In The Lab with Mac Miller
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
Mac Miller is an artist in the truest sense of the word. He likes to create, from scratch. It’s abundantly clear after listening to his new album Watching Movies With the Sound Off that this rap shit isn’t just some breezy hobby that he turned into a career. No, Mac cares about his craft, and he’s not afraid to try new things and experiment. Don’t get it twisted. Just because dude has a reality show on MTV doesn’t mean he hasn’t been putting in heavy work. This young man is becoming one of the most fearless songwriters and innovative up-and-coming hip-hop producers right before our eyes. Real talk.
To find out more about how Mac created the music for his impressive new LP—which drops this Tuesday (preorder on iTunes here)—we linked up with him yesterday afternoon at the Rostrum Records office in lower Manhattan to talk about the home studio ambiance at his California crib, how he constructs his beats and rhymes, and his favorite movies to watch with the sound off for inspiration. Plus, we found out what it was like for him working with Pharrell on their upcoming collaborative EP Pink Slime, and how in the hell he got a verse on his album from the magician himself, Jay Electronica.
Step inside the lab with Mac Miller aka Larry Fisherman, the now generation of rap’s new spiritual leader.
Recording Watching Movies With the Sound Off at Home
Mac Miller: “I [recorded] the whole thing at the crib. One song was recorded at Alchemist’s, and one song was recorded at ID Labs [in Pittsburgh]. And then, two songs were recorded on tour. But all the work was done at the house.
“[My home studio used to be] the pool house. [Now, it’s] like a dungeon. No windows, very secluded, and very separated from the world. Real vibey. It looks like a sanctuary. We call it ‘The Sanctuary.’ Very religious. We got a dope set-up. Bean bags to sit on, candles everywhere. Dope carpets. Weird statues. Red lights. And all the equipment necessary.
“[I make my beats] on Logic. And sometimes Pro Tools. And I’m trying to get into Ableton. First beat I ever made was on an MP[C]. I used to make beats on an MP all the time. Then I got the new MP, and I didn’t like it, because it felt like a computer program. It wasn’t like a stand-alone thing. I wanted to get an MP to like, play on. So I [stopped using it].
(Image via Mac’s Instagram)
“Recording for me is a real night-time thing. I do a lot during the delirious hours, where you can’t really formulate sentences properly. But I like how my mind works [at that time]. But then, sometimes I switch it up and do the daytime. And the set-up during the day is crazy because you open the door [out to the pool], and the whole room is different. The sunlight hits, and it becomes a completely different vibe. But I barely swim in my pool. I never have [while I’m recording]. I thought I would use it so much. I just started to [swim in it more].
“Sometimes, the homies are chilling. Sometimes, when it gets to the crazy hours, it’s just me. But most of the time, it’s just me and Josh, though. Josh is like my engineer. I met him when I went out to L.A., and he recorded all of Macadelic. And then, he recorded all of this project, and a whole bunch of other stuff I’ve been doing. He basically lives in my house, because we record so much.”
“I don’t like to eat in the studio. If I do eat while I’m working, I go upstairs and eat in the kitchen. But [there’s] drugs, alcohol, [and] weed in there, for sure. Yeah, we [smoke a lot while we’re working]. [And] it’s gotta be a blunt. I like that more than anything else.”
Girls in the Studio
“Every now and then [we have girls in the studio]. But girls always think they want to go to the studio, and then, the music making process is way more boring than they thought. So they just end up dippin’. They think it’s gonna be fun and exciting, but it’s really just a beat being made, which is like, not fun. Unless you’re really interested in that type of stuff. But they’re usually just trying to party, so [my boy] Jimmy takes them upstairs. [Laughs.] But I did have sex in the studio before. That’s tight. [Laughs.]”
Recording On Tour
“If you want to spend the money [on the road], you can get the full studio bus, which we did before. It’s pretty sick. You have a real studio in the back of your bus. At other times, it’s more a set-up like, bring out a keyboard and some little speakers. And sometimes I like to just record straight to the laptop, and use the [built-in] laptop microphone. It has it’s own little vibe to it.”
Favorite Movies to Watch with the Sound Off
“Beetlejuice, because the claymation is really sick. Zombies Vs. Strippers, when I don’t want to think too deeply. It’s a movie about a bunch of strippers who take guns and kill a bunch of zombies. But it’s dope. It’s something light.
“Birds From The Gods is a good one, because it’s just like, majestic flight. And The Secret Life of Plants, that’s another good one. And underwater documentaries. At times, I’ll throw some action movie on if I want to get crazy. Or a horror movie. But usually it’s more vibey. I’m more into the spiritual stuff.”
(Image via Mac’s Instagram)
“For real, I listen to a bunch of different music all the time. But I try not to listen and then work. I try to create something right out of my mind. I try not to listen to a song [first, because] then you end up making [a song that sounds like what you were just listening to]. And then you feel less proud or accomplished because you feel like you just did somebody else’s shit.
“A lot of it comes from life. Like, from having really crazy conversations with people, and taking that as inspiration. Things that you talk about. And a lot of times it’s from trying to conjure things up in my mind, and come up with something. I like to create things from nothing, rather than take things from something.
“Inspiration is always gonna come, but I just like it to come naturally and organically. Inspiration might come from walking down the street and hearing a song playing at a bar, and you just like it. You didn’t plan on hearing it. Then it’s like the universe sent me [that inspiration] rather than me trying to find it.”
“Pretty much, every time [I write,] I hear the beat first. But the writing process differs though. Sometimes, I go in [the studio] and I don’t write [at all]. Sometimes I write on my phone, my laptop, sometimes with a pad and pen when I want to go vintage with it. [Laughs.] But usually, I like to zone out. That’s the thing with the room. You remove yourself from reality, and then just try to live and exist in that song. Then I usually let the music be the guidance.
“I used to just go, go, go, and then I would be done. And now it’s like, I take my time. But sometimes the shit just comes. If something’s flowing, I don’t try to fight it and be like, ‘This is too easy.’ I feel like there’s a reason for everything. Sometimes it’s a lot of work overthinking things, and driving yourself crazy thinking about every word. And just being really meticulous about what words you’re using, and what you’re saying. And other times, it’s like free-thought talking. Then I just go, and I’m not putting too much stress on each word.
“Sometimes I’ll think of a song at a random time, and then I’ll just kind of store it in my head, and then let it out when I hear the right beat. But most of the time, it’s all right there, and on the spot. The song [on the album] about my homie was because I had just got back from his funeral, so I had no choice but to do that. It was the first thing I did when I got home. Same thing on K.I.D.S., when I wrote ‘Poppy,’ it was the night my grandpa died. If you’re gonna do it, you gotta do it right there. If it’s that type of song, I’d rather do it right there in the moment, than have it be a retrospective thing.”
“Sometimes, I want to say a lot in the hook. But a lot of times, I’d rather say less and have each word mean more. For instance, a hook like, ‘Suck my dick before I slap you with it.’ That’s all it needs. [Laughs.] You don’t need to overdo it. Simplicity. Sometimes, the genius of everything is figuring out how to say exactly what you want to say and not cover it with all this other stuff that is just masking what is being said.”
“I try not to do too many takes, because the more times we do it, the less we like it. It’s like, you record and record it, and after a while, the words kind of lose their meaning to you. So I like to try and get as much in as possible [in one take], if not one take the whole thing. But I’m not against punching in. If I gotta punch, I gotta punch.
“I try not to have a routine. Sometimes I like memorizing [my lyrics before I record them], sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it sounds like I’m reading on purpose. I want it sound like that. I look at it like, it just comes from [above], goes through me, goes onto the page, and I’m just presenting it to the world.
“I try and keep myself guessing and challenging myself. I don’t want to ever get comfortable in one zone. Sometimes I record one song all day. Sometimes I record for two hours in the morning or at night, and that’s all the music I do in one day. Sometimes I do hella songs in one day and I’m just on a roll. Whatever’s laid out, I just go to the flow.”
Favorite Verses on Watching Movies With the Sound Off
“[My favorite verses on the album are on] ‘Aquarium.’ I’m not the one to say I’m the tightest or anything, but those verses are genius. Those, and the ‘I Am Who Am (Killin’ Time)’ verses. And ‘Avian.’ But what I’m really proud of is you’d be hard-pressed to find a weak verse on the album. I made sure every verse is purposeful and something special. Nothing is wasted like, ‘Yo this hook is tight, who cares?’ Everything is supposed to be there.”
(Image via Mac’s Instagram)
Using Different Flows
“I just recently started thinking about flows. Maybe even after the album. Not even for the whole album. I never even [used to think] about the flow, which is kind of crazy. I’ve always just kind of done what’s come to mind. It’s just what feels natural. Like, if I were to freestyle on a beat, this is what I would do.
“But that’s kind of my new shit, is to really pick your flow. That’s my next evolution. That’s one thing about Drake. People say what they want about Drake, but as far as picking his flow, and dissecting a beat properly, that man is in the pocket. So, trying to find that pocket is a new adventure for me.”
Jay Electronica’s Guest Verse on “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes”
“Jay Electronica may or may not be a real person. He might be just an energy. He might be invisible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just a spirit. We all have a little Jay Electronica.
“He sent me the verse two hours before I went in to master it. The album was done, and I was like, ‘Bro, the album is done. Tell me now if you’re gonna do this. No hard feelings if you can’t, I completely understand.’ He was like, ‘I promise you.’ And he would be sending me texts just randomly throughout the whole album process, like, ‘Don’t turn your album in without me.’ The whole time, we’d been talking about doing this record.
“It was dope because, I sent him a couple options. Three tracks. And the one that I produced, he picked that one, which is just a simple canvas. But it’s crazy. He was like, ‘I got you, I promise.’ Then, he sent me an email, with the lyrics he was about to spit. I was like, ‘This verse is about to be insane!’ It was very interesting, and artistically punctuated. The punctuation in the email was crazy. Next level. Then, he sent the verse [as I was] basically on my way to mastering. I got it just in time.
“I knew he would, though. I’ve waited on verses from people that didn’t send them, and I always had that feeling like, ‘He’s not gonna send it.’ But I always had that feeling with him like, ‘He’s gonna send it.’ And he did. It was the same thing with [Lil] Wayne on Macadelic, because Wayne fit the vibe of that project perfectly. And that’s kind of like Jay Electronica with this project.”
(Image via Mac’s Instagram)
Collaborating with Rapper Friends Action Bronson, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and More
“The idea is that we’re all friends, so it’s not like, ‘This is for my album.’ We just make songs to make songs, and they end up on the album or not. But the most important thing is that we all have our different worlds that we live in as artists. The key is to not bring someone to your world, and not go to their world, but to combine both worlds and make something that doesn’t exist yet. That’s what a true collaboration is. Every record that we did for this album was done with that formula. We all sat down and made the records together.
“[Ab-]Soul writes all in his head. He doesn’t use paper. He’s just sitting there. Everyone zones out, and you take off, and go inside the song. It’s dope when it’s your album, and you have your homies in there, and everyone’s trying to go in on their verses. Like, ‘I wanna do something dope. I’m not just gonna find a verse I had laying around.’ We’re gonna create songs. It’s fun like that.”
“I try not to have a process [when I’m making beats]. That’s one thing I was talking to [Flying] Lotus about. He was like, ‘Man, these are gonna be your favorite times making instrumentals and shit, because no one expects anything from you. You don’t have a sound. This is when you can do whatever you want.’ I’m trying to stick with that. Maybe there will be some little things in there that you will always do. Like, ‘Mac made that shit. I can tell because he always does his strings like that. Or his melodies kind of have that vibe.’
(Image via Mac’s Instagram)
“I try to just go. The main thing that I’ve noticed about myself, is that a lot of my homies that produce very well, extraordinarily, they’re very meticulous about their shit. But I like to just jump in and go. I think I’ll get meticulous down the line. It’s the same way I am with [lyrics]. At first I would just go, and now I’m more meticulous. But for now, I just play some chords, and I’m like, ‘Okay, cool.’ Then I build off them, rather than [analyze them]. Sometimes I do, but I’m at the point where I don’t have any type of routine. I do it differently every single time, depending on who I make a beat for, or what type of song I’m working on. But [making beats] is my favorite thing. I miss making beats right now. I’m itchin’.
“I watched Big Jerm and E.Dan make beats for years and years, and I quietly would pick up on things. You just see people map out beats, and you’re influenced by it. And every now and then, you come in like, ‘What’s that sound?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s that.’ And sometimes they’re like, ‘Uhhh, I don’t wanna tell you.’ [Laughs.]”
Favorite Self-Produced Track on Watching Movies With the Sound Off
‘Avian’ is my favorite beat I made on the album, for sure. ‘Avian,’ and ‘REMember.’ ‘Avian’ to me is what made the project. It’s the heart of the project. And ‘REMember,’ I got the guitar solo on there [that I played]. Both of those.”
Doing Production For Other Artists
“It’s tight now, people are coming to me for beats. But I like to make beats with people in the studio, I’m not an emailer guy. I did some shit with Soul for his album that’s crazy. The Vince Staples project is crazy. I did some shit for Dash. I made some shit with Alchemist that was awesome. Lotta production shit is rolling out. I’m excited to be a real producer.”
Recording with Pharrell for Pink Slime
“[We recorded] Pink Slime in Miami. We’re not done yet. I kind of want to redo the whole thing. We’re both probably looking at the project differently now. He probably looks at me differently after this album.
“I have songs like ‘Objects [in the Mirror,’ which is the one from my album that I’m singing on], and ‘Onaroll,’ which was the real crazy turnt up one that got released from Pink Slime. That’s the scope. One’s a very emotional record with me singing, and the other is like a disgusting song. It’s nasty. The imagery is things that you don’t want your mom to hear. I think he told me he played ‘Onaroll’ for Jay[-Z], which is crazy. And Jay was like, ‘That’s Mac Miller?!’ But there’s the crazy anarchy shit, and then there’s beautiful music.
“We did a lot of records, but I think we’re gonna start [over] from scratch. We did a lot of records on the spot. But I’d also be like, ‘Hey, what you got in the Jay folder? What did Jay pass on?’ Like, ‘What’s in Pusha’s folder?’ And he told me everyone does that. He was like, ‘Jay be saying that too.’ So it depends. Sometimes you want to make that shit from scratch, which is my personal favorite. But we did a couple that Jay passed on, which was tight, because Jay’s gonna hear it, and be like, ‘Fuck, I should’ve used that.’”
Recording For the Larry Fisherman Soundcloud Page
“Those are my favorite. To me, that’s just liberating. The music business is so serious sometimes. Like, ‘Oh shit, this song leaked. You don’t want to fuck up sales.’ But Soundcloud is like, ‘Who cares?’ I literally make shit and just put it up. Sometimes to a fault. Like, I’ll put it up quick, and then be like, ‘Fuck, that could’ve been on the album. If only I didn’t put it out.’
“But I love it. Soundcloud’s my favorite shit in the world. They were at my listening party, the Soundcloud dudes. I was like, ‘I love y’all. Y’all are awesome.’ It’s my favorite thing. I tell people, ‘If you really want to know about me, go to my Soundcloud. That’s when you’ll find out who I am.’
“I always liked the name [Larry] Fisherman. It sounds like a grimey dude who is always in the studio. ‘He Who Ate All The Caviar,’ I played that guitar lick myself. And that Richard Pryor sample, we had a turntable in there, and that’s me actually scratching. That’s the shit. Even if you’re not even good at something, just do it. I don’t know how to scratch and shit, but I just put it on there like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ [Comedian] Mitch Hedberg once said that if you spend your whole life preparing, then you’re never going to do anything. Just jump in and do it. That’s the best way to get better at something. Do it while you suck at it.”