Mac Miller: From blue slide to Billboard

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Mac Miller calls 20 minutes late for the interview.

"I'm sorry," he says with a yawn. "I just woke up."

It's 3:20 Pacific time on a Friday afternoon and the 19-year-old rapper from Point Breeze is coming to life in Santa Barbara, Calif, where he is headlining the Incredibly Dope Tour. Anyone who follows him on Twitter -- a staggering 1.1 million -- knows this is fairly routine.

He plays his shows, then parties or works through the night. His morning tweets mean he hasn't gone to bed yet.

Whatever he's doing is working. He launched his career a little more than two years ago out of Allderdice High School, and this week he's on the cover of Billboard magazine, one week after Justin Bieber. The thrust of the article is that Miller, who releases his debut album, "Blue Slide Park," today on Rostrum Records (the same label as fellow Allderdice alum Wiz Khalifa), is an independent success story at a time when the major labels are foundering and struggling to break new artists.

That Mac Miller has done this, with barely a shred of radio play, is game-changing. His buzz started locally and built through his mixtapes, touring and colorful videos of songs that strike a chord with young hip-hop fans, such as "Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza" and "Nikes on My Feet."

Along with the million Twitter followers and Facebook fans, there's the 176 million views on his YouTube channel, more than a million legal downloads of his singles and a current, 68-date tour that is selling out 2,000-capacity venues in hours.

"Donald Trump," the single from his second mixtape, this spring's "Best Day Ever," resulted in 33 million YouTube views and 404,000 sales, along with a tweet from The Donald that Mac was "the next Eminem."

He has the race right -- Mac Miller is a white kid in a genre dominated by African-Americans -- but the comparisons pretty much end there.

Miller, born Malcolm McCormick and brought up in a nice city neighborhood by his photographer mom and architect dad, is not an angry, vengeful rapper. Inspired by the likes of the Beastie Boys, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, his flow is fast, clever, playful and often profane, and a large part of his appeal to young people is his message that life is not only a party, it's bursting with opportunity. He brags about his bank account and getting the girls who blew him off in high school, while also tossing in songs about how much he loves his mom.

While many rappers create a tough persona to play, Miller says, "I'm just being myself. I've never tried to act like someone I wasn't. I feel like that's what it's all about. That's what you always learn is be yourself. I'm just being me and if people support that, it's cool. If they don't, that's cool, too."

Although their rap styles have little in common, Miller's weed-friendly party vibe is a good fit with labelmate Khalifa, which is why their bootlegged T-shirts -- Taylor Gang (for Wiz) and Most Dope (for Mac) -- were plastered all over the boardwalk beach stores this summer.

Miller benefited from the experience that Rostrum had with breaking Khalifa. The label is owned by another Allderdice grad, Benjy Grinberg, who learned the ropes working as an assistant to music exec LA Reid from 2000 to 2003. His VP is another Allderdice grad, Arthur Pitt.

"I saw in Mac a true artist, with drive and motivation that matched his talent," Mr. Grinberg says. "That's rare to find. Moreover, he's an amazing human being with a big heart. All in all he has what it takes to be one of the biggest artists in the world."

The Rostrum recording base is ID Labs in Lawrenceville, where the rappers work with producers E. Dan and Big Jerm.

For Khalifa's breakout album this year, "Rolling Papers," Rostrum cut a deal with Atlantic Records. There was major label interest in Miller, as well, but he decided not to hand over his franchise to a big corporation.

"Mac and I had a lot of discussions about major labels early on in our relationship," Mr. Grinberg says. "We both felt that we could have a lot of success without a major and we wanted to see how far we could push it on our own. As things get bigger and bigger, I see no ceiling above us. It's a challenge I welcome with open arms, as we're redefining what an artist can do without a major."

"It's like my baby," Miller says. "I don't want to get to a place where I feel like all I have to do is make music and everybody else takes care of stuff. I want to have my hand in everything still. I want to earn my accomplishments, do all the little stuff, take all the steps."

When Khalifa released his album in March, he had the luxury of his timely single, "Black and Yellow," going to No. 1 on the charts during the Steelers run to the Super Bowl. This week, Miller is likely to sniff the top of the charts without the benefit of any commercial radio play whatsoever.

"We don't get much radio play 'cause radio costs a lot of money, but we'll see what happens," Miller says. "If we can sell records without radio play and get our music out there without radio play, that's great. But I would someday like to be on radio, with a No. 1 radio hit, but we'll see if we can do that independently."

He claims there weren't any songs on the new album specifically tailored for radio. "I didn't think about what the radio wants. Instead of bringing Mac Miller to the radio, I'd like to see if I could bring the radio to Mac Miller."

The new songs released prior to the album launch have brought smiles to local faces. The title track name-drops the Frick Park playground where he played as a kid and partied as a teenager. "Frick Park Market," complete with a raucous video shot there, pays goofy tribute to his favorite Point Breeze snack stop. The album rolls on with local references through such songs as "PA Nights" and "Party on Fifth Ave." It's rich musically, reflecting his and the producers' love of "conscious" hip-hop, soul, funk, jazz, rock and electronica.

"K.I.D.S.," he says of his first mixtape, "was made when I really had no care in the world at all. I wasn't gonna go to college -- just chilling in Pittsburgh and making music. That project was all centered around dreams and what I wanted to do. And 'Best Day Ever' was when I started partying all night and on the road and living life like crazy. 'Blue Slide Park' is a step forward where there's party music and deeper songs. I kind of let people into my thoughts a little more."

Miller will spend release day on the West Coast, a long way from Blue Slide Park. He's been living a vagabond's life, on the road almost constantly since January, touring the U.S., Canada and Europe.

"There's definitely rough parts about it and [B.S.] you have to go through," he says, "but at the end of the day I get to come see my fans every night and perform music, so I love what I do."

That he would say "come see my fans," as opposed to the other way around, is among the things that sets Mac Miller apart from so many artists, and it's a big reason those fans line up around the block to see the fun-loving rapper from Point Breeze.

Correction/Clarification: (Published November 13, 2011) Mac Miller was raised by his mother, Karen Meyers, and father, Mark McCormick. Tuesday's story about the Pittsburgh rapper only mentioned his mother.

Scott Mervis: ; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.


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