Statements shared over stadium speakers, television sets and screens last week — from the likes of Elton John, Drake, Future, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, John Mayer, Ellen Degeneres, Chance the Rapper and Wiz Khalifa — sounded the knell of Mac Miller, the homegrown Jewish musician who died Sept. 7.
That a 26-year-old from Point Breeze, widely known for elevating Blue Slide Park beyond Henry Clay Frick’s wildest imaginations, could command such attention is no surprise. The stage was always his.
Friends recalled the dugouts and diamond at Stan Lederman Field, even the amphitheater at Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, W.Va., when remembering Miller.
Everything Malcolm James McCormick, his legal name, represented to the millions who loved his music — a goofy lyricizing guy whose titanic talent was only overshadowed by his genuineness — he was to those who knew him.
“To think that I grew up with this kid is crazy,” said Mark Pattis, a childhood friend.
They met around the age of 6, when “we played in the same baseball league. I believe he played catcher,” said Pattis. “And he was small for a catcher. His hat never fit, it was always coming down over his eyes and his ears.”
But that pint-sized player with a face-stretching smile had colossal presence, said Ben Cohen, a fellow teammate in Squirrel Hill Baseball.
“You have those guys in the dugout that are making everyone laugh and are always grabbing people’s attention, probably taking people’s attention away from the game,” said Cohen. “He was a good athlete, but a better entertainer.
“He was on the bimah at my bar mitzvah and said a prayer,” added Cohen, whose service was held at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Fox Chapel.
Aaron Maisel, who knew the rapper from their time at EKC, also remembered a 13-year-old Miller attending his own bar mitzvah, which was held in Harrisburg.
“It was fun,” said Maisel. “He was having the time of his life, this shaggy haired kid wearing baggy clothes. We were dancing with people, having a good time, dancing with girls. We were young.”
“At 13-years-old he was cooler than anyone I had ever met,” echoed Jeremy Goldman, a former camp program director, “and I was about 31 at the time.”
A former camp director, Sam Bloom, said Miller’s early talent was on display during those summers.
“People say he got his start at Shabbat Concert, our talent show on Saturday nights,” said Bloom. “If it wasn’t, it was darn close to where it began.”
According to Goldman, “whenever it was his turn to do his act, he brought the house down.”
“I once told him, my favorite song was ‘Send Me on My Way’ by Rusted Root. He was like, ‘I got you bro.’ And Saturday night there it was, as if Rusted Root was playing live at camp.”
Melanie Cohen, a former camp operations director, noted that Miller clearly had a musical gift.
“He just had to listen, he didn’t need the sheet music,” said Cohen. “He was able to listen once and play a song. He had such potential.”
Around the age of 15, after multiple years of attendance, Miller told Bloom that he would not be returning to EKC and instead would be focusing on his craft. Miller continued to nurture the bonds he had with fellow campers, however.
In 2012, when Reuben Mitrani, a fellow EKC alum, unexpectedly died after a brain hemorrhage, Miller — already a celebrity — “dropped everything and flew to Harrisburg to be at Reuben’s funeral,” said Rachael Speck, the camp’s current interim director. “I think that speaks volumes to the type of guy Malcolm was. Fame didn’t change him.”
“I picked him up at 7:30 a.m., and he had to fly back to California at 1 p.m. for some shows,” recalled campmate Zach Cohen. “Whatever was going on in California, he just wanted to be present for Reuben and his family and all of us.”
By early 2013, Miller had created “REMember,” a lyrical masterpiece of deconstructed grief, and REMember Music, a record label imprint which eventually signed with Warner Brothers Records. The capitalized spellings of both endeavors was a nod to Reuben Eli Mitrani.
Miller spoke about his late friend in an interview with The Catalyst, the independent student newspaper of Colorado College, that year.
Mitrani was “100 percent genuine and kind. He was very respectful to everybody and treated everybody fairly. He was funny and just someone you could always count on to be a true friend and lend an ear,” Miller said. “I used to send him all my music to get his opinion on it. … We had a very close crew that met at Emma Kaufmann Camp and remained in touch and very close throughout the years.”
That group typically gathered, whether in Morgantown or Miller’s Point Breeze backyard, around a bonfire.
“To a degree it was kumbaya,” said Maisel. “Malcolm was on the guitar: He’s going to sing and we’re going to sing with him. But where else do you get to do this, hang out and be around the people you love?”
Eric Johnson, a camper who met Miller around the age of 5, when their mothers arranged playdates for the pair, recalled the rapper as a friend who never forgot where he came from.
“Even if years had passed since you had seen him last, he had this appreciation for you,” said Johnson. “There were three of us from Allderdice who were in Amsterdam, and we noticed that Malcolm coincidentally had a concert. We bought tickets and sent him a text letting him know Pittsburgh would be out in the crowd tonight.
“We had very low expectations from the text,” added Johnson. But instead of a shout out during the concert, Miller did one better. “What he did was announce to the entire audience in the middle of the show that he had received a message from his friends from back home and wherever they were, to meet him backstage afterward. It was great.”
Backstage, Miller told his friends that he was “really excited to get a little slice of Pittsburgh in Amsterdam,” said Johnson. “He wanted to know what we were doing there, what we were up to. It was really genuine.”
Processing Miller’s passing has tried those who knew him. An official cause of death has been deferred pending additional investigation, according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
“He didn’t have to die, especially so young,” said Melanie Cohen. “I understand the struggle he went through and there’s help out there.”
Six years after losing Mitrani, “and then losing a friend like this makes you question things,” said Zach Cohen. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have the answers. It kind of punches you in the gut when you realize he’ll never be there again.”
“While his music was obviously a big deal to a lot of people, and I loved everything he put out, him as a person was unmatched,” Ben Cohen said. “There’s not going to be a day I don’t think about him.” PJC