To make The Heist, which sold 78,000 copies and hit Number Two on the Billboard charts and Number One on iTunes this week, Seattle rapper Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty and producer Ryan Lewis were so determined to stay independent that they refused to pay for samples. "It really came down to just not wanting to deal with lawyers and fork out a bunch of money," Haggerty says, by phone from a Missoula, Montana, tour stop. "The couple samples we had in mind that we got quotes for was a ridiculous percentage. We decided to record our own musicians."
Unlike the band's previous albums, The Heist contains no samples whatsoever – just cameos from rapper Schoolboy Q, Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, Seattle singer-songwriter Mary Lambert and others. Avoiding sampling led to a new creative mentality. "That definitely did shape the overall sound that Ryan was going for," Haggerty says. "On top of just wanting to expand and create a landscape of sound that was different than other people were doing, the sampling [decision] definitely played a part in that."
Since Macklemore's 2005 debut, Language of My World, Haggerty and Lewis have taken a pure do-it-yourself approach to slowly, gradually building a fan base. They shoot and edit their own videos, including "Same Love," a rare gay-positive hip-hop anthem; and "Thrift Shop," which is so over-the-top it features Lewis driving a DeLorean. (They've racked up 4.7 million and 8.3 million YouTube views, respectively.) They also avoided signing with a major record label, turning down potentially large advances to put out The Heist, instead opting for the indie Alternative Distribution Alliance.
The YouTube videos, and the live fan base, pushed the duo's album to Number Two, behind only Mumford & Sons. "I wasn't even expecting Top 20," Haggerty says.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis also sold out two nights at Irving Plaza in New York City on November 20th and 21st. "I didn't even know that we could sell out one," Haggerty says.
Why the abrupt popularity? "We've been able to make music that resonates with people on a personal level, as well as having a work ethic – Ryan and I work 70-80 hours a week and we don't stop," he adds. "That, and the fact that we have fans that believe in our dedication and the art we're making, that's the reason we're at where we're at."
It hasn't been easy for Macklemore. For much of his twenties, Haggerty, 29, struggled with substance abuse, while making albums on the side. In 2008, he cleaned up and went all-in on music. "When Ryan and I started working on 'The Vs.' EP, it was 'I had to get a real job now, or give this [music career] a real chance to see if it works and sticks with the people,'" he says. "Luckily it's panned out that I get to do this as my job."