The late Malcolm James McCormick (1992-2018) — best known as the rapper Mac Miller — touched millions in his Pittsburgh hometown and beyond. For Philadelphia-based hip-hop writer Donna-Claire Chesman, who wrote “The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller,” his music was a flicker of light shining in an encroaching darkness, and the inspiration to accept herself as a queer Jewish woman struggling with anxiety and depression.
As a terrified teenager waiting in the hospital to find out if she’d live or die, she escaped to “Blue Slide Park,” Mac Miller’s first official studio album, named for his childhood hangout in Squirrel Hill.
“I got really into ‘Blue Slide Park’ while I was having, like, essentially emergency brain surgery,” explains Chesman. “I had a brain tumor rupture, and they had a very thin window of time within which they could perform the surgery. And so, in the waiting room before, and then during the drive home, I was listening to a lot of ‘Blue Slide Park’ because I just wanted to be somewhere else.”
She had begun writing a series of weekly essays called the Year of Mac for the hip-hop website DJ Booth and decided to turn them into “The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller,” published recently by Permuted Press.
Chesman reached out to Mac Miller’s closest musical collaborators from Pittsburgh and beyond, ranging from Big Jerm (producer and friend), to E. Dan (founder of the recording studio ID Labs, formerly in Lawrenceville), to planet-spanning rapper Wiz Khalifa, L.A.-based musical polymath Thundercat, and producer Just Blaze.
She has taken many trips across the state, walking the streets referenced in Mac Miller’s songs, from English Lane to Fifth Avenue to Frick Park Market.
“Me and my wife were in Pittsburgh last week,” says Chesman. “And yeah, it’s incredible to just walk through the neighborhood and, like, understand his references because I’m so deep in the music … It’s such a surreal experience as a fan and just a person who cares.”
The book isn’t a traditional biography. There are no family pictures or tales from teachers and relatives. Instead, it’s an ongoing album-by-album conversation with Mac Miller’s music, weaved into a narrative about Chesman’s struggles with fear, family, identity, love and spirituality. And, of course, the first-person accounts of those who were in the room with Miller while he was making these songs and albums.
Chesman was never able to get an interview with Mac before he passed, though she tried.
Chesman and Mac Miller were about the same age, and she found his music easy to relate to.
“So, when he was like a young kid having fun and enjoying life in high school, I was too,” she says. “And so I saw myself in him immediately. But what’s so miraculous about it is that as he grew up, his output was so prolific that at every new stage of his life, there was an album. And so I got to experience my life through the lens of his music.”
“So when I was really deep in my depression, I could like turn to an album that he released that had darker themes. And when I started to feel better, and like started to find love — and all these other wonderful things that life has to offer — there was an album for each of those key touchpoints in a person’s life.”
Even early on, Mac Miller could drop a heartfelt track amidst all the party starters, like “Poppy,” about the painful loss of his grandfather. Lyrics like “I love you/I hope all these prayers I’m saying may bug you/I’m just checking on what you’re up to” helped Chesman process her own losses.
Her very personalized approach to Mac’s music in the book was the only way she could approach it, she says.
“While there are stories that are personal to me, I sincerely believe that they hit on a universal experience that Mac Miller fans had with his music,” says Chesman.
Miller’s life rarely moved in a straight line. At first, his early mixtapes were ebullient odes to adolescent mischief — chasing girls, weed, money and goofing around — with catchy hooks and an easygoing, throwback flow and impish sense of humor.
“It’s impossible to feel anything but unfiltered happiness as Mac raps his breakfast order on ‘Senior Skip Day’… You feel alive as Mac walks you through his life as a fly Pittsburgh teen,” says Chesman.