As many of you who are regular readers know, I am longtime friend (and fan of course) of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Ben (Macklemore) and I get coffee at the same joint. He has played dinner parties at my studio and he and Ryan deployed a magical performance on chasejarvisLIVE among other things over the years. But it is with a special appreciation that I’ve been attuned their meteoric rise to the top of the musical charts in the last six months. Quadruple MF’ing platinum, that is. For those who are counting, that’s 4 million copies of “Thrift Shop” alone… all without a label. Not only do these guys represent a great new era of conscious hip hop, but they represent the opportunity of the future for independant artists everywhere And I can say these guys are hard working, humble and dedicated to their craft.. unabashedly this success couldn’t have happened to better people. Well, last weekend those cats achieved their dream of being the musical guest on Saturday Night Live (video above). A few weeks ago, just a couple hours before a sold out Red Rocks show in Denver, my homie and manager Jerard sat down with Ben and his manager Zach Quillen (also a stellar gent) for an interview. Enjoy. -Chase
[Interview has been edited and shortened for print]
CJ: Can you tell us a little bit about this time in your life right now? This album’s only been out for five months and has sold hundreds of thousands of downloads. Thriftshop is double-platinum. You’re blowing up. (chase’s note… this was a month ago, and it’s already quadruple platinum now…)
Macklemore: It has completely exceeded my expectations of what I thought the project would do and what I hoped it would do. We sold 78,000 our first week. We were expecting to sell around 25,000 to 30,000. It was a lot bigger than any of us anticipated. Coming in at number two on Billboard independently is something that we are all really proud of. We decided to put out the album ourselves. And it kind-of worked. And we didn’t know if it was gonna work; we didn’t know what the, you know, what the reaction was gonna be.
I think that you have, on one side you have things like numbers that mark how far you’re going up, like, the hierarchical ladder of success. And you also have something which is the art. And wanting your art to resonate with the people that are hearing your art. The people, the fans that were there, the people that are hearing you for the first time, you hope that you have an album that garners critical acclaim as well as selling units. And you hope that you have both. And I think that, with The Heist, it turns out that, you know, we’ve had success in both of those areas. But the most important, for me, is the art. And that’s something that I am very proud of on The Heist. And I’m not saying that to be like, “Look what we’ve done. Ha!” I’m saying that because I’m still really fucking surprised that has happened. And you know, when we made “Thrift Shop”, we made the album, I didn’t think there was any chance that we would have a shot at commercial radio whatsoever. Like, if we didn’t sign a major label deal, literally in my head I didn’t think there was a percentage of a chance that it would take off at radio. It’s weird to be recognized in public as kind-of like the “Thrift Shop Guy” right now. I didn’t anticipate that. And once the record kind-of takes off to the level where it has, to where you’ve sold, you know, you’ve gone double platinum and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down… it’s very exciting but at the same time it’s a little bit scary. Like, “What the hell did I sign up for?” “I can’t turn back now.” It’s a transitional period. And also life feels completely the same as it did a month ago or as it did three months ago. But in terms of where I’m at in my life…everything’s the same. And yet, the attention is such a different level and you’re still the same person. And yet you have the number one record in America. That’s bizarre and strange. So I’m adapting to that.
CJ: I like what you said about underneath all that recognition, for you, is really the art. And you first came to my attention through Chase. Back in 2009 or so you were on his show Songs for Eating and Drinking and you did a song that, at that point, was called “Air Jordans” and that’s actually on The Heist as –“Wings”. You put your heart and soul into this album. Starting way back then, really busting this song out for, what I assume was, one of the first times.
Macklemore: It was THE first time. [I recall] I had forgotten about the event and I woke up from a nap and it was like fifteen minutes until it started. And I printed off the last thing that I had written which was “Wings”, which was then titled “Air Jordans” ‘cause I had just woken up from a nap and had no idea what to call it. Yeah that was the first time.
CJ: At that point, you had turned the corner in your career. You were a professional musician. You’re…
Macklemore: Nah, I was fresh out of rehab, living in my parent’s basement.
CJ: Okay, we’ll go back to that, but you had made a choice to be a musician. You were pursuing your craft full time.
Macklemore: Drugs and then art. [laughs] Nah, I at that point, yes, I had… you know, stopped smoking and drinking and I was just trying to get kinda get back on my feet.
CJ: The transition from that point to today is… is rather dramatic. Today you are double platinum (see earlier note) and then you were waking up from a nap. But underneath it is really your art and your craft. And I think that’s important for you know people who are interested in you and pursuing their own work That here’s Ben saying, Macklemore is saying, “Hey, even when you’re at the top you still have perspective on that.” Now lets take it back to your parents basement and how your work pulled you out of that time period in your life as well.
Macklemore: To go back even further, I think I was then, and always have been the type of person that would have no moderation with drugs and alcohol. Ever since I first started at fifteen years old. I also wasn’t the type of person that could create while being, you know, high on weed and drinking alcohol. And I smoked weed, once I was smoking weed it was like a wake-up-in-the-morning-’til-go-to-bed-and-pass-out thing. Wake up the next morning, smoke the roach, call the drug dealer and wake him up at nine o’clock. It was just that type of cycle. And so I wasn’t making music, and it continued to get worse. And I went to treatment, got out, and it was really kind-of a rebirth for me. I got another shot at this. And I thought, if this doesn’t work now, I’m gonna have to go and pursue something else. That’s a scary place for an artist to be. I always had this faith.
Somebody asked me recently, “What was it that kept you going when it wasn’t popping off, when you were broke? What was it that kept that artistic spirit going?” And for me it was this thing that if I did get sober, if I could get sober, that I knew I would have a career making music. I didn’t know that it would look like this; I didn’t know that it would look like what it looked like two years ago. But I felt like I could sustain myself off of my art. But getting out of treatment that was gruesome, dark. That was a very dark and depressing time.year. It was very much, “If this doesn’t work I’m gonna go get a nine to five and do something that I probably am gonna hate doing and resent a good portion of my early twenties for not handling my shit.” And, very blessed the fact that it worked out. And that’s when Ryan [Lewis] and I were making the verses to EP.
CJ: The guys here at The Business of Fun have this analogy that’s called the aircraft carrier analogy. That there are five thousand guys that run an aircraft carrier. There only a hundred pilots. But there’s this huge support system behind any of the things that are out front, the people that are out front. So you and Ryan are out front but your manager Zach is sort-of in the boiler room sometimes. It’s relevant because when you have a passion for something, you don’t necessarily have to be the MC; you don’t necessarily have to be the double platinum artist. There are people behind the people.
Zach Quillen: What Ben and I have in common there is that I was never gonna be satisfied or happy with a nine to five–a traditional nine to five. I got fired from like every job I had in high school for having an attitude problem. And it ultimately was that I didn’t wanna work for anybody but me. And always had a passion for music but not, you know, not necessarily the other things that you need talent-wise to be out front, be up at center. So this was as close as I could get. I wanted to stand as close as I could to people like Ben and use the talents that I had developed over the years to help them achieve what they want to achieve. And ultimately achieve what I wanted to achieve alongside. I never saw any other option. And if you know anything about getting into the music business it’s, especially at first, there’s nothing glamorous about it. While Ben was performing in front of eight people in Omaha I was making like $22,000 a year living in New York City, barely coming up with money to buy groceries. It’s a similar path in that way – where you just have to love it. It has to be everything for you. I was totally fine to be broke in New York as long as I got to stand next to these super talented people that were making music, that were changing people’s lives. I didn’t care about really anything else.
CJ: There’s this perception of the glamour of it, but really there’s a grind. Whether it’s sport, or art, music, photography, how are you gonna be committed to it when the work is really kicking you in the balls everyday? And you guys both went through that.
Macklemore: That process it doesn’t stop. It… that never lets up. I’m off like an hour of sleep right now coming from New York. And we do Red Rocks tonight, fly out at six o’clock in the morning which means that we’re back at the airport at four o’clock in the morning to catch the flight. It’s more of a grind than it ever has been. A lot of it isn’t fun. Still. But it is my life’s work. This is what I’ve always wanted. And you need to constantly be reminding yourself that as you evolve because, if you’re not grateful in those moments, like, sure I might’ve got an hour of sleep last night but I was on David Letterman. And I never thought in my life I would be on David Letterman.
CJ: Can you share with us some of those influences today, and some of the things that helped bring you up, that you really paid attention to?
Macklemore: I try to pay attention to art outside of hip-hop. I don’t do a very good job of doing that. But when I am paying attention to art that’s not just hip-hop, I am often times inspired in a way that I can’t get if I just go to like the same like four hip-hop blogs that I go to everyday. Yesterday I watched a concert film from David Byrne of The Talking Heads. And it’s this show that he did probably like in the eighties. I didn’t know anything about David Byrne of The Talking Heads. Like I recognized some songs as I was watching this film, but… You know, he comes on stage with just like a boombox and presses play. And it’s just him with the boombox. And as the show goes on, you know, he adds a bass player, and a guitar player, and some dancers, and a drummer. And it turns into this whole, huge set–a huge production. And it’s watching things like that. Like great, great minds–people that are thinkers–that wanna challenge what a show looks like, wanna challenge the audience to really be engaged with them, with what they’re performing. And thinking about it in a different way. Like I think that, you know, I’ve been thinking about our show and not really happy with the show that we put on. I’m really happy with what we can deliver but I think we can do better. And I don’t know that I could do better if I’m only watching, if I’m only checking out hip-hop blogs. ‘Cause for the most part, like, rap concerts suck. You need to be inspired by other mediums. When I was writing The Heist I was taking walks in graveyards and trying to write at the art museum. Buying books and reading a couple chapters and putting it down and picking up a different book. Just trying to constantly be inspired by culture and just trying to get that spark that can lead to a new song. ‘Cause if I’m only listening to hip-hop music, if I’m only living my day-to-day life the same every single day, constantly, there’s no fuel to create something brand new. And that’s how I stay inspired.
You have to be able to experience life to have something new to write about. I don’t wanna write The Heist again. Like The Heist was a moment in time. I am a very conceptual writer. I can’t write those same songs again. I need to have new experiences to draw from to be able to put into my art.
CJ: [Question from live studio audience] If you could choose one song out of any of the songs that you have written for the world to hear, what would that song be and why?
Macklemore: I’d probably say, right now–and hopefully it will change ‘cause I write new songs and it evolves–but in 2013 it would probably be “Same Love”. THat song carries a message that I want to be heard around the world. And I think it’s an important message. It’s a message of tolerance, of equality, of compassion, of understanding, of pushing ourselves and our own bias and our own stereotypes. And I think that that’s my highest potential as an artist is to write songs–anyone’s highest potential–is to write songs that have an impact on society, have an impact on people’s lives, that can create dialogue within other people. You know “Same Love” is not a song that’s like you listen to it and I want you to immediately agree with everything that I say in the song. I don’t want you to feel that way out of any of the songs that I write. Everyone interprets music differently and messages differently. But what I hope is that it facilitates dialogue, that people listen to “Same Love” and then have a conversation. Or re-evaluate the words that they use, the language that they use. Or their, potentially their own, um, their own set of beliefs and retrace the lineage of why they are the way that they are. That’s essentially the greatest tool of music, is to… for us to examine who we are, find our truth, and evolve. And I think that “Same Love” falls into that category.
CJ: [Audience Question]Malcolm Gladwell talks about how if you really dedicate yourself to something and invest 10,000 hours you cmaster your craft. But he also really connects that blood, sweat, and tears, the passion, with kind-of this serendipitous opportunity, if you will, like a moment, a magical moment where the universe aligns and allows you commit to that craft. Was there a moment or a period in your life that holds true to that ideal for you?.
Macklemore: Woah, yeah, That’s a great question. It kind-of gave me like a, uh… it brought up some emotion actually. There was a moment. I was, um, I was in treatment. I tried, as I said before, I tried my whole life to get sober. And I didn’t know how to do it. And always felt that I had words to share with people. I didn’t know on what scale that would be. I didn’t know if that was like a hundred people or a hundred thousand. I didn’t know what that meant but I felt in my heart that I had something to share. There was a monk And in treatment I had this moment. I was accumulating these tools to stay sober and part of the guy that was kind-of leading me through the steps in treatment was a practicing Buddhist monk. And we went to a monastery. And we were doing this kind-of this chanting and walking in a circle, walking in some figure eight circle. And you know earlier in my life I, when I got out of high school I couldn’t get into any colleges. No one would accept me. I cheated in school on math from sixth grade on. So I, when it came down to like the SAT’s, it’s a lot harder to cheat on the SAT’s. Looking over your friend’s shoulder doesn’t exactly work the same. I don’t recommend anybody doing that. I couldn’t get into any schools. So I went to I went to India for a couple months when I graduated from high school. And I had this experience there of, I was like meditating on top of–this all sounds like really “Losty” and like very hippie but it’s just the truth. So I was meditating on top of a hill and I had this very serene peaceful moment. I meditated. And it was the first time I had ever done it where there was like no thoughts in my mind. It probably lasted for like two seconds, but I did it. And I’d been trying for a while. Mostly through hallucinogenics I was trying and that didn’t work.
So I finally like hit this point naturally and the first, thing that kind-of brought me out of this state of, you know, two seconds of kind-of just serene peace was this thought of, like, “This is so incredible. This is so amazing. What I’m feeling right now is the truth. This is my highest potential…” And then, “but you’re gonna go back to using drugs and alcohol.” And I was eighteen years old at the time. And it was a very depressing way to kind-of exit out of this moment. And I knew it. I was sober at that moment, but I knew I was eventually gonna go back to Seattle. Or it was gonna be a couple days later or whatever and I was going to go back. And when I was doing this chanting, you know, some, you know, probably eight years later, I had that exact same kind-of moment. And it brought me back to that place. And I was like, “I don’t need to go back anymore.” And then, “That’s it.” I didn’t come out of that like meditation space as I did before. “I’m gonna go back. I’m gonna fuck up again. I’m gonna be a drug addict.” My thought was, “You don’t have to do that. And it’s your choice.”
That was my moment that I turned around. You know, since then it hasn’t been perfect. If you’ve heard the song “Starting Over” that’s obvious. But, my life changed in that treatment center. You know, I really have my life and my craft, and my art, everything that is good in my life, my relationships with my girlfriend and my family and my manager, and being present in this moment right here is all do to the fact that I’m sober.
So that was that moment.
CJ: Great question, awesome answer. I think we actually have to take you guys back. I think you’ve got something to do tonight. Thank you so much for making the time to come and talk to us.
Macklemore: Thank you. This is fantastic. I appreciate everyone for coming out.
ZQ: Thank you.