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FILTER 50: Getting to Know: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

By Jonathan Zwickel; photo by John Keatley on January 3, 2013

 

FILTER 50: Getting to Know: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

 

Autumn in Seattle is reliably golden. The clammy veil that dulls the city the rest of the year is cast aside by long, balmy days and crisp, crystalline nights. Earth and sky are pristine, vivid, exposing a long-dormant inner glow. And right now, autumn 2012, it’s hard to imagine Ben Haggerty—the 29-year-old rapper better known as Macklemore—existing in any other light.

 

Dude rolls up to Victrola Coffee in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in a gleaming, black 2008 Cadillac DTS. Check that: Cadillac DTS Biarritz Edition. Low and sleek like an android orca, the ride seems to vibrate in the late-morning sun even while parked. Haggerty climbs out: jeans, vintage Jordans, dark-blue flannel button-down, lazy smile, blond hair brushed back, blue eyes heavy. He is, in more ways than one, a man who’s arrived. 
 

Now we’re now going for a ride.

 

For the next 90 minutes, Haggerty cruises the city, his city, casual and enamored. “Seattle,” he says, “is first and foremost the most beautiful place in America.”
 

Our first destination is only a few leafy blocks away: the two-story north Capitol Hill craftsman home he grew up in, finally sold this summer by his folks. Then TOPS, the alternative middle school he attended, where his mom volunteered while his dad ran a furniture company on nearby Bainbridge Island. Over to Seward Park—he had a crazy mushroom experience there in high school. Downtown, by the Showbox, where last spring Haggerty and Ryan Lewis, his boy-genius musical partner, sold out three consecutive shows (last band to do that was Pearl Jam). Key Arena, which Haggerty and Lewis packed 10,000 strong at 2011’s Bumbershoot Music Festival. Safeco Field, where Haggerty threw the first pitch against the Angels for his beloved Mariners in September.
 

These places and phases made Haggerty into Macklemore, the unabashedly emotive emcee who, in the last two years, has racked up millions of YouTube views and hundreds of thousands of downloads on iTunes without the support of an album or record label. We glide through it all, Haggerty’s past blurring outside the window, his present most definitely here, behind the lacquered-wood steering wheel of a high-end luxury car.
 

“That’s the center of my existence: trying to get back to the moment of being present,” he tells me. “So much of my music derives from that place of trying to find that balance and that center. That presence. And I have gone in and out of it my entire life.”
 

On The Heist—the long-awaited first album that finally dropped in October, debuting at Number Two on the Billboard 200—Haggerty and Lewis find balance in extremes. There are no small moments on the record. With anthemic bombast, every song goes all-in on a clear-cut theme, whether quotidian (extolling second-hand fashion in “Thrift Shop”) or crucial (supporting gay marriage in “Same Love”). Every song implores the listener to think beyond the obvious. When Haggerty raps about his collection of Jordans on “Wing$” and, alongside Ab-Soul of LA’s Black Hippy crew, his Caddy on “White Walls,” he’s not flossing name-brand status, he’s writing his hands over the effects of conspicuous consumption. All the while, Lewis’ production is gut-wrenching in its symphonic grandeur.



 

These songs sound huge on The Heist; they sound absolutely monumental live. At some point around the release of the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis VS. EP in 2009, the duo stopped simply playing gigs and started providing life-changing experiences. Young fans have flocked to sold-out shows across the US and Europe, eager for the undiluted emotion that is Macklemore’s signature.
 

“I can think of worse shticks,” Haggerty says. “But I’m not afraid of naturally making those types of records. I need you to gravitate towards a feeling, to a concept. And I can nail a fucking concept. That’s the thing that I have. I’m constantly scrutinizing life and putting it into songs. I’m not very prolific. I don’t come up with 100 rap records a year. But the 12 you’re gonna get—I’m gonna pinpoint whatever emotion I was going for. I view that as a good thing, something that conjures a feeling in the listener, not something to shy away from.”
 

The extremes of the music mirror the extremes of the man: the AA-sponsored-former-cough-syrup-addict-turned-self-contained-cottage-industry, designing his own merch and self-releasing his debut album; the anti-materialist fashionista endorsed by GQ; the globetrotting rapper still cruising the middle-class streets he was raised on.
 

“I am not a finished product,” Haggerty says. “This is shit I’m working on as a human being that often gets put into my music, but that doesn’t mean I’m above consumption or above drugs or above any of this shit. These are things I’m still constantly working on. I just happen to process it in a very public way.”  F


3 ALBUMS THAT INFLUENCED MACKLEMORE TO MAKE MUSIC

 

HIEROGLYPHICS 
3rd Eye Vision

My first introduction to dudes that were really styling on records. That whole generation—Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract, Hiero—was a huge influence on me being free on records, just having fun and being in the moment. We couldn’t get shows back then, so the only place to really flex was freestyling. These guys were our idols.

 

REFLECTION ETERNAL
Train of Thought

The whole album feels like a book: beginning, middle, end, transitions, concepts...the writing and production. It was masterfully crafted and you could really tell how much time, energy and love they put into it.


 

RAEKWON 
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...

I was in ninth grade when this came out. The purple tape didn’t leave my tape deck. The combination of Rae and Ghost was a flawless balance. The soundtrack to my malt liquor and Wallabee days, it blended perfectly with the blunt-stained skyline of Seattle.

This article is from FILTER Issue 50