By Mick Stinelli, Photos by Cora McCarty
Homestead native Stephon Boyd stood holding his pit bull by the chain, trying to keep it away from the other pets walking by. It was about 5:30 in the evening. He frowned at the crowd surrounding the jungle gym in Frick Park.
“I feel like Mac would’ve wanted everyone to be happy,” Boyd, 19, said. “Not sitting down like these people over here.”
Those people, along with Boyd, were here to memorialize Mac Miller, the Pittsburgh rapper and musician who died last Friday, Sept. 7.
Thousands gathered around the park’s concrete blue slide, which served as the titular inspiration for Miller’s first album, “Blue Slide Park.”
It began somber, with the first attendees sitting quietly as DJs spun Miller’s biggest hits. Fans gathered to watch portrait paintings, share stories and listen to stories from his high school colleagues.
In the time since Miller – born Malcolm McCormick – was found dead of an apparent overdose in his Los Angeles home, there has been an outpouring of fan support on social media. But now, fans got a chance to reminisce about Miller’s impact in person.
Boyd was one of them. “This is my first time here,” he said, looking at the basketball courts to his right. “I looked it up when ‘Blue Slide Park’ came out. Wish I would’ve come here before.”
Standing beside Boyd was Da’vaughn Howell, a 19-year-old also from Homestead. He said Miller’s rise to fame was an inspiration during his adolescence.
“Seeing somebody from my own home make it… I idolize that,” Howell said. Along with Wiz Khalifa, Miller helped establish Pittsburgh as a city to watch for music fans, he added.
Miller’s death, which occurred just months shy of turning 27, was widely compared to that of other musicians who died in their late 20s.
“I’m hoping not to join the ‘27 Club,’” Miller rapped on “Brand Name,” referencing the list of notable cultural figures who died at 27 years-old.
Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, Pharrell Williams and Ariana Grande were among the nationally-recognized artists Miller collaborated with over his prolific career.
But for the 20-somethings who attended the vigil, it was Miller’s early singles – what critics described as his “frat rap” phase – that resonated the most.
Throughout the night, fans flooded in through the gates of Upper Frick Park, sprawling across the playgrounds and forming a large crowd atop the blue slide.
At one point, Miller’s grandmother arrived at the DJ booth to deliver a few words.
“He loves you all,” she said to the crowd. “He loves Pittsburgh and everything that you have done for him. Thank you.”
The crowd applauded, some yelling “We love you!” and “Thank you!”
Shortly after, Ty Richardson, 23, was standing alongside Samantha Fedor, 21, smoking a cigarette and rapping along with the blaring music blaring.
“I would’ve hated myself if I didn’t come to this,” Richardson said, explaining why he and Fedor drove in from Beaver.
For him, it was the 2010 album “K.I.D.S” that first piqued his interest in Miller.
“Me and my friends would listen to Wiz and Mac,” he said. “There was this little dance Mac did in the ‘Senior Skip Day’ video. My friends and I used to do it all the time in middle school.”
“His music, specifically his lyrics, really helped my depression,” Fedor added.
After Miller passed, a video of him singing the Stevie Wonder hit “Isn’t She Lovely” spread on social media. “I watched that video like 75 times since Friday,” Fedor said.
She said she’s wondered, when walking down Wood Street or taking the Point Breeze bus, if she were following in the footsteps of a young Miller.
But for Richardson, the connection to Miller was more tangible.
He said he met Miller at the Pittsburgh International Airport in 2015. Though it was years after he had become an established artist with Billboard-charting singles, “He was by himself, no security” Richardson said, noting the casual nature of the encounter.
They chatted about generalities. Why Miller was in Pittsburgh (visiting family). What projects he was working on (“GO:OD AM” would be released in the coming months). And, as Richardson said, “I just asked him how everything was going. He was super genuine, just super nice.”
“In most cases, I’ve watched music have huge impacts in those formative years,” said Ed Traversari, a professor in the school of Sports, Art, and Entertainment Management at Point Park University.
“[When an artist dies,] it’s very shocking for people who are involved in that artist,” Traversari said. “I think it can affect people very much so. That’s why you see people come together with all these tributes.”
Traversari compared it to the shock of when John Lennon passed away, when tributes came from all over the world for the slain Beatle.
“Hopefully people pull through,” he added.
As dark began to fall, candles began to light up the park. Just as Boyd had wished earlier, people were now on their feet – and as the night got darker, the fans got rowdier.
They began singing along to old favorites – “Knock Knock” and “Party on Fifth Ave” – as well as new singles from Miller’s last album, “Swimming,” which was released a month before his death.
What had begun as a solemn vigil turned into a bonafide party. A mix of tobacco and marijuana smoke hung in the air as police began to keep a keener eye on the hyped-up multitudes. But things remained in-check as the music flowed between somber and stirring.
The DJ even threw in “Elm Street” – the popular single by Jimmy Wopo, the 21-year-old Pittsburgh rapper who was shot and killed this summer. Much of the crowd knew the lyrics by heart, screaming the “One, two” refrain and dancing.
When police arrived on a motorcycle with demands to disperse, there were moans.
They chanted “4-1-2” and, as it seemed inevitable the DJs were ready to pack up and leave, “One more song!”
The night closed out with “2009” from Miller’s final album. On the song, the rapper reflects on the year before his mainstream breakout, a simpler and more innocent time.
When the song ended, a moment of silence was followed by an eruption of cheers. As the crowd left into the night, candles flickered surrounding the blue slide Miller immortalized.