The music industry lost a powerful voice last week, and Pittsburgh lost a famous son. Mac Miller, who was found dead last Friday in his Los Angeles home, autopsy report pending, was far more than a celebrity. He was a beloved son, an adored brother, the best of best friends. He was also a highly creative student who inspired his teachers, a peewee football player who gave his all on the field and a teenage artist whose gifts were unmistakable.
We’re grateful that some of those closest to him agreed to share these memories and insights into Malcolm McCormick, known to the world as Mac Miller.
Their stories may speak more about Mac than any statistic about his impressive record sales, his huge fan base or the critically acclaimed album he just released. He was all that, yes. But so much more.
His middle school teacher, Becky, tells of a time when he was in seventh grade and the only Jewish kid in a Catholic school in Point Breeze. While he got well-schooled in Catholicism, he realized his classmates knew little about his Jewish religion. So with his teacher’s approval, he got the class together over lunchtime during Hannukah, brought in a menorah and had them say a Jewish prayer with him. Together, they lit candles every day during the holiday. Then he handcrafted for every one of the 38 kids an iron-on t-shirt design as his Hannukah gift to them.
The same teacher taught him two years in a row when she made the switch from seventh to eighth grade along with him.
“He saw the world in a different way,” Becky remembers. “He had never been a good student or passionate about getting good grades, but he tried hard in eighth grade and he did it. He was really into music and that was what he wanted to do. He put everything into it.”
Long after he finished middle school he would pop by a couple of times a year to visit her and as his fame grew, they would laugh about it. “When he made his first million, he came in and told me about it and he brought me a CD — ‘Blue Slide Park.’ And he was in a Mountain Dew commercial and I saw him and said ‘Malcolm, you’re on TV!'”
While Becky says it was hard to define that certain spark he had, “he was very popular and also very kind and didn’t exclude people,” she remembers. “He kept his really good childhood friends close to him which was important to him.”
His best friend knew that firsthand.
“Malcolm has been my best friend since I was five years old,” says Dylan Reynolds, a musician who lives in Shadyside. “I remember meeting him for the first time in the dugout of a little league game. His face was painted like Spider-Man. I remember seeing him, surrounded by so many friends, and thought to myself, ‘Who is this kid?’”
Even at such a young age, he was a force, Reynolds says. “And we were inseparable. He convinced our parents that he needed to sleep over at my house for weeks at a time on school nights so that we could be together.”
The two played a lot of sports together, including football, and even then Malcolm’s outsized personality burst through. “Our coach told us that on defense we should all try to touch the ball carrier. This was supposed to teach us how to be involved in a play and follow through until the play was over. Malcolm, who was the littlest guy on the field, took this literally and would often be the last one to jump on the dog pile … to which the announcer would say ‘Mac Attack!’ He always wanted to be involved in the action. He hated to be left out.”
He was also one of the most generous people on the planet, says Dylan. “He would invite the whole neighborhood to Frick Park Market to order sandwiches, hot fries, and slushies, and tell us to just put it on the McCormick tab.” That generosity continued into his adulthood. “He always made sure his friends and family were covered.”
“He had this energy so that when you were around him you wanted to fully live life,” Dylan adds. “And he was fearless. I think that’s why our relationship worked so well. He would constantly break me out of my shell. Whether it was when he convinced me to play battle of the bands in front of 50 high schoolers or when we were 21 and he was pushing me out onto a stage of 10,000 hip hop fans so I could sing love songs with my acoustic guitar.”
But this past year was when Malcolm really came through for Reynolds. “Malcolm pushed me to fight for my life. He dropped everything and flew across the country on a red-eye from California to surprise me at my first cancer appointment. He stayed with me for weeks while I was adjusting to being sick. He shaved my head and then he shaved his head so that I wouldn’t feel so alone with no hair.”
He really gave himself to people, says his long-time friend. “That’s why every one of his fans feels such profound loss right now. And with every connection, Malcolm was interested in bringing out the best in people. He could see what everyone had to offer and he helped the world see it. He brought out everyone’s shine. He did that for me and many others.
“When God created Malcolm, He gave him a heart as big as the universe.”
Family was everything
Malcolm’s mother, Karen Meyers, shared an extraordinary relationship with her son whom she talked to every day. It’s something Mary Murrin, Karen’s close friend, was witness to over the years. The two have been close for nearly 30 years, since their boys started hanging out as kids.
Murrin remembers first hearing about Malcolm’s musical gift on a multi-family beach trip to Ocean City, N.J.
“The older kids took the younger ones — including Malcolm and my son Luke — to the boardwalk one night. When they came back they all thought it was so great that Malcolm had started talking to a busker playing Jack Johnson songs and he asked Malcolm to join him. They played guitar and sang together.”
He came from a very creative family, notes Murrin. “His mom, a beautiful photographer; his dad, an architect; and, his brother, Miller, a very talented artist and graphic designer in L.A. Malcolm’s creativity and passion was always greatly encouraged and he was surrounded by creative expression.”
When he came home to see Point Breeze friends, Murrin says, he was “the same Malcolm we had always known — no pretense or self-importance and so appreciative of his close family and community.
“His grandmother Marcia Weiss is one of his best friends,” Murrin says. “She would come to his concerts when he was in Pittsburgh. I remember sitting with her at Stage AE and folks around us looking at her awkwardly as he rapped some of his lyrics. She’d be smiling and clapping and beaming at him, appreciative and proud of him and his view of the world.”
Murrin also fondly recalls playing board games like Cards Against Humanity with Malcolm and his family on his visits home, once even on New Year’s Eve.
Dylan Reynolds remembers the same kinds of evenings. Even as Malcolm became more and more famous, he says, “we would all play board games and watch movies instead of going out. Family was everything.”
The most fun of anyone
Malcolm was only 15 when he started frequenting ID Labs, a recording studio now in Etna that used to be in Lawrenceville. Eric Dan, aka E. Dan, says his earliest memories of Malcolm involve him peeking his head into sessions, saying, “What’s up, man?”
“I had no idea who this kid was,” E. Dan remembers, “then started hearing his music in one of the other rooms. It took a few times, then I heard the right song — something caught my ear — and I was like, ‘Man, who is this kid and what’s he doing?'”
From that point on and until the end, E. Dan and Jeremy, aka Big Jerm, worked with Mac and he eventually landed a record deal with Pittsburgh-based Rostrum.
“Early on, we were just a small studio and just getting started on recording ‘Blue Slide Park.’ First we went to a local music store and Mac started pulling entire drum sets and guitars and basses and weird percussion things off the shelves. We brought it all to the studio and spent the better part of a day trying to put it all together and make it all work. Just because he wanted to have fun. We had bought a really expensive electric drum set. Took a day to set up. We used it for a total of about 20 seconds on the album. But it was worth all that for the fun that we had.”
By then Mac Miller was on the trajectory to become a big artist. Instead of sticking to something safe, Dan says, “he wanted to see how much fun we could have coming up with cool ideas.
“He was really prolific. He made a lot of music beyond what was ever released. He worked with a lot of people. He was always such a big fan of music and he really got a kick out of working with people he had idolized. But he always kept us involved up to this very last album. It just speaks to his character. He never forgot about us or drifted away.”
Their relationship in the last four or five years went from being centered on music to being more of a friendship. “Even though he was working with someone like Pharrell and some huge people, I think he found a lot of comfort in keeping his friends close,” E. Dan says.
“Everybody is talking now about what a talented musician and artist that he was. The amazing talent that stands out for me was his ability to get everyone to drop their guard and feel comfortable in their own skin being around him. More than anyone I know, he had a way of making everyone comfortable being themselves.”
Working with him “always felt like a bit of musical therapy,” says the music producer. “I knew at the very least we’d have a ton of fun exploring new ideas and nothing would be held back. I had more fun making music with him than anyone else in my life or career. He was an upbeat, funny person. No judgment or preconceived notion of what it should be.”
For E. Dan, that makes listening to Malcolm’s latest album, the acclaimed “Swimming,” even more emotional.
“It makes me simultaneously really happy and really sad because I feel like he finally made the album that he set out to make. Malcolm always got really anxious before he finished an album so there was this period of a few days where he drove himself crazy picking 15 songs from the hundreds he recorded and he would drive us crazy as well. We all wanted to put the period on the sentence and be done with the album and feel the sense of accomplishment.
It was different the last time. “This last album was the first one where I didn’t feel that that from him. It was the only one he knew when he was done — from a third of the way into it until the album was being released. He had a confidence I had never seen. I know he was ecstatic about how it turned out and everyone’s reaction to it. He nailed it musically.”
“This was the real beginning of his music career,” E. Dan says. “He finally found the place — a stable platform — for him to express all the different sides of himself. It’s an incredible album.”
While his loss is profound, E. Dan speaks for many when he says, “It was an enormous gift just to know him and call him a friend.”