An hour before they took the stage at MTV's Video Music Awards in Los Angeles on August 30th, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were sure their set was going to be a total disaster. The Seattle rapper-producer duo had just finished the final run-through of the performance — an ambitious outdoor version of their new single, "Downtown," involving tricky choreography and multiple guest vocalists — and nothing was going right. "We watched the playback, and Ryan was bummed," says Macklemore. "He was like, 'Dude, this isn't good. It's going to be a shitshow.'"
In the end, their first televised performance in more than a year went off without a hitch — but it was a high-stakes moment for more reasons than one. The last awards show Macklemore and Lewis performed at was the 2014 Grammys, where their platinum-selling The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar and others for Best Rap Album. The backlash that followed was swift and brutal: Many fans saw them as symbols of the advantages that white artists have even in a historically black genre. Last fall, the rapper — who went sober in 2008, but relapsed into drug use during his sudden rise to fame — got clean again, and he says the 12-step philosophy has helped him deal with criticism. "There's this tendency to be like, 'Where's the negative stuff? How valid is the criticism?'" says Macklemore. "But honestly, what people think of me is none of my business. If I live on the Internet looking for public approval, I'm going to be miserable."
The day after the VMAs, Macklemore is calling from a mountain cabin in eastern Washington, where he and Lewis are putting the final touches on their follow-up to The Heist. "I'm feeling great about this album," he says. "It has a diversity of sounds and textures and concepts. We've been able to take our time with it, and it's a great feeling to get to that point."
His relief at having gotten through the VMAs is audible. "It was intense," he says. "You're sitting in your seat, Kanye's giving his speech 10 feet away from you, and you realize how many people are out there watching and commenting and judging and making memes. This Internet culture that we're in feels so foreign and so strange sometimes. The VMAs, the Grammys, Twitter, Facebook — all of that is artificial. What's real is creativity."
The "Downtown" video has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube; the song is the result of an 18-month-long recording process that began when Macklemore and Lewis were on tour somewhere in the American Midwest. "Ryan made a beat called 'Moping Around,' and I thought it was about mopeds," Macklemore says with a laugh. He began writing rhymes about the vehicles that he and Lewis had bought to relieve the monotony of life on the road. Lewis took this theme as a production challenge, building "Downtown" into a five-minute epic packed with stylistic detours into Seventies rock, show tunes and more. "We worked at whatever studios were available when we had random ideas," Lewis says. "There was a long time when I didn't think I was going to be able to capture what was in our heads."
"The VMAs, the Grammys, Twitter, Facebook — all of that is artificial. What's real is creativity."
One key element came together after Macklemore, who'd been listening to Sirius XM's old-school rap station, tried out some Eighties cadences at Lewis' suggestion. "I was like, 'We have to reach out to the dudes that came up with this style,'" Macklemore says. "It didn't feel right to appropriate that tone without seeing if they at least liked it." Luckily, their manager is friendly with Big Daddy Kane, who convinced hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee to fly to Seattle and record vocals for the song. (Lewis had to give up control over the session: "There was one moment when I gave them one note of feedback," he recalls. "Kool Moe Dee was like, 'Are you trying to tell Melle Mel how to rap?!'")
Macklemore and Lewis still have two to three songs to finish for the new LP, which they hope to release by the end of 2015 — three full years after The Heist. "I've never been that type of person who's going to turn out a mixtape every few months," says the rapper. "I needed to figure out my path back to the studio, and figure out what I wanted to say. So I had to live."