Mac Miller called it The Sanctuary.
It was his home studio located in the lower-level, windowless room next to his swimming pool at his upscale pad in Los Angeles. Flash wasn’t the point of the utilitarian space: one chair for whoever was manning the computer, bean bags on the floor for everyone else, a bathroom, and for some reason, all red lighting. The dingy space served as a safe haven for collaborative creativity during a pivotal time in the young rapper’s career.
Within its walls, Miller and his friends recorded constantly, amassing the material for many projects from many artists, including Faces, the late rapper’s 2014 mixtape, released on Mother’s Day. Five years after its release, and eight months after Miller’s untimely death at the age of 26, the project and the energy surrounding it, transmitted through MCs like Vince Staples, SZA and Ab-Soul for their own work, gives us an unguarded point of entry into Miller’s life. The one project that Miller dropped in the interim between his tenure with Rostrum Records and Warner Bros. Records, it was created during a special period of freedom and possibility, allowing him to make visible the entirety of his headspace for the listener. For a release that focuses on the masks we wear on a daily basis, Faces offers a vivid X-ray of what was buried behind Mac’s.
The mixtape’s recording came during a whirlwind time in Miller’s life. He had moved from his native Pittsburgh to Los Angeles in June 2012, just seven months removed from landing a No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for his indie debut album Blue Slide Park and seven months ahead of celebrating his 21st birthday. The same year, his Studio City digs would double as the principal location for a new MTV2 series, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. The show, which ran for two seasons, was described by The Hollywood Reporter as “not unlike a real-life version of HBO’s Entourage.”
The people closest to Miller at the time will tell you that he was less concerned with the jet-setting lifestyle depicted on that series; he was focused on The Sanctuary. “All you have to say is ‘The Red Room’ or ‘The Sanctuary,’ and anyone who’s been there is instantly transported to that place,” recalls his former recording engineer Josh Berg. “I can see it. I can feel it. I can smell it. It was easily one of the most amazing places anybody had ever been,” he says of the harshly-lit pool room that stank of American Spirit menthol cigarettes or weed, depending on the company.
A wooden Buddha head sat perched in one corner, coated in thick layers of wax thanks to a number of spent candles. The door to the booth was missing the handle, leaving a round hole to pass a lighter through to anyone recording. The buzzing from the nearby pool machinery could be heard when anyone entered or exited the studio. An ever-rotating cast of L.A.’s most promising rappers huddled on bean bags, knees up, waiting for their opportunity to out-do one another with a more impressive verse than the last, like skateboarders egging each other on in the skate park.
“You could be in there 72 hours and think it’s the same day,” says Da$h, the 26-year-old New Jersey-based rapper who contributed a verse to “New Faces v2.” “Come in during the day, and come out in the pitch black. There was always something to get done, though. It pushed all of us. It definitely shaped a lot of shit that I was doing at the time.”
Miller enforced a generous open-door policy. “Usually he’d be in the studio, making beats or doing vocals and you could just walk in,” says Mikey Rocks, one half of the former hip-hop collective The Cool Kids. “He really liked for his friends to come by and help out and create that collaborative environment.” Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Da$h and many more came through.
Miller’s music was noticeably influenced by those companions. The free and easy vibe that defined much of his work through Blue Slide Park evolved into something heavier and more hypnotic, beginning with the languid Macadelic in 2012. His 2013 sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off — also partly recorded in The Sanctuary — expanded on that sound, resulting in his most introspective (and critically acclaimed) work to that point. Then came Faces. “I can see the line from Macadelic to Watching Movies to Faces,” says E. Dan of ID Labs, the Pittsburgh-based production studio responsible for much of Miller’s early work. “It’s him continuing to explore different avenues of what he was doing and blending in more genres than he was before.”
His friends from Odd Future and Top Dawg Entertainment aided that exploration. Just a few years earlier, close working relationships with some of hip-hop’s most exciting prospects would’ve been near-unfathomable, especially given his reputation as a white boy frat rapper. But Mac dedicated himself to bettering his craft, and surrounded himself with peers of color he looked up to. His growth was visible. On “Here We Go,” he declares himself “the hardest working person in the universe” before mischievously exclaiming, “I did it all without a Jay feature,” later in the song, taking jubilant pride in his leaps in the industry. He goes tit for tat with Vince Staples on “Rain,” delivering a powerhouse 16-bar verse. From heady wordplay to ever-improving production — much of it from Mac — Faces documents Miller’s artistic coming of age.
The Sanctuary wasn’t just for Mac, though. Watching Movies and Faces are arguably the most recognizable projects to emerge from the pool room, but the space functioned as an informal rap camp of sorts, too. Miller’s newly created producer alter-ego, Larry Fisherman, provided beats for anyone who wanted in. Artists utilized The Sanctuary for loose singles, songs recorded to be used on later projects, and collective bodies of work, like Vince Staples’s Stolen Youth, which was produced entirely by Miller.
“That was the whole thing about the system that we had down there — even the computer was egalitarian,” says Berg. “I had it set up with the template so that anybody could walk in there, open Pro Tools and hit record and it fucking worked, you know? Many times, people did exactly that.”
They didn’t want to leave, either. The clubhouse environment lent itself to belly laughs that cleansed the soul, among other mood-altering alternatives. You can hear golden nuggets on many of the recordings from The Sanctuary: the sound of the functional but falling-apart door to the booth creaking open and shut at the end Miller’s final verse on “Friends.” Mikey Rocks mentions a tambourine that happened to be lying around during the recording of “What Do You Do?” Miller lists off some of his closest companions on the endearing “Friends” — many of those same colleagues can be heard laughing after he abruptly exits the booth on the end of “Avocado,” the concluding track from his 2013 beat tape, Run-On Sentences: Vol. 1.
But for all the coming and going there was one constant at The Sanctuary: Mac. Widely known as the type to hole up in the studio when in album mode, Miller stayed true to form while working on Faces. “I know he’d be in there when I’d leave, and he’d be in there when I get back,” says Da$h. “We’d go upstairs and eat and sleep for a few hours. I don’t know [when he’d leave.]”
Miller couldn’t even be bothered enough to leave the studio to attend his own birthday party. He spends the opening bars of “Happy Birthday” detailing his whereabouts during the celebration: “There’s a birthday party happening upstairs/ And it’s all for me, who the fuck cares?” (In an interview with Complex, he told the story in full.)
“You literally had to pry him out of the studio with a crowbar because he had to go shoot this scene [for his MTV2 show],” recalls Berg. “It became an issue of, Okay, who’s gotta pry him out of the studio to go shoot the scene? He wanted to be in there because life was hard and there were all these challenges, but the studio was his sanctuary. It was just like, no more fucking shows, no more fucking labels, no more anything. We’re just going to be in this room making music. And that’s what happened.”
Still, the challenges that life brought inevitably made their way into the studio and into Miller’s music. Faces is Mac at his most raw and unfiltered. The 24-track, 87-minute project is littered with lyrics that hit especially different now. “A drug habit like Philip Hoffman will probably put me in a coffin,” he raps on “What Do You Do?” Later, on “Funeral,” he says that “doing drugs is just a war with boredom but they sure to get me.”
And yet he could put his peers and listeners at ease even in his most vulnerable moments; he outwardly exuded a goofy, light-up-the-room aura. “I’m the only suicidal motherfucker with a smile on,” he raps on “Malibu,” evoking a darker, more developed spin on the “No matter where life takes me, find me with a smile” sentiment heard on “Best Day Ever” in early 2011.
“When we see vulnerability in other people, we see courage. In that aspect, Malcolm was the leader there,” says Berg. “He was the captain of a ship that made you feel comfortable to go to a place where you felt scared to go. He understood that really deeply.”
Ultimately, that’s what made Miller so easy to root for: he wasn’t the best rapper, nor the coolest, but he was hope. He was perseverance. Though not all of his fans suffered the same struggles he did, he offered the feeling that it was all going to be okay. He felt like a life raft that you could hold onto, even if only in the interim. For the generation that grew up with his music, he was a sign that, no matter what you were going through, you could overcome it in due time.
“Mac was always so in control,” says Mikey Rocks. “He was never a person that you had to watch. You didn’t have to babysit Mac because he was taking care of everybody else. He was younger, but he was the adult. He had a lot of responsibility and a lot of people around him that he was responsible for that he would always take care of. He was one of the more mature ones.”
In his review of Faces for Pitchfork, Craig Jenkins wrote, “There’s a troubling sense that Mac is tiptoeing down a well-lit path toward self-destruction and that he either feels too helpless or else too enrapt to change course, but if Faces’ good-times-are-killing-me terrors seem overbearing, they’re often offset by a sense that music is his salvation.”
It’ll forever be difficult to grapple with the more poignant lyrics from Faces now; it’s easy to look back in retrospect and ask what else could have been done. Says Da$h: “You see your homeboys and you just want to make sure you see them, and you look them in the face and you ask them if they’re okay. I felt like something was going on, but I don’t know how it made anyone feel. You can’t question shit when you sit there and hug somebody and look at them. He told me he was good. I could keep asking, but he’s going to give the same answer. I know I would.”
But surveying the Faces era shouldn’t be a morbid hunt for clues. Instead, it should be an opportunity to appreciate a defining chapter in his life. He bared his soul for all to see, creating an avenue for the listener to grow and feel vulnerable alongside him, be it his friends listening in at The Sanctuary or a fan with a set of headphones.
The month after Faces dropped, the lease on Miller’s Studio City pad expired and he moved out, leaving The Sanctuary with it. The red lights that defined the room had long since burnt out. The door to the booth hung off its hinges from use. In a since-deleted tweet, Mac paid it tribute, writing, “Thank you to all the people who made that place special.” He signed with Warner Bros. Records in October 2014 and began the next phase of his life and career.
“At the end of every project, it always felt like we were just getting started, you know?” Berg says with a sigh. “We would laugh about that. It always felt like a new beginning.”