Paul Cantor on Mac Miller

The 'Most Dope' author discusses writing an "unauthorized" biography and his connection to the late rapper's work.

Paul Cantor on Mac Miller
'Most Dope' book cover courtesy of Abrams Press (2022)

Paul Cantor had a problem. A seasoned music journalist, he had taken on the substantial task of writing a book about Mac Miller, one of the biggest rappers of the 2010s. But even before grappling with high fan expectations or considering how to address some of the more difficult aspects of the artist's life, he was faced with what he saw as an apparent dearth of comparable rap biographies in the marketplace.

"With hip-hop, there weren't a lot of examples I could look at and say: this is how you do it," he tells CABBAGES. "I really had to seek out other biographies, and people who write biographies, to see how they did it." Released last week via Abrams Press, the resulting Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life Of Mac Miller exists as the first biography of the rapper to emerge since his untimely and tragic death in September of 2018.

On paper, Cantor would seem an optimal candidate to delve into and help tell Miller's story. Though a first time book author, he was armed with a journalism degree and years of experience both writing about music as well as producing it. In the hip-hop media space, he'd built a name and reputation among those who pay attention to bylines, with published work over the past two decades for outlets like Complex and XXL. He'd profiled Suge Knight for Rolling Stone, J. Cole for Vulture, and DJ Premier for the New York Times, to name but a few of his more notable subjects. "I can approach things as a fan just as I can as a journalist," he says. "The two things can work together, in concert with each other."

However, Miller's family saw things differently. In a May 2021 statement representing the artist's estate, they shared a short history of their discomfort with Cantor's writing the book, expressed disappointment over its publication around the rapper's 30th birthday, and explicitly asked fans not to support the project. In that same social media post, they instead endorsed The Book Of Mac, then-forthcoming but now available, written by Audiomack Editorial Director Donna-Claire Chesman. "I went to the store and bought it the day it came out," Cantor says of that book.

Whether intended or not, the invocation of the term not authorized here appeared to imply tabloid connotations and perhaps even ghoulish aims on Cantor's part, recalling the days when author Kitty Kelley caught flack for the contents of her contested celebrity biographies of public figures including Jacqueline Onassis and Nancy Reagan. ("I consulted her on this book," Cantor says of Kelley.) Despite the Miller estate's disapproval, something he hopes may change over time, he stands by Most Dope's contents. "The book was a work of journalism. It wasn't like I made anything up."

Following the family's statement, the subsequent invective-laden social media pile-on was inevitable. "Like a lot of things, people just see the book itself; they really don't see the work that went into it–and that's okay," he says of this vitriolic reaction that arrived from would-be readers months before even advance press copies were available. "But in all aspects of working on this book, I was just trying to do the best I could. And that's all we can ever do."

Amid outraged fans' tweets and Instagram comments, there remained an unfamiliarity or otherwise disregard for Cantor's formidable music journalism résumé, as well as the nature and tenure of his relationship with the artist's work. "I was there at the Blue Slide Park album listening," he says referring to a 2011 event in New York. "We talked about the album there, me and him personally."

After Miller's passing but before ultimately deciding to write Most Dope, Cantor traveled to Pittsburgh, encountering acquaintances and neighbors in his hometown of Point Breeze. That trip validated his interest further. "Just being on his block where he grew up, and seeing this dichotomy of neighborhoods walking for like five or ten minutes, was really interesting to me," he says. "There's something foundational to this as a person." He would return to Pittsburgh, and also to Los Angeles where Miller later lived, multiple times.

As Cantor set out to devote the next three years of his life to documenting Miller's, soon to be facing opposition along the way, he found much of what had been written about the rapper prior to his death compelling yet somehow still lacking. "It was a piece of the puzzle, but it was not the puzzle," he says.

"When he passed, I was seeing what I considered to be almost a superficial remembrance of him, almost like becoming a meme. And I was like, this is not the artist that I remember."

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

What prompted you to write this book about Mac Miller in the first place?

He was a really interesting and complex person. I'm just fascinated with anybody who's navigating that space between what you would call madness and genius, whether it's him or it's Kanye, right? If you read the book, from page one, I'm saying very early on in this guy's career that I was getting sent his music and people were saying, hey, check this out, let me know what you think of it. That happens thousands of times in a year. Out of all of those thousands, maybe three or four go on to do anything. You can count them on one hand. Mac was one of those people.

I listened to his music. I knew that he had really quote-unquote bled for it. He put himself through the ringer to create the things he was creating. I mean, he gets destroyed by critics very early on in his career who kind of pulled him apart. You don't live a life like that to become this "crying-on-the-internet" meme. I wanted to be like, how do we really explore who this guy really was, what made him, and maybe some of the things that unmade him?

I went in not really necessarily with an agenda, so to speak. It was very much just asking people like what he was like as a person and really trying to understand what being his friend was like. I never asked anybody about drugs or anything. I don't think that quite ever came up from my side. If it did come up, it was 'cause somebody started talking about it.

You brought up Blue Slide Park. In your book, you talk about the critical reaction, which was just overwhelmingly negative, and how personally he took it in that moment. From your perspective, did critics get him wrong at that time?

I think he was moving through the universe relatively unchecked. In the book, I really get into some of the patterns, the foundation that was laid for him to walk in, by the label [Rostrum Records], by Wiz [Khalifa, then-labelmate]. He had kind of been a guy who turned on a video camera online and started accumulating fans almost from day one. And I don't think that there was a lot of pushback to him. Rostrum was really hot as a label at that time. It's crazy, in hindsight, to really think about them like that–not because they've cooled off, but because it's a different time in the culture. That was a thing out of Pittsburgh that a lot of people were supporting. Even if you didn't love Wiz, you still respected what they were doing and what they were putting out. There was a lot of energy and people gravitate to energy. Whether it's quality or not quality, they follow where the energy's going.

Blue Slide Park, everybody was there. I mean, I was there, but every rap journalist was there, anybody who was anybody was at that thing. He was that new guy, but nobody was really saying anything critical about him. It was a sort of uncritical, unpacking of who he was. In fact, it was very... supportive. Now, Pitchfork–and you probably remember this–they really weren't in the rap space that hard at that point. They really got into that more in, say, 2013, a little bit later. They shitted on Donald Glover. They were living up to the name of what it was, which was, we're cool, this is not cool–and we're gonna tell you that this is not cool.

I also think it was his lived experience that he was putting on those records.  I don't think he was doing anything that wasn't right. He was doing everything right. I just think they had a problem 'cause they were like that shit's not cool. And when you're putting in a lot of effort and, for lack of a better way of putting it, when you're putting your lifetime in between the paper's lines, as Prodigy says, and somebody says your life is not even worth thinking or talking about, that shit fucking hurts–especially if you're like 19. That will fucking destroy you.

One thing you cite a number of times in the book is the G Wagon crash in May of 2018. How was this important or meaningful to you as a way of framing his story or trying to understand him as a person better?

I actually, to be honest, had almost forgotten about that, as many people had. It was this thing that happened that people didn't really talk about that much, because he didn't really play into it. There was a narrative out there about him and Ariana [Grande]: they had broken up, she was flaunting a new boyfriend, was it to make him jealous–they're kids, got some kid stuff to do. If I was 25, 26, perhaps I'd do that too.

But people kept mentioning the G Wagon to me, his friends. I would to interview people and everybody was bringing it up. They were like, well, he had that crash, that was like really a sign. This thing came up probably ten or 15 times, like right away, with almost everybody I was talking to. Some people would say, he wouldn't respond to me or when I did speak to him, he kind of downplayed it.

Mind you, he did tell that story to Zane Lowe. And Zane Lowe, for whatever reason, just let it hang there. He didn't press him on it at all. It was almost like an afterthought, whereas when it was coming up in our conversations, it was made out to be a much bigger thing. Looking back on it, I could see there was so much encapsulated in that. There were so many meanings that you could extrapolate from it. One is, this was his mentality about something traumatic. Two, that was the way he was thinking about it. Not only that was the way he was thinking about it, but he really explained how he felt in the moment. That's a moment in which your life could be over, and you walked away from it, ran away from it. And you felt powerful. You felt invincible in the car. That's one way of reading it. You felt invincible 'cause you made it out of it. That's another reading of it. There was a lot there.

Look, if you're doing good journalism, you're doing your homework. You're getting people to tell it to you and you're asking enough questions and you keep digging. I don't need to really get into projecting too much of my own point of view into that.

That's something I wanted to bring up. Despite what some may think, you didn't write a book that was opinion-based, or an "unauthorized" biography with a tabloid approach.

This is serious work. I've been working on this for three years. The amount of hours that have been committed to it are innumerable. It's an unbelievable task to do. This whole shit around it is depressing. With the stuff around it, none of that came from me. I have a really small platform. I don't have a platform; I'm just a guy with a Twitter account. So to have people amplifying a message to millions of people about you that is not even accurate, and creating a narrative around you and your work and discrediting you to some degree or another, when you know that that's not what happened, this is troubling. All I felt the whole time was all I have is this book that, when you open it up, you'll see like, this dude didn't do anything wrong. It was tough to deal with that.

Just to clarify, 'cause we're talking about it: before I even started on this, I went to a bunch of his close friends and asked them how they would feel about this. Like, is it a thing you would support? Do you think I'm the right person to do it? Multiple people close to him. I'm even talking about people who lived with him. These are not necessarily his biological family, but his family nonetheless, in my opinion. They're the people who pretty much were around him, inspired him, made him happen. They said, of course you're the right person for this, he would be honored if you did this. He didn't live his life this way to have his story forgotten. Do it. Literally verbatim, what was said to me, verbatim. If anyone was to do it, you are the person to do it–from literally one of his closest friends.

So I did it always with that in my mind, always thinking–until the very end–that the family... Maybe they wouldn't be involved, but I hoped that they would eventually support it. Because I felt like I was moving with a lot of integrity. The people around them, they knew I was interviewing all his friends. All his friends were telling them, so they knew who I was talking to.

For the record, I wanted them to support it. I still want them to support it. I would hope that they would pick it up and be like, we didn't like this, but we judged this wrong. And that's why I kept myself out of the book. I didn't project anything and I just wanted to let it speak for itself. He talks about it in the book. He says, nobody is all one thing. He was striving to do that himself creatively, so I felt that that was the best way to paint that portrait.

I bought Donna Claire's book. I'm totally supportive. I was a fan of hers. I didn't feel like I owned the story or anything. I didn't wanna own it anyway. I don't even believe in that in general. It wasn't like I was trying to take advantage of it or anything. I was just like, you're doing that. I'm doing this, and it's cool. I thought it was great. It was all contributing a wealth of knowledge about somebody that people were in love with in different ways. And that's how you create a thing that lasts, right? You don't create a thing that lasts by putting a cap on it. That actually destroys it.

The bookshelf can exist with multiple books on the exact same subject or person. There's no reason for it not to. They can be there in harmony and inform other works going forward. You both took different approaches with your books. I think that any fan of Mac Miller can find value in either of these volumes as a result of that.

Totally. I'll say this: I didn't blindly support it. I went into the bookstore and I said, if this is good, I'll buy it. As I am with anything. I was looking at it and I was like, I respect this. She worked hard on it and I could tell. For what it was supposed to be, I thought it was good. She talked to certain people that I wasn't able to speak to, for whatever reason, and I thought it was dope. And I spoke to people that she probably didn't speak to. We're not at the same level, you know what I mean, in terms of our lives and careers, but that doesn't take anything away from what she put into what she did. I think it's a thing to be super celebrated and I love it.

I don't have that energy for anybody else that maybe they have for me. It just doesn't exist in my core of being. I don't function like that with anybody. If somebody has the smoke for me, I don't want the smoke, you know what I'm saying? I'm like, you can keep the smoke. I'm good.

Photo credit: William LoTurco

Purchase a print or ebook copy of Most Dope here.