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What Will Mac Miller's Legacy Be?

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An image of Mac Miller, who died suddenly in September, projected on the rear of the stage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif., before a benefit concert organized in Miller's honor.
Scott Dudelson, Getty Images

An image of Mac Miller, who died suddenly in September, projected on the rear of the stage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif., before a benefit concert organized in Miller's honor.

Mac Miller made it out of Pittsburgh on the wings of a rap career, a craft he studied and devoted his creative energies to until he died suddenly this September, at age 26. His death landed hard with the community of musicians he'd tended as he toured the world in his teenage years and made a home in Los Angeles in his 20s. Miller, who put out his fifth album, Swimming, in August, had been scheduled to start a national tour this week. Instead, the band that he'd been rehearsing with, one that fellow musicians had been saying they're jealous of, backed many musicians Mac had collaborated with and befriended as they put on a tribute concert. The show benefited the foundation his family started after his death, which means to encourage underserved kids in his hometown to make art.

I went to that concert on Halloween, at the Greek in Hollywood, because I wanted to write about Mac Miller's legacy, which I'm pretty sure isn't, in the end, going to be the music he made, but instead the realized potential and the art of the musicians he knew and loved and supported.

I don't say that to diminish what he did and how people felt about his work. What will last longest out of Mac's time on earth is the stuff that's less visible, way trickier to measure: You can't quantify moral support or predict what effect boosting somebody's confidence will have, what an artist will do with an open door, what an audience is going to elicit from a creative mind.

Support comes from

To take one example, five years ago — which is to say, the summer before Macklemore "robbed" (his words) Kendrick Lamar of all those Grammys, the summer of the "Control" verse, Magna Carta Holy Grail, Nothing Was The Same and Run The Jewels — Mac Miller's Watching Movies With The Sound Off went up against Kanye West's Yeezus and J. Cole's Born Sinner for first week sales. He lost that particular battle but he still sold more than 100,000 copies in that seven-day period, making it the 10th highest opening week of any hip-hop album that year.

2013 was a weird transitional time, with phenomenal albums appearing every month and mediocre songs dominating every form of airwave. The majors were throwing their weight around while over on Soundcloud musicians were unassumingly rewriting the playbook.

It felt like maybe the gap between well-received music and popular music was becoming unbridgeable. Some people like it like that: it makes them feel good, as a consumer, to be in the minority. But staying small isn't the big dream of any creator; the big dream is to grow into a colossus while staying who you are. That doesn't happen without finesse.

That summer, in that climate, Mac — playing in the big leagues — took Vince Staples and Chance the Rapper on the road with him. At the time Vince had released three mixtapes, the most recent of which Mac had produced. Chance had put out two. Each of their 2013 tapes had performed well, especially Chance's Acid Rap, but they hadn't toured and they didn't yet have that corporate money behind them.

Mac put them in front of a vocal audience, kids with exponential reach and money to spend, before they'd built national fanbases. People who paid a lot of attention to hip-hop knew they would. It was abundantly clear that Vince and Chance were insanely talented (in different ways, hip-hop being a very big tent) and focused. They had already found their voices and locked in with strong teams.

So it wasn't like Mac was shepherding them through their artistic infancy or anything close to that. But he did surround himself on that tour with acts so deft and complicated and singular that it wasn't guaranteed they would one day earn crossover sales, evangelizing merch-sporters who couldn't name three other contemporary rappers, or rapt Twitter followings, eager to get told and/or clowned.

Some people wouldn't have been able to handle the artistic competition that bill set up. Some people wouldn't have thought that was fun. Some people would have tried to disperse some of that pressure to sell tickets. Some people would've wanted more hooks or more fashion. Some people would've thought it would be smarter if the lineup was whiter.

But Mac and his team booked the Space Migration Tour the way they did, which also included dates with Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson. And all four of those acts showed up on Wednesday night in L.A.

It was kinda cold but the production had that Summer Jam feel: After one act had vacated the stage, the opening strains of the on-deck song heralded the next artist's arrival, the crowd picking up the cues and and appropriately demonstrative as he or she strode out. In the show's front half, the acts did the song they had made with Mac, then one or two of their own, then said a few words about him and walked off.

The crowd was all tenderized by home videos of Mac as a little kid or being funny, or playing the piano.

There were dissonant moments, like when Domo Genesis nearly apologized between his song with Mac and his solo song. He said he wished it didn't have to happen under these circumstances. The livestream of the concert was putting Domo in front of a vast audience he can't command by himself; even in death Mac's audience was made available to somebody else, and the transaction — the imbalance of fandom that was enjoyed by somebody like Mac as opposed to somebody like Domo — was bared by Domo's discomfort. At least, it was to me. The people around me, in pretty expensive seats, definitely not the nosebleeds, smack dab in the middle, just floated along.

Earl came out and did "Guild" and "New Faces" and then he said his friend would be mad if he let us leave sad and the DJ pushed the fader to "Hey Ma," which they'd covered together. Chance did his thing and was the only artist to mention, much less bless, the foundation supported by the benefit.

Vince spoke about the man he called his best friend, and was emotional enough that he affected a nasal character voice, keeping himself safe with distance. At the end of the night though, when Mac's family came out with almost all the acts who had performed, Vince was holding Mac's mom. She was leaning on him. John Mayer came over to shake her hand and Vince handed her off for a second, but then he was right there. He tucked her back under his arm. It was the kind of physical support you pray you'll never need.

Action Bronson barreled on stage and then heckled Alchemist, the producer of Mac and Action's "Red Dot Music," into stepping out of the wings and joining him. In another lifetime they were together celebrating that song, which had, three years ago, functioned to kill off Easy Mac, the persona occupied by Miller when he broke out, 2011's Blue Slide Park marking him yet another white baby-face with more appeal outside hip-hop than in it. "Red Dot Music" is more "real hip-hop," and atmospherically it's what passes for adult, or at least masculine: it's wry, stoic and hypnotically fatalistic. It does its job very well, Mac and Action starring in a buddy cop movie as the villains you root for. The problem is, with Mac now dead from drugs, engaging in wordplay with doom seemed foolish.

Action was less guarded than Vince in his expression, and as he chanted, "It must be the drugs ..." over and over again to close out the song, he started shaking his head. It looked to me like he'd suddenly remembered why he was up there, like he suddenly felt uncomfortable crooning what he was crooning, unsure if he was doing the right thing. He tried to cover it up by saying he was f***** up, that it was an emotional night.

The thing is, it wasn't. Not out in the crowd.

The back half of the show was artists who don't have a song with Mac. They were and are too big for him. They knew him in real life, they said he had been their friend, but that gap between mainstream pop and more challenging music, though it feels more bridgeable lately, is still there.

The people around me seemed all too happy to throw off the conflicts brought to the surface by the lineup; when an act offered a song that allowed us to pretend like repercussions aren't a thing, the crowd went from mannerly to tear-the-club-up too fast. It was disorienting, and the delirium of the changeover made me think the reflective moments were just a thin layer over a deep well. A well of what I can't say, but the crowd felt entitled to it. Travis Scott was not afraid to talk about love, which really did undergird this whole enterprise, no matter what was exchanged on top. But "Sicko Mode" to close out a tribute?

Juicy J materializing to bang "Bandz A Make Her Dance" blew the roof off, although after he left the people around me were like, "What was that?" Rae Sremmurd got the shout of the night when the DJ threw on "No Type" out of nowhere. Ty Dolla Sign told us Mac told him "Blasé" was one of his favorite songs, so that was his excuse for dropping into his biggest hit. Him saying that was kinda questionable, but when he dove offstage and ran through the pit, deep into the seats, way past where he'd normally go, the energy felt right.

Right after Mac died there was this outpouring of love and gratitude on social media. Prominent people felt the need to post public messages regarding their relationships with him and the abrupt nature of his passing. Friends of mine who don't pay as much attention to music as I do asked me if it was real, if these celebrities and musicians felt this way previously or if this was a bandwagon situation. I told them I saw love for him behind the scenes for years, artists working at his house all the time, collaborations all over the place, and other than a couple of times when his falling off the wagon affected other people's schedules, no dirt.

So I think it was real. I think in this day and age if a public person reacts strongly enough to a private loss to spontaneously make a statement about it, they'll do that through a channel that they control. And that will be the full extent of their expression on the subject to strangers out of the house.

None of the acts wanted to talk to a reporter about the night. They'd already typed out their grief; why would they go through that again, trying to find FCC-approved words that are concise yet evocative, the tension in their throats burned to tape and whatever confusion or guilt or horror and any shame or insecurity about having those feelings revealed and preserved forever in your memory or on the godforsaken Internet?

But the weeks that went by between those elegiac posts and last Wednesday night had allowed Mac's friends to mourn in private for a bit. Accepting this gig, performing in a moment that required etiquette of the home-training sort, especially because Mac's mom was right there, meant they were shoved back into a public role, and this one had proscriptions on it.

From my seat, it looked like there were fleeting moments wherein Mac's friends weren't sure what their responsibilities were here. Especially when ScHoolboy Q apologized to us for not having the words right now, I wondered if he feared there was something he could have done to prevent his friend's death. After my podcast, Microphone Check, reposted a 2015 interview with Mac soon after his death, we received comments from listeners that worried me; I wondered what words any of us should use when we're talking to people who might be in a perilous state. What can you give to a total stranger, much less tens of thousands of strangers, having their own unknowable reaction to tragedy? What if you say the wrong thing?

Almost everybody on stage credited Mac with opportunities they had taken advantage of and support they had metabolized into achievement. After that, some people said let's turn up for our boy. Some people said take care of your friends. Some people talked directly to him. Chance looked up and out and said, "Hey Mac. Isn't this cool?"

Parts of it were cool. Dancing through it, all of it, especially shoulder to shoulder with people you love, is defiant and constructive. Forgetting for a second is relief.

There were so many different types of music performed that night. So many different ways to perform demonstrated. It was like a mini-festival in that trippy, everything-meeting-on-an-equal-plane type of way, those fake barriers between indie and major and niche and mainstream and melodic and heady and euphoric and internal and eternal and desperately sad washed away.

I think that Mac's life's work was the community of musicians who responded to a request to play a couple songs one night, for a good cause, with, "For Mac and his family? Sure, that's no problem." Those musicians are very different from each other, and that extends to how each of them respond to the call of a captive audience to be told what's OK in this situation. The crowd wasn't sure what to do with this faraway but still personal sadness and the musicians were not interested in performing their trauma. That none of this resolved, that the night never cohered into poignancy out in the crowd, doesn't mean something went wrong.

Who knows? It's possible that Mac's circle itself just needed to gather in this particular way. And it's possible that some aspect of their efforts on his behalf was subtly meaningful or instructive to, say, the six 20-year-olds in my section who drove in for the show from North Dakota. Amid all the different micro-genres and approaches on display that night were a handful of ways to mourn. What felt destabilizing was cycling through them: serious, loving, optimistic, matter of fact. Relationships that took the shape of tight friendships, business partnerships or mutual respect. We listened to songs about drinking your problems away and falling in love again and about gravity.

And then we just left. I didn't witness any drama; the Lyft lot was patient. The conversations around me as we drifted on down the road were about wanting more: more Travis; I still can't believe he's dead; is it too much to ask for an Ariana appearance? No doubt there's unreleased Mac Miller music, but after that's been packed up and delivered and feasted upon, there won't be any more.

Mac's friends and peers and competitors will keep growing though. And more people will hear what they make because of the choices Mac made. That's enough. Anybody could rest easy knowing they did that.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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