Photo courtesy of OG Maco
OG Maco pulls out his phone to show me his unread text messages. There are 211 of them, the second or third of which is from the DJ A-Trak. That one gets a response at my encouragement, but the other 210 don't, despite the fact that, as Maco tells me, “it's not like unimportant people. It's cool people.” The unread text messages are one way he has of charting his popularity, which seems to have him in a constant state of disbelief: “The first week, everything started… I got to like a hundred unread messages. And then two days after that day, it was like 200. And the day after that it was like 450. The day after that was like 600 unread messages. And I had to delete like 300 unread messages. I didn’t even know what they said.”
“It's so crazy because every day I wake up, and I’m more famous,” he observes, slightly amazed.
The source of that fame is, for the most part, the viral song “U Guessed It,” a fascinatingly minimal single in which Maco shouts over a few spare piano plinks and an ominous bass line in a barely held-together growl. It’s like a Waka Flocka Flame song pushed to the extreme—rap that’s evolved from its punk rock phase to its hardcore one, where there’s a little more technical complexity and a lot more unhinged screaming. Thanks to its to-the-point hook, “U Guessed It” became the perfect soundtrack for jokey Vines, causing it skyrocket in popularity earlier this fall. The song has since racked up more than 13 million YouTube views and briefly crept into the Billboard Hot 100.
Since Give Em Hell, the collaborative EP with fellow Atlanta artist Key! that contained “U Guessed It,” came out, Maco has released two other projects, a tape with the producer Cardo called Live Life 2 and last week’s OG Maco EP, which provides the best summary of his work so far, collecting breakout tracks like “Road Running” and “U Guessed It” alongside newer follow-ups. He’s pushing his label and collective OGG, but he’s also signed on with Migos’ label Quality Control, and their manager, Atlanta legend Coach K, whose past clients include Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane. Maco is now in that fragile place new artists with breakout hits tend to occupy, where their one well-known song can either propel them forward or eclipse their identity completely. Yet the way he talks suggests this is a dilemma he’s barely even considered; he’s finally in, and it’s about time.
“I think it's like this for everybody in the city who actually ends up making it,” he says. “It was a long period of you're angry because you know 'I'm nice! And nobody's paying attention!'” Anger is a theme that pops up a lot in Maco’s telling of various parts of his life, which isn’t wholly surprising given the tone of his music. His rapping feels borderline demonic, like it’s coming from some deep, craggy subconscious; his talent in some ways seems to be that he’s adept at recognizing this feeling and channeling it accordingly. In person, though, he’s laid back, engaged, and friendly, casually lounging in a pair of Wu-Tang flip-flops with socks and riffing on everything from his appreciation of Death Cab for Cutie and La Roux to the appeal of living in Sweden (“everybody on universal healthcare is like my hero”).
Maco grew up on the South Side of Atlanta in a stable family environment but rough surroundings. His parents owned a high-end car service for a while, and later his dad worked as an engineer for AT&T. Maco and his older sister learned to play the violin, while his older cousin, who he was close to, played the viola. His mom sent him to Creekside High School, in a rural part of Fulton County to the southwest of Atlanta where his aunt lived (“It was, like, chickens,” Maco says of the scenery).
Things were more complicated in his neighborhood, though, where a mix of factors—the replacement of Atlanta’s housing projects with Section 8 housing, an influx of new arrivals after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina—brought in new, displaced residents, creating an unpredictable and often dangerous atmosphere. When he was 13, his best friend Dale, who he considered a brother, was killed while trying to protect one of Maco’s cousins.
“A lot of times back then people was dying ‘cause it was a shootout or some shit or some reckless shit or you did something,” he remembers. “But it was just like this fuck ass nigga… this dude just came and strangled him and stabbed him and shit… It was real strange. I was outside, and we were playing basketball, and there was a helicopter near the house. And we're seeing the helicopter the whole time and we're like 'something happened.'” Maco’s other alias, Maco Mattox, is an homage to Dale, whose last name was Mattox.
His de facto motto, “live life,” is, similarly, an homage. Maco started out making music as a hobby with a friend in high school, but it only became a real focus several years later, after another friend, who went by the name Splurge, died. Splurge was “a real man's man macho guy,” and he helped bankroll and direct a group Maco joined called It Was Us, who were known, according to Maco, primarily for beating people up in the club and beating the shit out of promoters they didn’t like. “This was the mindset of most of them,” Maco says, “We don't need them to like our music. It's hard, and we know it's hard, so what we're going to do is tell them play it, and if they won't play it then we're going to beat up everybody in the party.” The night before Splurge died, Maco played him some new music—stuff that’s now available on a recently released mixtape called Gifts. “He had been savaging his whole life,” Maco remembers. “He was like 'there's a way out. You know what it is. I'll put all my money behind your shit.' And he died the next day” in a shooting.
Maco had been taking classes at Georgia State, but he was also “making money”—“you can't go to class if you're making more money than your professor and focus” is about all he’ll say about his occupation—and he “hit the road” after Splurge died. One night when he was in Florida, his friend X, a DJ, showed up at the door of his hotel room at 4 AM with the apparently urgent idea of forming a new rap collective that Maco would head up. OGG, which stands for Originality Gains Greatness, was formed, and soon after Maco recorded “Road Running,” a minor breakout hit that came out last fall. Although he had trouble at first convincing people he knew that he even made music, his profile grew through word of mouth—his online buzz “was dead because nobody wanted to fuck with me,” he says—and he connected with kindred spirits in the Awful Records collective and Key!. And then, of course, “U Guessed It” blew up—ironically, in large part due to the internet—buzz about Maco’s live shows grew, and Coach K signed him on. The rest remains to be seen.
“U Guessed It” is still far bigger than Maco himself, and he now faces the unenviable task of trying to follow it up with another hit. But the music Maco is putting out suggests that it’s possible because it’s unlike just about anything else in rap right now. His dominant mold is similar to what worked on “U Guessed It”—deep bass with minimal ornamentation and raps stripped down to their bare essence—but he also drifts into rambling Auto-Tune on songs like “Let’s Get It” and straightforward, Gucci Mane-style trap on songs like “CRU.” On the OG Maco EP’s “Hurt,” Maco seems to cycle through about four different phases and styles of turning up in just a few short minutes, while a song like “Want More” channels the same raw frustration of “U Guessed It”—appropriately discussing the topic of following up the same raw frustration of a single like “U Guessed It” and being the best candidate right now for a follow-up. But he has the tools to do that: As much as Maco talks about having gotten to the point where he’s mastered the technical craft of songwriting and rapping, his true gift is that he seems to be able to turn deep, powerful emotions on with a switch.
“Splurge died, and he didn't get to see me doing this,” Maco laments. “And I'm mad as fuck. I lost my brother, I lost him, my grandma had died, a whole bunch of people had died. My uncle just died before I got up here. His funeral was on Saturday. So I've got like show, show, funeral, show. It's always something that's happened that can make me angry. So I pull from it. But because I can rap, it's not just pure yelling. It's formatted, but it's really just my pure emotion.”
Kyle Kramer is stilllllll with his Twitter.