Collaborations among rap artists are remarkably ordinary in the hip-hop scene, but Monday's session at Pittsburgh's I.D. Labs was anything but. Rapper Mac Miller, a Pittsburgh native and Billboard chart-topper, sat down in the Lawrenceville studio with 18-year-old Bobby Stewart (aka Yung Ka) of Fox Chapel -- a match made by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
After arriving to the studio in a limousine with mother Traci, father Bob and brother Jake, he and his family were greeted by a smiling Miller, who seemed to be just as excited with the meeting. A few brief introductions later, the pair quickly ventured into the studio and got to work sampling beats and discussing song strategies. By the end of the night, Bobby would emerge with a recorded track, the product of close, personal cooperation with Miller himself. But this was far from the first time Bobby put his musical talent on show for the public.
In fact, Bobby's passion for rap dates back almost as far as his own ability to speak: "Since he was 3 years old," said Mrs. Stewart. "His father is a criminal defense lawyer. There was a surveillance tape that he was reviewing, and in the tape, they were playing 'Pocket Full of Stones.' " The toddler began singing the UGK track, and it was official: Bobby was hooked.
However, the aspiring rapper's career took a dramatic turn. Bobby was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in March 2010. By September, Bobby was suffering from peritonitis, and would have to undergo emergency surgery. The beats would need to be put on hold.
But despite a collection of related afflictions that began to surface, Bobby never gave up his true passion -- and rather than let his illness define him, instead he converted it to a source of inspiration for his songs.
"That's all I write about, that's the only thing," said Bobby. "To tell my story, that's what I do all the time -- that is what I rap about now."
"Having a story to tell, having something to say, gives you so much more than a lot of people," Miller said. "...When I was 15, I started rapping, I didn't have anything to say -- what did I know? But he has something real to say, and it's important, and it's different. And it's cool, it's just dope to get that story from someone -- you're not going to get that from [Lil] Wayne, you're not going to get that from Kanye [West]. You're not going to get that from anyone."
As Bobby continued to battle with his illness, members of the Pittsburgh community showed up to support him, including visits from Pittsburgh Steeler Ike Taylor and Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa. And yet, the teenager's biggest surprise was yet to come: a chance to work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Mac Miller.
"Mac actually made a donation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, our local chapter, in December," said Dana Antkowiak, who was responsible for organizing Bobby's wish. "And Bobby actually went in and was up on stage, and got the check from him."
And this particular wish is special in a number of ways. The local chapter here has never worked with a hip-hop artist in the same capacity as Bobby. More importantly for the organization, this is the 13,000th wish they've been able to accomplish for children with life-threatening medical conditions -- a far cry from the 13 wishes fulfilled in the program's first year 28 years ago.
And with this particular wish, there never seemed to be any doubt. Bobby always knew that his would stem from his passion -- writing and recording rap music -- and when the Make-A-Wish Foundation learned that Miller would be available, all of the pieces were set in place.
"Mac Miller, I really feel his music relates," said Bobby. "So to be able to work with him and learn from him, it's a blessing."
But for Miller, the experience has led to something entirely unexpected: humbleness.
"That's beyond anything I could've ever imagined," said Miller. "... You can't really be prepared for people who really get inspired by what you do, and feeling like your music really does something for the world. It makes it all worth it, no matter what."
Elliot Alpern: email@example.com. First Published May 16, 2012 4:00 AM