E. Dan Reflects on His Relationship with Mac Miller

“Not only did he change my life by the music he made, but he changed my life as a person.”
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Mac Miller changed lives. From fans to industry friends, Mac’s music and magnetic aura reshaped our perspectives on damn near everything. Meeting Mac 10 years ago at his studio in Pittsburgh, career-long collaborator, producer, and damn good friend Eric "E. Dan" Dan, of Pittsburgh-based production team ID Labs, did not expect Mac Miller to so profoundly impact him when they met. 

Looking back, though, it seems impossible for their relationship to have grown in any other way.

E. Dan’s relationship with Mac Miller is dense, creative, and exceptionally moving. We discussed everything from first meeting each other, to bonding over holiday traditions, to Mac's incredible artistic growth, his eventual drug use and anxieties, as well as his lengthy unreleased catalog and the long road left to gain closure.

My full conversation with E. Dan, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: What first struck you about Mac and his music all those years ago?

E. Dan: The real story is that he started coming to the studio when he was 15, 16. At the time, I was pretty heavily involved with Wiz [Khalifa]; we were a few years in. That was my first adventure into working directly with an artist on the level of “I feel this dude.” I was really heavy into the Wiz stuff, and it was kinda bumming me out that things weren’t moving. So, when Mac first popped up on the scene, I was a little hesitant to get involved with another young artist and start something. I sort of didn’t pay attention, intentionally, for maybe a year.

At the time, in Pittsburgh, I was probably the big dog rap studio, so Mac was really trying hard to get in the room with me. Looking back, that’s super flattering and makes me feel like an asshole [laughs]. Fast forward a year into him coming to the studio, he got in with [Big] Jerm, and they did some tracks together. When I heard those, a lot of what it was, was Mac playing guitar and Jerm throwing some drums behind it. They started doing some things from scratch and it’s like, “Wow, this kid’s really talented.”

Then, I started diving in a little more in terms of checking the catalog that he was putting together… I really dug the fact that he had this appreciation for classic shit. Me being however many years older than him and into that classic sound, I really dug that that was his perspective. It was the combination of his appreciation of classic hip-hop, and also I really saw this music side to him that I hadn’t really encountered with any other rappers. The fact that he was willing and eager to jump on an instrument and contribute to things in that way, I just thought it might be really fun to make some music with this kid.

One of my favorite stories is how he bought all the instruments he could carry for “Under the Weather.”

Yeah! That was the thing. Whenever we started working on Blue Slide Park and he sorta got the first bit of money in his pocket, the first thing we did was go to a local music store and he started buying everything. We came back with a bunch of keyboards and guitars, and it was funny to us over the years. He spent four grand on this electronic-acoustic drum set that we used… The only time we ever used it on the entire album was a ride cymbal on “Under the Weather.”

When did you two bond as Malcolm and Eric?

As should be obvious to anybody at this point, he was a really magnetic dude. It’s almost hard to not have bonded with him. I don’t know too many people that ever met him and didn’t feel like, “Man, I just wanna hang out with this guy for a week.” I was always surprised that he seemed really mutually interested in hanging out with me and being a friend beyond music because he was younger and popping. It was a very different relationship for me, with other artists that I’ve worked with.

The first year after Blue Slide Park came out and things were moving and he was getting successful, he came over to my house on Christmas Day and brought my kids a bunch of presents. Which then became a tradition. I found out later that he was actually pissing off his whole family because they were waiting for him every Christmas morning to have a meal together and do all this family stuff, but he was over my house showering my kids with gifts for no reason other than the fact that he just loved doing that. That’s the type of dude he was. He just loved making people happy. That was his thing.

When you guys first got in together, could you have ever imagined an album like Watching Movies or Swimming?

With Blue Slide Park, it was a little different. Jerm and I both tried to push him a little bit, just thinking a little bit more. I felt like he would phone in some of the punchlines on his verses, and we would give him a hard time about that. There were little glimpses of it. There’s actually songs that didn’t make the cut, that were more out there, that were maybe starting to point a little bit in that direction.

But then Macadelic came along. Macadelic was the big turning point. That’s when I was like, “Wow, this kid’s really trying to dig deep and get into it and not just do easy stuff. He’s really trying to reach.” By the time Watching Movies came around, Macadelic sort of prepared me for that. I remember one session in particular, in LA at Paramount, where we did “Clarity.” We made it from scratch and I remember pulling up this really weird sound and thinking this is so out there. He was totally into it and did the song that was deep and spacey, and off the wall. That’s when I sort of realized he’s gonna do some different, cool stuff.

Did your conversations as friends also change, signifying this growth?

I don’t know if I could pinpoint it. There was a lot going on for him. Drugs were definitely creeping in, a lot of which was him coping. The thing about Mac is, at his core, he was a really normal dude. So I think dealing with being famous and doing shows, I think that stuff gave him anxiety. I mean, he loved the attention on one hand, but on the other hand, he was such a down-to-earth person. I don’t know that he always knew how to deal with [fame]. I think that’s where some of that stuff came in. That whole period of his life, that was him coming to grips with “Oh, I’m famous and suddenly the world is my oyster and at the same time I’m not really 100 percent happy with the music I was making to get me here.”

I don’t think he ever articulated this to me, but I always sensed it… He had some very real fears of being looked at as a corny white rapper, especially after the Pitchfork review of Blue Slide Park. He wanted to prove himself to his peers. Especially when he moved to LA. He was hanging out with a lot of artists out there. They became his peers and he wanted to impress those guys. That was the real turning point. It started to get a lot more serious, in terms of just the music. He really had something to prove, aside from “Let me get famous.” It really turned into like, “Let me do something musically that these dudes and the world will be impressed by.”

Did that fear permeate the sessions?

Yeah, and it was definitely more of a motivating factor than anything else. With the Blue Slide Park sessions it was very much, “Let’s do something like this. Cool?” and we did it, and it was done. Moving forward, it was more like, “Let’s do something like this. Now, what if I do this to it?” It became to be this process of, let’s turn over every single stone we could find in the search of what could make this song the absolute coolest.

And he has so much unreleased music.

Dude, you have no idea. Surely you read the piece that I wrote. Everybody has been thinking about [what to do with his unreleased catalog]. There’s a lot of different feelings about it as far as If, and When, and What, and How. I have no idea. I feel very fortunate just to be able to listen to the stuff. I think I’ve found some of my favorite songs he’s ever done in the midst of the unreleased stuff. It’s crazy. It’s crazy how much stuff.

Particularly that era, in 2013, when he bought the big mansion in LA and he had the pool house that they called The Sanctuary that he turned into the studio. Thundercat, and SZA, Vince [Staples], all these people were in and out of there all the time. It was also when he started working with Josh Berg, who was his engineer out there. The stuff that they were doing in that crazy room with these red lights in the ceiling that made you feel like you were in a submarine was just fucking amazing. Really stretched the bounds of everything for him as an artist. Some of that ended up being Faces and Watching Movies, but there’s still so much. Entire projects.

Do you have one moment in your head where you were working and realized this is as real as it gets?

There’s a lot of them, actually. He was so good at articulating his feelings, even if it was in an abstract way. He was really good at just taking everything that was going on and putting it into a verse. So good that I still pick things up. I still listen to songs, and I’m like, “Wow, that makes so much sense now with the perspective of time.”

A couple of weeks ago, Josh and I basically went through everything and sort of put it in order just to give to his family. There were so many moments in there, where he was just so raw and real about where he was in life and what he was going through. I think some of that stuff was too raw and too real to want to put it out, at least in that time period. There’s some real glimpses into his head, but at the same time, it’s not so far removed from stuff that he did release that was also very intimate and showed that glimpse.

Knowing everything, how do you want Mac’s music to be remembered?

So that’s the thing. That’s where I get really mixed up about it all. I think my feelings are going to change over time. The thing about Malcolm, when we got to the end of a project, he went through this process of driving himself and everyone around him abso-fucking-lutely insane with last-minute changes. The song that he thought was the best thing he ever did last week, he was taking off the album. Let’s add a fucking xylophone.

I find it really hard to imagine ever releasing anything that he’s not sitting there telling me, “This is exactly how I want it,” because I know there’s no finished project in the archive that I know he was cool with it the way it was. There was never a release where it was like: “Here’s the song, let’s put it out.” It was, “I have 200 songs, let’s widdle it down to 15. Let’s change those six or seven times. Then I’ll add or subtract a few.” That was true of every single album. That part of me is just like, “How could any of us ever put something together?” There’s another part of me that knows there’s a part of him that wanted everybody to hear everything, because he loved making music and he loved people’s feedback and how they reacted to it. I know that he did every song with some intention of the listener.

I don’t really know how I feel about it, other than I know there’s some really amazing music that it doesn’t seem fair that me and a handful of people are the only people that’ll ever get to hear it. It doesn’t seem fair to him, and it certainly doesn’t seem fair to his fans or the world at large, because some of it’s really meaningful and something that I think would surprise people.

Do you have a final, “I’m just happy I…” moment with him?

Our last conversation two days before he died, as most conversations did, ended with “I love you, dude.” I’m eternally blessed having known the kid, because not only did he change my life by the music he made, but he changed my life as a person. I never knew anybody so enthusiastic and open to the world around him, which really made me wanna be that way. I saw the value in being excited to be around people. I’m glad that he certainly knew how much respect I had for him musically, because that’s what he mostly cared about with anybody he knew. I know that he knew that I loved him.

They’ll never be real closure for me because I always imagined 10, 15, 20 years in the future doing an acoustic folk album that reflected on middle age. I’m just really sad that I’m never going to get to make music with him again. I’ve never had more fun making music with anyone and I don’t think I will, because I don’t know that I’ll ever meet anyone who I have that kind of relationship with as a friend and collaborator that I just feel completely open to doing anything. I could do any weird thing in a session with him, and he would find a way to make it work. That’s really freeing, as a musician. I’m gonna really miss that, just beyond knowing the dude. I don’t think they’ll ever be any real sort of closure, but I’m glad that we were open with each other as far as our feelings.

Man, that’s so…

Yeah, he was a beautiful person. I’m always struck when I read a comment that’s like, “I’ve never been affected by a celebrity death like this,” and then I realize that it’s not just me. I lost my dad last year, and he was in his 70s and lived a really full life and everything. Obviously, it was really sad and tough to go through, but this has been totally different for so many different reasons, not just the fact that he was young. He really had a special energy to him. It’s just so obvious. I’m sure you’ve seen it just from talking to people that knew him, and the tribute show. You realize that this dude touched people’s hearts in such an uncommon way. We all meet really nice people, but there was something extra special about him. It’s really fucking sad.

This is good, though. This is cathartic.

Yeah, I mean, I’ll get there. I don’t know where I’m at with it, yet. I’m not sure that I’ve made any type of peace with it. The immediate devastation of it is wearing off a little bit, but part of it is I live in Pittsburgh and he lived in LA. We saw each other all the time, but it makes it really easy in my mind to just feel like he’s just out there in LA. I just think that there’s going to continue to be points where it just fucking hits me like, "Damn I’m never gonna be able to talk to this dude again." It’s crazy, man.

Yeah, that’s the mutable quality of grief.

If there’s been any sort of silver lining, my relationship with his brother and both of his parents has definitely gotten stronger. That’s been really helpful to me, hopefully to them. I know that they’ve had a lot of support, which probably doesn’t make it much easier, but it has to help in some way. It’s really tough… We don’t make it through too many conversations without a fair amount of tears, still.

Time, that’s the only thing you can say right now.

Yeah, and I know that’s really the answer. My mom was fairly young when she passed, and I know that as devastating as that was, time definitely took the edge off it. But I also know that you never really lose that hole when you lose somebody like that. You can’t really fill that in. You can put it in its little box and you can sort of ignore it for a while, but it’s always gonna hit you again.

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