By Jonathan Zwickel; photos by Ross Farrar on March 8, 2013
Macklemore is walking on people’s heads. For real: The 29-year-old rapper is stepping from hand to hand and head to head above the crowd at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle. The faces of the kids holding him aloft bear the illuminated, determined countenance of apostles enduring a holy trial. Around them, the audience of 800 is going bonkers, dancing in a blizzard of confetti exploding from cannons, while onstage, under spiraling spotlights, 24-year-old producer Ryan Lewis bumps the triumphant beat to “Can’t Hold Us.” Next to him, 21-year-old singer Ray Dalton wails on the hook: “Can we go back, this is the moment/Tonight is the night, we’ll fight till it’s over/So we put up our hands like the ceiling can’t hold us...”
Despite its Super Bowl halftime show ambiance, this is the most intimate concert Macklemore and Lewis have played in months. Their single, “Thrift Shop,” has recently gone multi-platinum, resides at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, is Number One in the UK, Denmark and Australia, and has accrued some 100 million views on YouTube. Their debut album, The Heist, has sold some 300,000 copies since its October release. Their recent US tour was sold out across the continent; February shows in Australia and New Zealand were sold out in advance. It’s worth noting that they’ve scored each of these victories as independent artists without the support of a record label. “We’re absolutely running a massive business right now,” Lewis says. “And at the same time, we’re absolutely wanting to do what we love, which is create art.”
There’s more: Their home state of Washington was the first in America to approve same-sex marriage through popular vote, an issue the pair vocally supported with their single “Same Love.” When they perform the song tonight—the first time in Seattle since Referendum 74 passed in November—it plays like an anthem.
In the real world and on the album charts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are on top of everything right now. Score one for the good guys.
After meeting in 2006, Macklemore—born Ben Haggerty—and Lewis began honing their crowd-pleasing brand of big-moment, big-emotion hip-hop. Since then, the pair has built an emerging empire from within a cramped studio space on a shitty stretch of road in north Seattle, abetted only by a manager and Haggerty’s fiancée. Through a few savvy single releases, high-concept music videos and epic live shows, they amassed an ardent audience in Seattle, the culmination of which might’ve been the symbolic passing of the mic from the Emerald City’s own Sir Mix-A-Lot—the longtime independent, platinum-selling hip-hop artist—during a hometown show in early 2011. “It’s a lot of those kind of random two degrees of separation,” Lewis says about the Seattle scene that nourished the band. “Somebody knows somebody else. That’s sort of in the lane of what we imagined for the songs on The Heist.
When we rode shotgun around Seattle with Macklemore in September of last year, none of the commercial success or mainstream recognition had found him yet. Today, on the phone before yet another gig in yet another city, he’s exactly as humble and assured as he was then—if a little shell-shocked.
How are you coping with being a regular person and now living this dream?
Macklemore: I don’t know how good I’m doing with it. Even in the past two weeks, life has magnified on every level possible. It’s intense walking around the street; it’s overwhelming to kind of not be a normal person anymore. It’s easy to kind of get distracted with all the success that the record is having, and with “Thrift Shop.” I don’t exactly know what I signed up for.
Is it safe to say that Sir Mix-A-Lot saw this all coming a couple of years ago?
[Laughs.] You’d have to ask Mix. I don’t know what his genie or Magic 8-Ball read. He’s been great. When we sold the first million for “Thrift Shop,” he was really congratulatory and telling me about how he did it, and he did the same thing independently. He was putting out his own records forever, and to me, that’s almost the bigger parallel between us and Sir Mix-A-Lot: the independent factor and the DIY factor, even more so than obviously us both being from the Northwest. The fact that he was doing it independent in an era where not a lot of people were, and he was successful doing it independently, there’s a lot to draw from there.
Right now, I feel like everyone is making the same record over and over and over again. Like, people have been rapping to the same beat for the last two years straight, and “Thrift Shop” was a departure from that. It’s something that was fun; it was a concept that immediately stuck out in people’s minds. So, automatically, just by nature of the record, it was different. And the fact that the beat isn’t sexist and the hook is super catchy, it stuck out like “Baby Got Back” stuck out.
It seems distinctly possible that with “Same Love” you had some influence in getting Referendum 74 to pass. Music rarely has that kind of direct impact.
A civil rights victory for the state of Washington... I can’t trace that back to the song and keep any sort of humility but I do think that it had to have helped. Obviously, Referendum 74 passing was huge, but the thing that I have a tangible perspective on is to travel around the country and watch young people sing the lyrics word for word. To actually make a song that has an impact on people’s lives, people’s awareness, people’s heightened compassion and their tolerance for a civil rights issue—that’s my greatest achievement up to this point. It’s been the most profound experience as a songwriter: to watch a song with such social commentary be embraced by so many different types of people. That precedes any sort of “Thrift Shop” numbers.
It seems “Thrift Shop” now exists on some other level.
It was weird to see Anne Hathaway being quoted singing the song. You know, it’s pop culture now. And with that, it’s an open territory for the masses to get it stuck in their head. You never want to be that “Thrift Shop” guy; that one guy who in 2013 had that one song called “Thrift Shop.” But I think we made a record that exceeds that, and you just want to make sure that the general public knows that, and is aware.
I embrace that challenge. I don’t necessarily need to write another Number One record—if I never do that again in my life, that’s OK. I do want to make great music that has an effect on society, that captures moments and turns an idea into something tangible, that’s what I care about. If “Thrift Shop” never happens again, so be it. I had that experience, and not many people can say that they had the Number One record in the country. To take that to the grave is pretty dope.
A lot of your songs implore the listener to live life in the moment, but I’ve never heard you shout out “YOLO.”
I tend to stay away from the word of the week. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with “YOLO” or “swag” or any other words that popular culture embraces. I want to be somebody that creates contemporary language, not someone that follows the name of a Drake song. I imagine that E-40 is not going around saying “YOLO.” He’s got his own word for it.
Is there a secret to walking on top of a crowd?
Yeah. For one, you have to make sure that they know [what you’re doing], because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The tendency is that they kind of rush to you, but you need to calm them down a little bit, or they’ll just drop you. I’ve been dropped many times—not to the ground, but it just turned into a shitty crowd surf. Also, it’s about trying to find a spot in the crowd that has the least amount of teenage girls; go with the dudes. Make sure that you get at least one good foot on a buff dude’s hand. And then just kind of head out on a mission of faith. F