Capitol Hill rapper Macklemore is Seattle's best shot at mainstream pop stardom right now. He just sold out three upcoming shows at the Showbox and is about to embark on his first national tour as a headliner, with a key stop at the Austin music-industry showcase, SXSW, in March.
Capitol Hill rapper Macklemore is Seattle’s best shot at mainstream pop stardom right now.
You’ll remember his music forever after just one listen: sermonlike rapping over violins and trumpets — soft and heavy. It’s a sound that draws legions of young fans, who snap up every song and video to share with friends on Facebook.
Macklemore has sold out three upcoming shows at the Showbox, and is about to embark on his first national tour as a headliner, with a key stop at the Austin, Texas, music-industry showcase, South by Southwest (SXSW), in March. He’s gotten to a level where major labels take notice but he isn’t sure he needs a label. He’s also not sure he needs the media, this article included.
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The freckle-faced 28-year-old breaks it down at Kaladi Brothers Coffee on Pike Street. Making steady eye contact and emanating Zenlike sobriety, he sits next to Ryan Lewis, 22, his full-time musical partner.
“These days, there’s two different ways bands blow up,” or get big, he says. “One of those, is they make a piece of work that the critics jump on right away … and that takes it to the next level very quickly.”
“And then there’s another way, which is organically, spreading amongst the youth. To the point where those tastemakers can’t help but notice, ‘Hey, he’s selling out shows all over the place. Something’s happening here.’ “
Macklemore wears slim pants tucked into boots that are also boat shoes. His orange hair is cut into a white-guy Gumby. He looks like a master of his own image — as much a businessman as an artist, embodying the entrepreneurial spirit of the new music industry.
“He is going to be the one to break this year,” says local entertainment publicist and sometime artist manager Kerri Harrop. “No question.”
A rapper born Ben
The man who would become Macklemore grew up as Ben Haggerty on Capitol Hill.
His parents were not musical, but they valued creativity in their home, and raised Haggerty to be a self-starter. His one sibling, Tim Haggerty, 23, teaches English in Argentina.
Ben attended Garfield and Nathan Hale high schools, taking community-college classes through the Running Start program. (At Hale is where he came up with “Macklemore” for an art project inventing a superhero.) After graduation, he did a year of college in Santa Fe, N.M., and then earned a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College.
Early on, he was interested in reaching young people through music. He took a job at the juvenile-detention facility in Chehalis, working in a program called Gateways, which was organized around rap. Macklemore brought beats to jail, and facilitated writing workshops.
By the early/mid 2000s, Macklemore’s music career was under way in Seattle. He was a solo fixture in the local hip-hop scene.
He rapped in Westlake Center freestyle circles for a time — the hip-hop equivalent of chess in the park — and in 2005, released a popular album called “The Language of My World.” It showcased what would be his most enduring stylistic tic to date: conceptual songs that hook an audience by shock or heartstrings, and concentrate on a specific topic: “Remember High School,” “White Privilege,” “Soldiers.”
He’s like a 3-minute short-storyteller, which to some detractors sounds gimmicky. But Macklemore says it’s an honest expression of his talent. “It’s like I can’t not do it,” he says.
On the road to rehab
Over the next few years, Macklemore supported himself by rapping in and around Seattle, and doing a weekly stint in the Eastside suburbs at a now-defunct pub, rapping on Thursdays for “75 people who couldn’t have cared less.” He spent his earnings on sneakers and drugs.
“I always flirted with an OxyContin addiction. I would go a week, week and a half. I liked pills. I was also drinking [codeine] cough syrup. And copious amounts of weed.”
He began holing up in his apartment, not answering the phone. There was no dramatic rock bottom that sent him to rehab. He just became disgusted with his life.
After he got clean in 2008, Macklemore and Lewis, as producer, became a creative unit. They started working with live musicians (drums, trumpet, violin), and put out new recordings in 2009: “The Unplanned Mixtape,” which included a wistful love letter to Seattle hip-hop called “The Town.” And the “VS.” EP, which was based on samples of popular indie and commercial rock songs, and offered online as a free download. The free factor was important: Word had to get out.
The key track on “VS.” was “Otherside,” Macklemore’s cough-syrup confessional and larger public-service announcement against the hip-hop trend of drinking it recreationally.
“Out of all the songs that we’ve made that have spoken to people in a new and different way, ‘Otherside’ by far leads that,” he says.
” ‘VS.’ was like coming back to life. It was like, ‘Let me retrace my steps and remember why I liked making music in the first place.’ “
The Lazarus phase of Macklemore’s rap career also involved an apprenticeship under the wing of Blue Scholars, Seattle peers who’d turned hip-hop into a career that went beyond paying rent on an apartment. The Scholars targeted young local audiences with concerts (think public-school gymnasiums) and toured to college campuses and nightclubs. Macklemore came along, and fit right in.
Along the way, he polished his music — and his business plan.
Ten years ago, an artist like Macklemore would hope to be signed by a record company, which would produce his music, plan his tours, sell his merchandise … and cut him a check. Today, many artists run their own shows.
Macklemore has a three-pronged revenue stream: iTunes, merchandise and touring. Up until now, he’s handled (almost) everything himself and with Lewis.
iTunes is the steadiest paycheck, coming every 45 days. He and Lewis sell songs for a dollar and make between 60 and 70 cents per song, which they split 50/50. When there’s a tour, the tour becomes the most profitable revenue stream. Merchandise is easiest to sell at shows, too, at walk-up tables or online at Macklemore’s blog, bengalyucky.com. He and Lewis direct the design of their own shirts and merchandise.
“We’re constantly putting money back into the product,” says Macklemore. “Whether that’s buying a thousand T-shirts for the Showbox shows, a new microphone, renting a van. There’s always tons of expenses, and we’re forced to put money back into what we’re doing. That’s the biggest difference between what we’re doing and what a major label would provide.”
Macklemore says he makes a comfortable living. He and Lewis are figuring out how to pay their band — “they’re pretty much musicians for hire, right now,” says Macklemore, “but we’re working on that.”
They’ve recently begun working with a manager and a booking agency, and “we’re starting to think about the next six months, nine months, a year down the road,” he says. “Whereas before, it was making moves to get weed within the next hour.”
Work ethic lauded
“Every artist in town should be imitating his work ethic right now,” says Dave Meinert, who manages Blue Scholars, owns the Five Point Cafe, and runs the Capitol Hill Block Party. “Especially in regards to perfecting their live show.”
Macklemore’s Internet savvy is also worthy of emulation; his rabid fan base was built largely via Facebook and Twitter. He and Lewis ran a contest asking young fans to make YouTube videos of themselves performing Macklemore songs, promising a pizza party for the best of them. A hundred kids went to the considerable trouble to enter.
He’s now using kickstarter.com to “pass the hat” to raise money to produce a video of “Wings” — one of two new songs released in the past few weeks. The other song/video released was “My Oh My,” a tribute to longtime Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus, who died in November.
In “My Oh My,” Macklemore raps about the Mariners in 1995, which a good chunk of his fans are too young to remember.
But he feels free to go over their heads once in a while, knowing he has their hearts.
Andrew Matson: 206-464-2153 or firstname.lastname@example.org