When Ben Haggerty approaches, he seems sheepish and awkward, if not tentative and searching. As he walks into the small, low-key Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle’s Central District, it becomes clear that everyone here respects his privacy and his celebrity as the professional rapper Macklemore in equal measure. The patrons acknowledge him with a warm familiarity; one of the waitresses teases that her daughter recently saw him on TV rapping about garbage with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Earl—a tooth-impaired, middle-aged brother who’s seen better days—chats him up and sits down, until Ben informs Earl that there’s an interview about to take place.
There are a few reasons why we’re here. One is that the interview was set to take place at Ben’s house, which is seven minutes away, but Tricia Davis—Ben’s pregnant finacée and an integral part of his business life—is eight or nine days overdue and was not informed that there would be any guests until the night before. But, moreover, the restaurant is located down the block and around the corner from the location where Ben attends 12-step meetings. Which he’s done everyday since last September, when he discovered Tricia was with child and started working with Ryan Lewis on their new, still untitled follow-up to 2012’s history-making The Heist. “I have to keep myself on point and be the best version of myself for this child to be the best version of itself,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m grown up. I feel like I’m a kid. I feel like I’m the 15-year-old kid down the street, trying to escape, get out of class, smoke weed in the street, and kick it. And that’s a version of myself that I don’t feel that far removed from.”
It’s not a metaphorical statement. This is the neighborhood he grew up in; one of his old high schools, Garfield, is right down the road. And after the success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist—the debut at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart, the two number-one hits in “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” the four Grammy wins, and the true people’s choice award as the most streamed artist on Spotify in 2013—Ben relapsed into taking pills and smoking marijuana. “I held it together for a while,” he says. “But, eventually, I stopped going to my 12-step meetings.” “I was burnt out,” he continues. “I was super-stressed. We weren’t sleeping—doing a show every day, zigzagging all over the country. In terms of the media I was getting put into a box that I never saw for myself. The pressure and the fame—everything. All the clichés, man—like not being able to walk around, having no privacy, and from this TV appearance to this TV appearance, and the criticism, and the lack of connection, and the lack of meetings—all of that put into one pie was just…I just wanted to escape.”
He gave over to his addiction. At first, he hid his backsliding—“everyone knew, but they didn’t necessarily know,” he says. Tricia found some sleeping pills that he had hidden in his shoe at SXSW, so he sobered up for a bit. But when he got off the road and came back home, he found himself running through the motions: trying to fill himself by purchasing sneakers and jewelry and the other trappings of newfound fame and wealth. Eventually, “I sat in a car, a hot boxed car—I thought that was a good idea—and got high,” he says, “And then the next day it was like, What’s up with the weed? And once I’m there, it’s over.” There was no music being made during Ben’s relapse, which struck Ryan as odd. “Since I was a teenager and came across his name for the first time, there’s always been this sense of just trying to make honest music—trying to get the centerpiece of what he knows, what he thinks, how he feels,” says Ryan. “Ben, genuinely, in his best form, uses music as his means to process his day-to-day life.” The lack of productivity made Ryan question: “Do you want to make this album? Because it doesn’t feel like you want to be here.”
Like any accomplished addict, Ben bargained with himself throughout summer 2014, struggling to quit: “You know, like, Monday, I’ma stop…. OK. Tuesday, I’ma stop…. OK, fuck it, I might as well go on to the weekend. Sunday, I’m done. But after this bag of weed…” He became “sneaky” and “deceitful,” to those closest to him. “I’m in meetings with management with sunglasses on and I’m rolling around like a 15-year-old trying not to get caught smoking weed in my car. Straight up, driving all around here, like I was 15 years ago. Same shit. I felt so dumb. I felt like I’m just wasting time. What am I escaping here?”
It was Tricia’s pregnancy that served as a catalyst for his new sobriety. “I’ve been trying to grow up this year,” he says. “Since I heard that Tricia was pregnant, I was like, I need to grow up right now.” He says he hasn’t purchased any indulgent items in seven months and spends the better part of his mornings dedicated to self-care, with a routine of meditation, yoga, journaling, and attending meetings—before he starts engaging with his responsibilities as an artist and business partner. “I’ve gotten back to what makes me happy,” he says. “Not in the immediate moment, [but] what’s going to make me happy in the long run. None of the money, the fame, the attention, the touring, the endorsement, the Jordan shoe, the TV appearances—none of that, literally none of it, comes close to the fulfillment and gratitude that I feel showing up to a meeting and being sober today.
“The sobriety was the wake-up call that I needed,” he continues. “And, as it always works, the minute that I start actively seeking recovery—not just sobriety, but recovery—music is there. It always has been. Songs write themselves. My work ethic turns off-to-on in a second and I get happy again. I get grateful again.”
Crafting a follow-up has been a slow, laborious endeavor, mostly due to the group’s creative process. Ryan, who spent time between albums doing a “deep dive” on the textures and methods of classic works from the late ’60s and early ’70s (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Beatles), is a producer in the old-fashioned sense: he plays instruments, calls in session musicians, fusses over arrangement and transitions. “A fundamental difference between this time and the last time is, when you have more resources, there’s less bounds to trying all the ideas that you have,” he admits. “It allows you to sonically and stylistically actualize what’s in your head to a much more specific degree. But at the same time, there’s value to being stuck with your computer and a super-small budget like we had last time. You’re going to make do with what you have. But when you don’t have a huge limit to your creativity, you also end up with mountains and mountains of material that you’re going through.” To a large degree, the duo treats each song as its own project, sometimes spending weeks and months on one number. They’re almost Darwinian in their approach to their own ideas. “Is this idea you’re writing about, or is this first six bars, enough of an entry point to rally around and push hard, hard, hard to make that [song] come about?” asks Ryan. “Or, conversely, is there something to this beat or this piece of music—even if it’s just the drums, or a guitar, or something—that’s dope enough that it’s worth rallying around? If there’s enough there, we dig into a song—trying as hard as we possibly can to make it what it was intended to be. It’s exhausting. If you’re just making a whole bunch of songs—some people make 35 songs and then they’re like, We’re gonna choose 12—you’re just kind of making decisions. For us, if we’re working on something, it really has to be that.” Ryan estimates that, in the seven or so years that they’ve made music together, only about a half-dozen finished songs have not seen the light of day and that “we have a song right now that I’m a year-and-a-half deep into for this album.”
They estimate that they’re about three-fourths done with recording—mainly due to a six-week sabbatical at Ryan’s parents’ lake house in Priest Lake, Idaho, where they were able to make six serious “imperative” songs to anchor the handful of “fun” songs they recorded at home in Seattle. “The hardest part of making an album is always the last quarter,” Ben admits. “The last quarter is really the most intensive, the most stressful, the most arguments between me and Ryan, the most challenging. So, we’re in that phase where it starts to feel like work, once you’re organizing songs and feeling out pieces that fit, that don’t fit, excavating. That’s the process that we’re in right now: How do you turn these moments into songs? And songs into an album?”
Though The Heist is regarded as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut as a group (the two met on MySpace in 2006 when Ben messaged Ryan about a beat he had made), Ben’s been putting out solo albums since 2000’s Open Your Eyes, recorded under the name Professor Macklemore when he was just 16 years old—“a kid with a dream in a bedroom with a shitty microphone from Radio Shack and a popper-stopper made from his mom’s nylons,” he says. The duo also released an EP in 2009, with a remix version the year after. “There is something about me that is collaborative, that wants to get the best performance out of somebody else, or to hear something that somebody else has done that’s good and to try and make it great,” says Ryan, who not only handles all of the music for the group, but serves as a hands-on creative equal in all aspects of video production, graphic design, and marketing. “If Ben went to take three or four years off, I don’t think that the first thing that I would do is make an instrumental album.”
Though the group still feels unready to talk about the songs they’ve been working on, there’s a good bet that the new album, which is due in the fourth quarter of this year, will mix goofy numbers with small intimate records and heady observations. Ben shares that there’s a sequel of sorts to Language of My World’s “White Privilege” in the works. “Writing that song in 2004—that was a different version of me,” he says. “I was an unknown. I was making an observation: Look at what’s happened. Pointing—not in a negative way—but making cultural observation. Fast-forward 10 years, my vantage point isn’t pointing the finger at anyone else anymore. It’s pointing the finger at myself. It was pointing the finger at myself then, too, questioning things. But it’s different when—cultural appropriation and white privilege in regard to hip-hop—you’re the example.”
Yes, Macklemore is a white rapper. And he’s the first rapper to successfully dominate the commercial sphere by speaking from a purely white gaze—unlike Eminem, who correlated his poor white trash bona fides into a sense of underdog alienation that resonated with black culture in America and leaned heavily on the tropes of blackness in rap.
Ben had thought to work “White Privilege 2” into his Times Square medley performance on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest 2014—“instead of playing ‘Thrift Shop,’ we were going to play that record at the ball drop,” he says—but the song, so full of things to say, wasn’t quite complete. And then “so much was being exposed—with the Grammys, with Iggy, with #BlackLivesMatter” that he had to go back in, again, asking, “How do I participate in this conversation in a way that I’m not preaching, where I’m not appearing like I know it all? ’Cause I don’t know it all. I’m learning every time I have a conversation around the issue. How do I affect change? How do I not preach to the choir? How do I authentically initiate discourse without co-opting the movement that’s already happening? You are constantly having to check your intention as a white person doing any sort of antiracist work.”
Ben recently attended an eye-opening, daylong “Undoing Institutional Racism” workshop. “We were there for six or seven hours and spanned 500 or 600 years,” he says. “It was a crash course on why things are happening right now. It is so multilayered; it goes back so deep. There’s turning points in history that have equated to why police are treating black men the way that they are in America right now. I got a glimpse of that in seven hours, so you’re definitely not going to hear it in a five-minute CNN talking head thing where people have 30 seconds [and] they’re arguing. You almost can’t even engage in the conversation until you do a little bit of homework, to actually have a real tangible grasp on what’s happening.”
He now wants to go big, with plans for a series of town hall meetings built into his next tour; he talks about reaching out to local artists in various cities to participate, citing Meek Mill as a hopeful for Philadelphia. “A concert’s not going to do it,” he notes. “Regardless of the song that I write, or that ends up coming out, it’s not going to do it. It’s going to be a tiny piece. This needs to be part of my life’s work, if I’m going to be authentic in the discourse—not, Let me jump in when I’m supposed to; let me jump out when I want. Because, as a white male, the system’s designed for me to forget this shit quickly after I learn it. It is so easy for me to get back into my place of privilege and forget all of it. And I don’t want to be that anymore. I don’t want to do just enough to get by in the conversation.”
Zach Quillen—Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ manager and ostensible label head—is giving a tour of Macklemore LLC’s headquarters, situated on the waterfront in Seattle.
They’ve been at this location for just three years, and it’s a noticeable step up from their previous 500-square-foot abode in North Seattle. It’s housed in what used to be a two-level gym. Part of the former weight room has been transformed into an impressive preproduction studio complete with a video editing suite and a sleeping nook larger than most New York studio apartments; the other half serves as a large space suitable for photo shoots and live sessions—an ample serving of Ryan’s guitars are hung up on a wall. Upstairs, where the cardio equipment used to be, there are spacious offices, open cubicles, a private room with a vocal booth, a kitchen, and showers. The building’s other tenant is a storage facility. “That worked out really well for us because we do all of our own merchandising,” says Quillen. “We’re able to do all of our fulfillment here, out of a separate storage space in the building—they have an elevator and a loading dock and all that stuff, so we can handle all of the orders.”
Macklemore LLC—which is a joint partnership between Ben and Ryan—is not a typical label in any sense. “It operates as a label, but it’s not.” Ben says. “We haven’t had to go hire some big shot to turn profit for our company. So, it’s like, let’s keep the team we had when we were in 500 cap venues. And everyone’s grown into their position and evolved and adapted and we continue to push the envelope of what it looks like to be a mom-and-pop business pushing music to the world.” Quillen, a former booking agent for The Agency Group, is listed simply as a manager, but functions more as a CEO—under his purview are the day-to-day operations, including licensing, branding, and interfacing with retailers and Alternative Distribution Alliance, Macklemore LLC’s Warner Bros.-owned distributor, which also handles Fool’s Gold, Matador, Tommy Boy, and many other indies. Radio promotion (which is handled by Warner Bros.), publicity, and non-essential finances are outsourced. “We’ve essentially built a traditional label, but by outsourcing the individual pieces on a work-for-hire basis,” says Quillen.
The strategy, mixed with their real life and online grassroots ethos, is what enabled Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to bypass the appointed gatekeepers and the hype machines of the music industry three years ago—there’s a full-time staff of about a dozen people dedicated solely to their creative careers and philanthropic ventures. But since their quick and unprecedented ascension into the pop stratosphere, the two are no longer faced with the advantages of being long shots, and are burdened with the expectations of thriving in the current cultural space that feels at once limitless, new, and exciting—but also claustrophobic, redundant, and boring.
Even with all its change, music remains the one branch of the entertainment industry where the populist approach is praised and lauded. While TV may give begrudging respect to the advertising power of reality shows and sitcom fodder, and Hollywood will always acknowledge the power of blockbusters, the properties with the biggest marketplace footprints aren’t necessarily held as the epitome of the form—unlike the way poptimist criticsm celebrates artists like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Drake.
“We like to package moments,” says Quillen. “Instead of, Here’s the song that we think is the catchiest shit and we’re gonna spend two months and a bunch of money pushing it to radio and that’s our ‘single,’ we tend think like, OK, what’s the moment over a six-month period? What are we saying in that period? How do these songs work together? Is there a balance there? And then maybe there’s something in there that could have a life on the radio, or it could be a big hit. But it’s really about creating a balance and a whole conversation, a whole story, within that period of time. Using songs, using visuals, using marketing tools but not looking at it as, We had a bunch of success at radio last time. Let’s figure out what our catchiest record is, put it out first and hope for the best. It’s about, What is this entire conversation going to look like?”
While the approach seems cohesive, it’s really not, according to Ben, who uses Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for contrast. “It’s an incredible piece of art,” he says of Lamar’s recent album. “The transitions, the different perspectives, the narrative, the poem that’s going on throughout the whole thing, the conversation with ’Pac, front to back—it’s best taken in as a whole. I listen to that record when I’m on a plane, when I’m traveling, when I have an hour and however long it takes to listen to the whole thing. That, to me, is when that album really sinks in.”
But there’s no attempt on their part to replicate such a suite of work. “Kendrick thought of a concept,” he says. “He was making songs, but it was like, Now I know how I want this to fit together. And I think that we make songs and then we’re like, Yo, this represents us. This is where we’re at. These songs, added up, feel like a whole. But at the time, they’re just pieces of music and things that we want to talk about or things that we think are important or interesting. But it’s a different process. So I don’t see Ryan and I doing that. You know, we finished The Heist and named it The Heist afterward.”
“I would say there’s better cohesiveness than the last album,” says Ryan. “But, like anything we’ve done, it has a variety to it. With this album, you have these different songs that are reaching in terms of emotion and tone and message and where they sit. None of them are competing with each other for the same spot, but they’re reaching in really different directions. So you have these really different things and you have no idea which one might resonate with people more than another one.”
It’s a great moment of uncertainty for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. It’s the moment before the moment where they can become legitimate powerhouses in the music industry. They’re not hedging their bets by putting other artists on, or spreading their brand as far and wide as they can across the marketplace. Instead, they’ve doubled down on themselves. Their new album’s market performance can solidify them as industry dynamos, or show them to be guys who basically just had a really good year. Obviously, their narrative is much more complex than that, but it’s how the game is played—but only if you play the game. “I’m not worried, honestly—not more than I ever have been putting out music,” Ben confides. “I think I was in a place of sophomore slump jinx fear until I started writing songs again. When I was smoking weed, trying to avoid life at all costs, I was in a place of fear. But now that we have the bulk of the album done—if it’s not as commercially successful as The Heist, which I would be surprised if it was, great. If it is critically acclaimed, great. If the people don’t like it as much as old music, great. We did the best that we could do. I stand behind the music. I like the music. I enjoy it. I feel like I’m speaking my truth. If my happiness is contingent upon how these songs do on the radio and what people write about them in the reviews and how big our shows are, I failed. I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve ever been to move forward with releasing this music because I know what has to come first in order for me to be successful. And that has nothing to do with numbers, it has nothing to do with shows, it has nothing to do with what somebody else writes.”