The Making of Macklemore
By Stacy Lambe
Photography by Hayley Young | Styling by Hilary Folks
Handsome, fabulously dressed in a bright red suit that fits snugly on his slender frame, with perfectly cropped and coiffed hair. At first glance, one could take Macklemore (real name: Ben Haggerty) for the nation’s first mainstream gay rapper. He is, after all, a flashy 29-year-old dandy who saunters around in $450 blue velvet Stubbs & Wootton slippers, an MC who struck gold with a number 1 hit about vintage shopping, and a flamboyant showman who cemented his arrival in March with a rousing performance on Saturday Night Live in which he literally skipped across the stage (it drew 5.8 million viewers). But such an assumption would be relying too much on the same stereotypes Macklemore himself tackles in his breakthrough single, “Same Love.” No, he’s not gay. (In fact, he’s engaged to his tour manager and girlfriend of seven years.) At one point in time, though, he certainly thought he might be gay. And that, in a roundabout way, is what brings him here this evening.
After 15 years in the game -- a stretch that included popular Seattle club gigs, a self-released record titled The Language of My World in 2005, and bouts with substance abuse -- Macklemore is suddenly on the verge of bona fide success. The artist, now sober, is in the midst of transitioning from a YouTube sensation to a legitimate rapper and entertainer. People are catching on.
If proof was needed, you could find it on a bracing night in March, when I am standing in line in East Lansing, Mich., to see Macklemore and his DJ and producing partner, Ryan Lewis, at their latest sold-out concert. The duo is on a world tour to promote their independently released debut album, The Heist, which came out in October and has sold more than 500,000 copies. Their circuit has taken them from Australia to college towns in the United States, with a stop at the South by Southwest music festival. Now they are here at the Breslin Center at Michigan State University, where, despite the freezing cold, an amped-up pack of scantily clad, boozy teenage girls are waiting to see them play (and doing a shit job of hiding their flasks). They aren’t the only attendees making bold, slightly absurd fashion choices: More than a couple dozen guys sport used fur coats, an homage to Macklemore’s video for his biggest single, “Thrift Shop,” which, since last August, has had more than 245 million hits.
An hour and a half later, Macklemore bounds onto the stage, somehow managing to radiate even more energy than he exhibited in that recent appearance on SNL. For him and Lewis, who acts as a sort of hype man, keeping the audience pumped, engaged, and connected to the performance is key. This may be why at one point Macklemore pauses the show to urge a group of fans to abandon their assigned seats and push closer to the front, and why when he rips into “Thrift Shop,” he dances out into the wall-to-wall crowd and borrows a fur coat from someone, paying his own tribute to the enthusiastic fan.
The show ends, and I meet Macklemore and Lewis and head to the green room backstage. Macklemore is bleary-eyed, visibly exhausted after having just wrapped a concert for 6,500 people. His rendition of “Thrift Shop” was an obvious high point of the performance, but it’s time to talk about the other big song that has recently captured the attention of his followers and the media alike.
Asked what served as his inspiration for “Same Love,” he hangs his head and thinks for a moment. “I knew I wanted to write a song about gay rights, about marriage equality, and about homophobia in hip-hop, but I didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “I tried, at first, writing from the perspective of a gay, bullied kid. That’s what sparked the song in the first place: reading the story of a 13-year-old who committed suicide.”
It was at that point that Lewis intervened, pushing the rapper to write a personal narrative instead. The result was an account of Macklemore’s struggle with his own sexuality as a kid.