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. 

Last summer, Mac and his Iron City entourage made a fresh start, moving from Pittsburgh to a mansion in Los Angeles. The relocation wasn’t just about a change of scenery or savoring the fruits of his labor; it was a strategic move to connect with some of the best and brightest talents in hip-hop. L.A. is home to Odd Future, the Black Hippy crew, Flying Lotus, and Casey Veggies—all of whom Mac has been working with as he prepares his sophomore disc, Watching Movies with the Sound Off. But Mac didn’t just move to California for creative reasons. It was also about personal growth.

“L.A. is me stepping out and being like, ‘I’m in control of my own life,’” explains Mac, who blew up so young that he literally grew up in the rap game. “When I was 18, living in my mom’s house—my mom is still my mom so she’s gonna clean my room, make me food, and take care of me." Things are different now. "My mom’s not here if I get in trouble.”

Although his biological family isn’t there to hold him down, he’s still got his Most Dope Family. There’s Quentin “Q” Cuff—one of Mac’s closest friends and the executive producer of his last mixtape, Macadelic. If the Most Dope crew were on Entourage, Q would be Eric "E" Murphy to Mac’s Vinnie Chase. One of Mac’s earliest fans, Q was the black kid from Pittsburgh who heard Mac’s songs on MySpace and thought he sounded like “a white Big L.”

 

I hate college parties and I’m not from the suburbs. I’m from the city, but I’m not necessarily saying I’m from the hood.

 

Other crew members include Jimmy Murton, who smoked his first cigarette with Mac when he was in third grade. Jimmy was going to college before Mac convinced him to drop out and join him on tour. Then there’s Peanut, who designs their merchandise, and Mac’s security guard Dave, who’s built like an offensive lineman. They all live in the house together and all have parts on the reality show. They know Mac better than anybody, and they’ve got his back all day long.

“There are people that may root against Mac,” says Q. “But I don’t know anybody that’s met Mac and been like, ‘I don’t like that guy. I don’t think he’s a good person’.”

Jimmy says he’s seen Mac talk his way out of countless situations and Q considers him ”the ultimate salesman.” But one thing Mac hasn’t done a good job of selling is the idea that he’s not just “some rich kid who raps.” Although his mother was a photographer and his father was an architect, Mac says people have the wrong idea about him. “There are a shitload of people who think that I’m a fucking rich white kid from the suburbs who makes music for college parties,” Mac told Complex last year. “I hate college parties and I’m not from the suburbs. I’m from the city, but I’m not necessarily saying I’m from the hood.”

“People judge a book by its cover,” says Q. “Every rapper has some type of rags-to-riches story. That’s why people ‘feel’ most rappers. What’s so different about Mac? Because you think that he’s from the suburbs? Because you think that his parents are rich? So he’s not dope?”

To hear his friends tell it, Mac’s upbringing wasn’t as innocent as people think. Once he set his mind on being a rapper he was determined to step up from his homeboy’s studio to Pittsburgh's top hip-hop recording facility—I.D. Labs. Back then, the $40 hourly fee seemed like big bucks, so Mac teamed up with Jimmy and their friend TreeJ to raise funds by all means necessary—including selling stolen TVs and pilfering from purses.

“We’d go to a party, fuck the house up, and steal shit,” claims Jimmy, who says he now feels bad about their capers. “The routine was, invite some girls over to the crib, we’d all get fucked up, and eventually they’d go hook up with someone. Whoever they weren’t hooking up with would run through their purses and take anything they had. They would leave and call us later—if they still had their cell phone—and be like, ‘What the fuck!’ But we didn’t care.”

Mac also dabbled in selling weed. “But I was really bad at it,” he says. “I would find some kid and tell him, ‘I got Kush for $500 an ounce. It’s crazy!’ Then I’d go cop some Dro for $200 and give that to them—and be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’” When he found a connect for a good strain called Lemon Haze, Mac blew his re-up money on studio time. Jimmy confirms that Mac was “a horrible drug dealer.” Since he didn’t own a scale, he’d sell overpriced half grams to “dumbass kids.” When that didn’t work he’d talk his way out of debt with his dealer. When all else failed, he’d ask his parents.

“There were times I was down really bad,” says Mac. “I was like, ‘Mom, can I have 50 bucks? I need to pay for the studio.’ But I didn’t wanna do that. I wanted to do it myself—same reason I’m not on a major. This is something I always wanted to build on my own. It didn’t feel right to have that privilege [of being] the kid in there because my mom and dad paid for it.”

Mac doesn’t refer to it explicitly, but part of that “privilege” has to do with the color of his skin. Even now, 14 years after The Slim Shady LP, it’s tricky being a rapper who shares Marshall Mathers’ complexion as well as his initials. “Not to compare him to Eminem,” says Q. “But that was different. Think about if you didn’t have Dr. Dre giving Eminem that co-sign where everyone’s like, ‘Alright, this nigga’s cool’.”

Through sheer determination and quiet business savvy, Mac has amassed a fiercely loyal fanbase who think he’s pretty cool regardless of who’s cosigning him. “We're in an age where so many white people are trying to rap,” says Q. “Mac stands out because it’s not about color with him. He doesn’t make white rapper music. He makes Mac Miller music.”

Nowadays, Mac doesn’t have to steal TVs for studio time. He converted the pool house of his new crib into a personal studio, a place where he can record whatever he wants whenever he feels like it. As a kid, Mac never dreamed of living in a big house; he dreamed of living in the studio. Even now, his mansion’s bedrooms are mostly barren and the living room is desolate. There’s just one room that looks lived in.

Bathed in a red glow, the studio contains a vocal booth, a bathroom, a control desk, scattered chairs, and a corner filled with assorted bean bags and cushions perfect for catching a quick nap. Two guitars stand in the far corner. A four pack of Red Bull and a four pack of Boddingtons Pub Ale sit on the coffee table next to an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Mac sits in the center of the room at an iMac that’s hooked up to four speakers, a mixer, and a keyboard.

A flat-screen TV flickers silently on the wall. There’s a football game on, but Mac also likes nature documentaries like Birds of the Gods. He enjoys making music while watching movie images with no sound—kind of like a Hollywood film composer scoring a film. Mac may not be the next Ennio Morricone, but the self-taught musician’s been working hard.

 

It’s like I’m rebuilding a whole other type of music. That music [on Blue Slide Park] is great, but I can’t stand by it as much as what I make now.

 

Over the past year, Mac guesstimates that he’s recorded nearly 400 songs while working on his highly anticipated sophomore album. The most unconventional was his jazz EP You, which he released for free last November under the alias Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival. There is no rapping on this EP, just Mac crooning over jazz instrumentals that he wrote and arranged himself. Despite the jokey title, it ranks as one of Mac’s strongest projects.

“This album was driving me fucking insane,” says Mac. “I needed to take a break. So I sat down and made a jazz album." Mac says he stayed in his home studio for two weeks straight without showering (which might explain why the credits read, “Recorded live at Stinky’s Wafflebox”). But the personal hygiene sacrifices were well worth it. "I was like, ‘This is tight as fuck,’” he says proudly. At this point Mac's more interested in pushing himself artistically than cashing in on his past successes. “I was winning by 40 points in the fourth quarter with two minutes to go,” he says. “All I gotta do is do what I been doing and I’m good. But for some reason I was just like, No.”

“I don’t care about having that song that’s going to put me to the next level,” says Mac. “Fuck that song. I wanna make music that’s the shit." Mac describes his new album as “me taking a journey inside my own head.” So far that journey involves collaborating with Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator. It also means stepping up his pen game and taking a more honest approach in his rhymes. As tough as critics were on his past work, he’s even tougher on it himself.

“I can’t make ‘Up All Night’ right now,” says Mac. “That’s the only record I regret. ‘Party on Fifth Ave’—great song, I guess. It’s fun. But when I listen to that song and those verses, I hear nothing. I don’t say anything.” Though Mac has consistently denied being a “frat rapper,” it’s hard to fight that accusation when the bridge on your song goes, “Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!”

Jimmy thinks the album was a case of "fulfilling the idea of what his fans wanted.” Mac’s own feelings toward his debut were shaped by its chilly critical reception. At one point, the bad reviews had convinced Mac that his album sucked. Then one day, he drove around L.A. bumping Blue Slide Park for the first time since its release and came to a final conclusion. 

“It’s a good album,” says Mac now. “It's not groundbreaking, but at the same time what is groundbreaking? Kids come up like, ‘I had cancer and went through chemo listening to Blue Slide Park every day.’ That makes me feel good. There’s great records on that album. I don't regret Blue Slide Park at all.” 

Mac may not regret his debut album, but his follow-up abandoned the aesthetic that defined it. The dark, spacy mixtape Macadelic was a creative departure that Mac considers his best work to date. “I’m rebuilding a whole other type of music,” he says. “That music [on Blue Slide Park] is great, but I can’t stand by it as much as what I make now.” But the question remains, will his audience grow with him as his music matures?

Right now Mac is in the studio with Q, Jimmy, Peanut, and Rostrum Records president Benjy Grinberg planning the rollout for his sophomore album. As Mac explains his vision, Benjy handles logistics, imposing a timetable on accomplishing what Mac wants done. Everyone else provides constant feedback and tweaks, but the ideas are Mac’s alone. After all the ups and downs, the kid in the swivel chair is still in control of his destiny once again, and he's not afraid of taking risks.

One of the highlights on Mac’s new project is "Red Dot." Through most of the record Mac trades verses with Action Bronson, but at the end the beat cuts off and battle rapper Loaded Lux spits a vicious verse that disses the shit out of Mac, going so far as to call him a “wigga.” For Mac to release this song on his own album would be reminiscent of the final battle scene in 8 Mile where B-Rabbit disses himself, leaving his adversary speechless.

Instead of running away from the criticism he received after Blue Slide Park, Mac has found the courage to embrace it. “I realized, it's whatever,” he says of the critics. “The truth is irrelevant. So I'm cool. I don't care. I realize that they don’t know me. So say whatever you want. I've learned to find the humor in everything, even in the hatred.” 

Upstairs in Mac’s office, along with all the memorabilia on the walls, hangs a piece of fan art, a painting of the late, great Lamont “Big L“ Coleman. A member of the Diggin’ In The Crates Crew along with Lord Finesse, L is one of Mac’s favorite rappers. He cites L’s debut album, Lifestylez O Da Poor & Dangerous, as a major influence on his own early rapping style, which he describes as, “angry white rapper, 10th grade angst.”

As Mac Miller looks ahead to a brighter future, the angst is falling away, replaced by the confidence that comes with knowing you're on top of your game. In the painting of Big L, instead of making a gun gesture with his fingers, as L did on the cover of his second album, The Big Picture, the rapper is giving the thumbs up. It's still lonely at the top, but Mac Miller's taking encouragement wherever he finds it.

WATCH MAC MILLER AND MARC ECKO'S EXCLUSIVE MAN OF NEXT YEAR VIDEO:


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