Written by Eleonora Rondelli – Translated by Leandro Bonan
In the last 2 years the hip hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis became astonishingly well known in the universe of music, suddenly reaching the top of the rankings with their hit “Thrift Shop”. Those two guys have meant real fresh air, not only for their hip hop music with funky nuances, but also for the subjects dealt, the way to approach the fans and especially for their risky economic choices.
Macklemore’s early career
Macklemore, born as Ben Haggerty in 1989 in Seattle, grew there in the Capitol Hill district; as he continuously narrates, he feels himself a privileged: his parents, and particularly his mother July, always supported him to be creative, to be an artist.
The first influences come from musicals, such as “Cats”, which his mother fetched him to watch, and from the king of Pop Michael Jackson, but his first contact with hip hop happened when he was 7 years old, thanks to a viral hit of those years, “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjIMqfWDPC4).
Since that moment he started writing his first rap poems, the first songs, recorded in his bedroom, the first problems with alcohol during High School, the change of school, in trying to solve such problems, but also his first EP (published in 2000 under the pseudonym of Professor Macklemore).
Ryan Lewis’s early career
Although it sometimes happens to forget his name and his importance, we need to remember that there will be no Macklemore without Ryan Lewis.
His childhood was certainly more complicated, his mother Julie contracted HIV because of an infected blood transfusion occurred during the birth of her first daughter.
Miraculously, neither Ryan nor his sister contracted the illness and the mother, against all expectations of the doctors, who gave her not more than 3 years of survival, is still alive and currently struggling with the virus.
Starting from such a particular situation, Ryan has lived since his early childhood bearing in mind the caducity of life, therefore constantly following the motto “carpe diem”, trying to fully profit from every moment.
He cultivates his love for music since his early childhood, as well, playing and singing in both rock and metal bands during his adolescence.
When he is 15, though, a transfer completely changes his horizon, moving from Spokane, Washington, to Seattle, the capital of the State; in such a way he meets different cultures and discovers different musical genres, he starts listening hip hop and he produces some tracks.
The 17-year-old Ryan plucks up courage and he sends a friend request on MySpace to Macklemore, who was starting to be known and famous in the whole Seattle. The latter accepts it, he listens his tracks and the two meet, starting to build up not only a friendship, but also a creative relationship.
The drug abuse and the alcoholism
Things got complicated because of Ben’s problems: together with Fame, also more money comes and his problems, which were already present since his adolescence, bear out themselves, and in fact he’s no longer able to limit himself, and such a behaviour drags him into a spiral of drugs and alcohol.
During that period he is always depressed, he tends to isolate himself and he becomes selfish: he stops to regularly show up at the recording studio, he is no longer a trustworthy friend and he exploits Ryan’s skills and competence, who conversely is always ready to help him.
Meanwhile, he meets Tricia, his actual girlfriend, merchandising and tour manager, and she manages, together with Ben’s father, to convince him to attend a summer rehab programme, which lasts 35 days.
That helps Ben indeed, and he starts working hard again: he reinforces and strengthens his friendship with Ryan, their creative collaboration becomes deeper, basing itself on mutual respect and becoming an equal relationship, which leads Ryan to obtain that his name appears on every track and cover.
The innovative and characteristic features of the duo.
One of the most important and characteristic elements of this duo is undoubtedly Ryan Lewis, who is not only a beat maker, but also a producer, keen on photography and in charge of the web site design, the graphic design; shortly, he is a very complete artist, who collaborates in all possible ways to their project.
Another important element is their special relationship with the fans, which is firstly established with the song “Otherside”, in which Ben openly talks about his drug addiction and alcoholism, subjects he earlier was not happy to discuss about; the track wants to give a different message than that usually given by hip hop about drugs: Macklemore does not glorify them; on the other side he narrates bluntly and sincerely about the troubles they cause, the troubles they caused to him, hoping that his song could influence other people’s lives. From this moment on the duo starts receiving a notable feedback.
But the very innovative element of the duo is the fact that they, although being famous, let the majors deal only with the distribution of their songs: in fact they are not bounded to any big recording company, although their world famous producer L. A. Reid (who launched talents such Mariah Carey, P!nk, Avril Lavigne, Usher and Ne-Yo) offered them a contract with their major.
The reasons of such a risky choice are many:
- The will to maintain the creative control on every aspect of their music: lyrics, direction of their videos (a fundamental part of their success), web site, merchandising.
- They are against the entire system underlying the music industry and they do not hide such an aversion: in their song “Jimmy Iovine” (another well-known producer) they sing:
- We’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars After your album comes out, we’ll need back that money that you borrowed
- So it’s really like a loan?
- Alone?! Come on, no: We’re a team, 360 degrees, we will reach your goals! You’ll get a third of the merch that you sell out on the road, Along with a third of the money you make when you’re out doing your shows; Manager gets twenty, booking agent gets ten. So shit, after taxes, you and Ryan have 7% to split! That’s not bad, I’ve seen a lot worse. No one will give you a better offer than us
- Mm-hm, – I replied, – I appreciate the offer, Thought that this is what I wanted; Rather be a starving artist, Than succeed at getting fucked
Another distinguishing element of their music is the nature of the messages they give with their songs, completely controversial and opposite to those traditionally attributed to the hip hop world.
In his videos, Ryan does not show off Rolex, expensive clothes or Lamborghinis (he makes the exact opposite, in his video “Thrift Shop” he appears, wearing a fur, riding a tricycle); on the contrary, he denounces consumerism.
But the real risk is run with “Same Love”, song in which he declares to be in favour of same-sex marriages, becoming a defender of LGBT rights.
He affirms that it has been a very controversial topic to deal with, both because he feels very involved (his uncle John, to whom he is deeply attached, is gay), and because, generally, all other rappers display their homophobia here and there in their lyrics, and such a song meant going explicitly against the standards of a world in which, at that time, he was still trying to succeed.
The song was very appreciated and it had a clamorous success: it was even performed during the last Grammy’s together with Madonna and Queen Latifah, while in the room 30 couples (both straight and homosexual) married (and among them there was also Ryan Lewis’s sister).
We want to recall that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis will exhibit in different festivals during this summer, among the Sziget Festival, on Obuda Island, Budapest, and in which Revolart will be recognised as press.
It is definitely worth to participate to a concert of theirs: more than mere performances they are shows indeed, every time unique and full of energy and positivity.
Oh, and in case you were still wondering why he called himself “Macklemore” here is the reason!
When he was 17 years old he spent a summer in Brooklyn, New York. He was young, creative, thinnest and drunk most of the time. He was used to go in those second-hand shops to buy the most extravagant outfits he could find, when he walked around the town he wore those clothes and he let call himself “Professor Macklemore”. Afterwards he realized he was professor of anything, but he kept using Macklemore.