Mac Lethal is a pretty mature dude.
The Overland Park high-school dropout — a funny, emotional, shit-talkin' white-boy rapper who's admired almost as much as he's despised — has been making a living off his music at a time when it's hard to make a living, period.
He's doing it in a way that runs against music-industry wisdom, which, given the state of the industry, is exactly why he's successful.
He's also watching out for his health.
"When you go out every night and get trashed and smoke weed and don't exercise and smoke cigarettes and eat shit food and spend your money on dumb stuff and are irresponsible with bills — when you do that, don't you just end up feeling burdened?" he asks on a recent Friday afternoon at a Houlihan's.
"I don't like the feeling of weight," he continues. "I like to feel healthy and clean. I mean, I drink like a motherfucker, still."
Not today — at least not yet. It's 3 p.m., and he has to get in a three-mile run before going to dinner with his girlfriend of two years and hitting a show at the Beaumont Club. So while I order one beer and then another — mainly because I feel bad for our waitress — he works on the same glass of water.
Even more infuriating: Mac Lethal had a day job. Once.
"When my mom died, I worked at a liquor store for, like, two weeks," he says, referring to a very trying 2004. "I really had no reason to go work at a liquor store. But I was like, I need a job, I don't know what's gonna happen. So I got a job. You could write an album about working at a liquor store, all the people who come in." But one day he woke up and didn't want to go in, so he quit. "If I have to wake up and do something, I can't get out of bed. But if I don't gotta do shit, I wake up at eight in the morning on my own."
He hasn't been sleeping that much anyway.
Since 2006, the label Mac started with friend Jeremy Willis and co-flagship-artist Joe Good (who quit rapping soon after) has become a model for small hip-hop labels.
Artists on Black Clover Records spent seven months touring in '08. They sell their music and merch online without a distribution deal (though one is in the works). They work with a professional videographer to make good-quality videos on the fast and cheap (the latest and greatest being the Prohibition-themed "Undertow"), and they salt YouTube with homespun viral videos.
Mac maintains a Web site complete with a forum. Sick of getting asked the same questions in interviews, Mac spent 10 days last August answering every question his fans would throw out, in an attempt to build a permanent "index" of basic information about his career. This led to a stockpile that includes sublime details (his favorite music besides hip-hop is outlaw country) as well as gross ones (yes, he has tasted his own semen).
Further, Mac and his fellow Black Clover artists — Seattle minor-key confessional rapper Grieves and hard-partying South Dakota trio Soul Crate Music — sell all their music and merch online, directly to fans. With each order, they give away free bonus discs (the "Special Reserve" series of B-sides), all without interference from a bigger entity, such as Rhymesayers Entertainment. That Minneapolis major indie signed Mac in 2005 but, in a now-classic turn of events, made him rewrite significant portions of his debut, 11:11, before releasing it in 2007.
He still plans to submit his next official release to RSE. In the meantime, he has put out a disc of the 11:11 sessions that Rhymesayers rejected, as well as the fifth installment of his Love Potion Collection series of homespun albums.
Mostly written and recorded over three weeks this past March, Love Potion Collection 5, stands up to his best material and, in some places, exceeds it, as in the riotously catchy "Heart Uvva Pig (Map of Love)" and the big-band sampling "Undertow." But, Mac says, it also marks the end of the opinionated, pop-culture-referencing Lethal we've known all these years.
"It's all feelings now. I swear to God, there was just this kind of eclipse, this kind of sunset over me, feeling like I wanna deliver judgment and opinions."
From now on, he says, we can expect seriousness — and strings.
Mac has laid down tracks on five demos for his next proper album. He envisions debuting it Portishead-at-the-Roseland style, with a performance featuring live instruments, including a string quartet, backing up Mac and his DJ, Sku.
Though he won't quote numbers, Mac says Black Clover's online sales over the past five months have been five times what they were in 2008.
"As long as I can barely make it off of this, I'll do it," he says. "And I'm doing better than barely making it right now."