Pacific Northwest hip-hop heads and glittery man-onesie fans already know Macklemore. For the rest of you, here’s a quick intro: The rapper, born Ben Haggerty, has spent years building a loyal following in his native Seattle and is now reaching a wider audience via his kinetic live shows (he recently impressed at Lollapalooza) and an upcoming debut full-length with producer Ryan Lewis, The Heist.
He’s also an artist who addresses his struggles with drug addiction, takes you back to his high school dances, slips on a sparkly jumpsuit and a British accent, and then invites you over for a pizza party, because that’s just the kind of dude he is.
Now he’s cementing his love for pimp coats and alligator shoes in the sax-tastic “Thrift Shop,” the album’s latest single — and he invited fans to do the same: They tweeted photos of their best thrift shop outfits for a chance to kick back with Mack in Seattle. See? What a guy!
We talked to Macklemore about building his fan base, homophobia in hip-hop, and the creative process behind The Heist, which drops Oct. 9. Catch the video for “Thrift Shop” below, too:
EW: Looking at your music videos, some of them have several million pageviews, and you’re obviously a big part of the Seattle scene. What do you think it is about you or your music that builds such a tight fan base?
Macklemore: I think first and foremost it starts with the music. We make music that, if you do enjoy it, there is some sort of personal connection. There’s a feeling that the fans get from the music, and once you can connect with a fan on that personal level, then it becomes something bigger than just putting out random music. It becomes something that they become a part of.
And that’s what we’ve been able to do to grow our fanbase. Our fanbase really is family to us. We have contests where they can come and partake in the celebration of when we get bigger. We’re constantly trying to think of ways to engage with our audience because that’s the reason why we’re here. That’s the reason why we’ve gotten any of the press that we’ve gotten. We’ve gotten to festivals because fans connect with it on a personal level.
I’ve read about the pizza parties. Do you still do those?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ll do another one this year. This will be the third one that we’ve done. There’s only so much you can communicate at a merch table or after a show. It’s becoming harder and harder to have that personal connection with fans at a show, but that’s been such an integral part of what we’ve built, having something that the fans can come to. You get to hear their stories and interact with them and hear who they’re about, not just getting on stage and performing leaving after a show.
So when you’re on the XXL Freshman Class cover, with a tour and the album coming, is it really ramping up all of a sudden, or does it feel organic like, “Okay, this is the rate at which we want to get bigger.”
There have been times where it felt like it’s moving really fast, and then I think you get used to that next stage very quickly. We’re always looking to expand. I don’t think you get to a certain point where you go, “Okay, I’m content.” You want to keep working. The objective with this music is to get it to as many people as you possible can, as many people willing to listen.
There’s always another step to go, but it’s also appreciating where you’re at. There are moments where it jumps. With XXL, it felt like a jump. With our last national tour, it felt like a jump. And then you get used to it, and you realize this is the natural progression of music that people are resonating with.
You’ve been working on the album for a long time. Do you feel like you have a particular sound to keep up, or were you aiming for something in particular? How did you know when it was right?
Eventually it comes down to a deadline. If we wanted to put this album out in 2012, which we did, which was imperative to our success this year, then we needed to get something finished. What takes a long time is just perfecting the sound. First and foremost you need to have different experiences. You need to get outside of your comfort zone to write songs that are interesting, songs that are compelling, songs that are different from what other people are writing. It takes me living life. It takes me getting outside of my box to be able to write those songs and think of those concepts.
I’m a very conceptual writer. So to have those concepts, to have those ideas, it’s important to push yourself to live a little bit. It can be hard when your life is just based around making music and you’re constantly doing shows and you don’t have time to breathe. It took me a couple months to just get back in the zone of writing and thinking, “What do I want to say? How do I want to say it? How do I want to convey it? What is important to me?” Once I started to get back and remind myself why I make music, the songs started flowing and they wrote themselves.
You have “Thrift Shop,” “Irish Celebration,” and a song about addiction — there’s a clear storytelling element.
When I heard the “Irish Celebration” beat, which was originally a Beirut sample, it just had that kind of Irish vibe to it. That song was written because of what the beat brought out. “Otherside,” the song about drug addiction, is something where I heard the loop, and it was a Red Hot Chili Peppers loop, and it just, again, kind of wrote itself.
I never hit the studio thinking in the back of my mind, “Okay, I need to write a song about drug addiction, I need ‘Irish Celebration,’ when Ryan makes the beat, then I’ll write it.” It’s more just what the beats immediately bring out with me.
How did it work with “Same Love”? That was such a sweet song.
“Same Love,” well, that actually does just go against everything I said. I knew I wanted to write about gay rights, and I didn’t know exactly how to do that. I tried writing it from the perspective of a bullied gay teenager. My mom had sent me a link about a kid who committed suicide, who was like 12 or 13 years old. I was immediately affected by it. I wanted to touch on something that I don’t think has been really addressed in the hip-hop community.
On top of the issue of gay bullying, the issue of homophobia in hip-hop, no one’s ever really talked about it. Growing up in Capitol Hill in Seattle, having two gay uncles, a gay godfather, being around the gay community growing up — you could only kind of be silent for so long. So I felt like it was an important issue that I wanted to bring up just in terms of human rights. So I didn’t know how to do it. I tried to write it from the perspective of the gay bullied kid. It didn’t come out right. Ryan critiqued it and said, “This is a more personal issue for you. Go back to the drawing board.”
Finally it just kind of clicked. I just need to tell my story from when I first thought that I was gay, to holding my community accountable, to how we treat the gay community and homophobia in hip-hop, the homophobia that exists in the Catholic church and the church in general — the Catholic church being the environment that I grew up in also. It was more, “How I can be as personal as possible with this and really be authentic?”
I never want to write a concept because I have to or because I feel like it will be popular or controversial. It needs to be because I believe in it. Regardless of the criticism or whatever type of flack I might get from it, it needs to be something that is genuine and authentic to my experience. “Same Love” was completely that.
Is making music centered around social change something relatively new to you, or something you’ve always valued?
Something I’ve always valued for sure. I think music is the greatest tool that we have to inspire and create change in ourselves and within a community that listens to the music. It’s something that’s interesting in 2012. It doesn’t seem like music with a message is exactly at its peak in terms of popularity, so you have to be careful in terms of not coming across preachy.
Consciousness rap — a term that I don’t think exactly exists but gets thrown around a lot — is not exactly popular. I think it’s about being a human. It’s about being relatable. It’s about being vulnerable and sharing who you are on records. If you can do that in a way that’s not preachy or not coming across as I-know-it-all or pointing the finger, I think it can be a very effective means of change if it’s in the midst of other songs that lighten up the mood a bit. If I had an album that was 15 “Same Loves,” it wouldn’t be as powerful. It’d be expected. It would lose value. So in the midst of kind of an album, social issues can be brought up. I try to do that with this album, but not because I had to, but because I wanted to in the midst of everything else.
The VS. EP had a lot of samples — The Killers, the Chili Peppers, Arcade Fire — are there any fun samples on The Heist?
No, we specifically strayed away from that. We wanted to make an album that was pretty much sample-free, where we didn’t have to clear anything. That’s a huge part of being an independent artist. We don’t have the budget to go clear a big sample or pay somebody 50 percent of our revenue off of a song.
The VS. EP worked for that because it was free, and even then, we got a cease and desist letter. Music nowadays is interesting in terms of free music that’s being pushed. Even Mac Miller is getting sued right now. There are people getting sued for music that they’ve put out for free. We’ve got to be careful, and we wanted to stay away from any drama that might come up.
Has your creative process changed at all since you started working with Ryan Lewis?
I want my creative process to always evolve, and I think that it has. Sometimes I write with no music at all. “Wings” was a song that I wrote an a capella to, and Ryan made the beat. I like to get in different environments with where I am. I tried a bunch of a different things for this album in order to get inspired. I went to the art museum and wrote. I would walk around cemeteries. I walk in different neighborhoods of Seattle. I would write on the airplane, always trying to change the environment, change the lens that you’re writing through, the scope of which you’re trying to be creative through. The minute you get in a formula is the minute records start sounding the same.
Did any of those experiments have unexpected results?
You know what? Cemetery, no. Art museum, no. I wish that they did. So much of what writing is is training for that moment when it just hits you. Because you don’t write a great song everyday. I don’t write a great song every day. I don’t write a great song every couple weeks. It comes in such random times.
But if you’re constantly aware ,and you’re constantly putting yourself in different environments, and you’re constantly open to what’s in front of you, there’s a song there, but you need to be able to challenge it. When that moment comes, you have to grab it, you have to know when it happens, when the words start flowing and you’re almost unattached to whatever it is you’re writing.The pen is a completely separate entity in your hand.
That’s the moment you need to channel. All of the experiences of walking around Seattle and going to art museums and cemetery — those to me are kind of preparation. I don’t look at them as lost opportunities. I look at them as preparation for when something greater than myself comes through the pen.
I wanted to ask you about how “And We Danced” came together. It’s pretty different from a lot of your work. What’s the backstory behind that one?
“And We Danced” is completely just a fun song that started out as a joke. My friend was playing some piano chords. I was going to write a song about Steve Irwin. And it just started as some fun kind of joke that turned into a hook that has a lot of pop appeal. And that gets stuck in people’s head. I created this character out of this hook and wanted to just be random, and that’s a part of my personality as well.
As much as the serious stuff and hitting on social issues and heavier content is a part of who I am, there’s another part of me that is completely outlandish and wants to dress up in a cape and a wig and dry-hump a stage. That’s just as much a part of me. That’s what “And We Danced” is. It’s me creating an alter ego so I can have fun, get outside of myself and make a European-sounding dance song.
To me, that’s awesome, and that’s what keeps the creativity moving and keeps me inspired to write all different kinds of music.
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