ABOVE: MACKLEMORE (LEFT) AND RYAN LEWIS. IMAGE COURTESY OF GREG NISSEN
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's popularity doesn't entirely make sense. Not only are they two white guys from Seattle making hip-hop, they're two white guys from Seattle making hip-hop unlike any other.
As musicians who blend pop-anthem production with mindful lyrical content, the duo stand between two distinct worlds. One is a land of boasts, women, and riches, expertly detailed by new pop legends like Drake and Rick Ross; and the other is a grittier world, marked by an uprising internet-based mainstream where hardcore young rappers like Chief Keef shoot homemade videos about gang violence, and blow up with such white-hot speed that major labels and journalists alike can't keep up.
Despite being the odd ones out, Macklemore and Lewis have made a case for their recent success with a string of honest, challenging songs like "Wings," an ode to the sneakerhead and the unrelenting consumerist culture that engulfs him; "Otherside," a Red Hot Chili Peppers-sampling rap ballad detailing a hard-fought return to sobriety; and most recently, "Same Love," a soft and beautiful statement on sexuality, homophobia, and gay rights.
As a lyricist, Macklemore presents himself as a flawed individual, a scarred artist who has seen the other side and has come back to inspire his fans and listeners with not only cautionary tales but also confessions of his own missteps. In a time when most of his contemporaries aren't saying much of anything, he's saying a lot.
A day before the release of The Heist, Macklemore's debut LP with producer Ryan Lewis, we spoke with him about his faith, gay marriage, and rapping for 10,000 hours.
DAN BUYANOVSKY: People call you a conscious rapper, and you do make conscious, socially aware hip-hop music, but you're never pandering or heavy-handed. How do you think you've been able to pull that off?
MACKLEMORE: I put myself in the place of the listener when editing my writing. The last thing that I want to do is be preached at and told who to be or what to think when listening to an artist. However, I do want to be inspired. There's a fine line. I also have a producer that is critical as shit, and picks apart everything I write. That definitely helps.
BUYANOVSKY: On some of your songs, you sound like you're smiling while rapping, especially on "The Town"—where you're reliving all of these fond hometown memories. Is that something you're aware of while recording?
MACKLEMORE: I definitely use "smiling while rapping" as a tool in the booth. I want to have fun while recording. At times it can get tedious and stressful when it's not sounding the way you heard it in your head, but you've got to remember to just smile and appreciate the fact that you're even in the booth and there are people who want to hear your art.
BUYANOVSKY: You also seem to have roots in spoken word, just by the way you deliver and accent certain words.
MACKLEMORE: I grew up in the spoken-word community. The Saul Williams "Slam" days. Before everybody had a home studio, or before we could get booked for shows, open mics were the only way to be heard by other people. There was barely a hip-hop scene in Seattle, so the basement of Langston Hughes Cultural Center in the Central District of Seattle was our platform to read our writing. It really gave me a chance to develop as a performer. Reading a piece of poetry with no beat in front of 20 people is way more challenging than rocking for 10,000 people.
BUYANOVSKY: I listened to your first project—Open Your Eyes —and it sounds like a completely different artist. You can recognize your voice, but your flow, beats and content are nothing like your recent work. 12 years later, how do you look back on that version of yourself?
MACKLEMORE: Damn! I never wanted that to make its way to the Internet! It was only a matter of time. I actually haven't heard it in years. I was a kid in high school that loved music. Those were very important, formative years in shaping who I am as a person and an artist. A lot of mushroom trips around that time. I was just trying to figure out who I was, and that search is documented on that album. Pretty much the same thing I'm doing now, just a different phase.
BUYANOVSKY: What does Ryan Lewis mean to Macklemore?
MACKLEMORE: Ryan is one of my best friends in this world. He's my producer. He's my business partner. And he's probably one of my toughest critics, which is an imperative trait of a teammate. I trust Ryan. I trust his ear and his eye. His creative aesthetic. I wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for him. I spend more time with Ryan than anyone else in my life. We're a team, and I'm extremely blessed because of it.
BUYANOVSKY: Would there still be a Macklemore if not for Ryan Lewis?
MACKLEMORE: Of course. Who knows what that would look like, though. I'm glad it worked out as a team. It's just way more fun making art, growing, grinding for a fan base, and traveling the world with a friend. Ryan doesn't make beats, he makes records. I needed that in a producer.
BUYANOVSKY: There's a song on your album called "Jimmy Iovine"—an angry track all about the pitfalls of the major record label deal. Why call him out specifically?
MACKLEMORE: He's the most visible major label president in the game. I've actually never even met him—it's a fictional story, based on the experiences Ryan and I have had the last couple of years being courted by these labels. Nothing against your boy Jimmy. I'm sure he's a good dude.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you think you've rapped for more than 10,000 hours?
MACKLEMORE: Man, I'm up there. If you combine that with writing, I've gotta be close.
BUYANOVSKY: There's a good amount of callbacks to the church and spirituality in your songs—what's your relationship with God like? Were you always a religious person?
MACKLEMORE: My relationship with God is as strong as the time and energy I put into connecting with God. Today, I woke up, said some prayers, meditated, and jumped on Twitter. I'm all over the place. I find that when I put my spiritual life first, the rest of my life is easy. When I put my career first, that's when I have problems. At this current moment in time, I've been feeling pretty good.
I've never been a religious person. I've been a spiritual person since I was about 15, 16, when I was first introduced to Psilocybin [mushrooms]. That really opened me up to thinking about the universe in a different way, and coming to significant realizations about my connection to something greater than me.
BUYANOVSKY: Tell me about what you were going through before The Unplanned Mixtape . Where was your mind? Had you given up?
MACKLEMORE: I was close to giving up. I was broke, unemployed, freshly out of rehab, and living in my parents' basement. It was a "If this doesn't work, I gotta get a real job" time in my life. I'd always thought that if I could get sober and stay sober, I would be able to have a career making music. My drug and alcohol addiction was the one thing holding me back. I had finally gotten the tools to stay sober, and it was just a matter of writing the songs. There was no choice but to go all-in.
BUYANOVSKY: It would've been pretty easy for you to lose control if you were this big a few years ago. Are you glad you reached this level of success at this point in your life, when you're past the bad decisions and excess?
MACKLEMORE: I wouldn't have been able to handle it. No question. With the minimal local success I experienced in 2006 after The Language of my World, I was off and running, completely fucked. Women, drugs, and ego. I now know that none of those things fulfill me in the end. If it'd happened overnight, I'd probably be dead. I came very close as it was.
BUYANOVSKY: Does talking about sobriety keep you accountable? If you didn't talk about it so much, would it be easier to relapse?
MACKLEMORE: I feel a sense of accountability. That was definitely a decision I had to make when coming out of rehab. Do I tell people about this? Do I hide it? For me, being transparent about every aspect of my life is what makes my music relatable and how I'm able to be an individual amongst the mass amounts of other artists. I had no choice.
BUYANOVSKY: I know that in some rehab programs, they try to get you to rid yourself of your old negative influences and to start over. Did your sponsor ever try to get you to consider giving up hip-hop as an art and lifestyle?
MACKLEMORE: No. In fact, my drug counselor in treatment let me on the internet during lunch so I could keep up with my career. He really understood that this is who I was. It makes up the core of who I am. When I got out of rehab, I went on tour a week later and stayed sober.
BUYANOVSKY: Do you still go to NA meetings?
MACKLEMORE: I go to AA meetings. I've still never been to an NA meeting. I need to try it.
BUYANOVSKY: "Same Love" has been getting a lot of attention recently—did you choose to release it now because of how fragile a time it is for gay rights, with the election coming up? This could be a very different America in a few months.
MACKLEMORE: I wrote the song in April. Shortly after Obama came out in support of gay marriage. Then Frank Ocean came out. It seemed like time was of the essence. It was never about being the first rapper to publicly support the issue, but at the same time you don't want the song's power to become diluted because all of the sudden it's a bandwagon issue. I knew I wanted to write the song since 2011, I just couldn't figure out the perspective.
The fact that there is an election coming up in Washington is huge. I know that a large portion of my fan base is 18-25, many of whom have never voted. If the song can get people out to the polls to pass same-sex marriage in Washington, that is a very beautiful and exciting thing.
BUYANOVSKY: There's a line on "A Wake"—"White guilt and white privilege at the same time"—that really struck me as a sad, self-aware realization. What does that line mean to you?
MACKLEMORE: It's realizing that as a white male in America, I have privilege. As a white male who happens to be an artist with a fan base, I have a platform to spread awareness about that privilege. However, songs about race and privilege are very difficult to A) write and B) dissect as a listener. They're heavy. That line is acknowledging the guilt that I have for not bringing those issues to the surface, and the privilege that keeps me comfortable, whether I acknowledge it or not.
BUYANOVSKY: Are you happy?
MACKLEMORE: Yes. I work for it. It's about being grateful. I'm working harder than I ever have, but this is what I've always wanted. I'm about to go on a two-month tour and play songs that I've written to sold out crowds all around the country. I get to do that with people I love. If I'm not grateful now, I'm not sure I ever will be.
THE HEIST IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON MACKLEMORE, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.