Mac Miller was a student of hip-hop. Even when his music didn’t connect with me, as much of his early catalog did not, this fact was always apparent. I remember the first time I stumbled across the video for Mac's “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” as a college freshman in 2011, watching a fellow wide-eyed 18-year-old break bread with friends throughout the streets of Pittsburgh. Upon revisiting the record following his untimely death last week, my first thought was: What other 18-year-olds in 2010 were willing to go to war with Lord Finesse over sample clearance just for a chance to tell you about their summer?
Easy Mac may have had some incredibly cheesy raps early in his career, but his passion and people skills were undeniable. Almost a year to the day later, you could see it in his interview with infamous Canadian journalist Nardwuar, who surprised Mac with Big L vinyl and questions about local Pittsburgh acts like Strict Flow and E. Dan, to the delight of Mac and his crew. You could also see it in co-signs from Phonte and fellow yinzer Wiz Khalifa and production by Just Blaze, Khrysis, and Chuck Inglish on his Best Day Ever mixtape.
Mac used his relatively massive touring platform to spread the same love he was shown, bringing budding artists like Rapsody, Casey Veggies, and Joey Bada$$ on some of their first trips across the country and the world. Even his most unpolished work, Blue Slide Park, features the zeal and flow of an MC who knew what great rap records sounded like. There was a world of musical knowledge bouncing around in the young rapper’s head, and new friendships forged on stages and in studios would inspire him to hit the books even further.
Over a period of three years, from 2010 to 2013, Mac began taking his critics seriously, fine-tuning his rhymes and taking seriously a passion for crafting beats. A change of scenery from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles had reignited a musicality in him that sent him into the orbit of a peaking Odd Future and a still-rising Top Dawg Entertainment collective. Mac would host what he called “rap camps”—an idea he jacked from his new friend The Alchemist—as a communal space for LA’s best and brightest and his old friends from the Most Dope Family to make music and bounce ideas off of each other.
“A lot of what happens at Mac's studio is organic,” Vince Staples told Complex in 2013. “The TDE niggas are up there. Mac's artists are there a lot. There's actually a lot of people at Mac's house, like Big Pooh, Michael Rapaport, and some pop stars. I met Macklemore at Mac's house.”
Sessions like these inspired the eclectic haze of Mac's sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, its more cohesive mixtape cousin Faces, and Staples’ breakout mixtape Stolen Youth, which he produced in full. Mac's growing skillset didn’t just put him in the studio with hip-hop greats both past and present, his curiosity actively helped connect the dots. Aside from sharpened bars, Watching Movies was a Who’s Who of the underground and mainstream: raps from Earl Sweatshirt, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Electronica, Ab-Soul, and Loaded Lux bounced over beats from Flying Lotus, Alchemist, Clams Casino, and Mac himself under the pseudonym Larry Fisherman. The “little nigga from Pittsburgh,” a nickname bestowed upon Mac by Q on the first day they met, was gathering rap’s best and brightest around the campfire of his smirking introspection.
As his career continued to bloom, Mac kept his ears to the clouds. In 2013, his Space Migration Tour and subsequent live album Live From Space boasted appearances from The Internet, Chance The Rapper, and Future on its stages and tracklist. Never one to rest on his laurels, Mac would then dip into some pitch-shifted horrorcore on his Delusional Thomas side project, an excursion similar to his lounge jazz/funk outing in 2012 as Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival. Those experiments culminated in jazzy boom bap blended with trap bangers—and features from Miguel, Chief Keef, and Little Dragon—on his Warner Bros. debut GO:OD AM, which would prove to be the crest of Mac's second-act career sunrise.
In a post-To Pimp a Butterfly rap scene, Mac had caught the same funk-jazz rap bug that had latched onto many of his peers, which ultimately led to Kendrick Lamar, pianist Robert Glasper, and funkmaster Dâm-Funk sharing session time on his 2016 album The Divine Feminine, and later, Steve Lacy, J.I.D, and Dev Hynes sharing a tracklist on his final album, Swimming. I never imagined that the same kid who made the jaunty “S.D.S.” would one day be arranging string sections for Julliard students to play on his albums, but that’s the beauty of Mac Miller’s late career output.
Mac was the teenage hip-hop head clamoring for Phonte and Skyzoo features and the young man sweating bullets over winning over Stephen Colbert’s late-night crowd. He is the six degrees of separation between Michael Christmas, Lil B, Curren$y, Mike Jones, Thundercat, Jay Electronica, Sean Price, Dev Hynes, Rick Ross, and John Mayer. He is Earl Sweatshirt's inspiration. He is the white affirmative action slot anointed by JAY-Z himself.
Mac Miller, Pittsburgh’s native son, is a big reason why the world of hip-hop is so small—until it ain’t.
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