When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis began recording their collaborative debut, they didn't set out to make a record that would change their lives, shock the industry, or shape the future of hip-hop. They were just two independent musicians doing what they loved with people they cared about.
"That's what made The Heist special," Macklemore says. "There were no big-name features on it. It was people that we're all friends with or people that we know. It was a community of artists coming together and making something from the perspective of a collective."
Of course, 1,132,000 Nielsen SoundScan-certified record sales later, this 15-track album has become one of the year's biggest musical success stories, transforming the rhymesmith and his production partner from small-stage names to arena stars.
By now, almost the whole wired world has seen Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' iconic, viral video for "Thrift Shop," which has notched 453,793,101 views and counting. But the single was originally produced and released through personal means.
Eventually and unexpectedly, though, the sleeper hit climbed to number one in 22 countries and sparked the pair's ascent to pop superstatus. Its anti-designer message hit home with millions of music lovers across the globe who were tired of dealing with broken economies and trying to keep up with the "1 percent."
It wasn't long before nearly everyone seemed to have Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' jam on repeat. And in the first week after its release, The Heist sold 78,000 copies.
Listening to the album, fans found artfully crafted songs about lives just like theirs, as Macklemore tackled tough themes — addiction, homophobia, and the perils of the music industry — with a playful delivery and soul-bearing honesty.
But writing an entertaining, candid, and complex record is more difficult than it sounds.
"Such a long process," Macklemore admits. "I think being honest with yourself about yourself is something that takes time. It takes you cultivating a side of yourself that you might not want to see — delving into personal issues to ask: What makes you human? What gives you identity? What gives you purpose?
"We're fascinating creatures, and what makes us who we are comes from so many different places," he says. "All of these things, once you start investigating them by means of a blank piece of paper, who knows what you're going to find?"
What he and his production partner found was massive success. But believe it or not, a sudden rush to fame can be a rocky ride.
"At times, I was unhappy in it," the rapper acknowledges. "Over the last six months, I feel like I've figured out how to navigate around it. It's become reality now, and you want to go into life each day being grateful to wake up and to be in a position to make art for a living, have a job, and be able to influence people's lives and shape culture.
"Those are things I've always strived for as an artist. So to get to that point with it, you want to be grateful each day. Yet there is another side of it that is challenging, and it takes adjusting to."
One thing that fame hasn't changed is Macklemore's character. It's what got him here. His intrinsic being shines through in his lyrics, and he promises fans that he and Lewis' commitment to honest, homegrown music will never waver.
"Within the industry, there becomes increasing pressure to fall into the formula, to get together with this artist because it makes sense on paper," he explains, "and that's not necessarily what makes the most sense in terms of good music.
"You pair this artist up with this artist and this is going to be a hit, this works — one plus one equals two. But you can't do math with music. Music is from the spirit. It doesn't come from the head. It comes from the heart."
And Macklemore isn't alone. Other hip-hop artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Earl Sweatshirt are opening up, shunning the bling, and getting real.
"There is a trend right now in being yourself and being vulnerable," the rapper points out. "Everyone see themselves in those types of people, and it works. It brings everyone in and makes them feel like they are a part of the experience. They know you more than they may know another artist who is living a false life or not willing to dig deeper."
Thanks to this kind of purposeful authenticity, Macklemore enjoys a deep connection with his fans, and he tries to bring a certain level of intimacy to the stage, no matter how big or small it may be.
"We're playing arenas now," he says. "And yet you still want it to feel like a 200-capacity room. I still want to be able to talk to the audience like when I was in small clubs, where they felt like they knew who I was. That's what I want, and that's what we go for every single night."
Pulling it off can sometimes be tricky, though.
"There are times when we bring the stage in. We bring out, like, a living room set. I want you to feel like you're in my living room. Then there are times when I want you to feel like you're at a big-ass arena show, and there's fireworks and there's confetti getting blasted in your face. I want the duality. I want those polarized sensations to happen during the same hour-and-a-half experience."
Luckily for Macklemore and his fans, the stage is where he feels most at home. He confesses it's always been that way and that walking out in front of that audience brings out the best in him.
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"I strive as a performer to showcase all aspects of myself. I want to take you on a roller coaster of what it is to be me," he says. "I want to have songs that make you cry. I want to have songs that inspire you. I want to have songs that uplift and turn the crowd out and start a dance party. I want to have everything in between, and I want to do it in a way that includes the audience. They are not watching the show; they are the show."
To both the rapper and his production partner, the live Macklemore & Ryan Lewis show is the most important aspect of their jobs, aside from the music itself. It's part of their commitment to hip-hop's communal roots.
"If you want to show support to an artist, for me, the biggest way is to come out to a show," Macklemore insists. "You're there, you're participating, that's what hip-hop culture is about. This culture started in parks and on street corners and with people actively participating. There was a vibe, an energy, and individuals telling stories. That is the oral tradition. That is where this art comes from.
"What technology has done, it's made us participate from the outskirts of it," he notes with some disappointment. "Just because you download an album does not mean that you're participating in the culture, and that to me is sad. You can't prevent it, but if you want to be an active participant in hip-hop culture, you have to get off the couch, go to a show, and experience the live element of it. That's the only way."