A decade removed from Mac Miller’s sophomore album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, I’ve come to understand the album as a fitful and necessary moment of evolution. From Mac stepping into the role of a competent producer, to his connecting across the spectrum of Los Angeles-based artists—some of which play the role of sonic heroes—Watching Movies completed the turning point Mac began with 2012’s Macadelic. Yes, there is the battle of the big albums that took place on June 18, 2013. Yes, there is the resolve of standing up to a Kanye West release day. But more importantly, there is the sense Mac refused to stand down to himself. After Blue Slide Park was panned by critics, there was an immediate and resolute course-correction in his mixtapes. It was a wonder to his inner circle how, exactly, the next album would reflect his rapid maturation.
Ten years on, I listen to Watching Movies and still discover new tricks and twists from Mac and his impressive cast of characters. This was the moment where The Sanctuary established itself as a creative haven for “alternative rap” in LA. The album is a key inflection point in Mac Miller’s career. In casual conversation with early skeptics, Watching Movies is often cited to me as “the one where I started to take him seriously.” It was an explosion of growth. Watching Movies With the Sound Off proved, without question, that above all else, Malcolm loved to play. – Donna-Claire
The following is an excerpt from Donna-Claire‘s 2021 book, The Book of Mac, courtesy of Permuted Press, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Mac Miller’s sophomore album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, which served as a pivotal turning point in his artistic evolution.
Purchase The Book of Mac here.
“You gotta pretend that no one listens. You gotta pretend that you’re just making music for yourself, because when you do something for yourself and only for yourself and it translates to everybody else, that’s like what I think true genius takes its form.”
. Mac Miller, “Mac Miller – Interview!” interview by OFIVE, OFIVE TV, June 21, 2013,
Big Jerm: Macadelic opened his eyes to what he could do, and showed people what he could do. With Watching Movies, he was trying to follow that direction. He had a decent amount of production on there himself. I had co-production on a couple [songs]: “Matches,” that was one I started with a sample. It was our project, we had like twenty-one tracks, and they just kept getting cut as he progressed. “Youforia” was definitely done on the tour bus for the Macadelic Tour. So it was old to me by the time the album came out. Most of these other [songs], he did in LA.
Benjy Grinberg: Watching Movies took the longest to make of the records up to that time. There was a fast string of records between Best Day Ever and Macadelic. Watching Movies didn’t come out for another year and some change from when Macadelic came out. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. One, of course, is that he’s touring and other things were taking up his time, [like] the TV show. There was a lot going on. Also, this album went through even more iterations than most Mac albums at that time. I have: “Watching Movies 3,” “Watching Movies 4,” “Watching Movies 5,” “Watching Movies All,” “Watching Movies Benjy,” “Watching Movies Final,” “Watching Movies Live,” “Watching Movies Mac Most Recent Version,” “Watching Movies Mac Most Recent Version 2,” “Watching Movies Mac Most Recent Version 3,” “Watching” . . . It just goes on and on.
E. Dan: When they recorded It was the always-moving target of what songs are gonna be on the final cut. Like everything, there’s a whole companion album sitting on a hard drive.
Big Jerm: On the Macadelic Tour, we were talking about doing a project together—just me and him. I even tweeted something, “Listening to Macadelic and watching Robocop on mute.” I tweeted that before Watching Movies [on March 24, 2012]. Then we started working on a project together on the Macadelic Tour. He moved to LA right after that tour, in the spring, almost summer of 2012. That’s when he got more into producing himself. He started working on a lot of stuff himself, but [the tweet] is kind of where the name came from. Over time, the project me and him had evolved into his project, and he had other producers on there.
E. Dan: They had started on tour, he and Jerm, and a lot of that was Mac picking samples for Jerm to chop up and flip into beats. After they got off tour, Mac got the bug to produce. It was this moving target, more so than it was on a per-song basis. It was the playlist evolving. There [were] a couple songs we went way in on. The one that stands out in my mind the most—we had some crazy number of versions to it—didn’t even end up making the album.
Big Jerm: This is when he moved to LA; I was still in Pittsburgh. He just went straight from tour to LA—[he moved into] that first mansion that was on the TV show.
Quentin Cuff: ScHoolboy Q became a real homie. Ab-Soul, Vince Staples became a real-real friend. Him and Mac were doing the Stolen Youth project around the same time. Vince was one of the shadowy figures in the “Watching Movies” video. It was a time where we had a TV show going; Mac was a full-on celebrity. People probably look at that studio really fondly. That’s how Mac was able to build his rapport with people. Tyler [The Creator] started f*cking with Mac because all of Tyler’s homies f*cked with Mac. He came to grow in respect for Mac’s musical acumen, and Mac was a big fan of Tyler. He was a big fan of Earl [Sweatshirt]. We were fans of our peers!
Big Jerm: We went to Guitar Center and got the studio setup started. I don’t know when it went from our thing to a concept album. I think it was: I wasn’t around and he started working with Josh [Berg] as an engineer, and he started adding songs [to Watching Movies] over the course of that year, and it changed from there.
E. Dan: The big thing with Watching Movies was the fact that this was the album where Mac decided he wanted to explore producing. That was post-tour. Whatever [he] and Jerm started on tour, sort of got abandoned for, “Wait, I wanna just produce this album.” Everything I thought was gonna be the album, got pulled back at that point. Some of that stuff survived, but mostly it ended up going in this entirely different direction.
Chuck Inglish: When he first got really deep into making beats, is when he moved out to LA after we did a tour together. Mac just knew . . . I’m not hella domesticated but my house and the things I do are really clean and tranquil. One of the best days I had was when Mac is like, “I’mma get you my credit card, and I want you to go to Bed Bath & Beyond and help me put my studio together.” At that time, I’m thinking, “I would never do that shit; I wouldn’t give nobody my credit card for nothing,” but at that time he trusted me.
I came back with everything that you saw in that studio from that Mac Miller [and] ScHoolboy Q song [“Gees”] that we did. I will never forget helping him set it up. I don’t like doing that shit, helping friends move. But it was about being with him while he took a step up. He comes off tour, buys a mansion, got a new car. I was just proud to be with him at that point, knowing that two years prior he was trying to figure out “Was this going to work?” Our early moments, that shit is still here like it was yesterday.
Syd (front woman, The Internet): Being in the studio, being at his house and kicking it with him . . . I remember he had a birthday party one year, and his house was full of people, but he was in his pajamas still, from that morning in the studio. That’s just what he wanted to do. Not like, “Oh, for my birthday I’mma make music.” He was obsessed, and that was inspiring as well. He just wanted to make more, and more, and more. He wanted to work with everybody too. That’s something that didn’t really inspire me until recently. Since what happened and seeing everyone who reached out and the impact that he had on people when he worked with them was so inspiring. He had a lot of influence.
He had so many hidden talents too. I think a lot of people would’ve been really impressed watching him in the studio. He can run Pro Tools. He can kinda engineer himself. He’s really good at guitar. He’s really solid on the keys. Around the time I came around, he was making beats really heavy. I’d walk in and he’d be at the keyboard with loops going. A session with him could’ve meant anything. He just wanted to try everything, and why not? He was always, at least while I was around, always inspired to write something. I never saw him at a loss for words. He always had something on his mind that he could put out and express.
Benjy Grinberg: This was during the period where he was holed up in his Studio City pool house. He was locked in that house 24/7. He was experimenting with a lot of different things. He was now working with Josh Berg. All of that coming together . . . It made it this fully-realized version of where he had been heading for the last year or two. He was able to put it together, use some of his newfound relationships with Earl and other people, and get it all together in an album. It’s an evolution, and he evolved past this and went into the records he did with Warner. The transition was Faces, which he made between his time at Rostrum and at Warner. [Watching Movies] was a strong stop on the way, where it felt like an artistic expression really coming to life.
It’s all part of his evolution. I know I use that word a lot. I compare him to The Beatles a lot, in my own mind. You think of their discography, and how they went from these simple, pop, happy songs to this drug-infused, deeper space. All of that happened in six years for The Beatles. Their whole discography is just a number of years, and they evolved quickly. I think of Mac the same way. He goes from K.I.D.S. to Watching Movies—I often see them as parallel.
Karen Civil (digital media marketing strategist, friend): It was honestly incredible, because, you know, we all evolve. But him? I remember he bought the big house in LA and it was like “Woah! Really?” That was just the place you went to. His Thanksgiving dinners . . . That house and him had a way of bringing people together. I met so many people for the first time at that house. Through the years, he added the tattoos. Life changed. His outlook on certain things changed. The way he rapped was different, but change is good. And it was great for him! He just got mature.
E. Dan: A lot of [Watching Movies] was getting done at The Sanctuary, just continuing on with Josh, who turned into a supportive role to Mac producing all these tracks. I heard that stuff when I went out to LA for a period of time, just to hang with those guys. We made a lot of music at The Sanctuary. Some of it ended up on Watching Movies, and some of it ended up on the live album. The Future song and “Eggs Aisle” all came out of that same few weeks in LA.
My biggest involvement overall was mixing the whole project. That was right when I moved into the new [ID Labs] studio. I remember being in the construction phase, but we had just moved all the gear over. I set up the gear in the room—no acoustic treatment. Josh Berg came in to assist me, and he and I just went to f*cking town, not only mixing the album, but gathering blankets and whatever fuzzy material we could to stick on the walls, because none of the treatment was up. It was just this echoing room. I had just bought brand new speakers after having used one type for a decade. On a technical end, it was this giant f*cking challenge. Not to mention, it being Mac’s production . . . I couldn’t just fall back on sounds that I knew worked. [Mac] was using a lot of stock sounds, and he didn’t have his sound game together yet. That was a crazy, intense challenge for me and Josh—just on a technical level.
Quentin Cuff: It was the Josh Berg-Mac era, and it wasn’t at its peak. Its peak would be Faces. You’ve done “Positive Mac” for so long, and “Problematic Mac” people came to love. It took a while to get people with the money to be on board, but that was the beginning of the Josh Berg era. Mac and Josh were cooped up in the bottom studio [at Mac’s house in LA]. They were cooking up very zany, otherworldly, weird creations. At the time, they really stood out, and people loved it. There’s that album, Balloonerism, that was probably made before Faces. A lot of it was supposed to be Faces, and then Balloonerism’s its own thing. There’s so many albums during that time that were in the thought process.
After Macadelic, there was this huge response to “Problematic Mac.” Despite us starting out from a more kid perspective, he had grown really quickly. That’s how you got something like Macadelic. With that being a mixtape, and him being like, “This is my album.” He wanted to come with a refined version of [the Macadelic sound]. When you have people like Tyler, [the Creator]; Earl [Sweatshirt]; and The Alchemist, who we went record shopping with in Japan before they made “Red Dot Music” . . . So many things happened that accumulated into Watching Movies.
Him and Josh Berg were going into the studio, recording while watching a nature documentary on silent. It just stuck. For us, even in the moment, it became iconic.
Benjy Grinberg: When I listened to some of the first ones, old versions of songs he eventually redid, and songs that didn’t make it on there, [there] were still dope songs. One or two of which we added to Live from Space. “In the Morning,” with Syd and Thundercat, was a contender for Watching Movies that didn’t quite make it; [it] just didn’t end up fitting.
Syd: Honestly, I don’t remember the first time we worked together because we worked together so many times. I remember we got together because he came to the first concert we ever had. After, he was like, “Yo, you guys, come hang out at my house.” We’re like, “Oh, for sure!”
We started going to his house and hanging in the studio. A lot of the time, we would just watch him work. At the time, we were recording a lot of live instrumentation, and he was really interested in it, and he had the space and the money to accomplish some of the things that we kinda couldn’t. He took us with him to Guitar Center in a twelve-passenger van. He was like, “What should I get?” He wanted to set up a live jam room. We helped him pick out a keyboard. He bought a new guitar. I think he already had a drum set. I think they might’ve got some microphones for it. He saw Matt [Martians] and I kinda fanning out over this plug-in called Omnisphere. It’s a synth plug-in, and [Mac] saw me and Matt kinda staring at it. We couldn’t really afford it, so we were just staring at it like, “When we get this, it’s gon’ be a wrap!” And he saw us talking about it, and when we got back to his house, he pulled it out of a bag like, “Here, I got this for you guys.”
Chuck Inglish: He was just a selfless person. He cared about the people. Not just cared about them, but would be there for you and help you out. And not just give you something that could get you from point A to point B, but give you something that could get you around the whole alphabet. I think he had a producer’s mentality, but not just musically. He liked to see things come together and get created. That’s another thing that makes him so well-missed. There aren’t too many people like that. He’ll make sure that if you’re around him and it ain’t a family thing going down for you, he’ll create that for you. If he could get you there, he’ll get you there.
There’s a lot of camaraderie in rap. Everybody, when they’re in LA, hanging around Alchemist for a bit, and then when Mac came out here, it was like two different versions of rap camp. You go over Mac’s house and anybody could be there. I could pull up. It be ScHoolboy, it be Vince, it be Earl. There be people there by themselves. Everyone wanted to go to Mac’s house because it was a safe place to create. It was the spot! He created those moments. A lot of people found their sounds being around Mac. It was a real steel-sharpens-steel situation.
Syd: Without that tour, I don’t know what we would’ve been doing at the time. We had nothing better to do, except stay at home and make some more music. That was one of the biggest learning experiences in our career, just being on that tour, learning how a well-oiled machine is supposed to run.
As an artist, I think a lot of us get pre-labeled as prima donnas, and he was just not! It showed us that you can do this and, especially for me, I had done a couple tours already, but as a DJ. Those tours made me think I hated touring. I’ve been on the other side of it. I’ve been on a tour that was not fun, for me at least, and the energy was not good. Touring with him kinda showed me that touring can be fun. You can create a family out here.
Big Jerm: “Matches” was a sample from Black Moth Super Rainbow. They’re actually from the Pittsburgh area, which is random because I didn’t know that when I found the sample. We did “Matches” in that mansion, but the studio was upstairs next to his bedroom. It wasn’t in the pool house. It was a beat I made in Pittsburgh, and [when] I was in LA with him, I played it for him. That was one of the first things we did in that mansion. Ab-Soul did his verse a little later, I believe.
“Someone Like You” was pretty much done, and then we did some additional production at the end of it. “Claymation” was another one I did. I just played that stuff on Nexus—it’s a plug-in. That was another one I did on an airplane—I don’t know why he picks all those ones. I took it back to Pittsburgh, and then E. and Sayez added some stuff. Then Vinny Radio, who’s my good friend, Mac got him on there too. The other ones we have credit on are pretty small, additional things.
I’m looking at this hard drive I have of his, and it’s stuff back to 2010. He has so much unreleased music, it’s kind of crazy. There’s this one called “Distress Call,” which was [made] probably on [the Macadelic] tour. I like that one. There’s one called “I Come in Peace,” that’s after [the Macadelic Tour].
Before Blue Slide Park, we had been working on stuff together. He would play keys or guitar. So, “Distress Call,” this is one where he played . . . I had another plug-in (Omnisphere) on my laptop, and I think he played some of this [instrumentation] and I did the drums. The beat is pretty much half-and-half, then he does the vocals on it. There’s another one, “The Difference,” that was good too. There’s a lot of stuff I totally forgot about.
Quentin Cuff: I really love the original “Star Room.” That album . . . It was just intended to have that f*cking intro. It was intended to have the original “Star Room.” Mac had Earl make that intro with Josh. That beginning spooky part, that’s a Josh Berg creation. Then, when the guitar comes in, that’s all Earl. I would just say, I love the original intro, and I wish we could have cleared that [original sample]. Some of the most interesting things about this album is the Earl and Mac beats, and The Alchemist!
We got Sap on there. A Flying Lotus-produced single. And one song by Pharrell Williams and one by Chuck Inglish. Mac produced “Aquarium,” bro! He produced “REMember,” “Aquarium,” and a song with Jay Electronica [“Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes”]. That’s just high-level artistry in one album. I’m super blessed to have been a part of this album.
Sap: “Watching Movies,” actually, he produced the end part of that. When it gets real slow and crazy at the end. Mac is just out there, man. I can’t explain it. It’s nothing you can pinpoint about him. It’s so many records that I have, I don’t even know the projects they’re from.
Quentin Cuff: The most interesting story for this album is Mac having to email Kate Rothschild . . . We couldn’t get a hold of Jay Electronica for a little bit, and Mac had to go back and forth via email with Kate Rothschild in order to get Jay Electronica’s verse. Mac was such an email genius! He would be mad when I would miss emails. He was just a businessman, so on top of his emails. I remember him showing me, “I’m emailing Kate Rothschild right now.” Come to find out they dated.
Then, “Objects in the Mirror” with Pharrell . . . People always talking about “Pink Slime,” but I was in the sessions in Miami, and we were playing Pharrell “Loud” right before Macadelic was supposed to come out, and we wanted this huge project with Pharrell, Pink Slime. They just didn’t come back to making shit after having a couple good days in Miami, where they did some incredible shit. Pharrell sent Mac a bunch of beats, and that’s where “Objects” comes from. When he got that, [Mac] immediately knew, “I’m saving that for myself.” I think “Objects in the Mirror” is a precursor to a lot of Mac’s music. It’s a refined version of things like “Mourning After.” It was just a proud moment.
Benjy Grinberg: While I was aware of there being songs like [“Objects in the Mirror”], for me, he had always sung. A lot of his hooks were melodic previous to this album. It didn’t surprise me at all. Also, it’s different for someone like me, who was privy to other versions of the songs before they came out. It was a year before this album came out, so we had been listening to this music and to where he was going for a while before the album actually dropped. I was used to him heading in that direction.
Quentin Cuff: I remember, at the “Gees” video . . . ILLROOTS helped us make the video, staying in line with our success off the “America” video. ScHoolboy Q was eating El Pollo Loco chicken. That was a great video and a precursor of a whole era of videos. You hear people like Cole Bennett . . . He talks about the “America” video influencing him. It was just a great time. First album, we didn’t fall on our face. Monetarily and success-wise, we were on TV, living in a f*cking mansion. Everything’s good! To come back with Watching Movies, take the craft more seriously . . . We took as much constructive criticism as possible. Mac was growing as a person and as an artist. He was starting to feel the respect around him, as an artist, and he showed up to the task.
Benjy Grinberg: I love “Red Dot Music,” “Bird Call,” “Avian,” “Gees,” just some of the more head nod-y songs. I listen to “Claymation” a lot. I actually have a Spotify playlist I made for myself, which is my personal favorite Mac songs [for when] I just wanna not feel too emotional, if possible, but jam with him. Feel good, the sun’s out, I wanna listen to some records that make me feel good, and for him to just be with me in those moments—celebrating him and the more upbeat records he made. [“Claymation”] is one of my go-tos. Same thing with “Gees,” but “Gees” is so disrespectful. When I listen to that record, I just kinda shake my head, like a parent might do when their kid says something ridiculous, because it’s so over the top disrespectful. Obviously, “Objects in the Mirror” is a beautiful song.
Quentin Cuff: “Avian . . . .” Mac said the theme of the album was birds. “Avian,” the name is f*cking incredible. That song is him and Josh Berg in the studio, going crazy. “I’m Not Real” was always a favorite of ours, because it was Mac and Earl; it was like hearing Raekwon and Ghostface [Killah], bro. Such a sharp duo of lyricists. “S.D.S.,” in retrospect, is not my favorite song. Mac and FlyLo have other music in the tank that’s really crazy.
Mac was in every lane. He had serious videos like “I Am Who Am” and then he had that “S.D.S.” video that took you back to that “Smile Back” [era]. “Bird Call” was one of the hardest songs. Mac performed that song on the last show I did with him. Shout out Clams Casino. “Matches” is almost like a K.I.D.S. part two. It’s about reminiscing over that happy era. I love reminiscing about his childhood, because he was a young-ass dude talking about times when he was fourteen as if it was forty years ago. Such an old soul. “I Am Who Am” . . . The Big L flow, I was always so impressed with what Malcolm did on that song.
Sap: Watching Movies is actually my favorite album. I think that album should have gotten a GRAMMY nod back in 2013, especially with him dropping around the same time as a lot of heavy hitters, which people would have avoided, probably. He stood with them, he dropped the same day as Cole and Kanye. People still was listening to his shit. A lot of other people would be like, “Nah, let’s wait a couple weeks.” But he was like, “Let’s do it.” I f*ck with that courage. He was just fearless. That’s why he gave us so much of himself. It still, to me, feels like he’s still here.
Benjy Grinberg: When we first decided on the release date [for] it, we didn’t know it was gonna turn into this big day in hip-hop, in terms of releases. Kanye West and J. Cole had the same date. We were thinking: Do we change our date? We had come off a No. 1 album, and we wanted to continue to prove ourselves, and with Kanye and J. Cole coming out, it was unlikely we were going to be No. 1. We talked about it and decided it’s cooler to stick to our guns and stick with the day we chose and be a part of this moment.
It was the first commercial album that he was very, very proud of and that he stuck with. Even doing a live album showed his commitment. He would’ve never made a Blue Slide Park live album. [But now] he was touring Europe with a lot of his friends that were very, very musical. In that sense, there was definitely a freedom. He felt like there was a lot of room in these new songs and in his own musicality that he could make different versions of the same song and express himself in many ways.
E. Dan: I think that’s what he was asking himself at the time. Who is he, as an artist? Is he a rapper? Is he capable of more? He’s watching guys like Tyler produce their own shit. I think he was an artist in transition from—I don’t wanna say one-dimensional, but in his mind, he had one job as a rapper and occasional singer. Then he started looking at it more holistically as a musician and producer and general conductor. I feel like Watching Movies was the beginning of Malcolm exploring his own musicality beyond being a lyricist or vocal performer. It was a process he was just starting and was something he continued to just get better at over time.