The Enduring Legacy of Nice Jewish Rapper Mac Miller

Miller rapped, "Man, I been a bad little Jew." But I heavily disagree — he exemplified Judaism.

A flowery chai covered Mac Miller’s left arm. He could’ve gotten any Jewish motif permanently inked on his body, but he wanted the Hebrew word for life.

“Because life is really important,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle. “Enjoying every possible second of life.”

But that was a decade ago.

It’s been over a year since Miller — born Malcolm James McCormick — died from an accidental opioid overdose. The Jewish rapper, who would’ve been 28 this month, said he got some heat from the Jewish community for covering his body with ink, but the self-described “bad little Jew” didn’t care.

“I choose to get tattoos because I love having art on my body to represent who I am,” he said.

That was kind of his whole shtick — representing who he was. Whether it was rhyming about self-medicating his depression or spitting his early day “frat rap,” fervent authenticity is Miller’s lasting legacy. And it’s the reason why the cult hero’s NYC fanbase waited over four hours in the snow wrapped around slippery blocks to see “Circles: Til Infinity,” a pop-up multimedia exhibit for his posthumous album, Circles, released this month.

I went to the immersive music experience, but I didn’t wait on the line. Instead, I walked the entirety of it, observing Miller’s fanbase. It was a melting pot of young people huddling together to stay warm while a boombox blasted “Blue World,” one of the tracks (my favorite) from the new record. No two faces looked the same. The single commonality between the hundreds of fans of all different backgrounds was their undying devotion for Mac Miller, the white Jewish kid from Pittsburgh who went from selling music out of his car in high school to becoming one of the most iconic rappers of his time, taken from this world much too soon.

On the surface, Miller looked like just another Slim Shady white boy wannabe rapper, but his music transcended frat party tunes. Built on the foundation of relatability, Miller’s fanbase evolved alongside his music, from his first studio album Blue Side Park — which, despite becoming the first independent album to debut as number one on Billboard Hot 100 since 1995, was ranked a 1 out of 10 by Pitchfork writer Jordan Sargant, who said “Miller’s world is a hermetic one, and unless it’s one you inhabit the album holds no appeal,” to his fourth album The Divine Feminine, which the same magazine reviewed as Miller’s “most intoxicating release” comparable to an “odyssey of soulful compositions.”

Riches aside, Miller was a rapper of the people. The transparency and rawness in his music cultivated a unique connection with his fans who saw themselves within him. He rapped about struggling with drugs  — sober I can’t deal, I’m in the corner with my head low — and mental illness — I just need a way out of my head, I’ll do anything for a way out of my head. Miller represented himself as the kid next door, striking a chord with aspiring artists and normalizing the uncomfortable feelings we’ve been long taught to keep bottled up.

“All these trials and tribulations aren’t different than anybody else, but like I let everyone into all of them,” Miller said. “That’s my thing. I can’t lie about what I’m doing.”

When Miller died on September 7, 2018, it felt surreal. Grief and despair flooded every social media platform from people who knew him, people who knew someone who knew someone who knew him, and the life-long fans who grew up with his music. It was a tremendous loss for Miller’s eclectic fanbase, but I think it hit one community particularly hard — his Jewish fans.

If Drake was the “best Jewish rapper alive,” — his words, not mine — then Miller was the “coolest Jewish rapper alive,” — again, his words, but ones I condone. A Jewish summer camp kid who loved his grandma’s noodle kugel made with mangoes — “I don’t know what’s in that shit, man, it’s just fucking good and it looks like mush, and it’s crispy and awesome” — Miller’s Jewishness can’t be ignored.

My Jewish ex-boyfriend loved Miller. Actually, pretty much all the Jewish men I’ve dated idolized him. From the Hebrew words tattooed on his body and the Jewish lyrics sprinkled throughout his songs like Easter (er, Passover?) eggs, to his “Old Jewish” clothing collaboration with Diamond Supply Company, Miller was publicly proud to be Jewish. He thought it was “cool.” And that was good for the Jews. Really good for the Jews.

“Mac Miller made me feel like being Jewish didn’t make me lame,” my ex, who faced anti-Semitism in high school, told me. “It meant that there were cool Jewish people that everyone liked.”

A college fling who also grew up in Pittsburgh said he had a unique relation to Miller’s music because of their shared age and demographic. “I felt that his music over the years mirrored a lot of the feelings I was having during my own self-exploration,” he said. “He demonstrated that despite his upbringing, everyone could relate to the emotions and messages he shared in his songs.”

Honesty and openness was Miller’s universal appeal, and that vulnerability resonated heavily with fellow aspiring Nice Jewish Stoner Boy artists. “There aren’t really any Jewish rappers, and I’m an aspiring Jewish rapper so it’s cool to see people like me doing what I want to do,” Adam Ginsberg of Good Stuff Records told me.

What my flings expressed is exactly the influence Miller wanted his Judaism to have.

In an interview with Forbes he said, “I think it’s dope to have any different culture that people don’t know all about to be brought to the spotlight because this is a world filled with so much variety of culture that every time something different is out it’s good, you know, because it’s like ‘oh, a Jewish rapper, that’s why I think I could be a Jewish rapper… So you know, now people in hip hop or other people that didn’t think Jewish people could be so cool, you know, they can!”

In “Don’t Mind If I Do,” Miller raps “Man, I been a bad little Jew.” But I heavily disagree — he exemplified Judaism.

A year before he died, the musician framed a tweet from Jay-Z and hung it in his house: “Too many ..Fab , black people really magic. Mac Miller nice too though .”

That’s the word that best describes Miller — “nice.” He was a nice fucking dude who elevated minority voices and battled his demons publicly through music, all with a smile on his face. And I think that rare ability to unify people of all backgrounds through song radiates the most important Jewish value: tikkun olam.

In a chilling interview published on Vulture the day before his death, Miller shared the best way his fans could connect with him. “The people that have the best chance of knowing me, that would like to, would just be by listening to my music.”

Even after his death, Circles gives us a window into Miller’s tortured psyche. Over a year later, I don’t think anyone has really accepted he’s gone. But we’ll continue to honor his legacy by radiating his unique kindness.

And all the while we’re bumping his music, I’d like to think he’s smiling back.

Image by Rich Fury/Stringer

Read More