“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—The Seattle Weekly ran a painting of Haggerty crying and holding a puppy on a recent cover, accompanied by an article 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.”
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.