khalifa to national attention before landing him a deal with Atlantic Records. But Mac has gone a different route, proving that you can be a major star without a major label deal.

Mac's ascension has been both innovative and rapid. While his friends were busy doing homework, Mac was cutting class and building his fan base by freestyling on Facebook, making money off regional tours, and laying the groundwork for a full online takeover. Even more than Paul Wall, Mac’s got the Internet going nuts: His YouTube page has logged more than 400 million views, he has more than 3 million followers on Twitter, and more than 3 million likes on Facebook. These are the kinds of numbers that helped him sell out nationwide tours and land a Mountain Dew endorsement deal. According to Forbes, Mac really is on his Donald Trump shit, having raked in $6.5 million in 2012.

 

You’re 19, you’re so excited
to put out your first album, you put it out... and no one has any respect for you or for what you did.

 

At an age when most people are happy to simply drink legally, Mac has accomplished every goal he ever set for himself. He once dreamed of appearing on the cover of Complex, last year his web game helped him dominate the 2012 Man of Next Year competition. He tweeted out the voting link several times, and his diehard fans helped him grab more than 80% of the vote, and collect his prizes: a customized Cut & Sew bomber jacket and a one-of-one Fisker Karma hybrid luxury sedan.

But it ain’t all gravy for the artist formerly known as Easy Mac. As soon as Blue Slide hit No. 1, his problems started piling up as fast as his riches. Mac may have shot to the top of the charts, but critics were quick to shoot him back down. It wasn’t just that the reviews were “horrible,” to use Mac’s word. “A lot of the reviews were more on me as a person,” he says from behind his desk. “To be honest, that was even worse. You’re 19, you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out—and no one has any respect for you or for what you did.”

The harshest review of Blue Slide Park appeared in Pitchfork. Aside from giving Mac’s album an abysmal 1.0 rating, the site wrote: “Unless you buy into Miller's persona—and why would you?—Blue Slide Park offers you nothing that you can't find done more much artfully by, say, Curren$y.”

“There’s no way the album was as bad as that particular reviewer made it out to be,” says E. Dan, one half of I.D. Labs, the team that produced most of Blue Slide Park. “It felt personal. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s why I don’t like it musically,’ it was more like, ‘Here’s why I don’t like Mac Miller.’”

Mac took the bad reviews to heart. They didn’t just piss him off; they sent him into a personal tailspin. His problems got worse once he started the Macadelic Tour in March 2012. For the first leg of the tour, he played nothing but colleges, venues that did nothing to dispel the perception that the young MC was nothing more than a “frat rapper.” Over six grueling months he played 53 shows, including 20 in Europe (“Going through customs every day is not fun,” said his entourage). To help manage the stress he started using promethazine. Somewhere along the way he became addicted.

“I love lean; it’s great,” says Mac. But during the Macadelic tour things got out of hand. “I was not happy and I was on lean very heavy,” he admits. “I was so fucked up all the time it was bad. My friends couldn’t even look at me the same. I was lost.”

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, last July Lord Finesse filed a $10 million lawsuit against Mac, Rostrum Records, and the mixtape website DatPiff.com. Mac had used the beat from Finesse’s 1995 song "Hip 2 Da Game" for his 2010 song "Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza." Although the song was distributed for free on Mac’s mixtape K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit), Finesse’s lawsuit argued that its success helped launch Mac’s career. While there may be some validity to this argument, Mac had numerous other viral hits besides “Kool Aid.” The irony of being sued by one of his favorite artists for unauthorized beat-jacking—and by a member of a crew called Diggin’ In The Crates, no less—was not lost on Mac.

If the bad press got him down, the $10 million lawsuit was more than a bummer. Mac needed all his strength to face up to this challenge, but first he had to get clean. “I’ve never really been worried about Mac except during that lean period,” says his childhood friend Jimmy Murton. “I saw him in that mentality I remember being in—you’re getting fucked up because you feel like you need to. You’re trying to get away from everything.”

As Mac’s addiction grew more serious, his inner circle urged him to quit. He tried going cold turkey, but always wound up binging. It was just last November, before he started shooting the reality show, that Mac quit lean for good.

“For how much he was drinking,” says Jimmy, “it’s unbelievable that he stopped. It’s definitely one of the most impressive things he’s ever done.”

Kicking the habit helped Mac sort out everything else. In December he settled his case with Lord Finesse for an undisclosed chunk of change. Plenty of rappers have blown up off other people’s beats—just ask 50 Cent—but Mac is the first one to get shaken down for it to this extent. Whoever said it was lonely at the top was not lying. Mac's not allowed to speak on the case for legal reasons but it's clear he's happy to put that chapter behind him, both as a DITC fan and as a self-made business man. All that was last year, and next year is now. 

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