Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: On Hip-Hop, The Heist, & Homophobia
SSG Music sits down with rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to talk their new album The Heist, white rappers in hip-hop & homophobiaPosted by Melissa Daniels
Three years. That’s how long it’s been since SSG Music has had the chance to sit down with the hottest rap duo to come out of Seattle. Ben Haggerty, also known as Macklemore and his partner Ryan Lewis: the unstoppable force that reps Northwest soul, marriage equality, and now, secondhand clothes.
Last time we chatted back in November 2009, the boys were just getting ready for their VS. EP album release party at Nectar Lounge in Seattle. Macklemore had just celebrated one-year of sobriety, and the relationship between the emcee and producer was really just beginning to take flight. Who knew that in the three short years to follow their 2011 tour would play to sold out crowds, or that Mackelmore would earn the title of ‘Seattle’s New Music Hero’ after packing out Key Arena during Bumbershoot 2011, or that he’d grace the cover of XXL Magazine’s 2012 Freshman Class edition? To say Ben and Ryan are a breath of fresh air in a hip-hop industry cluttered with homophobia, misogyny, and little originality is an understatement. But we’ll let you decide that for yourself.
SSG Music sat down with the guys in studio to talk about their ride so far, next week’s release of The Heist, homophobia in hip-hop and what it means to make it as a white rapper. If there’s one thing we’re observing, it’s that Ben and Ryan are at the forefront of a new standard being born in the hip-hop industry. And they’re just getting started.
The Grind Towards The Heist
It’s been a long road from Nectar Lounge to WAMU Theatre, the mega-venue in Seattle Macklemore and Ryan Lewis recently sold out as their official hometown date on The Heist World Tour. It’s been an uphill grind to an unexpected attention that has the industry talking. From the get-go, Ben has been making a statement and taking a stand for things he’s passionate about: sobriety, same sex marriage, recycled clothing. Some of it’s comical, but at the end of the day, these guys are sparking conversations with their music in a way that’s greater than the typical route of urban hip-hop artists of the past.
“It feels good,” says Ryan. “Nobody would expect that your music would do that, and we’re very lucky for sure.”
The last couple of years have been a non-stop hustle touring the world and logging hours in the studio preparing for the release of The Heist, the pair’s debut full-length album. The album drops October 9, and is easily one of the most anticipated records to come from the Freshman Class this year. But being bogged down by the workload of prepping a new album, constantly being on the road, doing interviews and promoting the music, doesn’t necessarily foster creativity. The grind has made it difficult for the guys to break away and live life outside of the music. It’s the twinge of normalcy, Ben says, that he really has to fight for. It’s what allows him to get outside the box and come up with new material. So what does that look like for him? It’s going to AA meetings to hear inspirational stories; it’s spending time with his family; it’s taking his girl out on a date. And it’s that fight and those moments that give Ben the space needed to come up with impactful and comical singles such as “Same Love” and “Thrift Shop,” the two released singles off The Heist that have been all the rage.
We’ve seen the emcee’s seriousness in songs like “Otherside” and most recently “Same Love,” but it’s that incredibly goofy side of the music that seems to get fans spinning wildly out of control, searching for more tips on how to turn a bro-down into a hoedown.
“Life is hilarious. Life is serious. Life is fictional. Life is very real. And I like to capture it all in music. If I just documented one side of my personality, I wouldn’t be true to who I am,” said Ben.
For those fans that wanted a little bit more of the David Bowie inspired spandex of “As We Danced,” they’ll be getting just that. But this time, it’s John Wayne’s fringe game and your granddad’s clothes that they’ll be after.
“Thrift Shop,” the latest single released off The Heist, broke into the top ten on the iTunes hip-hop charts shortly after release, but the video is where the real magic lies. When have you ever seen an emcee wearing Batman footy pajamas? You probably haven’t. From fur coats and fringe jackets to gator shoes and velour jump suits, this video has it all. It’s just the right amount of incentive you need to burst through the front doors of your local Goodwill hollering, “I’m gonna pop some tags!”
We asked Ben if he considers himself the best thrift shop shopper out there. His response: “Definitely not. But I am the most prolific thrift shop shopper in the rap game, for sure.”
Of the guys’ favorite places to shop, they just about listed every legit place in the Seattle city limits. Included on their list were Goodwill, St. Vincent DePaul (shout out to Ben’s mom who actually works there), and both Seattle Red Light locations. Topping their lists was House of Vintage in Portland for Ben and the Fremont Vintage Mall in Seattle for Ryan.
Of where SSG Music should shop? “You could come on over to my living room,” Ben chimes. “Yea, he has racks on racks of clothes,” adds Ryan.
As it all relates, popping tags is just a tiny piece of what fans are going to experience from The Heist. The album contains several feature tracks, and a whole lot of diversity.
“It’s an album that has a variety of different emotions and different feels; different tempos. It goes, kind of, all over the place. Some songs are what you might expect. Some songs are completely opposite of what you might expect. So, I think it’s new. It’s fresh. And, I think that it will satisfy the people,” says Ben.
According to the guys, Ryan had a good body of crafted material to pull from. And with piano, string, trumpet players and more at his disposal, Ryan was able to direct exactly what he wanted while also allowing the musicians to come in and expand on the foundation he laid down.
Without wanting to reveal too much, Ben said, “It’s just good music.”
You don’t need us to tell you that 2012 is a big year in politics. With the impending Presidential election just a month away, the hot button issue of marriage equality is high up on ballots across the country, including in the liberal state of Washington.
Earlier this year we saw the powerful release of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love,” a record that talks homophobia, equal rights for same sex couples and Ben’s own personal relationship with the topic.
“I come from a Catholic family. I come from the hip-hop community. And both of those communities are known for being homophobic if you were to generalize them,” said Ben. “I also grew up on Capitol Hill with two gay uncles and a gay godfather in the gay community. Ryan encouraged me to write from my perspective and talk about my life and my community with my upbringing.”
The music video, released Tuesday, tells the life story of a gay man. Throughout the seven-minute mini-film we see the man journey through his life, birth to death and all the mixed emotions in between. From peer pressures, to familial disapproval, to falling in love, getting married and eventually nearing the end of his life in a hospital bed with his spouse by his side. The images are powerful, moving, and completely emotional thanks to a dedicated film crew.
The duo has sent all proceeds from the song to support the Music for Marriage Equality campaign, in support of Referendum 74 that seeks equality for gay couples. Their efforts are admirable and noteworthy, but it’s really the concept and storytelling in the song that makes the record and video so powerful.
“I wrote it probably in like a day and a half. The first verse and a half I think I wrote in one sitting. And the remainder of it I did the next day,” said Ben. That was only after having taken a first pass at the song, writing in the perspective of a gay bullied kid, which didn’t end up being the story Ryan thought needed to be told.
Growing up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, known for it’s gay-friendly vibes, Ben had developed a special relationship with that community having both family and friends that were homosexual. He had the opportunity to grow up with a tolerance for gay people that may have been different than yours or mine. One of the best things about music is the platform provided to artists where they can share their experiences and challenge others to dig a little deeper towards their own evolutions. “Same Love” was very much that chance for Ben and Ryan.
“Up until a few years ago, Ryan and I would say ‘that’s gay,’ in describing something that was whack, just because that’s the kind of language that people use in high school, in college, in pop culture. So, it really wasn’t until Zach, our manager, came here and started calling us out on it. And you don’t even think that you’re potentially hurting people, or that’s the language that might be offensive to a portion of the population. So I think it’s gaining a greater awareness and kind of maturing as a person and questioning, do you wanna be the type of person that uses language that puts a group of people down,” explained Ben.
It’s been a big year for the hip-hop community, with the emergence of gay artists (Frank Ocean). A shift is happening, but to what extent has yet to be determined. In a 2011 article from XXL Magazine, Russell Simmons was quoted saying that the hip-hop community is less homophobic than the rest of society. And while Frank Ocean was met with more positive response than expected, there is still quite a road ahead.
“I think the awareness is and the tolerance is increasing. I think that we as a society are evolving. Hip-hop is directly in the middle of what is going on in pop culture, in society, within different communities… It’s hitting different people and it brings it to the forefront of conversation and then you have change,” said Ben.
Ryan has learned through the process of “Same Love” and highlighting awareness of the issue is that it’s hard to be mad at anybody for feeling passionate about how they do because often times their opinions are deep rooted in their religion, their upbringing, their parenting.
“I think what would bring ultimate change or, you know, totally shift not only the hip-hop community but the general outlook is a slow series of the Frank Oceans and Same Loves and Barack Obamas, that continue over time,” he said.
It’s all about starting conversation, and with an issue that the guys feel as passionate about as they do, it’s important for them, they say, to use their platform to influence the culture and the youth. Much of society and the hip-hop culture still get a pass when it comes to using derogatory terms against homosexuals and even women.
“People say faggot like it’s nothing; along with misogyny. Calling women the words ‘bitches and hoes’ and using the word ‘faggot’ is still completely acceptable in hip-hop culture, and to me, it was holding my community accountable, and it was taking a stance on something I believe in,” said Ben. So with “Same Love,” “Whether or not you leave and you agree with gay marriage or you think twice about saying ‘that’s gay,’ or using the word ‘faggot,’ it’s at least bringing it to the forefront in creating an awareness and that’s what music is about to me.”
The White Urban
Over the course of the last several years, there’s been buzz that the white man’s residence in hip-hop is the simple handiwork of someone else pushing an agenda to take the scene away from those who originated it.
But instead of this being the result of some motive, it may actually just be a shift in truth that hip-hop has become this nucleus for pop culture that is all-inclusive.
“There’s a huge portion of white people that support hip hop music, and I think by nature of us being white, particularly of me being a white rapper, there is something intangibly relatable for another white person in terms of following another white rapper, be it Machine Gun Kelly, be it Mac Miller, be it me or anybody else,” Ben contends. “There is immediate association of ‘I look like this person.’ And either you feel threatened by that and that’s an issue for you or, more common than not, that’s an issue you can relate to, just on physical appearance.”
Two years ago, in an interview with AllHipHop.com, Alabama rapper Yelawolf was quoted saying, “Odds are just slim for white artists in Hip-Hop. This is a black culture.” He alluded that white rappers won’t gain as much respect until there’s a plethora of them out there; really proving they can hold their territory.
Fast forward two years later and we are seeing an emergence of more white rappers than ever before. With all the subgenre’s that have emerged since the birth of hip-hop, we’re seeing some white artists falling into the Frat Rap category, one that doesn’t garner equal levels of respect as subgroups like Backpack Rap or Conscious Rap.
The artists that fall into Frat Rap are typically out marketing themselves and their song concepts in the pop lane speaking to the white college frat, young high school kids, which is part of the audience Macklemore and Ryan Lewis service, but it’s not their true lane. This type of hip-hop isn’t even necessarily relatable to the concepts of rap’s beginnings, which seems relevant to the amount of respect doled out from industry spearheads and tastemakers.
“There’s been a huge number of those artists that have popped up in the last years,” says Ben. “I think there’s a reason why Yelawolf, Machine Gun Kelly, Mac Miller, myself, have made it to the cover of XXL because of the music we make, because of the songs we write.”
The ease that comes with making the type of music that only appeals to a specific demographic can be a strategic move for a lot of upcoming white rappers, but as Ben agrees, those artists are going to have a more difficult time garnering respect in the industry.
In terms of radio DJs, pioneers of the rap game, and the rooted hip-hop community itself, white rappers that fall into that lane “aren’t going to [get a] cosign because it’s something that’s contrived. It’s a lane that doesn’t come from the origin of what the music is,” says Ben.
Real Recognizes Real
A few short days away from the release of The Heist and Ben and Ryan are already several steps ahead, prepping for their US tour dates and planning what’s next.
“The cool thing about this is that it’s a team, and it’s a team that’s growing… full of people that work their asses off, and I think that everybody… would love to see it get to a position where it expands and there [are] other artists involved on top of us,” says Ryan.
In the next year or two, Ryan has plans to start collaborating with other artists and dipping into new genres. But it’s all through a partnership mentality with this team that is pushing the ticket of accountability farther than we’ve seen any others accomplish in years.
“With each success your goals rise and where you wanna be and what you wanna do next time just becomes greater,” says Ryan.
Ben adds, “If you are coming from a pure, genuine, authentic place, you will be recognized as such. If you’re coming to a place where you’re latching on to what’s cool at the moment and trying to ride the bandwagon, I understand why people hate that shit… If you make music from the heart and you’re not doing it to necessarily gain popularity from a certain demographic of people and you just do you, then you’re going to be accepted for doing you whether or not people like your music.”