Seattle hip-hop star Macklemore goes global while staying true to his Northwest roots

By Albert Rodriguez for Alaska Beyond Magazine

On a cold, drizzly February evening outside Neumos, a small concert venue in Seattle’s buzzing Capitol Hill neighborhood, 500 fans stood in line for hours to see Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. It was a tiny crowd in comparison to the nearly 50,000 who attended the three sold-out concerts at Seattle Center’s KeyArena in 2013, when the hip-hop duo closed out an extensive world tour in their own backyard. But the Neumos show was an unexpected treat—a free bonus show for hometown fans that had been kept under wraps until just two days beforehand. The concert was streamed globally via Amazon Music to celebrate the release of the album “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.” But for those who packed the floor of Neumos, it was a chance to share a few relatively intimate moments with one of the hottest acts in hip-hop.

Seattle fans enjoy other coveted encounters with the award-winning rap star Macklemore and his producer-collaborator Lewis. Such as on the evening in 2013 when the pair filmed part of the video for their song White Walls on the roof of the Capitol Hill institution Dick’s Drive-In (as well as while driving on one of the city’s liveliest streets, Broadway).

And the time Macklemore threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners home game this spring at Safeco Field. And when he showed up at the 2014 Seattle Pride Parade, riding in a convertible Cadillac decked out with mini rainbow flags. In addition to major ticketed events, Macklemore tends to appear suddenly in Seattle – here and there, with little notice.

These sightings are a reflection of Macklemore’s style – he’s a performer who is as independent-minded and spontaneous as he is artistically bold and outspoken. Whatever he chooses to do next is a mystery and a journey for his fans, and it’s almost guaranteed to get people talking.

Each journey begins where it all began for Macklemore – in Seattle.

“I grew up in Capitol Hill, really close to Broadway,” says Macklemore, now 33. “That was an easy access point to culture and the arts for me, at a very young age. As a fifth- and sixth-grader, I got into writing graffiti. The Comet Tavern had a street wall, and you could legally write graffiti there, so that was a spot we would kick it at. What is now known as Cal Anderson Park—back then, I don’t even know what we called it—we hung out there. And downtown, at Westlake, was a spot where a lot of graffiti writers and skateboarders would hang out.”

His interest would soon turn to music. At age 15, he began writing lyrics for rap songs, becoming a huge fan of the genre while listening to artists such as Digital Underground, Wu-Tang Clan and Talib Kweli.

While attending Garfield High School—the Central District alma mater of Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones—Macklemore (real name, Ben Haggerty) and some classmates formed a hip-hop act named Elevated Elements, and put out an album titled “Progress.”

As a student, both in high school and at The Evergreen State College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2009, he created a series of independent recordings, including an extended-play release, mixtape and studio album, partly under the moniker Professor Macklemore (a name he had once used in a school art project).

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

In 2006, a fortuitous friend request from Ryan Lewis on Myspace resulted in a real-world friendship that eventually led to a full-time collaboration. It took three years for them to merge their talents fully and release their first recording together, titled “The VS. EP.” They followed up on this with a short string of singles, including My Oh My, a tribute to late Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus, and Wings, a commentary on sneakers and consumerism (both songs released in 2011).

Even before the collaboration, Lewis, a University of Washington graduate, had experience as a photographer, videographer and producer—and he released his own EP of hip-hop material, “Instrumentals,” in 2009. Mackle-more may draw more of the limelight, but Lewis’ skills are reflected in producing, mixing and engineering the duo’s music; directing or co-directing their music videos; and filming tour diaries and promotional videos that they post on YouTube.

Macklemore and Lewis are completing a world tour that has included 25 cities. But Seattle remains central to their work. Most of Macklemore’s music has been written in the city, where the weather has proved beneficial to his songwriting. He likes it that the city is often a little gray: “It’s like, ‘Let’s hunker down, get in the recording studio and create something. Let’s just stay inside and make art,’” he says.

Two of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ biggest singles, Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us, were written in their hometown, and music videos for several of the duo’s tracks were filmed in the city, featuring well-known attractions and businesses in the background, such as the Space Needle, Gas Works Park, the Northwest African American Museum and a handful of vintage used-clothing and antique stores.

Thrift Shop, says Macklemore, was inspired by past shopping at the old Value Village on Capitol Hill (which has closed), the Value Village in Ballard, the Fremont Vintage Mall, and the Goodwill stores on Dearborn Avenue, Sixth Avenue and The Ave in the University District. Appropriately, scenes in the song’s video were filmed at some of these locations. “I love going to these places,” says Macklemore. “I have frequented them since I was 14, 15 years old. A decade later, I happened to write a song about it.”

Up until the early 1990s, Seattle was primarily known for its rock-music and grunge scene, but in 1992, along came the hit Baby Got Back, by Sir Mix-A-Lot, which opened the doors for Emerald City hip-hop artists.

“I’m proud of where our hip-hop scene has come and how we’ve developed into a city with amazing rap music,” Macklemore says. “Sir Mix-A-Lot was the person before me who really had a platform nationally and internationally. What I wanted to do was expose the world to how beautiful and incredible my city was, and I think that’s what I’ve been most proud of—shining a spotlight on Seattle that is much deserved.”

In 2012, Macklemore and Lewis experienced a breakthrough with the release of their debut album, “The Heist.” As of earlier this year, the album had sold nearly 1.5 million copies domestically, and a million more copies around the world. The pair also won four Grammy Awards (issued at the 2014 ceremony), including the coveted Best New Artist prize and Best Rap Album, which beat out heavyweight acts Jay Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

Local roots

A lifelong resident of Seattle, Macklemore makes a variety of local appearances. He has appeared at Seahawks games (and celebrated with the Super Bowl–winning team in 2014). He helped locally based Amazon.com commemorate its 20th anniversary with a special performance in 2015. He snapped a selfie at Justin Timberlake’s concert on the main floor of KeyArena in early 2014.

He also shows up at some of the city’s coffee shops, such as Espresso Vivace: “Vivace has great coffee; Joe Bar has great coffee; but I won’t tell you what my favorite coffee spot is,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to give it away.”

Of course, it’s much more than good coffee that keeps Macklemore rooted in Seattle.

“I think that when you grow up here—no disrespect to all the transplants who have come and expanded the city—but I think there’s a subculture of people who have lived here for 20- to 30-plus years, and there is a level of pride and a level of appreciation for where we’ve come from. I just love the layout of the city, the neighborhoods, the streets, the green. I love that we’re by the water. I get to travel all around the world for a living, and there’s no place more beautiful than the Pacific Northwest—and in particular, Seattle, Washington.”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis also treated smaller Washington locales this summer, with “The Camping Trip,” a series of intimate shows across the state. For this they appeared in places such as Spokane, Yakima and Walla Walla.

Yakima…we camping #thecampingtrip

A post shared by Ben Haggerty (@macklemore) on

On his World tours, Macklemore has performed to sold-out audiences in practically every corner of the globe—including Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore, as well as in cities across North America.

When he arrives at a destination, it’s unlikely you’ll find him sitting at his hotel. He often explores with his wife and child, who frequently come on tour.

“I walk around a lot,” he says. “I just try to get out. I go out with my daughter—she’s a little over a year now—and we just explore. We walk around, go into different shops, we go to different cities and see how each is laid out, check out the architecture, look at the landmarks and things that make it interesting.”

Yet it isn’t the landmarks, the food, or the architecture that proves most memorable for Macklemore. It’s the people.

“I think what you start to realize is that human beings are so similar, and we live inside our own bubbles and think we’re so unique,” he says. “Really, what ties us all together is human experience, and that doesn’t have a boundary; it doesn’t come with a passport. There are a lot more similarities than there are differences. Whether it’s the god you believe in, or the language you speak, I think we’re all connected in a way that sometimes we don’t realize.”

Giving back

Sometimes while traveling, but mostly when he’s home, Macklemore works with various charitable causes. Whether it’s volunteering at a homeless shelter such as Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, greeting young patients at a medical facility such as Seattle Children’s Hospital, hosting music workshops for kids, or supporting those on the rebound from drug and alcohol addiction, it’s important for him to give back to his community.

He’s enthusiastic about co-producing the Hip-Hop Artist Residency program at the EMP Museum in Seattle (in conjunction with the EMP Museum, Paul Allen and Microsoft). This program provides mentorship to kids to teach them about writing, producing and performing hip-hop music. “It’s a phenomenal program where the kids learn the ins and outs of the music industry,” Macklemore says.

He is also helping at a recovery hall, “because I’m in recovery,” he says. “We’re remodeling the 23rd and Cherry Fellowship Hall to make it a place where the community can get access to recovery and meals, and a better way of life.”

The influence of the real world on Macklemore’s music is part of his appeal. Many fans are drawn to songs, often written from personal experience, that touch on racism, homophobia, addiction and trying to fit into a judgmental society. Fans regularly comment on social media that songs such as Same Love, a pro-equal-rights ballad, and St. Ides—a personal account of Macklemore’s demons—have inspired them.

For anyone pursuing a career in music, Macklemore offers advice: “Don’t do it to get rich. Don’t do it for the fame. Whether or not you become famous, it should be about something greater. Making music should be about creating art because that is a necessity for you to be fulfilled as a human. That is your oxygen. That is what makes you who you are. That is how you find your truth.”

Macklemore’s performance at the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival over Labor Day Weekend is, in many ways, a return to his roots. He’s appeared at the annual event multiple times, but never as a headliner. Thousands of fans are expected at Seattle Center for the September 3 show. The return to Bumbershoot comes in the middle of the tour for “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” the studio album Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released this year on the independent label Macklemore LLC—with songs such as Downtown, Dance Off and Kevin.

If you haven’t caught Macklemore on tour or in Seattle this year, you can always try strolling the streets of Capitol Hill. Where he’ll turn up next, and what he’s got in the works, is anyone’s guess. You just never know what Macklemore has in store. And that’s the way he likes it.

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