Today, Seattle duo Macklemore (pictured, right) and Ryan Lewis (left), hit number one on Billboard‘s Hot 100 with their college-anthem-turned-mainstream-smash “Thrift Shop,” unseating Bruno Mars’ “Locked out of Heaven,” which had held the pole position for six weeks.
When the rapper/producer pair’s independently produced album The Heist opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 last October, many music fans above the age of 21 were left wondering who Macklemore and Ryan Lewis even were. (Not us, of course. We chatted with Macklemore back in August.) But the monumental success of “Thrift Shop” has given them millions of listeners outside the college bubble.
EW recently chatted with the pair about their unexpected success, impressing Ellen DeGeneres, repping their hometown of Seattle, and how to thrift like pros:
1. They know “Thrift Shop” isn’t a typical pop hit
“It’s kind of polar opposite to what’s out there on the radio,” says Macklemore (a.k.a. Ben Haggerty), 29, of his ode to rocking grandpa-style swag from Goodwill. “But the beat is infectious, and the subject matter is different than what everyone else in hip-hop is talking about right now.” Also different? The song’s loopy DIY video. Says Haggerty: “It has some—I don’t know if this is even a word—’viralability.'”
2. The pair met on MySpace (Hey! It was 2006.)
“I was, like, 17, and I friend-requested him,” says Lewis, now 24, who got in touch with Haggerty over a beat, but worked primarily as his photographer and creative consultant before becoming his full-time producing partner.”He had this crazy work ethic,” remembers Haggerty. “I thought he was completely jacked up on Adderall and caffeine.”
3. The name Macklemore has been around for over a decade
“I made it up in high school,” says Haggerty. “In graphic arts class we were assigned this superhero who didn’t have a name or a costume — an actual, physical in-the-package Superman type thing. We had to give it a name and create a logo for it, and I named him Professor Macklemore.” Haggerty started using his alter ego during a trip to New York City the summer after his junior year. “I would go to thrift shops and dress up in the most avant garde, eclectic, weird, crazy, French, kind of 1980s-ish outfits, and when I was out on the town partying, I would call myself Professor Macklemore in these crazy outfits. The name just kind of stuck, and eventually I dropped the professor a couple years later, and Macklemore remained.”
4. They’re proud of their Seattle roots
“The beards and indie folk definitely are plentiful,” admits Haggerty of his hometown, “but there’s always been a really eclectic scene. You have Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones all the way to Nirvana and Sir Mix-A-Lot.” Turns out the “Baby Got Back” rapper is actually a fan: “I actually brought him out on stage a couple years ago,” says Haggerty, ” and he passed me the fictional Seattle torch of hip-hop. He was one of the only people of his generation to put out records independently, so he’s definitely someone that I’ve learned a lot from.”
5. Macklemore struggled with sobriety early on
Haggerty is open about his past substance abuse problems, which he’s rapped about on the track “Otherside” (embedded below). “The first time I drank alcohol,” he remembers, “I was by myself on a school night and took 12 shots. Like, ‘Oh! This feels good. I’m gonna keep going until I’m throwing up at a McDonald’s bathroom.’ I was just one of those type of kids. I can’t stop.”
Haggerty says he didn’t like the effect drugs and alcohol had on his music. “I knew that it was a hindrance to my creativity right when I started making music. Immediately, I could tell the difference. Like, if I was smoking weed, I couldn’t write raps. And if I was drinking, I was wilding out and not going to school and getting in fights and not a happy human being.” It took the urging of a family member to finally tackle the issue. “In 2008, my dad finally approached me and kind of held me accountable to where my life was at, and I listened to him and decided to go to treatment.” Currently, he’s sober.
6. They’re vocal supporters of gay marriage
Haggerty drew readily from personal experience for his marriage-equality anthem “Same Love,” which moved Ellen DeGeneres to call the pair “my new heroes” when she brought them on her show last fall. Says the rapper, who grew up in Capitol Hill (which he calls “kind of the gay hub of Seattle”) and has two gay uncles: “Hip hop has held onto this homophobia for so long without really getting called out or being held accountable. It’s an issue that has been very much accepted that you can still call people the f-word, and you can still say, ‘That’s gay,’ and you can still completely hate a population human culture and get away with it, and I wanted to really bring it to the forefront in a way that wasn’t attacking that ignorance, but was humanizing it.” He also believes the song, released in early 2012, provided an “extreme balance” to “Thrift Shop” that has helped them not be looked at as a novelty act.
7. Their newfound fame won’t keep them from shopping secondhand
“I’m probably more of an antiquer,” admits Lewis, “Ben, on the other hand, he’s a f—ing thrifter. When we went on tour, I think Ben hit a thrift shop in at least 25 cities, which made the back of the tour bus literally into his closet.” Though Lewis says most of the rapper’s clothing choice are inspired, he does occasionally miss the style mark. “[He has] this trench coat, it’s all denim, and it has red fringe, and it’s just so creepy. Once every three weeks he pulls it out, and it’s like, ‘Dude, that’s never gonna work. Burn that.'”