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Mac Miller proves you don’t have to be all gangsta to rap

mac miller trib

For a long time, the goal of making hip-hop in Pittsburgh was to have fun, get some local notoriety, and to give one’s creative energies an outlet. There was plenty of talent, but the possibility of making it to the big-time, and getting national attention, was so remote as to be ridiculous.

That was before Mac Miller — looking appropriately ridiculous last month in a leopard-print coat on the cover of Billboard magazine. “Blue Slide Park” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts, selling 144,000 copies. It was the first independently distributed debut album to hit No. 1 since 1995.

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Now, after Miller — and his buddy, predecessor and Rostrum Records label-mate Wiz Khalifa — well, anything’s possible for a Pittsburgher in hip-hop. The doors are wide open. After years of near-invisibility, Pittsburgh is suddenly a big, bright dot on the rap music map.

The 19-year-old Allderdice High School grad re-creates “Blue Slide Park” — his favorite hangout spot in Frick Park — on tour, complete with park bench and DJ booth disguised as an ice cream cart. He’ll be back in town this weekend for two sold-out shows at Stage AE.

Miller’s fun-loving old-school-flavored party jams like “Nikes on My Feet,” “Frick Park Market” and “Kool-Aid & Frozen Pizza” seem to have captured a very particular, but potentially vast demographic of hip-hop listener. Mostly, this seems to be tech-savvy teenagers who never had to deal drugs or join a gang to get by — and the big-money, jet-setting lifestyle of a Rick Ross or Jay-Z doesn’t exactly speak to them, either. They’re also probably young enough that the witty, off-the-wall rhymes of the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest — Mac Miller’s major influences — sound fresh and new.

In a conversation with Mac a few months ago — while he was still putting the finishing touches on “Blue Slide Park” — he had a very clear idea of the album’s theme. It’s unusual to hear 19-year-old wax nostalgic about simpler times, but it works.

“I haven’t gone into much detail about it — I just like people to wonder,” says Miller. “But for the most part, it’s about staying true to yourself, and in the long run, nothing ever really changes. It does, but you’re still the same person … and the familiarity of things that you grew up with.”

Despite his laidback personality, Miller is a tireless worker. His fanbase has been built almost entirely online, by relentless self-promotion on social media. The many late-night messages on Twitter allow his fans to feel connected to the details of a budding rap star who’s otherwise a lot like them.

When he’s in his hometown, though, he’s usually in the studio. ID Labs in Lawrenceville is where he first crafted his sound, and he takes every chance to get back in there and make more music.

“I like being able to record it right after I write it, you know?” says Miller. “Because you’re never as excited about a verse as when you first write it.”