393 Million Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis) Fans Can't Be Wrong - Rolling Stone
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393 Million Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis) Fans Can’t Be Wrong

How a slightly guilty Seattle rapper and his cocky young producer took over pop music


Macklemore performs in New York City on August 23rd, 2013.

Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Getty

He called it a “Coke with grenadine,” but there’s no way around it: Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty, grown-ass man with a fiancee and incipient wrinkles around his gray-blue eyes, just or­dered himself a Shirley Temple. OK, technically, to be fair, a Roy Rogers. “You feel like a six-year-old if you order a Roy Rogers,” he says, sitting in a green leather booth in a downtown restaurant by the waterfront in his native Seattle, where the chef began preparing him an off-menu fried-chicken sandwich the moment he arrived. “Drop­ping the ‘grenadine’ makes it sound much more sophisticated. But it’s just sugar on top of sugar.”

* * *

As a self-proclaimed “nice-guy rapper,” a recovering alcoholic and drug addict whose lyrics preach against the evils of homophobia, sexism and $50 T-shirts, Haggerty hasn’t left himself much room for vices. He’s traded cigarettes for occasional e-cigs, and won’t even spring for the fancy ones. He barely drinks coffee. “Sugar is definitely the go-to,” he says. “Every once in a while I’ll just go to a gas station and spend $20 on, like, an assortment of candy and binge-eat it in a hotel room.” Tucked next to the gearshift in his tinted-windowed Cadillac DTS, where another rapper might have stashed a bag of weed, is an open packet of Nerds.

* * *

At this rate, future Macklemore lyrics may well have to address the perils of diabetes, but thanks to the intense cardio of the 200-plus shows he’ll play by the end of the year, his dietary deficiencies have yet to take their toll. At 30, Haggerty is wiry enough to make to­day’s dressed-down look work: crispy pur­ple T-shirt, striped warm-up pants, white Jordans — which, despite his Nike-focused anti-materialism song “Wings,” he has yet to give up. “Am I being a hypocrite? Abso­lutely,” he says, “But that’s OK. I’m a fucking human being and I don’t need to be perfect. I can make a song like ‘Wings’ and wear Nikes.”

He’s of Irish descent, but looks inde­terminately European, like he should be manning the counter of an Amsterdam coffee shop or playing a bad guy in a Die Hard sequel. His shorn-on-the-sides hair­cut and distinctive facial features — broad nose, protuberant lower lip whose resting position is something like a sneer — are exaggeratedly severe, perfectly primed to pop out of the YouTube windows and cell­ phone screens that are the visual home of the modern pop star.

Haggerty raises his reddish-black bev­erage in a toast. He has a lot to celebrate lately, although he seems more weary than exuberant. Most of all, there’s the fact that he and his musical partner, producer Ryan Lewis, have now sold nearly a million cop­ies of their debut album, The Heist — and have managed to move beyond “Thrift Shop,” a hit so enormous it threatened to make him a North American Psy: Its clever video has been viewed more than 390 million times. He feared spending the rest of his life as “the ‘Thrift Shop’ guy,” and the fact that he and Lewis had man­aged to get there on their own, without a major label, was little consolation.

A few months ago, Haggerty was bris­tling at his outsize pop success, which he feared could trivialize him forever. Even his sobriety felt at risk. “It was definitely a challenge at the beginning of the year,” he says. “I went through a place of not being happy, getting put in the box of ‘This is a novelty rap song,’ and being like, ‘What did I sign up for?'” His concerns were re­markably similar to those of the Seattle rock heroes of two decades ago, but the comparison is lost on him — when Nirva­na Unplugged came out, he was busy lis­tening to Wu-Tang Clan.

The driving “Can’t Hold Us” was a sur­prise Number One after “Thrift Shop,” but the success of “Same Love,” Haggerty’s moving and unambiguous pro-gay-marriage song — the first hip-hop hit to go all the way there — meant much more. The track was inspired, in part, by the fact that he has “hella gay uncles” — two of his dad’s brothers, plus their partners. “‘Same Love’ was just a big relief,” he says. “It was, yes, the world is going to know me for something else, even if we never go on to make another album or, you know, sell a good amount of units or whatever, the legacy that I’m leaving on the world is more than just a song about second­hand clothes.”

He’s also grateful that his success hap­pened now, when he’s sober, rather than circa 2005, when he released his first album as a fresh-out-of-college kid with out-of-control bad habits. “It freaks me out to think what might have happened,” he says, casually, between bites of his sandwich. “You do the math. You’re, like, a drug addict with no moderation and a shit ton of money? I would have died.”

On our way to his car, Haggerty stops by his favorite pawnshop, where the wares range from a Smallville box set to a selection of firearms. The big-bellied, straight-from-central-casting owner tries to interest him in some oversize rings that Haggerty assumes were once worn by “big-ass drug dealers from the Eighties.” Instead, he decides to buy something from a nearby Target — his car is parked in an adjoining garage, and a purchase will validate his parking, saving him eight bucks. “I’ll never stop thinking like that,” he says. He takes all of three steps into the store before he’s swarmed by teenage fans (and one shuddering fiftysomething lady who keeps saying that her daugh­ter is going to “shit her pants”). He takes the obligatory pictures, and quickly extri­cates himself. “I would definitely pay $8 to get out of this,” he says, escaping into an elevator.

There are white people everywhere on this Seattle block tonight, hella white people, at least a couple thousand of them, pressing against barricades and yellow police tape. There are more of them above, lined up on adjoining rooftops. They are most­ly college-age, and collectively smell like weed. They are here because of a totally unconfirmed — and, as turns out, total­ly untrue — rumor that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will be playing a free show tonight on the roof of the Capitol Hill branch of local burger joint Dick’s Drive-in. They walked blithely past signs that said this is not a concert and parked themselves in the street in front of Dick’s, waiting for the show.

The duo are merely shooting a video for their next single, “White Walls,” a straight-ahead ode to Cadillacs, which means the crowd will endlessly hear the same verse of the song as Haggerty lip-syncs on the roof. Lewis — a confident, Hollywood-handsome 25-year-old who is incongru­ously stuck in behind-the-scenes roles like directing videos and producing music — struts up to the edge of the roof, grabs a microphone and tells the crowd that there will be a wait. They don’t budge.

As Lewis sets up shots, Haggerty paces in Dick’s blocked-off parking lot, obviously perturbed by the fans’ presence: What do they want from him? “You always wonder, like, ‘Is it going away? Is it dying down? Is it over?'” he says later. “You see stuff like that, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s definitely showing no signs of slowing down.’ There was no performance at all, so you wonder what people are expecting. And you have people yelling shit at you and you don’t want to be a dick, but if you respond to all of it, then it just doesn’t stop, and it’s very overwhelming.”

Lewis doesn’t envy the intensity of fans’ attention on Haggerty. “It’s wearing on him in private,” the producer says. “In public he tries as hard as he can to care for people and not be an asshole. Nobody wants to be a Kanye, you know?”

It’s nearly 1 a.m. when they finish the shoot, and the crowd has dwindled. Hag-gerty takes the rooftop mic and bids the fans goodnight, telling them to respect the police and get home safely. The reac­tion is impressive: Pretty much as one, the crowd shrugs, gathers its things, and quietly leaves.

Though Macklemore and Lewis have finally begun to penetrate hip-hop radio, they continue to attract fans who didn’t buy Yeezus or Kendrick Lamar’s debut. Especially when “Thrift Shop” was first blowing up, they gained a reputation as “hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop.” Since Haggerty has more or less never listened to anything but hip-hop, that phenomenon drives him nuts. “I hate that,” he says. “I hate it. I mean … what are you going to do, but it’s just ignorance.”

Back in 2005, Haggerty wrote a song called “White Privilege” with lyrics that were so honest, well-reasoned and powerful that he practically argued himself out of existence. He acknowledged his upper-middle-class upbringing, and asked, “Am I just another white boy who has caught on to the trend?/ When I take a step to the mic is hip-hop closer to the end?… The face of hip-hop has changed a lot since Emi­nem/And if he’s taking away black artists’ profits/I look just like him.”

“If you’re going to be a white dude and do this shit, I think you have to take some level of accountability,” Haggerty says. “You have to acknowledge where the art came from, where it is today, how you’re benefiting from it. At the very least, just bringing up those points and acknowledg­ing that, yes, I understand my privilege, I understand how it works for me in society, and how it works for me in 2013 with the success that The Heist has had.

“We made a great album,” he contin­ues, “but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop’ was safe enough for the kids. It was like, ‘This is music that my mom likes and that I can like as a teenager,’ and even though I’m cussing my ass offin the song, the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to it. I mean it’s just … it’s different. And would that success have been the same if I would have been a black dude? I think the answer is no.”

Lewis played in rock bands as a teen­ager, and his role as the album’s producer takes The Heist‘s music to what could be considered a whiter place. Piano and other live instruments are prominent, and beats tend to push forward instead of laying back into grooves. “I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop since I was six,” says Lewis. “Ben did. Seattle isn’t known for a particular production sound, so that leaves a lot of great produc­ers in Seattle doing kind of their own thing. And I think, for me, I was probably enough removed from hip-hop that my style was even a little bit weirder than that.”

Peter Rosenberg, an influential DJ at New York’s Hot 97, says that might not be a bad thing, comparing Macklemore to another successful rapper. “Drake al­most created his own genre,” he says. “You know, soundwise, Drake took a lot of stuff that had been out there and really created something new. But when you think about it, Macklemore has done the same thing with a totally different sound.”

Haggerty was a good kid, until he wasn’t. His workahol­ic dad co-owned a successful office-furniture company; his indulgent mom was a home-maker who also worked with nonprofits. As a preteen, he was creative and flamboyant, a born performer — as he recounts in “Same Love,” he brief­ly thought he might be gay, and not just because he spent a year obsessing over the musical Cats. His parents played Van Morrison, jazz and Motown around the house, but Haggerty was all about hip-hop from the start: Circa first grade, he was entranced by Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” learning all of Shock G’s age-inappropriate rhymes (“I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom!”).

Toward the end of eighth grade, Hag­gerty had his first drink, which turned out to be his first 12 drinks. Sitting by himself in his room, he downed shot after shot, on a school night, no less. His freshman year at Garfield High School, a huge, di­verse institution, didn’t go well. “My mom still doesn’t like to talk about it,” he says. “I turned into a dick for, like, 18 months. Put ’em through hell, didn’t respect ’em.”

On a sunny Saturday, he pays a visit to the school, but not before grabbing yet an­other fried-chicken meal at a place across the street. Carrying a grease-laden bag, he scales a couple dozen concrete steps and sits at the top, right by the school entrance. Somehow, a bunch of kids in a car far below spot him. “Are you Macklemore?” one shouts through an open window.

“His cousin,” he shouts back, which, for some reason, placates them.

Haggerty became instantly famous at Garfield for an achievement roughly as likely as becoming a multiplatinum rap­per: As a freshman, he began dating a popular junior. “She was in court for tru­ancy shit,” he recalls, squinting in the sun. “She wasn’t the best influence on me. I had a bunch of older friends. A lot of kids I was kicking it with, like, dropped out of high school or were skipping class. Doing drugs. Writing graffiti. Skating.” His par­ents pulled him out of Garfield the next year, sending him to another school 15 minutes away.

His drinking continued, but he had also found his life’s work, beginning to rap with four other kids in a group called Elevated Elements. They recorded in a vocal booth he had set up in his bedroom. Haggerty had been a fan of mainstream hip-hop: Wu-Tang, Nas, Tupac and Biggie (he still wears a Jesus piece around his neck, in tribute to Biggie rather than Christ). But he began gravitating toward the more in­trospective, conscious work of Talib Kweli and Freestyle Fellowship. In an interview with the student newspaper, he criticized hip-hop songs that “concentrate on nega­tive things like who you have sex with and what kind of champagne you drink. We want to go beyond that to get our message of positivity across.”

The only substance that had a bene­ficial effect on Haggerty was psychedel­ic mushrooms. Around his junior year, he’d stay up all night tripping, listening to “weird Native American music” and scribbling out lyrics. “It gave me a spiri­tual context that completely shaped who I was as a teenager,” he says. “Up until that point, I had no connection with any­thing bigger than myself, and it gave me a faith in the universe. And that com­pletely shaped the music that I was into, it shaped the way that I went about writ­ing music, it shaped my purpose in being a writer. And I loved it.” Later, he would take up meditation, and even spent a few days in a Buddhist monastery during a youth-group trip to India.

He spent the summer of 2000 at a sum­mer program at Pratt Institute in New York, where he drank so much that he didn’t end up making much art. In a high school graphic-arts class, he’d created a character named Professor Macklemore, and in New York, he took on that name. “I would go to thrift shops and I would buy crazy outfits — plaid golfer outfits and fringe and go out and drink malt liquor, and when I was drunk in these outfits, I called myself Professor Macklemore. And I came out to Seattle and started going by it. Eventually I had to put out music and couldn’t think of a better rap name.” Also in New York, a friend called him an alco­holic for the first time — he laughed it off.

After his time at the no-grades hippie school Evergreen State College, Haggerty’s rap career blew up almost instant­ly. He’d hooked up with producer Josh “Budo” Karp, and the pair recorded a well-timed track called “Welcome to MySpace” in the spring of 2005. MySpace co-found­er Tom Anderson featured it on the site’s home page, and Macklemore had his first viral hit. The Eminem-like song — which includes an uncharacteristic, political­ly incorrect warning about meeting girls through the site who turn out to be “six-two and look like a dude” — was an early sign of his marketing savvy. Six months later, Macklemore released his debut album, the Budo-produced The Language of My World, and was soon pulling in a couple thousand dollars a month from his music.

Haggerty and Karp moved into a Seat­tle house with several other roommates, intending to record a lot more music to­gether. Instead, Haggerty took his par­tying to a new level, and shut down cre­atively. “There were two entrances to the house,” recalls Karp, “and he would defi­nitely slink out of the basement entrance, as deference to the fact that he was not the most popular guy in the house.”

Despite his fears about MySpace dating, Haggerty responded one day to a message from a lovely young blond woman named Tricia Davis, who had been smitten by one of his early songs on a Seattle radio station. They went on a picnic, and if you don’t count their multiple breakups, they’ve been together ever since. But Davis showed up just in time to witness a total meltdown. “He was addicted to marijuana, and I gave him an ultimatum,” she recalls. “And he quit and he sobered up for the next four months and we fell in love with both of us pretty much completely sober. Then we went on tour and he relapsed and that was when the next four years of hard-drug use and lies and cheating started.”

Davis struggled to figure out Haggerty’s behavior, and concluded it was classic self-sabotage. “It always really pissed me off,” she says. “Because I came from a really poor family, and I would look at his family and they had, like, this idyllic upbringing, and I couldn’t figure it out. I was resent­ful that he felt entitled to have a problem where he needed to escape. Escape from what? But the more I’ve gotten to know him — and this might sound corny — his music and art is so exactly what he was put here to do, and his biggest fear was failure. There was the feeling that if he didn’t try hard enough, then at least he would never have tried really hard and failed.”

One night, Haggerty did a bunch of coke and Ecstasy, and his heart started beating too fast; it wouldn’t slow down. He went to a hospital, where they treat­ed him “like shit” when he had to admit to the drug use. “It wasn’t technically an overdose,” he says. “It was a bad reaction.” But even that experience wasn’t enough to make him stop what had become “kind of a hodgepodge. A little bit of cocaine. A lit­tle bit of Oxy. A little bit of lean. A little bit of Percocet. Just whatever I could get my hands on at the time, mixed with copious amounts of weed and ridiculous amounts of alcohol.”

His dad eventually stepped in and per­suaded him to go to rehab. The program worked, but when he got out he moved straight into his parents’ basement. He was 25 years old and hadn’t released an album in three years. “It was so humbling,” he says. “I felt like I had blown a rap ca­reer.” His producer, Karp, was off work­ing on his own music. Deeply depressed, Haggerty placated his parents by final­ly finishing the two credits that had kept him from actually getting his Evergreen degree (he took a public-speaking course at a community college). But his mom and dad were starting to push him to get a job. “And that’s when Ryan and I started to work together,” he recalls.

Ryan Lewis isn’t the self-sabotaging type, and he had all the confidence that Haggerty had started to lose. “None of this would’ve happened without Ryan,” says the duo’s manager, Zach Quillen. Five years younger than Haggerty, Lewis had grown up in Spokane, Washington, the son of liberal Christian par­ents who worked with non-profits. There’s a huge tat­too of an AIDS ribbon on his right forearm: His mom had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1984, the year before nationwide blood-supply screening began. It took years before she was diagnosed, and Lewis and his two siblings avoided the virus at birth by sheer luck.

Though doctors once gave her three years to live, his mother is still doing well — but her condition loomed over Lewis’ life (and the law­suit over the transfusion paid for his college education). “It changed my whole upbring­ing,” says Lewis, sitting in a diner not far from Macklemore and Lewis’ two-story headquarters, which include a brand-new, still-unused re­cording studio. “And I think for me, you know, coming up from a middle-class, Chris­tian family, it spiced up my knowledge of life a little bit.”

Lewis went through a hip-hop phase around the sixth grade, but he became a rock fan, learning Metallica and Green Day songs on guitar and eventu­ally playing in metal and screamo bands. When he was 15, his parents moved from Spokane to Seattle. His tastes shifted to­ward the Postal Service, Wu-Tang Clan and RJD2, and he started making beats. He was also getting into graphic design and photography, and found a niche tak­ing pictures of local rappers. Macklemore was one of them, and he also bought one of Lewis’ early beats. Haggerty liked Lewis, despite his youth and the fact that he was so hyper Haggerty thought he was on Adderall (he wasn’t).

Post-rehab, Macklemore and Lewis de­cided to do an EP together. Originally, the idea was that they were forming a group à la indie hip-hop crew Atmosphere (which combines rapper Slug and producer Ant); they were originally going to call them­selves Vs., which instead became the name of the EP. Lewis insisted that the art­ist credit include both of their names. “I told him that I wouldn’t do it unless my name was on it,” says Lewis, who speaks rapidly, with an almost actorly empha­sis on each word. “Because people were getting ditched. People were making re­cords and getting no credit, getting no pay. He’d gone to rehab, he’d gone back, his buzz had gone down that he’d worked really hard to get. And the both of us, on some level, were a little bit starting from square one. And I was going to do the photography, the graphic design, redesign our MySpace pages, make a website, mix a re­cord, make all the beats, record all of the people, engineer it, track all of them. I was like, ‘This is about to be Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.'”

Haggerty had finally gotten the day job his parents had pushed for, taking a few shifts selling hats. But the EP, which included the Red Hot Chili Peppers-sampling drug lament “Otherside,” was connecting locally. After selling a couple grand worth of merchandise at a show opening for Seattle hip-hop heroes Blue Scholars, Haggerty quit the job, and he and Lewis got to work on a full album. Their guest stars were homegrown — they found Wanz, the middle-aged dude who sings the hook on “Thrift Shop,” because they heard he “kind of sounds like Nate Dogg”; and the writer and singer on the “Same Love” hook is fledgling singer-songwriter Mary Lambert. They record­ed in a 500-square-foot storage space in a rough neighborhood, inhaling fumes from a nearby paint shop. Their budget was so nonexistent that Lewis admits to pirating the horn sample collection that he used for the sax part on “Thrift Shop.”

Lewis’ ear for pop hooks — and eye for music videos — is a huge part of The Heist‘s success. He’s at every live performance, where his role is DJ, hype man and oc­casional cymbal crasher. But he knows he’s a “horri­ble rapper,” and will never make a Puffy-style move to the mic. “I think on the mainstream level, nobody knows what the fuck I am. Am I the DJ? Do I make the beats? Do I rap? Am I sing­ing on tracks? I don’t think a lot of people know except real fans who have been around. I mean, you guys, Rolling Stone, don’t want to put me on the cover. It’s like, you’re going to sell more copies with Ben’s face. Why is that? Because the general public, based on the way this whole thing’s been marketed, based on my choice to be behind the camera as opposed to in front of it, are going to be more receptive to ‘Macklemore.’ The public don’t care how the song came togeth­er. And I can’t change that. So if I have jealousy, deriv­ing from that, then that’s just stupid.”

Lewis would eventually like to direct movies and maybe do some acting — he specifically mentions that he’d like to do a better film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, and remake 12 Angry Men while he’s at it. And he’s trying to take the long view of his current situation.

“It would be naive to think that you can really judge the pros and cons of it right now,” he says. “Ask me in 10 years. And the producer gets the better end of the stick, for sure. Because when Macklemore’s burnt out, my brand isn’t necessar­ily, you know?”

Haggerty has sympathy for Lewis’ po­sition, and it helps that the two men are close friends. “Ryan’s job, by nature, is a behind-the-scenes type of job,” he says. “My job is the frontman of our group. It’s just the way that it is. And Ryan can wish that it was a different way, but that’s just the reality of it. I think that’s been an evolving lesson for him to learn as we con­tinue to make music and he busts his ass just as hard, if not harder than me. But I’m gonna be in front. That’s just the na­ture of it.”

Heading back down the steps of his old high school, Haggerty acknowledges that he will al­ways be at risk for a relapse. He’s been too busy for AA meetings, too busy to do the kind of charity work he sees as key to his recovery. “I know that I’m not working the program to the best of my ability, and when I’m not doing that, then I think that there’s room for mistake. And I would be naive to think that I’m above that.”

He’s feeling pretty settled otherwise. He’d like to have kids soon, and no longer feels tempted to indulge in the kind of on-the-road infidelity he’d painfully confess to Tricia the next day. (It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s their tour manager.) Lewis is in a relationship too, and he says they haven’t had to dodge as much temptation as you’d think: “We’re not like a Tyrese or something, you know what I mean?” So much of the fan base is so young that there’s just enough of a gap that you don’t have that, like, ‘I’ve got 25-year-olds com­ing up, trying to fuck.'”

“I look at my peers,” says Haggerty, “and a lot of them are in relationships and yet are not monogamous or they’re not in relationships. And your mind kind of goes, ‘What if?’ You know, ‘What could I be doing right now? Who could I be dat­ing?’ But I ended up with the right person. I’m a dude, I’m gonna question that shit, but I go out and I don’t even feel tempted anymore, which is a beautiful thing. And I don’t really have the time or energy to go, like, have sex with a bunch of strang­ers right now. It’s just not where I’m at.”

Haggerty is pretty sure that by the time he and Lewis start their first arena tour this fall — which includes three Seattle shows — he’ll be financially set for life. “It relieves a lot of pressure,” he says. At the same time, he’s no longer worried about what felt like a lack of acceptance from the hip-hop community. Hot 97 has start­ed playing “Same Love,” in spite of Rosen­berg’s concern that Lambert “sounds like Melissa Etheridge.” A few weeks back, Haggerty met Jay Z, who had some kind words.

But is he happy? Haggerty thinks about it for a long while, staring at a stoplight from underneath his hat and sunglasses. “Happiness for me is a relatively imper­manent thing,” he says. “I think in gener­al … I would say yes. I would say that I’m grateful that the work that I’ve put in has equated to me being here in this position now. I could have never anticipated what it would actually be like when I got here. But I’m still learning to live within this re­ality, and it’s been a challenge to uphold any sort of normalcy, to have time for my family, to have time for my girlfriend, to have time for myself. It’s been a struggle the past six months, but I think that I’m learning to live within it.”

A couple of minutes later, unprompt­ed, he revises his answer. “You know, you always want to say that you’re happy,” he says quietly. “Particularly when you have an immense amount of success and money and power and all that sort of stuff. And you feel like a bitch if you complain. But I think it’s been a learning process, and I don’t know if I’m fully there yet.”

The next afternoon, Tricia finds Haggerty lying on a couch in the modest two-bedroom apartment that they haven’t had a chance to move out of, despite their suc­cess. He’s coming down with the flu, and seems out of sorts. She tells him to “put on his fucking shoes” and head to an AA meeting for the first time in weeks. Haggerty grumbles, but in the end, he grabs his Nikes and walks out the door.


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