How time flies. It was five years ago that Point Breeze native Mac Miller first performed onstage at East Liberty's Shadow Lounge. The smaller audiences that often showed up there — mostly fellow hip-hop artists — seem distant from the audiences seen at Mac's shows today.
In December 2011, now with a number-one album to his name, Miller concluded his sold-out Blue Slide Park tour with two shows at Stage AE. The packed-in crowd of mostly teenagers was different from the early years, when the 15-year-old Miller was almost guaranteed to be younger than his audience.
As Mac prepared for the release of his new mixtape, Macadelic, made available digitally on March 23, he surprised fans by announcing an advance listening session via Twitter. With less than 24 hours' notice, many of his hardcore followers had to find their way to the place of Mac's more humble beginnings: Shadow Lounge.
Shadow Lounge owner Justin Strong recalls those early days. "I remember yelling at him for having a bottle of Hennessey in the green room," he says with a laugh.
"It's the fruition of the vision of the Shadow Lounge when we opened it 12 years ago, to see what
happens when you have a viable infrastructure that supports the scene," Strong continues. "And although it's mostly 21 and over, we've given the younger cats a chance to get on stage and build a fan base and polish their craft. We're proud to have played a role."
At 16, Mac was competing at Shadow Lounge in the Rhyme Calisthenics MC Competition, the event that requires MCs to spin a large game show wheel and perform written and freestyle challenges. As the youngest competitor, Mac’s performances in several Rhyme Cal events earned him praise from many of his local hip-hop elders.
“His charisma has always been at a high level,” says Rhyme Cal host Thelonious Stretch. “That's why we picked him for our all-star competition: because he was already a superstar before the world knew it. You can see it in the clip when he did Mirror Match; Chen Lo was judging and saw he had the best swag of the night.”
“He’s comfortable with performing and freestyling, and you can hear that in his songs and see it in his videos. He’s having a good time, without a chip on his shoulder. Life ain’t tough,” Stretch adds with a laugh. “He just kept on having a good time, rap ain’t so serious.”
As Mac returned to the venue that helped catapult his early development, Jenesis Magazine's Thomas Agnew acknowledged the impact this could have on the city and its music scene.
"Them coming back to the Shadow Lounge... Like, Pittsburgh has never really had a listening party. I was hype that they did a free listening party there and allowed everybody to come in and check it out. Nobody in Pittsburgh's done that before."
Founded in Pittsburgh, Jenesis was the first of what is now many magazines to feature Mac on the front cover.
"We featured Mac on the cover in 2009. It was like a Pittsburgh version of XXL's freshmen list; we called it the Leaders of the New School,” he explains. "From 2009 to 2010, which was another issue we had him in, he was like a whole different person. He went from being part of the pack to coming back from a tour in New York where he had just done Tony Touch's radio show Toca Tuesdays, and he was working with Statik Selektah I think. When he had came back his fan base had, like, tripled. It wasn't just Pittsburgh anymore, there were a whole lot of kids outside of the city that knew of him. His whole camp worked really hard on all the things that most people don't work on, such as marketing and his image ... the music was always good. And that's kind of the backbone of what we have today, this young kid kickin' everybody's asses."
Although Mac's current success may not have been foreseeable, many of his predecessors could see a unique sparkle in the teenager's work. One of Mac's first studio engineers, Soy Sos, explains.
"I definitely remember all the earlier sessions, I think he was 15. He was good right off the bat, and very much concerned that it was authentic and that the quality was there.” He continues, talking of seeing Mac's live performances, "From the first shows that I saw of Mac's at the Shadow Lounge... I mean, my wife and I came and we were looking at Mac and said, 'this guys got a ton of swag,' he really has something special."
But as one of the first distributor's of Mac's music, Time Bomb clothing store owner Brian Brick reflects on the adversity.
“I remember people coming in and telling me, 'Yo, they need to take themselves off the cover,'” he says, referring to Mac's first releases alongside Beedie as a member of the rap duo the Ill Spoken. “'They're nice, but if they didn't have themselves on the cover they'd probably sell a lot more because kids wouldn't know that they're white.'”
Mac never shied away from a cover. And a short time after, at the release of his K.I.D.S. mixtape, Brick's Time Bomb store hosted a signing that gave many of Mac's new fans their first opportunity to meet the artist.
"It was insane. His whole family was here," Brick explains. "People might not understand why he's so famous. He's famous because he was doing hip-hop. And that's when a lot of people get fucked up, when they forget about hip-hop.
"He's working with all these legends. Like, how can't it be a good song with Raekwon and Posdnous from De La Soul, or DJ Premier,” Brick explains. “If you listen to Pos's verse on Mac's “Of the Soul (Remix)”, it's like he's preaching to Mac."
Told Mac Mill', you're 'bout to mac millions/
Millions of tweeters follow ya/
A million skeezers wanna swallow ya whole/
Just watch the game and make sure it doesn't swallow ya soul
“De La's got more than 20 years in the game. It's dope that Mac Miller comes in and revives something
that he's still inspired by. And then other kids can get inspired by it."
He adds, “I'm just happy for the kid.”