Macklemore: The Seattle Rapper’s History and Best Songs

macklemore.neptune.feb2013

Macklemore standing on the hands of his hometown crowd the same night his song “Thrift Shop” is number one.

Macklemore and his collaborator Ryan Lewis wrote the song “Thrift Shop” because they thought it would be fun to make the video.

A few years ago I interviewed Macklemore in person for KEXP Documentaries. He told me afterward that our talk was one of the only recorded sessions where he felt like his true self.

It’s ironic that Macklemore, who had consistently put out deep, thoughtful lyrics for over a decade would become famous for a track about looking fine in cheap duds.

In the “Thrift Shop” video Macklemore leads a gang of surprisingly chic shopping rebels through the city.

He looks like a lion in his giant fur coat. A new breed of proud-yet-humble rap royalty.

True to form he still manages to get a word in about blind consumerism.

KEXP (the station I work for) has been spinning Macklemore since his first solo record under the name Professor Macklemore in 2000.

Since then Macklemore has seemed to jump at any opportunity to rap onstage.

To see this hard-working local artist get recognition with a #1 hit song and a performance on Saturday Night Live in February 2013 was  beautiful. No one has worked harder or deserves it more.

The first song I really remember hearing by Macklemore was “Contradiction.”

A listener requested it on my Friday night radio show back in 2006. It was from Macklemore’s first full-length Language of My World.

“Contradiction” was made in the tradition of Seattle’s trademark hip-hop sound.

Contrary to what most people would think  (that the Seattle style must have something to do with Sir Mix-A-Lot) the true Seattle rap sound was created by Vitamin D, his band The Ghetto Children and their label Tribal in the 90s.

The warm, jazzy samples, understated beats and calm, thoughtful raps have inspired newer Seattle artists like Blue Scholars, Jake One, Shabazz Palaces and Macklemore.

What was even more striking about “Contradiction,” was the lyrics. Macklemore talks about a conversation with a female fan. He explains why he uses the word “bitch” in songs.

Years later, when I interviewed Macklemore for KEXP Documentaries I asked him about this track.

Macklemore said. “I stand up for human rights” but also admitted that another part of him is sexist. He said he feels a compulsion to be authentic in his lyrics.

Macklemore started his first group Elevated Elements when he was only 14. His family had moved into the big city and he found himself at Garfield High School in Seattle. Garfield was a rap mecca  for teenagers. Many of the city’s prominent hip-hop artists went there.

At only 16 years old Macklemore dropped the Open Your Eyes EP under the name Professor Macklemore. The year was 2000. The record got airplay on the station where I work – KEXP. We play a lot of unreleased and local artists. Macklemore was both.

Language of My World in 2005 was Macklemore’s first full length. The honest themes and great grooves on the record, along with the many shows Macklemore performed, earned him a local following. The high school kids in particular were crazy about him and flocked to his shows.

Macklemore’s 201o release The Versus EP with Ryan Lewis broadened the audience.

To his earlier themes of human rights and personal struggles Macklemore added new personal stories of recovery and addiction. The sober community started to take notice, especially the younger members, and became loyal fans. The rapper himself has been working hard on his sobriety since 2008.

“He’s talking about drug addiction and recovery and all of these really dark places in the human psyche that some of us have actually been.” Sabzi from Blue Scholars.

As someone who also doesn’t drink, I empathize with Macklemore’s feeling of success and many people’s liquid definition of celebration. That’s what everyone does when you have a hit, they buy you a drink!

Macklemore’s struggle was documented on The Versus EP.  The record had it’s high and low points. “Irish Celebration” was a dramatic heartfelt take on Macklemore’s experience being an Irish descendant. “The End” was romantic confession. Macklemore admitted later he broke into tears when recording it.

The song “Vipassana” was the one that really blew my mind. This existential poem delivered by Macklemore is still one of the most honest and deep tracks I’ve ever heard.

“Take all the ugly shit inside and try to make it beautiful.” – Macklemore

For a fuller take on Seattle’s hip-hop history check out the Blue Scholars episode in “Hip-Hop: The New Seattle Sound” – a series I made for KEXP Documentaries. Other Emerald City bands featured in the series are: Shabazz Palaces, Jake One, Vitamin D, TheeSatisfaction, Ra Scion, Dyme Def and Fresh Espresso.

“There’s some people that probably would look at Macklemore and be like ‘wow that’s just another white guy rapping but you can’t front on what he’s bringing…Macklemore is an incredible lyricist.” -Seattle Hip Hop Historian Mike Clark

Macklemore’s 2009 single “The Town” pays musical tribute to Seattle’s hip-hop history. This nostalgic track was produced with local beatmaster Sabzi from the Blue Scholars.

The 2011 full-length The Heist was so anticipated it hit the Billboard top 200 album charts right out of the gate. “Thrift Shop” was already a popular single at KEXP and other college stations. “Can’t Hold Us” was the second one, coming in strong.

The most moving song on the record was the soulful song that championed gay marriage – “Same Love.”

 “Music has the ability to inspire people to change their lives. That’s where the power lies.”-Macklemore

Even when he was in relative obscurity, Macklemore played every room like it was Carnegie Hall. At this point I think anyone who sees him live can’t deny the electricity.

I saw him recently at the Neptune Theater in Seattle. He was the surprise guest (with Cody Chesnutt and Built to Spill) in the city’s best venue.

When Macklemore came out the crowd went bananas. “Thrift Shop” was holding at number one on the charts for weeks now and he took us over the edge with it!

Next we were all singing along and in tears when he broke out the gay marriage anthem “Same Love.”  Together we held up our “number one” fingers to show solidarity for equal love rights.

For “Can’t Hold Us” Macklemore took it higher. He started crowd surfing and all of a sudden was standing  straight up, supported by the hands of the audience.  I’ve never seen that done before.

It was so great to see Macklemore get the love he deserved from his hometown fans on a night when one of his songs had finally hit number one on the charts. If you get the chance to see him live don’t miss it.

Right now Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are in production for the video to the song “Can’t Hold Us.” Get the latest updates at Macklemore.com.

Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP 90.3FM Seattle, kexp.org. Music historian and producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP Documentaries. She’s also written scripts, lesson plans and features forThe SmithsonianExperience Music Projectthe University of Washington and NPR.

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Categories: biographies, hip-hop, music, music history, new releases, videos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Macklemore: The Seattle Rapper’s History and Best Songs

  1. Ned

    Macklemore also went to college and has a degree if I’m not mistaken.
    That seems worth mentioning.

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