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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Talk Vulnerability, Cultural Appropriation & The Polarising Response To Their Music

Written by David James Young on February 26, 2016

The Heist was an album that succeeded almost in spite of itself. That’s not to disparage the songs themselves – although countless were quick to do so. Rather, it’s a reflection on its context. Picture this: Independently-released pop-flavoured hip-hop with subject matter including (but not limited to) popping tags, combatting homophobia, making up, breaking up, holding onto sobriety and letting your vices take hold. Despite sounding like something most would not even give a second glance, the duo of Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty and Ryan Lewis wound up selling over a million copies of the thing; scoring three unstoppable radio hits along the way and even picking up a Grammy for their efforts.

After years as underdogs with a small but dedicated following, Haggerty and Lewis now count themselves as a package deal among the most popular musical acts in the world right now; amassing millions of social media follows and YouTube hits for songs like Thrift Shop, Same Love and last year’s Downtown, all of which struck a considerable chord here in Australia thanks to high-ranking ARIA chart positions and enviable Hottest 100 placings – particularly as far as Thrift Shop was concerned, taking out the top spot for 2012.

A lot has changed in the years following The Heist, particularly for Haggerty. He relapsed on his substance dependency, got clean again and became a father. He elevated independent hip-hop to a global status and was subsequently rebuked and ridiculed by countless independent hip-hop artists. He scored 3 million Twitter followers and maybe 6 million trolls telling him he and Lewis were responsible for making mass-produced cookie-cutter hip-hop for the masses. It’s a lot to take in and a lot to ponder – and it’s laid out with no detail spared on the duo’s second album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.

Fresh from spending a day in the mountains on a video shoot, Music Feeds spoke with the man of the moment about the duo’s success, opening up the dialogue and serving as both a voice for the people as well as one of pop’s court jesters.

Music Feeds: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made arrives with us nearly four years after the release of The Heist. Take us back to the earliest stages of writing for this record. Were you constantly scrapping and starting again?

Macklemore: Ryan had this studio booked out while we were on tour in 2013. He was starting work on the beats and production side of things, and some of those first ideas we had even made it onto the final record. It was about a year later, though, once the touring had properly wound down, that we started getting serious about working on it. This was about September in 2014. I think the two of us needed to remind ourselves what life was like away from the touring cycle.

I mean, for me… I’ll be honest with you: It was difficult for me, at first, to start writing again; purely because the touring on the back of The Heist went on for so much longer than we could have anticipated. I never found myself having enough time to write while I was on the road – nothing was coming to me. Figuring out what you want to say to the world while staring down a blank notepad… that’s a scary proposition.

I think, for that reason, we were compelled to start off with some more of the fun, more upbeat sort of songs for the record. There’s less pressure on that. You’re able to make those a lot easier. When you’re not over-thinking things and just having a bit of fun with the creative process, you’re able to take off a lot of that initial pressure. You find yourself making music purely for the sake of making music – you’re not thinking about an outcome or quantifying the songs that you’re making. You’re not trying to justify whether something should be on the album or not. You’re not stifling the process before it’s even been giving the chance to breathe. It’s about making art in the moment – that’s the key.

MF: You mentioned doing the “fun” songs first. One of the key factors that ties together The Heist and This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is taking those big, goofy songs with the obvious wink and the more joking nature about them; and balancing them out with the more self-conscious, confessional and more understated “serious” songs. How important is making sure neither becomes overbearing within the course of an album for you and Ryan?

M: I would say that it’s about as an accurate reflection on us as people as you can get. It’s a part of our personality. It’s life, y’know – there are moments of self-scrutiny in your own life where you find yourself thinking about the bigger issues and writing about concepts that have a deeper impact on you as a person. There also comes a time for celebration; a time for laughter; a time for humour… a time to turn up! [laughs] There is a real balance in that, absolutely. If I just tried to only do one of those sort of things, I don’t think it would be true to me.

They’re both real sides. I think that’s the most important thing. I mean, if you’re the kind of person that is 100% serious all the time, then by all means your music can be 100% serious. That’s just never how I’ve seen myself. I like to have fun. I like to make music that gives people a wide spectrum of emotion. I want to showcase who I am as a person.

MF: Another tie between the two albums is you discussing chance encounters with people recognising you in public – “Starting Over,” from The Heist, sees someone tell you that they got clean thanks to your song “Otherside;” while a mum in “White Privilege II” back-handedly compliments you by saying that your music is the only rap she will let her kids listen to. How do these kind of interactions with people impact on you personally? Does it assist in breaking the fourth wall and getting an outside perspective on how you and your music are perceived?

M: That’s a good question. I actually hadn’t correlated those two moments from each album, but you’re right. They’re both just real things that have happened to me. Moments like that definitely help me to reflect on what it is that I do – and that’s in both a good light and in a bad light, too. I think it helped me to realise the impact that art can truly have on someone’s life. It’s easy to get on autopilot when someone compliments your art, y’know – they’re like “I love the album!” or “I love that song!” and you’re like “Thanks, I appreciate it.” That can be a pattern you fall into.

It’s moments like that fan in “Starting Over” or that mum in the coffee shop in “White Privilege II” that make you realise something deeper about your music and what it is that you’re doing. I captured both of those moments on record because they gave me a sense of perspective. I had so many conversations with mums like that. I’ve had so many open, honest conversations about sobriety with people that have gone through the same things as I have. It’s a real extension of my reality.

MF: More or less ever since you and Ryan have been in the public eye, there have been no fence-sitters on the music the two of you make. This is still very much apparent now – you can read things like Rolling Stone‘s behind-the-scenes preview of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, or the Pitchfork editorial on “White Privilege II,” which both credit your artistry and paint you in an interesting light. Simultaneously, you can gaze over at Stereogum and see an article with the headline that literally reads “Macklemore’s ‘Spoons’ Is The Worst Song Ever Recorded”…

M: Oh, wow. [laughs] I haven’t read that one yet!

MF: It does raise the question as to your take on that kind of public reaction – how does it feel to be so beloved and popular and yet, at the same time, universally hated?

M: I think there are so many varying perspectives. Art is supposed to be digested, analysed and talked about. I think that if no-one was talking about the music that we’re making, we’d be doing something wrong. There’s always going to be conversation about art. People are going to love it. People are going to hate it. There’s going to be everything in-between. I think that vulnerability makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Vulnerability is at the cornerstone of what we do. That can be off-putting to people – particularly people that have some insecurities themselves.

It’s easy to get caught up in the branding and what we are over the music itself. I think that the brand of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – what we represent to some people – has completely eclipsed the art that we’re actually making. Overall, though, I make music because I love to make music. It’s a release for me. It’s therapy. It’s the way that I process life. There are people that are going to respond to that positively. There are people that are going to respond to that negatively. Some will cross over. Some will always stay firmly on one side. As long as I’m doing my job and continuing to create, that’s what matters the most to me.

MF: That schismatic public reaction to what you do was most recently personified with the release of the third single from This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, White Privilege II. It’s a song that sparked a lot of discussion online, particularly within the black community – and even that response saw a myriad of arguments going back and forth. There was even one tweet that read “Macklemore releasing a 9-minute song about white privilege is the definition of white privilege.” You must have known there would be some controversy about the song’s content and thematic concepts when you chose to release it as a single…

M: There’s no right way to write a song like that. The system in which the song operates is a false one. It’s a song about cultural appropriation while itself culturally appropriates. That tweet is right: It’s a song that talks about systemic racism while benefiting from that system being in place. We knew that going into it. It was a loaded debate in the studio as to whether this song was good for the world or not. We spoke with a bunch of different people about it. We had to figure out exactly what this song needed. We had to go about having this conversation in a manner that was as human as possible.

It’s not a song that’s trumpeting about how we’ve figured it all out or how we’ve solved the case. It’s a song about engaging in the dialogue – and whether right or wrong, it’s more important than remaining silent. What we need to be doing right now – particularly for a primarily-young and primarily-white demographic – is talking about racism in America. We need to be talking about systemic oppression, and talking about the origins of that. We need to be educating ourselves. This has been a song that has been extremely polarising, but even if it’s made a single person rethink any of these issues then I think it’s served a purpose.

MF: On The Heist, you brought several great performers to our attention – Wanz, Ray Dalton and Mary Lambert are just naming a couple of them. There are also some lesser-known performers that you collaborated with on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, including XP and former Foxy Shazam frontman Eric Nally. Is using your profile as a platform to showcase other artists something that you and Ryan consider to be important?

M: I think so, for sure. The obvious move for us would have been to go down to LA, pick out a bunch of A-listers and throw our weight around. Obviously, that wasn’t something that either of us wanted to do. For us, it’s about the music first and foremost: What type of sound do the people we’re collaborating with bring to the song? That’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter about the kind of name that they have or the kind of audience that they bring to the song.

I love being able to shine the spotlight on artists that might not have the kind of profile that we have. I love being able to work with legends like Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and KRS-One; artists that our audience might not necessarily know. Above everything, I want to just make good art. Collaborating with others helps to achieve that for us, I think.

MF: You’ve brought out people like Wanz and Ray Dalton on tour previously; and you’ve also had various people playing with you live. What is going to be the live set-up when you’re touring in support of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made?

M: It’s definitely going to be different. We’re going to XP coming out with us, who you mentioned just before. We featured him on Brad Pitt’s Cousin and Let’s Eat. He was around for the entirety of the project, too; and I’ve been making music with him for a really long time. We’re going to bring out Eric Nally, too, who sings on Downtown. On top of that, there’s a new string section, new band members, new dancers… it’s going to be a brand-new show. We’re so excited to get it on the road.

MF: That segues nicely into a parting question – when are we going to see the new show in Australia?

M: It’s definitely happening this year, I know that much. If I’m honest, out of the whole world tour that we’re planning, Australia is the place that I’m most looking forward to coming back to. The fans are crazy, Downtown did really well there and we’re guaranteed amazing shows every single time. I can promise it’s going to be huge.

‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’ is out today. Grab a copy here.

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