Believe it or not, Jews in hip-hop are on the rise.
Though Jewish rappers are nothing new — remember The Beastie Boys? — Pittsburgh can now boast its own. His name is Mac Miller, a born and bred Rodef Shalom Congregation kid, and he may just be the hottest rapper in the city. His video for “Nikes on My Feet” racked up over 400,000 YouTube views in just two months.
Miller, who graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School this spring, is signed to the local Rostrum Records, also home to rapper Wiz Khalifa. His latest mixtape, called “K.I.D.S.” (short for “Kickin’ Incredibly Dope S**t”) and released Aug. 13, is a perfect summer soundtrack — for rap fans — with bright, bouncy beats on which Miller raps playfully about being a kid, with songs like “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” “Paper Route” and “Senior Skip Day.” But this is no child’s play; at 18, Miller’s a serious talent.
Miller spoke to The Chronicle about freestyle rapping, Pittsburgh living and Hebrew tattooing:
Jewish Chronicle: How did going to Allderdice influence you to get into hip-hop?
Mac Miller: I was into hip-hop before I went to Allderdice. But being at a school that’s so culturally diverse, you have opportunities to meet different types of people. Going to ’Dice, it’s awesome to spend days with all different kinds of people.
You’re only 18, and still pretty new on the scene. What’s an important lesson about making it in hip-hop you’ve already learned?
It’s really about dedication. People see me as new on the scene. I am, but I’ve been grinding and educating myself since I was 15 years old. There are 100 million people who say they’re rappers, but if you don’t really dedicate yourself and make it your life’s mission to become successful, you won’t be. Talent isn’t enough; you have to know that [rapping] comes first before everything.
Is Pittsburgh a good place to launch a hip-hop career? Why?
Pittsburgh’s been great for me. I love this city — I love how it’s set up. In Pittsburgh you create a buzz for yourself, as it’s a city where there isn’t a huge scene going on. A city has its favorite sports team. If you have a city behind you that pushes for you, they want to have the city put on just like you do.
Tell me about the idea behind your new mixtape, “K.I.D.S.”
What people tell you kids should do isn’t realistic. I wanted to create a voice for a generation of regular kids who can relate to this music, like a soundtrack to their lives.
I know you love to freestyle (free-form rapping). When you’re in the middle of a verse, what’s going through your head?
The whole point of freestyling is to become lost within the freestyle. The more you think, the worse you do. When someone puts you on the spot to come up with something, you won’t do well if you’re thinking ‘Oh man, what can I say, this needs to be cool.’ But if you have the confidence to let go and not worry if it’s good or bad or proper, you’ll feel it and go with the vibe.
You’ve got a big chai (Hebrew for life) tattoo. Tell me about it.
I just love life. I’m a real positive energy dude, not negative at all. I’ve grown up Jewish. I went to Emma Kaufmann Camp, I had a bar mitzva. Part of it was to remember that’s who I always will be. But I could’ve gotten a number of Jewish-related tattoos; I got the chai because life is really important. Enjoying every possible second of life.
Have you taken any heat from traditional Jews about the tattoos?
People have said, “What if you need to get a job” or “You can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” but to me, my life is my life. I chose to get tattoos because I love having art on my body to represent who I am.
What was the best, and worst, Chanuka present you ever got?
Best present ever was a keyboard. I told my parents I really wanted to make music. I was only 5 or 6. I hooked that thing up and never stopped playing it. But the worst, and every Jew can relate to this, was being all excited to open up the present, thinking it’s going to be something big, and it’s socks.
What’s your most awkward memory about your bar mitzva?
That’s such an awkward stage in your growth as a person. Looking at the pictures, I’m like ‘Man, look at me back then, what a weird looking dude.’ I’ve never had a fear of performing, obviously, but the preparation of people saying it’s your big day — well, you don’t really understand until you get older.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)