Ben Haggerty has lost his train of thought. Moments ago, the MC—sitting on a park bench in Seattle's Capitol Hill district sporting salmon-colored, knee-length shorts and a low-buttoned summer shirt—was talking about his early career. Now his piercing, deep-set gray eyes are focused on a group of teenage photography students as a chubby kid takes sly photos of Haggerty while his friends giggle. "Do they really think I don't know what they're doing?" he asks, his mouth stuck somewhere between a smile and a grimace.
Being spotted by prepubescent paparazzi in public is nothing new to the 28-year-old MC. "For the most part, every time it happens, I'm grateful for it," he says. "But you can't turn it off. If I want to go get a Dick's cheeseburger at 1:45 in the morning, I know what comes with that.â
Macklemore, who just might be the most painfully self-aware and polite artist in hip-hop history, is well on his way to becoming Seattle's biggest star. This is nothing short of amazing. The MC—who plays MusicfestNW this week—has no label and no new album; instead he and producer Ryan Lewis have built a rabid national fan base around a handful of videos and singles that exist only on the Internet.
But it's not the rapid rise and DIY ethos that is most striking about Macklemore. It's that, in a genre full of fronting, beef and bravado, Macklemore's music is shockingly genuine. "People compare him to Eminem, because he's white, but he's not that kind of artist. It's all heartfelt, you can see when he performs that he bleeds this stuff—it's from the heart," says Sir Mix-A-Lot, the most successful rapper in Seattle's history. "As far as scope, though, he could be as large as an Eminem, as large as a 50 Cent.â
To Max O'Neal, a 16-year-old student at Seattle's Ballard High, Macklemore has already eclipsed those artists. "He doesn't rap about partying, drugs, alcohol and sex, he raps about REAL THINGS...and he does it with a fiery passion," O'Neal writes. "To me, he reps the 206 better than anyone else out there."
Macklemore is the anti-Eminem, and he's coming for your children. This man is going to be huge.
"I grew up on Capitol Hill with two parents and two cars/ They had a beautiful marriage, we even had a swing set in our yard" — Macklemore, "Claiming the City" (2005)
Haggerty doesn't look much like a rap icon—a tuft of slicked-back hair on his high-shaved head; a penchant for fuzzy, vintage thrift-store jackets and a searching, serious face combine to make him look more like a World War I fighter pilot than an MC. Oh, and he's white. Extra white, at the moment, because he's spent most of his summer in the studio.
His music isn't standard issue, either. Macklemore's lyrics tend toward high-drama cautionary tales, not cars or sexual conquests. He raps about baseball, the most un-hip-hop of sports ("My Oh My" is an emotional tribute to the late Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus). Even his party tracks are unconventional: Midshow, Haggerty likes to don a wig and shoddy British accent, becoming "Sir Raven Bowie" for the Eurotrashy club cut âAnd We Danced,â his most popular single to date.
Haggerty comes from a stable, two-parent household—a far cry from the standard rap bio—and had the full support of his parents in making his music. But he does share with most performers a desperate need for attention. "I was always an eclectic, weirdo kid, and I would wear my underwear on the outside of my pants and put on shows and dance around," he says. "My parents took me to see Cats when I was 6 or 7—I dressed up like a cat for a year straight."
In the fourth grade, he and two friends covered the Digable Planets' "Cool Like That" in a school talent show—but he doesn't remember how that first appearance as an MC went over with the crowd. "I just remember practicing and being really serious, spending my lunch hour going over and over it," he says.
Photos from his teenage years show Haggerty "mean-mugging" (a favorite phrase of his) comically alongside friends of decidedly darker hues. He developed two major passions in life: skateboarding and hip-hop, taking the latter very seriously. There was only one problem. "The raps were just horrible. I was horrible for a long time,â he says.
In 2004, Haggerty recorded "Welcome to MySpace," a techno-tinged, tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the social network that called out the service's founder, Tom Anderson. "God damn, Tom, I used to have a life with a job/ Now I'm just eatin' cereal readin' what people write in their blog," Haggerty rapped. Anderson apparently took the joke well, posting the song on the upstart service and winning Macklemore thousands of new fans. (He'd also meet producer Ryan Lewis on the social media service.) It was Haggerty's first taste of national success, something that's now an everyday occurrence.
In 2005, Macklemore released his first album, The Language of My World. The self-released disc wasn't much of a commercial success compared to his highly downloaded recent singles, but it did establish a blueprint for Macklemore's style: honest, cinematic and perhaps a touch overdramatic. The album's opening rap, "White Privilege," indicted himself and his white showgoers for the gentrification of hip-hop. "Now who's going to shows/ The kids on the block starving/ Or the white people with dough who can relate to my content?" he rhymes.
If Macklemore has strayed from discussing race on the flurry of singles and EPs he has released in the past 18 months, it's probably because that song did a number on him. "It's a complicated fucking issue," he says with a shrug and a sigh. "I also don't want to be the white rapper that's talking about the black man's struggle."
"Syrup, Percocet and an eighth a day will leave you broke, depressed and emotionally vacant/ Despite how Lil' Wayne lives it's not conducive to being creative…. I'd sip that shit, pass out or play PlayStation" —Macklemore, "Otherside" (2010)
Haggerty and I leave the park on Capitol Hill in his white Volvo station wagon and pass by his old rehab center. "This place is a trigger for me," he says, his pale arm resting on the window as he surveys his old stomping grounds. He starts talking about "lean," the cough syrup-based cocktail also referred to in hip-hop parlance as "purple drank" or "sizzurp." Though he raps about the drug's fatal consequences on "Otherside," he describes lean like a particularly gorgeous ex-girlfriend. "It fucks you up," he says with a sentimental head shake.
A year after his debut dropped, Haggerty entered rehab and moved back in with his parents. It wasn't just "lean" that got him to that point: An abuse of alcohol, a constant marijuana habit ("I was smoking the second I woke up; I was reaching over and grabbing whatever roach I had from the night before") and a blossoming obsession with painkillers trapped him in a cycle of low creative output and bad life decisions. He repeatedly cheated on, and nearly lost, his longtime girlfriend—now a business partner who accompanies him on tours and helps with day-to-day management duties. "It got to that point where I was sick of being that dude—sick of lying, sick of cheating, sick of getting caught and making up excuses, trying to get back trust and fucking up again," he says. "That whole cycle was taking so much energy.
"I guarantee you if I was still using drugs and alcohol, we wouldn't be having this interview," Haggerty says. "I wouldn't be anybody to write about."
Macklemore's vulnerability is why he has a reputation as a hip-hop softie: Many of his and Lewis' new songs are more emo than Death Cab for Cutie and clearer in message than Elliott Smith's. And while the music has its share of critics—
ran a painting of Haggerty crying and holding a puppy on a recent cover, accompanied by
decrying his music as overdramatic—friends say it's entirely genuine. "It's not an act at all. That's Ben. That's where he's at right now," says Melissa Darby, booker at the storied Crocodile and a longtime advocate for Seattle hip-hop. "His music is going to adapt to wherever he's at, and right now I think he's feeling refreshed and grateful."
Genuine or not, the confessional lyrics—combined with Haggerty's good looks—have earned the MC a crowd that could just as well be attending a Bright Eyes show. It was a fact made clear at last year's City Arts Festival performance at Seattle's Paramount Theatre (where he shared the stage with Mix-A-Lot).
"That was the one," says Larry Mizell, Seattle music critic and KEXP radio host. "He was opening for Blue Scholars, but he was up there, and he just looked huge. Every fourth kid in the crowd, and it was a big-ass crowd, had a Macklemore T-shirt on."
"You could tell from that night that something crazy was happening," says Zach Quillen, who became Macklemore's manager shortly after the performance. "There were teenage girls crying in the front row, and he was getting mobbed outside, just walking around.â
That's not an entirely new concept in hip-hop—underground hip-hop idol Slug writes similarly sensitive music, and his duo Atmosphere draws the same kind of demographics (teens and college kids, mostly female) that Macklemore has accrued. But Macklemore's aesthetic is more direct. He preaches on the microphone, often holding back with his technical skills for the sake of the story. Producer Lewis drafts string and horn sections to craft his cinematic beats. The combination can be emotionally flooring—or exploitative, depending on whom you ask.
Still, to best understand Macklemore—an artist who hasn't put out a full album in six years—one has to watch his videos. His breakthrough 2009 video for "The Town" comprises decades' worth of photos, fliers and video portraits of Seattle's hip-hop scene that move hand-in-hand with Macklemore's misty-eyed memories. Director Zia Mohajerjasbi's video features shots in black with splashes of organic color. Even if the names and images are foreign to non-Seattleites, it's impossible not to be touched by the sentiment.
"The Town" has garnered well over a million views on YouTube, and boasts a 99 percent approval rating from viewers. Videos for "Irish Celebration" (wherein Haggerty raps, "I put down the drink, couldn't drink like a gentleman/ That doesn't mean I can't make a drinking song for the rest of 'em") and "Wings" (a diatribe against consumerism in general and that sacred cow of hip-hop, Air Jordans, in particular) have been met with similarly impressive responses. Each video is a short-form narrative, with visuals that match the songs' clear messages. It's Christian hip-hop that Macklemore is making—only without all the religion.
"Trust me, I'm an I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T shit hustla." — Macklemore, "Can't Hold Us" (2011)
Ten years ago, a man in Haggerty's desirable position would be deciding which major label he wanted to sign with. But in 2011, he's talking more seriously about starting his own. Self-releasing their singles has worked well for Macklemore and Lewis. Haggerty won't talk about how much money they've made, but it's enough to make a major label's advance offers seem inconsequential.
"I don't need the money," Haggerty says. "What's the most important to me is the art. I would hate to think someone else behind a desk is making those calls; it makes me sick."
Sir Mix-A-Lot, who spent five albums on Rick Rubin's American imprint, says a major label could ruin everything for Macklemore. "What makes Macklemore so cool to his fans is his independence and freedom," Mix-A-Lot says. "The closer a label gets to him, the further away the fans will get. And if he's taken away from what he does best, then he's just another rapper."
Whatever he chooses, Haggerty has his share of believers. His manager, Quillen, who in July packed his bags and moved to Seattle from New York City to be closer to Haggerty and Lewis, is perhaps the biggest. Quillen, agent to hip-hop stars such as Yelawolf and Wiz Khalifa for the powerful Agency Group, says he took on Macklemore as his first management client because "people like him don't come around very often." But not even he is sure what the future holds for Macklemore and Lewis. "A lot of what happens next is in their court," Quillen says. "I think the sky's the limit. If they want to take it all the way and have really large mainstream pop success, I think they could. If they wanted to take a more indie approach, I think they could be really successful on that level. The world is their oyster."
Earlier in the day, Haggerty was characteristically humble and reserved on the point. "The whole 'this is a defining moment for Seattle hip-hop,' that's not real," he says. "Maybe it turns into that and maybe it doesn't."
But now, as he's looking down at arriving ships in the bay, I start to see the fire that got Macklemore this far. He has found his train of thought. "I truly believe no one is going to stop us, only we can stop ourselves," he says. "The opportunity is finally there, and the door is open, and it's like, we can stand around and watch it or we can keep fucking walking."
How Seattle put the Northwest Back on the Map
"The kids in the front, they bring out the passion, dude/ Make noise throughout the show and not only when we ask 'em to." —Macklemore, "The Town" (2008)
The Northwest hasn't produced a major hip-hop success since Sir Mix-A-Lot ruled the charts two decades ago, and until the mid-aughts, local hip-hop shows in Seattle were—much like most Portland shows—attended primarily by local artists themselves. What changed? Somebody invited the kids.
Until 2002, all-ages hip-hop shows were a rarity in Seattle. The draconian "Teen Dance Ordinance," a 1985 city law that forced all-ages clubs to hire off-duty police and take out a million-dollar insurance policy in order to put on a concert, made under-21 shows prohibitively expensive. Indie-rock promoters sometimes ignored the ordinance, but hip-hop shows became favorite targets of the law's selective enforcement. In 2002, the ordinance was replaced by the more forgiving "All-ages Dance Ordinance." And while the Student Hip-Hop Organization of Washington, or SHOW, had been putting on major hip-hop concerts at the University of Washington for a few years, the rules changes eventually led to an opening of the floodgates that helped give Seattle hip-hop an off-campus push.
The Blue Scholars were the first to go big. The duo of smart, funky UW graduates became the face of the Seattle hip-hop scene in 2004, and by 2007, they were big enough to sell out five days' worth of all-ages local hip-hop showcases at Capitol Hill institution Neumos. Later the group would invite a lesser-known MC—Macklemore—to open for it on multiple occasions.
Nowadays, Seattle's hip-hop scene is so diverse and deep that even Sub Pop Records—the label that brought the world Nirvana, the Shins, and Band of Horses, among others—is getting in on the act, signing two Seattle hip-hop acts, Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, in the past year. Sub Pop's Megan Jasper, who brought both acts to the label, says that despite Sub Pop's lack of hip-hop history, the groups seemed like a natural fit. "People are talking about the music less in terms of it being a genre, and more in terms of it just being music," she says. And after working at Sub Pop during the grunge explosion, Jasper sees some similarities between that era of Northwest rock and this era of Seattle hip-hop, with Macklemore at the helm. "What he is going to end up doing is paving the road for so many other artists."
"Seattle hip-hop has found itself," says Sir Mix-A-Lot. "You don't have guys trying to be New York. You don't have guys trying to be L.A. or the Dirty South. They're comfortable being Seattle. I like that." —CJ