In the contest for music’s highest honors at Sunday night’s 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Seattle is sporting a formidable and successful team. Call it Team Macklemore.
The duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, with their runaway hit rap album “The Heist,” is nominated for seven Grammys, including Album of the Year, Best New Artist and Song of the Year. It’s the most nominations for any Seattle act, or for any Seattle album, ever. And whether at the end of the night Macklemore and crew come away with armfuls of gold statues, or come up empty, the Seattle music scene has already had more attention than anytime since the ’90s and grunge.
The pair’s infectious sound — fast-paced, upbeat lyrics punctuated by beyond-catchy hooks — quickly found a massive audience. They have sold more than 1.2 million albums and 15 million singles.
When they followed up their first hit “Thrift Shop” with a second No. 1, “Can’t Hold Us,” they became the first duo in the 55-year history of the “Billboard” music charts to have their first two singles both hit No. 1. In all, “The Heist” has produced four platinum singles. After nearly 150 shows, last year’s world tour culminated with a sold-out three-night stand at KeyArena.
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Before the nominations were announced, Macklemore, 33, tweeted that “hopefully we walk away with a nomination.” After his seven nominations, he wrote, “I could never have dreamed this.”
Since that heady moment, Macklemore, known to those he grew up with in Seattle as Ben Haggerty, has made attempts to step back from the spotlight a tad. Last week Haggerty even spent a couple days on vacation, but only after playing halftime at the NFC Championship Game last Sunday. He had planned a trip to India after the Grammys, but he’s postponing that until after the Super Bowl.
Haggerty’s partner, Ryan Lewis, 25, was more public last week.
“It’s tough to even wrap my head around these nominations,” he said in an interview Wednesday. Lewis, whose role as producer and arranger is essential to the success of the duo, says the honor is not just for the band.
“This is a Seattle moment,” said Lewis, who is from Spokane and a University of Washington graduate. “I think from the very beginning we have taken so much pride in this city and region, and that support here launched us. These nominations aren’t just for us; these are something the whole city can take pride in.”
Industry observers echo that sentiment.
“Macklemore has aligned himself with Seattle in a way that few musicians ever have,” said Ben London, who used to head the local office of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which awards the Grammys.
Seattle boosterism is a big part of the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis identity. They have shot music videos here — including a thronged performance on the roof of Dick’s Drive-In — made appearances at local charity events and at both Seahawks and Mariners games. They even recorded a song, “My Oh My,” in honor of longtime Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus. And Haggerty, who attended Garfield and Nathan Hale high schools, recently bought a house in Seattle.
The city has returned the affection.
“Macklemore and Ryan grew up in a post-grunge Seattle, where there was much more acknowledgment of the city by musicians,” London said. “You simply didn’t see that during grunge. Seattle takes immense pride in things from here that become internationally famous. You can add Macklemore to the list along with Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon.”
Seattle has had bands nominated for Grammy Awards before, from Death Cab For Cutie to the Seattle Symphony, but no local has had as many nominations in a year. In the grunge era, Grammy voters often overlooked Seattle’s superstars for mainstream pop. Nirvana never won a Grammy during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, as “Nevermind” lost to R.E.M., and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lost to Eric Clapton, typical of the focus on veteran acts that sometimes has typified the Grammys, though lately the musicians, producers and engineers who vote on the winners have seemed more likely to reward newcomers.
This year’s Best Rap Song category contains something odd as well, sure to be a future trivia question. It pits Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” against Cobain. Cobain, along with Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, are nominated as part of Jay Z’s “Holy Grail” since that song uses lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Before Wednesday, Ryan Lewis was not aware of this odd pairing. “You’re kidding me?” he said. “That is a Seattle moment.”
Novoselic, Grohl and Pat Smear are also nominated for their collaboration with Paul McCartney in the Best Rock Song category for “Cut Me Some Slack.”
Of course all winners are guaranteed a bump in record sales, which would be a particular boon to Haggerty and Lewis, since a major aspect of Team Macklemore’s accomplishment is that it was done without the muscle of a major label. The pair self-released “The Heist” (though eventually Warner Bros. did distribution and radio promotion). So, Lewis and Haggerty own their songs and all future revenues, which Lewis says is monumental.
It’s been a successful arrangement. Those savvy moves, and a work ethic that saw them play so many concerts last year, some of them corporate events where paydays can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, mean that each made millions. But beyond that revenue, Lewis says their model of artistic and business control is a sea change in an industry where record labels have always profited more than musicians.
“The music industry is transforming fairly rapidly,” Lewis said. “You simply can’t disregard how big of a transformation this is.”
If Team Macklemore wins big — as many polls predict — Lewis and Haggerty won’t be the only Seattle musicians onstage. Their nominations include a bevy of performers who sing with them, including Michael Wansley (“Thrift Shop”), Ray Dalton (“Can’t Hold Us”) and Mary Lambert (“Same Love”).
Wansley is the most veteran of the grouping, with roots that go back to the grunge era. He sees “The Heist” as different from other classic Seattle albums.
“Ben and Ryan were the architects who put together this multifaceted piece of art,” he said. “Still, I don’t think there ever has been any Seattle album with such diversity from track to track, with all these soloists. Every song is different, but it’s a cohesive whole, and one with depth.”
For Mary Lambert, her “Same Love” has become a gay-marriage anthem, plus earned her a major-label deal of her own with Capitol Records. “I’m just beyond grateful to be honored, and to be part of a moment that is also historic,” she said.
Lewis and Haggerty still work with the same collaborators they had several years ago when they were unknowns. “My team is the same right now,” Lewis said. “When artists who are not associated with the typical infrastructure get recognition, that becomes a cultural movement. I hope the Grammys stay true to that.”
If they win, Lewis said, he has a speech prepared, but the outcome tonight hardly matters to what he and Haggerty have already achieved.
“I want to walk in there with the attitude of being grateful that I’m allowed in the building in the first place,” Lewis said. “If we win one, or win six, or don’t win any, I’m grateful. Win or lose … this doesn’t suck.”
Charles R. Cross is a Seattle-based writer who has authored nine books, including the best-selling biography of Kurt Cobain, “Heavier Than Heaven.” By way of disclosure: He does sit on the local board of governors for NARAS, which puts on the Grammys, though he is not a voting member. On Twitter @Charlesrcross, www.charlesrcross.com, firstname.lastname@example.org