When indie rapper Mac Lethal launched a Tumblr blog to share the profanity laced, English-challenged, semi-delusional text messages that his cousin Bennett sent him, he had no idea it would become such a phenomenon. Now, three years and several million pageviews later, the site has evolved into Texts from Bennett, a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the year his dysfunctional extended family moved in with him and changed his life forever. The book uses the grammatically nightmarish and hilariously off the wall texts as a launching point and framing device to tell a down to earth story about family, friendship and falling in love. And like Bennett and the texts that launched it all, he insists it's all drawn from real life.
Before Mac Lethal's appearance at the Tattered Cover LoDo Tuesday, September 3 at 7:30 p.m. to read from and sign the book (he's also playing a show that night at the Marquis Theater), we caught up with the Internet phenomenon and Midwest rapper to talk about the road from website to novel, how much of the story is true and what comes next.
Westword: How did all this get started? What was the process of going from indie rapper to Tumblr superstar to novelist?
Mac Lethal: At first, what I would do was post on my Facebook, for a couple months before I started the blog. I would just post these quotes on Facebook for my fans to read. I'd say, "Look at this text I got" or "Look at what my cousin said." People liked them so much, but the problem with Facebook is after a certain amount of time, you can't see the posts any more. I wanted to save them, so I started a Twitter account, which worked at first but I there weren't enough characters. There's only 140 characters, so I'd run out of room.
I turned it into a Tumblr page and I just collected them there. I would link people to it here and there. Whenever there'd be a new one I'd just say, "My cousin just sent me this." For a while it was just for a very small group of people, like a thousand followers for a couple months. No one was even paying attention to it. Then one day I do this video where I'm making pancakes and rapping fast in the kitchen at the same time and I uploaded it to YouTube and it just exploded out of nowhere. Of all the things I've tried to make get popular, all the things I hoped would do really well, this was one where I was like, "Well, let's see." I uploaded it and it just annihilated, I mean fucking annihilated.
I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but I might have uploaded one recently, a text from Bennett, or linked to the page recently, and it was getting so much traffic on my Facebook from the pancake video -- two or three million a day at one point, it was the top of the front page on Reddit. Then, in like two days, the Bennett site just started getting thousands of subscribers. Every couple minutes it would jump up. Seven thousand, twelve thousand, sixteen thousand in a number of hours. Then I went back to Reddit and it was the No. 1 on Reddit and my pancake video was the No. 2 So there was a time, about a day, maybe two day period, where I had the No. 1 and No. 2 rated things on Reddit. I'm not sure anyone has ever done that before. I'm not even patting myself on the back, or acting like I deliberately did it, I'm just saying I don't know if anybody, in a 24 hour period, has ever launched two insanely hot viral projects. It was just an amazing time, to watch how crazy it was. In like three days the pancake video got a million views in 24 hours, then the Bennett thing got a million hits in 24 hours and had a 100,000 subscribers in a 24 hour period. That was November 2011 and that's when it all started.
How did it develop into a novel from there?
I got with William Morris, my agency, and they were just talking about ideas and there were obviously certain things I wasn't comfortable with and certain things I was comfortable with. We were just throwing around ideas of what we could do that would be within good taste. One of the agents suggested, "Why don't we do a book? Like a memoir on your family, or talk about your life and your cousin. Make it a funny story and incorporate the texts." And I said, "I'd love to do that, that would be great." Without giving too much away, the book is an ode to how I met my wife and it's a love story. It was just a cool thing to be a part of. One thing I'll say, just to be clear, is this was never a thing I intended on doing. It just kind of fell in my lap. I wish that I could take credit and be like, "Oh yeah, I had a vision for this and I'm a genius." It was nothing like that at all. It was really a matter of, out of nowhere, the Tumblr page exploded and all of the sudden I had this book deal.
It would be some supervillain-level skills if you could plan something like that, like "Well, I want to write a memoir-ish novel, so let's start with a Tumblr of funny texts..."
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I think that there's always a wish that that's going to happen, but to sit there and act like I had some password to the universe and hacked into it. It's just not true. A lot of this was just luck and a really cool experience. I was like, "Wow, this is awesome that this is happening."
So it's somewhat a memoir? How much of it is true? I know there's been some discussion online about whether or not Bennett is a real person or not. You've said he's real, though, right?
Yeah, yeah. Here's the thing -- I'm a funny person, but I couldn't make this shit up. I'm more or less kind of a tense person. I'm sitting here with a baby on my chest and I'm focused more on my responsibilities. I'm a rapper and an artist but I'm not that type of person.
I had to make it an interesting novel. I had to make it something complete that had a structure to it and a story to it, so there's certain things in it ... there's another cousin, that I never mention in the book and I've never mentioned on the blog. There's certain things that I've twisted or not revealed, but yeah, mostly real.
Now that you've added "novelist" to your resume, will you be writing more in the future? Or was this a one-time thing, and now you're back to strictly music?
I would tell you this -- after writing that novel, which took a year of constant work, constant, epic fifteen-hour days of work. Writing it and rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it and re-re-rewriting it. Then piecing it back together and leaving things out, and going through the legal aspects of what you can include since it's based on real people ... dealing with all that, then finally finishing it, mailing it in then getting a box full of copies... there's nothing like it. It's the closest thing -- and it's still far away -- but the closest thing to having a child, to watching a woman go through the ten months of growing a child in her body, wondering about it and thinking about it and preparing for it. Then it finally comes and you just fall in love with it and are amazed by it. That's what it was like. It felt like a piece of me had died when I finished it, then a new piece had been born with it getting ready to come out. That's a really long winded answer to your question -- yes, I would really, really like to do another one. There's no reason that I can't. There's a lot of work involved, but it's worth it.
Anything else you want to say before we wrap it up?
The only thing I'd like to say, the last thing, is I love Denver. I was just there for Warped Tour a couple months ago and it was my No. 1 show of the tour, not surprisingly. I love coming to Denver and I'm excited to see everybody again. I have so many people that see me [every time], it's like their fourth or fifth time seeing me, and I'm excited to see them again and do it all again. I love Denver and if I could bear leaving Kansas City, it would probably be the first place I would move. That's my final word.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.