The Kids Are Alright: How Mac Miller Earned My Respect
HipHopDX's editor-in-chief says that for the first time, younger emcees are making the year's strongest material. In doing so, he spotlights his hometown's hero, and analyzes the positives.
With over 15 years loving and living this culture, I am witnessing a paradigm shift for me and the peers of my age-group. Most of my favorite rappers as of late are younger than me. This comes after a decade-and-a-half closely studying '60s and '70s babies and looking at them as wise big brothers (which is not to say that has stopped either). This phenomenon is not entirely exclusive to 2011, as artists younger than me, like B.o.B., Fashawn and Big K.R.I.T. have chipped away at the misinformed notion that youth cannot provide wisdom throughout the last several years. Nowadays, most of my new thoughts about life from Hip Hop are coming from the younger guys.
Perhaps like most longtime lovers of Hip Hop, it is easy for me to musically bond with a lot of artists. Kendrick Lamar's free-form approach to emceeing appeals to both the fan of Kool Keith and Andre 3000 in me. Moreover, K-Dot references things like the Reaganomics, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and marginalized youth that resonate with any fan of history or sociology. Fashawn's humility is awe-inspiring to me, when he spoke of the revolving door of fathers on "Boy Meets World" or Fresno's social symptoms on "The Ecology." Take even Thurz, of U-N-I fame, whose L.A. Riot conceptualized a national news event that took place when he was still a child into a heralded album making it tangible to today's teens.
I wish I had guys like that when I was a teenager. Too young for Illegal and Shyheim Da Rugged Child, and too old and sensible for Lil Bow Wow and Lil Romeo, I had a difficult time giving credence to rappers of a certain age. Hanging out with Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri was not my life, nor was luxury go-carts, personal basketball courts and chillin' at my parents' mansion. I was a teenager that loved three things: classic and underground Hip Hop, the fairer sex - girls, and getting Keith Murray-lifted any way that I could (including frequent trips to what would become, "blue slide park"). My heroes at the time ranged between DJ Premier and Guru of Gang Starr, Fast Times At Ridgemont High's Jeff Spicoli and William Upski Wimsatt, author of No More Prisons and Bomb The Suburbs. Like nearly every Hip Hop fan I've ever met, I had a rhyme book, and it was wack. Besides that fact that "I was too scared to grab dem mics in the park," I was convinced that nobody would ever care about my experiences. In hindsight, thank God I knew that on my own. However that was a message from a different time. I bought turntables instead and started writing about other people with talent and a voice for struggle.
Being a Pittsburgher, I've been asked continuously about Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. With Wiz, I always connected to his message of civic pride. He knows that. I know that, and a Google search will show you that I was among the (if not the) first to put Taylor Gang's would-be creator. Mac Miller appears unlikely to hold in this same high regard, at least for me. I'm in my upper-twenties, and the days of carefree living have been eclipsed by car payments, student loans and a need to join a gym to work off whatever partying I do get in. I'm eight years older than Mac Miller, and his world has very little in common with mine. I don't think that was ever his plan or agenda, although he's inescapable to any voracious Hip Hop listener. As guys ranging from DJ Premier and DJ Jazzy Jeff co-sign my hometown's newest hero, other more veteran artists like Consequence and Freeway are also tapping into the unique sound and in turn, its fan-base.
A little over a month ago, I spent a day with Mac Miller in Philadelphia during a Blue Slide Park Tour stop and left with a new appreciation and respect who Mac Miller is, and just where he fits into this culture.
Admittedly, in 2007-2008 when my longtime friend/Rostrum Records' Artie Pitt first showed me YouTube footage of Mac Miller's Shadow Lounge performances I was disinterested. I told Artie that, and in classic hard-nosed Steel City fashion, he's eternally quick to remind me. Unless it's via Tony Touch, DJ Green Lantern or Sway In The Morning, I don't care much for recorded freestyles anymore. They rarely are as they're labeled, and if I want to see one live, from a rapper I've never heard of, I'd rather experience it in person than through viral media. Quickly, I disregarded the latest Pittsburgh spitter and went back to my turntable or stereo. However, even then, I did admire this teen-aged kid for earning his stripes in a club. The Shadow Lounge is not an easy venue. It's for the Hip Hop purist, and it's a tour-stop to guys like Blu, Elzhi and Freddie Gibbs. For any 16 year-old to grip a mic in that venue is a rite of passage not often displayed by the most commercially successful rappers until their backers can dilute the tension with free drinks or fill a room with modeling agency talent (I've seen it happen). I wasn't in the crowd on those nights, but from what I've heard from fellow Pittsburghers is that Mac Miller earned his base one fan at a time, with a lot of hurdles along the way. That sounds a lot like other established titans of 2011, Tech N9ne, who often covers himself in makeup before taking the stage or even J. Cole, who I witnessed fight to command anxious and apathetic crowds on The Blueprint 3 tour.
We live in a culture that celebrates image. In just four years, Dr. Dre went from saying he didn't "smoke weed or 'cess" to making a classic album called The Chronic. One of the most associated rappers with cocaine worked as a correction officer. That's not to say either is lying, but rappers tend to say what's convenient at the time. One of the more interesting things I witnessed in Mac Miller is how little he cares about his image. You heard it here first: he's not a suburban rapper. He's not even guilty of pulling the mailing-address game that I've watched many people claim as far as being from cities. I however am from the 'burbs of Pitt, and the funny thing is, is that when I was Mac's age, I fled to the same part of town he's from. The East End of Pittsburgh is where the cool things happen. It's where the record stores are, the head shops, the movie theaters and the places you may be able to get away with a fake ID. That being said, I'm much happier to see and hear a rapper who celebrates those things than another rapper over-exaggerating to be down just because there's a bus route in front of his house or his parents are from two towns over. Despite the vast racial and content comparisons, Mac Miller's upbringing has seemingly nothing in common with the artists he's compared against. He probably has more in common with a Skyzoo or a Fashawn than he does with a Sam Adams or Spose. Perhaps that's why the community of peers has embraced him quickly off the mic, while many fans and critics are still questioning.
Years ago, I remember interviewing Cormega for an Elemental magazine feature. 'Mega told me something I have long held true: Hip Hop, at its best, should offend people. If not the lyrics, than the music itself. The iconic image of Radio Raheem's boombox in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing comes to mind, as a culture synonymous with aggression, frustration and a lack of respect for authority. For much of my marriage with Hip Hop and my career I've held this belief true. I think Kendrick Lamar's "Fuck Your Ethnicity" applies to this, or even another young artist's work, the music of Waka Flocka Flame. It's loud, it's proud it's the kind of soundtracks that challenge outsiders to this culture at stop lights and crowded train cars. With Mac Miller, there is none of that. Unlike Soulja Boy, whose breakthrough single stirred the pots of controversy in 2007, Miller's language and production is relatively gentle on the ears. And if you look into the crowds of his concerts, you will see few people who mind. This is not to say that Cormega's point was wrong, but at a time when Hip Hop is redefining itself, it's certainly being challenged.
Malcolm Miller's music is a direct presentation of his life, and in turn, the life of plenty upper-teens. With radio-waves largely devoted to the heartbreak and the somber, (see iTunes toppers "Someone Like You" by Adele, "Stereo Hearts" by Gym Class Heroes or "Paradise" by Coldplay), "Party On Fifth Ave." is a rapper's take on the same thing LMFAO, Ke$ha or Flo Rida have built successful on, but it's not Dance music. Moreover, to the folks who care to go a step further, the record interpolates 45 King's "900 Number" break, a staple in Hip Hop since Ed Lover's dance. Unlike the others, it doesn't even sound like a radio hit. Like the way he dances on stage, the costumes in the video, Mac has a doowutchyalike approach to music-making, and the same radio powers that be (that we all condemn) were forced to oblige. Not only does Mac send his listeners a positive message, he does so with total disregard for the conventions of the system, a feat he can share with N.W.A. just as much as with Drake.
That same "900 Number" point is essential to one of the reasons I respect Mac. While 45 King will reap no dividends from the rapper's charting single (to be fair, it's a Marva Whitney interpolation anyway), it brings the core of this culture back into the conversation. Miller is not another Johnny-come-lately rapper that considers immortal legends to be his influences for convenience and acceptance. This is a 19 year-old kid who has Big L's Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous memorized, and went beyond the usual suspects (I watched him recite Fat Joe's "Da Enemy" bars). This is a guy who is using his interviews and music push to bring teenagers to records like Lord Finesse's "Hip 2 Da Game" or UGK's "One Day." (Recently, my 17 year-old Flo Rida-loving sister was asking me about some of the beats from a Mac mixtape.) Truly, that's an act more than I can say about most deejays/emcees of the last 10 years. A record like Def Squad's Ill Nino or Jurassic 5's Quality Control had a deep impact in pushing my teenage-self to look back and learn the records that were influencing the respected artists during my courtship with Hip Hop. This bridging of the gap has aligned Miller with Hip Hop heroes of mine like Premo or Jeff, who may have felt overlooked by so many of the artists pushing their way into the spotlight over the last decade. A lot of the people who are resistant to Mac are folks who easily compare him to college-rappers like Sam Adams or Chiddy Bang won't likely get the same education from them. Moreover, Mac vehemently avoided college and bemoans fraternities, negating the cheap sub-genre inclusion.
The last thing I can say that I learned and subsequently respected about Mac is that he's misunderstood. Like Method Man, perhaps his media image will grow to wear on him. Mac most certainly is a nice guy, from all that I've witnessed in several meetings dating back a few years. However, the guy that I saw isn't spending his afternoons stoned and eating chips on the couch. I'm sure a lot of his biggest fans may have that misconstrued and there's no reason not to. Mac appears to treat this position like a job, a great job, and interacts with fans online, preps his vocal delivery, and maintains what-seems-to-be a clear head through his downtime. I watched him work with road manager Quentin Cuff for 20 minutes or so, trying out different BPM beats for a Cosmic Kev radio show freestyle in Philadelphia. An hour before his packed show, Mac is alone, almost nervous - a trait far from his stage persona. Afterwards, the emcee thanks his guests and carries himself like moments after a high school graduation, not like a frat-house spectacle. Along the way, you'll surely get a lot of Jeff Spicoli stoner chuckles, a lot of "would be cool if" postulations and an easygoing 19 year-old living the dream. That's expected, but I've met few people with the success Mac is having to be as truly authentic and unpretentious than Mac Miller.
A lot is possible this year. So far, my own champion for album of the year (Section.80) is the first time I've ever even slightly considered a digital album in the highest possible regard. Artists like Atmosphere, Tech N9ne, and Mac are eclipsing most of the major label releases in sales, touring and even web-presence. As Mac Miller prepares to release Blue Slide Park on November 8 independently, some folks (including Just Blaze) are predicting six-figure sales. Whether you can relate to the message or the music, there is nothing more optimistic for Hip Hop than that many fans coming on board - just as Mac's Rostrum label-mate witnessed in the first half of the year. Some of Mac Miller's toughest critics ought to be his most optimistic spectators, and know that this new class of commercially-successful artists are leveling the playing-field for anybody feeling like the labels took Hip Hop away from the people. And to the Steel City homie Mac, thumbs up.
Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief. He is a Pittsburgh native and longtime Philadelphia resident. He has contributed to XXL, The Source, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Forbes.com and other publications. Follow him on Twitter (@Citizen__Paine)