Macklemore: Thrift Shop Hero

Seattle rapper Macklemore’s hard road to the biggest hit of the year

Macklemore in Austin, Texas.
Danny Clinch
April 11, 2013

Close to midnight in a warmly lit room in an apartment/office complex in Austin, a few dozen recovering addicts fill neat rows of chairs, talking about their daily battle not to drink or use drugs. Everyone here has something in common: The 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous has saved their lives. Mostly middle-aged Texans with thick drawls and worry-creased faces, they sit beneath a large chalkboard displaying regular attendees' sobriety dates and framed signs with encouraging slogans ("Easy Does It," "First Things First").

Off in a corner, Ben Haggerty bows his head and listens intently as those who want to share their stories speak up, reliving the shame spirals that led them to beg a higher power for help. "I used to think I was a fun guy when I was drinking, but apparently the cops didn't agree," says one heavyset man in his forties. A few seats away, Haggerty – better known as Macklemore, the 29-year-old Seattle MC behind "Thrift Shop," the supercatchy, saxophone-honking Number One smash about secondhand couture – chuckles ruefully. Look quickly and you'd have no idea it was the same person 5.8 million viewers saw skipping across the Saturday Night Live stage like a hyperactive B-boy two weeks ago.

Video: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis Take 'Thrift Shop' to 'SNL'

Macklemore has been sober, give or take a couple of slips, since August 2008, when he went to rehab for a drug and alcohol problem. He's here, at his first meeting in about two months, because he's scared: He's been way too busy with touring and promotion to keep up with the program. "It's been a struggle the past year," he says the next day. "It's very important to go into the rooms of AA, smell the shitty coffee and be reminded that without sobriety, I would have no career."

And so, when Macklemore's DJ and producer, Ryan Lewis, and the rest of their crew scattered earlier tonight to go celebrate after they rocked the mtvU Woodie Awards – held during the SXSW music festival – the star stayed behind in their empty backstage trailer while his pretty blond fiancee and tour manager, Tricia Davis, looked up local meetings on her phone and found this one. Tonight's topic is Step Three, in which addicts affirm they have "made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God." Macklemore takes it all in, murmuring the traditional greetings and thanks before and after each speaker. At the end of the meeting, he joins the group in a standing circle, arms around one another's shoulders, and recites the Lord's Prayer. "Keep coming back," he says with the others. "It works if you work it."

RS Soundtrack: Macklemore Picks Five Favorite Songs

"Those are my peers," Macklemore says later. "I see myself in them. I walked in and a dude was talking, and immediately I was like, 'I know exactly what the fuck you're talking about.' I'm reminded of why I can't get fucked up. And the only way to feel that is to actually work the program."

On the way back to the van in the pitch-black parking lot, a tall young guy in a baseball cap approaches him. "Hey, Macklemore?" He's been spotted. The rapper graciously stops to chat with the fan, who invites him to another meeting the following night. As he turns to leave, the fan asks if he's doing OK. Macklemore nods quickly and keeps walking.

Since the "Thrift Shop" video began blowing up on YouTube last fall – it's notched 180 million views and counting – Macklemore says he can't make it more than a couple of blocks without some eager kid accosting him. It starts when he arrives at the Woodies that afternoon: In the 50 feet between the van and the venue, a young man pops up to request an autograph. Minutes later, a pair of young ladies plead for a photo. "Of course!" he says, posing next to them with a smooth grin. "It's been getting progressively worse in the last year," he tells me. "The last two months, it's gotten to the point where if I don't wear, like, a hoodie or a baseball hat or a wig or something, going out becomes an awkward-picture fest."

At the moment – decked out in an oversize camouflage blazer, polka-dot button-down, turquoise-and-salmon scarf and $450 blue velvet Stubbs & Wootton slippers, with his golden hair cropped and sculpted in ways that suggest a grown-up Bart Simpson – he's not exactly undercover. Industry pals and civilians lean in to give him props as he wanders through the backstage lot at the student-voted awards show. "You a cold-ass honky!" pronounces L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q, quoting "Thrift Shop." Behind a fence, girls squeal when he passes: "Ben! Can we get a picture, pleeeeeeease?" A hipster dude in a white tennis headband asks, "Do you do the thrift-store song? That's my fucking jam!"

Back in his trailer, Macklemore entertains his posse with equal ease. "I met a white girl named Irie today," he says, drawing snickers. "I asked her about it, and she said, 'Yeah, my parents met in Jamaica.' I was like, 'Your parents are high as fuck right now.'" Hanging out with his diverse, incredibly affectionate inner circle feels just a few artisanal pickles shy of a Portlandia sketch. His producer, Lewis, is a slick, bearded bro five years the rapper's junior. Wanz, the guy who sings the inescapable "I'm gonna pop some tags" hook on "Thrift Shop," is, remarkably, a 51-year-old former software engineer. Kenyan trumpeter/hype man Owuor Arunga provides the song's signature horn part on tour. "We're not your typical rap entourage," says Macklemore. "More like a weird little liberal arts school out on a field trip."

The rapper grew up in a comfortable two-parent home in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. In third grade, his social-worker mom encouraged him to take ballet lessons in solidarity with a classmate who was being bullied. "He was one of those kids you can tell is gay," he says. "My mom said if I took ballet, she'd buy me a box of baseball cards." Around the same time, Macklemore started wondering if he was gay, as he recounts in his breakthrough single, "Same Love." The ballet didn't take – and he was definitely straight – but he was a born performer, covering Michael Jackson and Kris Kross at talent shows. "I was a weird, creative, extroverted child," he says. "And I always had a desire to be on a stage."

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