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Arts, Sports & Culture

Biography of Pittsburgh-born rapper Mac Miller recalls the joy he spread

Mac Miller
Owen Sweeney
/
Invision/AP
In this July 13, 2013, file photo, rapper Mac Miller performs on his Space Migration Tour in Philadelphia. A new biography explores his life.

Mac Miller’s untimely death, in September 2018, occasioned a huge outpouring of grief by fans everywhere, including his hometown of Pittsburgh. Donna-Claire Chesman was one such fan. “I cried on the floor,” she says.

The Book of Mac book cover

But Chesman, who’d loved the top-selling rapper’s music since first hearing it years earlier, knew that as a professional hip-hop writer, she had more to give. Her eulogy “Thank You, Mac Miller” was posted on DJ Booth, the website she worked for at the time. But that wasn’t enough, either, in the case of a still-rising music star whose life had ended at age 26, following an accidental drug overdose.

“I realized the only way I personally was going to feel better about this tragedy was to write through it,” she says. But even her “Year of Mac” — a series of weekly online articles she wrote about Miller — didn’t suffice. “Once that ended, I realized I didn’t want to stop.”

The result is “The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller” (Permuted Press), a biography that blends Chesman’s writing on Miller’s music with oral histories she gathered from more than 30 of his friends and collaborators, including musicians Wiz Khalifa and Thundercat, and record-label owner Benjy Grinberg.

Chesman visits Pittsburgh for a live-streamed book event Thursday.

The New Jersey native, who now lives in Philadelphia, calls Miller “my one artist that I feel represents me as a person, all the emotional twists and turns that I’ve gone through.” Chesman, who refers to Miller by his given name, Malcolm, says she intends the book to encourage appreciation of the rapper’s artistic growth during his brief career — from his 2010 mixtape “Kids” to the five studio albums released during his lifetime and 2020’s “Circles,” a posthumous release that went gold and was perhaps Miller’s most critically acclaimed work.

Donna-Claire Chesman
Donna-Claire Chesman is author of a new biography of Mac Miller.

“It’s such a massive achievement to go from ‘Nikes On My Feet’ to ‘Woods,’” Chesman says, citing two songs that bracketed Miller’s output during that era. “The evolution is mind-boggling, it’s astounding, it’s arresting.”

Miller grew up in Point Breeze, and famously honored his neighborhood with the song and album both titled “Blue Slide Park”. He turned to hip hop at 15, and by 18 was signed to Grinberg’s independent label Rostrum Records, then still based in Pittsburgh. While the Taylor Allderdice High School graduate’s first album got mixed reviews, he quickly developed a musical style that drew on psychedelia, and lyrically began exploring his own demons, including depression and substance abuse. In 2014, Miller signed to major label Warner Bros.

Chesman, now editorial director of music-streaming platform Audiomack, explored Miller’s life through interviews with those who worked with him most closely.

“He was a character, but it was so real,” bassist and composer Thundercat, a Miller collaborator, told her. “He was creative, and he exuded a lot of creative energy. He wasn’t scared of the unknown, a majority of the time. Him inviting a guy like me into his life, finding a place where I existed in his reality … We shared a lot of different things, but as a man he struck me as my kind of guy.”

The biography is “authorized” in that it was approved by Miller’s estate, says Chesman. But other than Miller’s mother supplying the book’s cover photo, the estate was not involved in the research and writing, she says. The book embraces the troubled sides of his personality, she says, up to and including his demise.

"It's like a gut punch, but it's still a reminder that regardless of any kind of darkness in his themes, there was this prevailing light that he brought to himself and to other," she says.

In Pittsburgh, Miller’s legacy lives on, partly through the Mac Miller Fund. Even his music career abides, after a fashion, with the recent re-release of his 2014 mixtape “Faces."

Chesman says her big lesson from researching the book was just how much people were drawn to Miller.

“There was such a love and reverence that everyone I spoke to had for him. And that was just so impactful. Because I knew that he made my life better,” she says. “But to know that he really did enrich every single person’s life, that was really wonderful.”

Chesman’s Pittsburgh book event is at 7:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, at White Whale Bookstore. She’ll be in conversation with fellow hip-hop journalist Grant Rindner. More information is here.