Rostrum’s Benjy Grinberg Remembers Mac Miller

This is what he was here to do: make music.
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YearOfMac: Rostrum’s Benjy Grinburg Remembers Mac Miller

Mac Miller’s first and second creative renaissances evidenced him to be a worldly and expansive creative. Both of these major leaps in his artistic growth took place at his indie label home, Rostrum Records, where he found his sound and developed his sound, and grew into one of the most sincere artists in hip-hop. His growth and pivots were both unexpected and unprecedented, for him, for Rostrum, and for all of rap when his independent debut album Blue Slide Park went No. 1. It was a feat, for sure, and the first of many. To commemorate his legacy, I reached out to Benjy Grinberg to talk all things Mac, Rostrum, and legacy.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: The operative question is, how are you?

Benjy Grinberg: The first two weeks after he passed, I was in a little bit of a daze, to be honest. I was going through the motions. I was going to work, I was doing what I needed to do, but I just felt like foggy. It didn’t seem real. It was only after about two weeks then it transformed into sadness. It felt like reality, and it felt sad. I go back and forth at this point, it’s been a little over two months. Sometimes, it still doesn’t feel real and sometimes you just get upset about it. The thing that I can do best is just try to keep his music alive, his memory alive. I think that’s sort of my role in all of this.

Is that how you got out of the fog?

Yeah! I think going to his private memorial in Pittsburgh in October. That gave me some closure, just to be around other people that worked closely with him or were his family, or loved him. To be around everyone for an evening was really cathartic and we got to talk about him and see each other. I got to see a lot of people, that we all worked together back in the day. Also, Billboard asked me to write an article about Mac, sort of a tribute to him that I wrote in the days following his death. That was also very cathartic for me.

Take me back to when you first met Mac.

So I had moved back to Pittsburgh [from New York] to work with Wiz Khalifa. We were recording every day at ID Labs, and I just started running into him, into Mac, there. He would ask me what do I think about this song or that, and I just started giving him loose advice musically and otherwise. He would run certain things by me. It was a very getting-to-know-you thing. I didn’t know where it was leading. I didn’t know we were ever gonna work together or not. I was seeing how he was developing and I was focused on Wiz.

We just sort of started becoming friends, and then it naturally grew from there. We sat down one day, he played me some of the songs that were to become K.I.D.S., and that’s when I was like, “Maybe, I should pay more attention to this.” He’s getting even better at his craft, and he’s really growing exponentially from the last project. It really piqued my interest in actually wanting to work with him. It just started to get more involved after that.

Which song of his made you sign him?

There wasn’t one [song], in particular, it was just the journey he was headed [on]. I could tell that he was growing so much and the music was really phenomenal. Musically, I got him, so to speak. I could see where he needed help, and how I could help him go in whatever direction he was going. Obviously, in the years that followed he would take many twists and turns musically, which I didn’t necessarily foresee. It wasn’t about one song. It was just about seeing his progress and seeing how much he was growing and how quickly.

What specifically drew you to his early music? For E. Dan, it was his musicality.

He was 17, 18 years old when we started working together and I’m 14 years older than him. Listening to his music, it kind of reminded me of high school and I loved his approach to the whole thing. It wasn’t like, “I have more money than you,” it was realer to me. He was giving a piece of himself. He felt like a little brother, sort of [laughs]. It just felt different. That’s what attracted me. There was a musicality, but the musicality grew exponentially, later. But he could really, really rap, and he could really put full compositions together. He would mess around on the guitar. That was sort of his main instrument at the time, though he could play a little bit of everything. I was just interested to see where this was gonna go.

Is that little brother dynamic what drew you to him as a person?

I think it was his confidence. His confidence in what he was doing, and his love for music that predated him. His knowledge of hip-hop, and you could tell that this was what he was going to do. It’s nice to be around people that are confident in themselves and are so creative, yet know who they are and what they’re trying to do. It’s actually usually not that way. You’ll meet an artist who is really talented, but doesn’t know themselves yet, or doesn’t have a clear direction. With Mac, he just had a million ideas a second for what he wanted to do, for songs he wanted to make, for videos, for artwork. It all came from him. It was his vision, purely.

He was really a creative’s creative.

Right. He came up with all the stuff. He had ideas for the videos. He had ideas for everything. My job in helping to guide him was to try to help him prioritize which ideas to run with and help him structure those things. He would have a million ideas, and I helped him organize and see the ones through that make the most sense for where he is.

How did it feel when Blue Slide Park made history?

It was certainly a highlight of my professional life. It was unreal. We built up this momentum that was really kind of unprecedented, and between releasing mixtapes and touring and his videos were getting tons of views. We felt this thing growing, like crazy. So we knew Blue Slide Park was gonna be special, but when it actually came out and was the No. 1 album, we were all just amazed, grateful, happy… It’s hard when you’re in the middle of it to sit back and say, “Woah, look what we’ve done.” It’s when you look back two years later you can say: “Damn, we had the No. 1 album in the country, and we were fully independent.” You only really get that perspective later. Looking back on it, it’s fucking incredible.

Did you see that success impacting him at all? Maybe the dichotomy between the critics and the fan reception hit him somehow?

He was sensitive to that sort of thing. I think he wanted to be accepted, he wanted to be liked. Back then, it took a little while for albums to come out because you had to make CDs. Unlike today when you can finish an album and two days later, it’s up for everyone to hear, it was a three or four-month long process. I think during those months, he started evolving. I think he was kind of musically past Blue Slide Park when it came out, in his own mind and in his studio. He was making these records that would later become Macadelic, that were very different. I think that messed with him a little bit.

Mac really came into his own creatively while at Rostrum. What was your initial reaction to Macadelic?

For the record, I think Macadelic is one of my favorite Mac albums, for sure. At the time, I felt like he was making a left turn way too quickly. He had this sort of thing that was really working and was growing and growing and growing, and as a manager and someone looking after his career, we bumped heads a little bit. I said, “Look, these songs are super dope, but I think you’re coming too quickly after Blue Slide Park with a totally different sound. People are still getting to know you, and you’re really throwing a curveball.” For him, though, it was really important. He was like, “Forget any sort of music industry timing. This is how I feel. This is the music that I’m making.” The people that got it, really took that ride with him.

Is that when you knew he was going to be as important of an artist as he was?

You know, I can’t say that there was a specific moment. By having a No. 1 album, he was becoming a popular artist. I think an important artist comes with more albums, more music, and more time to sort of prove that you are worthy of the word. That’s what Mac proved, again and again. Each one, he grew exponentially. That’s what made him important: the pioneering aspect of his music. The way he took hip-hop and brought so many other things into his albums, that made him so musically diverse. Ultimately, in combination with his sincerity and his ability to let us all into his head, is what made him important. It wasn’t any one specific moment. It was the accumulation of his art.

Did you ever argue over how much he worked? I think of the line on “Here We Go” about being the hardest-working person in the universe.

That was just his process. It was certainly not something that I told him to do. It was him before me, before any of us. This is what he was here to do: make music. The way he made music, it was not just walk into the studio, hear a beat, rap over it, and send it back to a producer. His process was immersive. It was living basically in the studio and only coming out when he thought he was really finished with a project. He had to create, you know?

When Mac made the move to Warner, did you guys discuss that at all?

This is what happened. We had dinner… His deal was set to run out at the end of 2013, with us. At the time, I was also managing him. I didn’t have paperwork for managing, but I was managing him because he wanted me to. I was playing both roles, and we had done all sorts of crazy things. We had the show on MTV, we had tours, albums coming out. We both knew that we didn’t wanna continue the manager and label thing. It was just too much and we should separate those things and do it a little different. 

He ended up taking me out to dinner and we talked about it, and I said, “You know, this is what I have in mind, because I’m helping you with all these different things, maybe I should stay on as your manager and you should sign to a different record company.” He said, “Look, I love you and I’m proud of everything that we’ve done, but I just wanna try something different for a little while.” And it was totally up to him. I’m proud of all the things that we’ve done together. That was really the end of our official, professional time together in December of 2013.

He went through a few managers. He hadn’t yet signed to Warner. He was talking to different labels and trying to figure out his deal and didn’t release a ton of music. It took him a little while to get [Faces] out. I wasn’t sure where he was headed. Then they announced the Warner deal, and I was hopeful that he would keep on making great music and I was there for him if needed anything, and he knew that.

Do you have one story that really captures who Malcolm was, for you?

I actually got a little emotional when you asked me that question. I don’t know if there is any one, specific thing. I just know that Mac always cared, and he had to balance a lot of things in his life between his music, his career, his friends, his issues with drugs and other things, and just growing up in this crazy situation. It’s just a whole different experience for someone that young to deal with. I think it was a complicated situation for him, and I think that he always kept his friends around from his childhood. They always lived with him. That really helped to keep him grounded.

Aside from that, I think he did his best. He created this amazing music and all the people around him loved him. The outpouring of love that happened after his death was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even fans who never got to meet him felt like they knew him. You don’t hear that very often when an artist passes. It’s not any one story; it’s the full thing. How he led his life, how he treated people, the music that he made, and always trying to do the right thing. Look, we all make mistakes, but I think deep down inside he was such a good person and always meant the best, no matter what it was. That’s how I remember Mac.

The last time I ever saw him was at his show at Hotel Cafe. That’s usually what I think about the most. Him getting off stage, heading towards the green room, and giving me a big hug along the way. That’s the last time I ever saw him, and it sort of epitomizes everything. It was him, it was his music, it was his connection with his fans, and him taking a quick second out of his hustle from one place to the other to give an old friend a hug [laughs]. That’s how I think about him. I’m proud to be a small part of his story and to have spent the time that I got to spend with him. I wish that it would have ended differently and that we could still hear all the music that he had to come, and get to hang out more. Just be there. I’m happy that I got to know him, at all.