"I don't think it gets much better than that," a jubilant Mac says enthusiastically, having just returned from a round of Chicago dates with underground heroes Atmosphere. "When I was growing up, I set long-term goals. I could honestly die satisfied knowing that I'm a hip-hop hunk."
Before he was Mac Lethal, he was David McCleary Sheldon, an opinionated loner whose only audience was his own reflection. "I was this hermit in my basement who just rapped in the mirror for years," he recalls.
Mac finally found his calling at an Xzibit show several years ago, where he joined a cipher that included Seven Fold Symphony conductors Negro Sco and Brother of Moses and sonic soulmate-to-be Approach. Mac's abrasive, colorful lyrics sharply contrasted with Approach's thoughtful soulfulness, but the pairing proved a perfect yin-yang match that's kept them working together since. And though the two are now prominent citizens of the area hip-hop community, they also have goals that extend beyond the city limits.
"Our plans are not to be underground legends or something," Mac insists. "I want the world to hear my stuff. I would love to be able to make commercially viable music and radio music. I wouldn't necessarily sacrifice my content, but my favorite stuff is the stuff that is on the radio and has a little more mass appeal."
Mac's bid for mass appeal got a serious boost last August when he created tidal waves at Scribble Jam. Hosted by DJ tome Scribble Magazine, the event showcases every element of hip-hop culture, bringing together graffiti artists, rappers, b-boys and record spinners for a three-day, multivenue festival. Mac was invited to participate in the MC battle, where 32 of the world's top rhymeslayers duked it out for the crown. Eminem took second place in 1997, and the battle has long been considered a breeding ground for up-and-coming mic sensations. Mac was just happy to be there. Sort of.
"It's 11 at night, I have to take a shit, I'm tired, I'm hot, I'm bored, I'm homesick, I'm missing whatever girl I was dating at the time," he remembers. "I'm nervous, I'm shaking and, of course, I'm the first one they called to battle. But I'll tell you one thing -- and I'll never say this about any other thing I've ever done -- I ripped this dude into fucking pieces."
Mac triumphed through four additional rounds before dueling Adeem in the finale. Mac lost, but taking second place proved to be its own victory. He was invited back as a performer in 2002 and caught the eye of HHI, a minor-league label that offered to release Mac's debut. The result -- the recently issued Men Are From Mars, Porn Stars Are From Earth -- has already rankled some purists, but it certainly can't be called generic.
"Everybody does these albums with titles like The Invincible LP or something just so fucking uncreative," Mac gripes. "I didn't think it was a great album title or really gonna move people. I just did it just to stand out."
Recorded, according to Mac, "in the depths and in the rage of two different females," Porn Stars is a genre-hopping bouillabaisse of verbal firepower, dissonant beats and the joys of getting one's prostate milked.
"I had gotten broken up with by a girl, and that pressed a button," Mac explains. "That's where a lot of the stuff on that album comes from, honestly. There's two females in particular -- and they know who they are -- that really pulled a lot of stuff out."
That might be the understatement of the year: Porn Stars is nothing less than pure catharsis set to music. On "My Favorite Screams" Mac spits raging absurdities with coin-flipped wit: My words fuck your girl to death on the couch/And wrap her body in the plastic part/My dick is sharp/My morning wood pierced the mattress and stabbed the Boogie Man in the heart.
Ironically, while local rap outfits such as DVS Mindz and the 57th Street Rogue Dog Villians are heavily criticized for misogyny and alleged posturing, Mac is warmly embraced by the conscious-rap elite.
"I get away with a lot more than I should," Mac agrees with a laugh. "But I'm not a misogynistic person. The thing that probably makes my world go around the most is my mother, my sister and whatever female is in my life at that time. When I talk shit, it's not really directed at females in general; it's kind of a way to have fun and be a rapper and act like I'm ignorant or something. I've been criticized for misogyny the whole time I've been doing this, but I'm not gonna stop."
Underground heads might also recognize that Mac's most outrageous comments come bundled tongue-in-cheek. On "My Mom Izza Thug," Mac goofs on every gangsta rap cliché in the book, gleefully depicting a matriarch who drives an Escalade and bakes Uzi-shaped birthday cakes. The humor is underscored by an absurd sing-song chorus and a 'hood-rat backing track that punctuates the puns with a knowing wink. Mac handled the production on "Thug," and manned the boards for eight other Porn Stars tracks. (KC's Surgeon General and Aesop Rock's production partner Blockhead handled the rest.) Mac's subtle sonic touches include a sublime Morcheeba sample on "A Cool Breeze" and the stark tambourine oceanography of "My Angel Veronica." Though Mac is best known for his mic skills, producing music offers a wholly different creative outlet.
"With MCing, it's, 'How clever can I be this time? How many people can I offend? What kind of style can I show?'" he explains. "With production, I'm kind of orthodox about everything. I don't want some completely off-the-wall and weird-sounding thing. I like melodic stuff. I like stuff that touches your soul."
Mac might touch a few souls with "Midnight in Manhattan." Written and recorded in a fog on Sept. 13, 2001, Mac's philosophical response to the World Trade Center attack is packed with vivid descriptions and genuine emotion: This is not the time for music/It's not the time for movies/It's not the time for pushing all those people I'm unglued with/It's not the time for bursts of glory/It's not the time for purgatory/It's not the time for murder stories/It's not the time for keeping peace or cleaning your knives/It's the time to figure out the meaning of life, and that's it.
"The WTC thing was the most insane thing I've ever seen; I could not take my eyes off the television," Mac recalls. "It was the most touching thing I've ever seen in my life, and I explored all kinds of areas of my mind that I've never been in before. I didn't sit and think about how I'm gonna rhyme this or how clever this is gonna be. I honestly just sat down and spilled it all out at once."
When Mac's new album hit the streets at the end of May, he was less-than-thrilled with the finished artwork, a tacky animated bit that makes Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle cover look like a Rembrandt. The Porn Stars jacket features a garish stripper grasping a fire pole and spreading her legs as a pair of blue-and-green aliens lurk in the background. Though the original concept was Mac's, the finished piece came out nothing like he'd imagined.
"It's a little cartoony and a little too colorful," Mac explains. "One of her legs is longer than the other one; it doesn't look real. That's not what girls look like. That's not what aliens look like in my world. One of those aliens is supposed to be me! I still can't fuckin' figure out which one. [The artist] makes some girl that's sitting in this fake-ass, 1950s Disneyland pose and then me in the back. Strippers face the customers!"
Though Mac's critique of the cover is on-target, it's also part of an inherently captious nature that keeps him from resting on his laurels. Never satisfied, the MC is the first to find fault with his lyrics, his beats, his style. That, he insists, is the only way to blossom as an artist.
"I'm not satisfied with the album that I just did," admits the 21-year-old Mac, who already has a follow-up in the can. "There's so many little tiny flaws that I see. I get into every little single breath and syllable and detail of every little part of my song. If you think about it, the day that you're satisfied with your music, you've reached your musical zenith. I'm so not near that, and I'm glad that I see all these flaws, because it means that I'm not even done growing yet."