Two Upcoming Mac Miller Books Are Mired in Controversy

The dispute prompts the question: who gets to tell artists’ stories after they die?
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
May 13, 2021, 8:59pm
Mac Miller
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

In 2018, Malcolm James McCormick, best known as Mac Miller, died at the age of 26 following an accidental drug overdose. Soon, two biographies about the beloved Pittsburgh rapper are set to be released. 

On paper, both books seem promising. They’re authored by reputable music journalists, published by credible publishers, and aim to cover Miller’s life and work. But just one of them has the blessing of the late rapper’s estate; the other has been disavowed by the family, who took to social media last week to criticize the author. It’s a complicated situation, and the competing accounts bring up a larger question about who gets to tell an artist’s story after they die. 

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They’ve publicly endorsed The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller, a book that is set to be published by Permuted Press, and that a pre-order page on Simon & Schuster's website describes as “an album-by-album celebration of the life and music of Mac Miller through oral histories, intimate reflections, and critical examinations of his enduring work.” The author, Donna-Claire Chesman, previously ran an in-depth series of articles at DJBooth called “The Year of Mac,” which included personal essays addressed to Miller, interviews with musicians and his friends, and reviews of his work. 

As it turned out, Chesman wasn’t the only journalist who wanted to memorialize the rapper. In 2019, the Miller family took to Instagram to ask “artists, management, and friends” to avoid speaking with journalist Paul Cantor, who was writing his own book on the subject, Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller, for Abrams Books. In the post, Miller’s family said the book was “not authorized/approved” by the family or estate. “We are not participating and prefer you don’t either if you personally knew Malcolm,” they wrote. 

On April 26, The Book of Mac became available for pre-order. Following the announcement, the family took to Instagram once more, requesting that fans avoid purchasing Cantor’s Most Dope and calling its January 18, 2022 release—a day before what would have been Miller’s 30th birthday—“exploitative.” (According to Abrams Books, Most Dope has been available for pre-order since February.) The post, which claimed Cantor “had no meaningful access to those that were closest to Malcolm” and no “legitimate primary sources,” further alleged that the timing of Most Dope’s pre-order was “meant to capitalize on the interest in Donna-Claire Chesman’s recently-announced Book of Mac.” 

Cantor said to Page Six that his “heart goes out to [Miller’s] family,” but denied the claims of exploitation and mentioned his decades-long career in music journalism. “Nothing that I can say here can heal the pain of losing their son. I carried that with me in every sentence I wrote.” [Disclosure: I have crossed paths socially with Cantor.]

Though Miller’s family noted Cantor did not have a personal relationship with the rapper and claimed the book lacked access to primary sources, Cantor told VICE in an interview that he’d started work on the book three years ago, when he visited Pittsburgh to speak with Miller’s friends and collaborators, and to familiarize himself with the city that shaped him. 

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The two authors are certainly aware of each other. When Cantor conducted J. Cole’s first interview in several years for Vulture in 2018, Chesman described it as giving “incredible insight into Jermaine” in a DJBooth article. Though Chesman retweeted the family’s condemnation of Cantor’s book on Twitter, neither author has criticized the other’s work. Chesman declined to comment for VICE

Abrams Books, sent a statement to VICE expressing its support of Cantor. It described the book as “a serious work of journalism drawing on extensive original interviews with Miller’s childhood friends, members of his management team, and collaborators throughout his career.” The statement also noted that biographies of public figures are “often written without the involvement of their families and/or estates,” and that “it is common for multiple books to be published on public figures, thereby providing readers with varied perspectives.” 

This isn’t the first time a project about the late rapper has received pushback. In 2019, the director of a planned Mac Miller documentary cancelled it after hearing the Miller family’s objections. And it certainly isn’t the only instance in pop music history of a family or estate disputing posthumous portrayals of artists, as seen with past efforts to memorialize such musicians as Nina Simone to Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix. And stories that involve substance abuse—as Miller’s reportedly did—can be especially complicated. Despite initial cooperation, the Winehouse family took issue with the Amy documentary, claiming the filmmakers “misunderstood the condition [of addiction] and its treatment.”

Documentary filmmakers, for their part, have voiced their own concerns about working with estates. Nick Broomfeld, creator of the unofficial Whitney Houston documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, told VICE in 2017 that working with an artist’s estate can pose challenges, as they “normally have a very strong line” and “often will make it impossible to tell the story that you see there."

While it remains to be seen what will happen when the books come out, it’s possible that the drama has brought on a sleight Streisand effect: After the Miller family publicly denounced it, Most Dope went from outside the top 100,000 on Amazon’s Best Seller list to its current place at 67,644. The Book of Mac is currently at 1,189, and number 2 in the “Rap & Hip-Hop Musician Biographies” category.

Cantor would not speculate as to the reasons why the family had criticized the work before it came out. However, it’s possible that the two authors took varying approaches: the Abrams pre-order page mentions that Miller, “despite his undeniable success,” “was plagued by struggles with substance abuse and depression, both of which fueled his raw and genre-defying music yet ultimately led to his demise.” The description of Chesman’s book makes no mention of those themes, instead stressing the author’s personal relationship to Miller’s music, and the book’s inclusion of recollections from friends and collaborators who loved him.

“A lot of fans may not realize their favorite artist biographies are not authorized,” Cantor said. He reiterated that many artists have multiple biographies written about them. “One version is not necessarily better than the other,” he said. “They’re just two diverging points of view.” 

Correction: This story originally said Most Dope was made available for pre-order in April. It was made available for pre-order in February. We regret the error.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Permuted Press is the publisher of The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller.