Mac Miller. Photo courtesy MTV.

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.”

“The Book of Mac” by Donna-Claire Chesman.
“The Book of Mac” by Donna-Claire Chesman.

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.

Photo by Nick Walker.

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.

“Blue Slide Park” (2011) — produced in Pittsburgh at ID Labs and released on Rostrum Records — debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, with 144,000 sales, making it the first independently-distributed debut album to top the chart since 1995. The album received some harsh reviews from critics, however, including a devastating 1.0 (out of 10) review from influential music tastemaker Pitchfork, calling Mac “mostly just a crushingly bland, more intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa.”

So Mac doubled down, working relentlessly on his craft, spending endless hours at ID Labs in Lawrenceville, then moving to L.A. and making connections with virtually everyone making cutting-edge hip hop: Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Flying Lotus, Odd Future. He slowly learned the production side of things and how to play instruments like keyboards and guitar.

Eric Dan and Mac Miller. Photo courtesy of Eric Dan.

Miller’s rhymes got darker, deeper, weirder, more introspective and personal — and skillful. Even Pitchfork came around, giving his later records like “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” and “Faces” glowing reviews.

As he grew as an artist — whether it was the pressures of sudden fame or the emptiness of suddenly having all — the happy-go-lucky Mac of earlier years was gone, and darker forces were unleashed. Drugs and depression and premonitions of death became recurring themes that would haunt his later music — and in retrospect, are hard to hear. He was evolving rapidly, as a person and a musician, culminating in “The Divine Feminine” (2016), a complex meditation on love, intimacy and the distance between people.

“I think that it’s really so validating to hear someone experience what you’re experiencing, and you know, put words to feelings that you might not have the vocabulary for,” explains Chesman. “That was so important to me, and just seeing this person that I admire and respect … put the battery in my back in a way to be like, ‘OK, well, let’s start taking this seriously. Let’s go find a psychiatrist. Let’s start medication and let’s figure this out. Let’s really get to it, because you deserve more.’ It felt like the thing that Mac gave a lot of his fans was the sense that there was more to life than how bad you’re feeling.”

In 2018, he died of an accidental drug overdose at age 26.

“I cried on the floor,” recalls Chesman. “I fell out of my chair when someone sent me the TMZ article (reporting his death). And I was just shocked. I was waiting for someone to tell me that it wasn’t true.”

Chesman found Mac’s collaborators willing, even excited, to talk — even Wiz Khalifa who isn’t easy to pin down for interviews.

“It’s almost like speaking in code,” says Thundercat in the book. “Me and him, we would always be trying to speak a different language to each other. We always had something to say; we always had something to play.”

“The one word that always kept coming up was he was ‘goofy,’ and was just a funny, happy guy,” says Chesman.” And I think that’s really what people wanted to emphasize — that he really lit up a room.”

Mac Miller mural on the North Side. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Raymer.

Chesman doesn’t bother to twist herself into knots trying to justify Mac’s more indefensible lyrics — and there are many — and she chides him occasionally for writing “childish” things. But oversized braggadocio is the coin of the realm in hip-hop, and she interprets most of his lyrics charitably.

She also touches on Miller’s references to his Jewish roots, a heritage she shares.

“‘Yahweh put the world in my hands; I’m giving it back’ (from the song ‘I Am Who I Am’) is my humanity in a single sentence,” writes Chesman. “The lyric is so multiple and procedural, the arc of my healing in one bar.”

There’s another book out about Mac Miller, “Most Dope: the Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller” by Paul Cantor, that has been vehemently opposed by Mac Miller’s family. Chesman’s book didn’t receive any opposition.

“The book was estate approved, but it’s not like they were there sitting over my shoulder as I wrote the book,” says Chesman. “They just kind of trusted me to do what I do.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.