Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: Billboard Cover Story

Photograph by Ian Travis Barnard

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

They aren't just making records, they're setting them: biggest-selling download of 2013, the first duo to send their first two singles to No. 1 on the Hot 100. And they've done it all their way

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

Last fall, when their irrepressible hit "Thrift Shop" started to blaze up the charts and they were about to begin the tour for their first album, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had a dilemma: how to sell a $25 concert T-shirt for a song that talks about buying a whole wardrobe with "$20 in my pocket."

"It didn't make much sense," says Wanz (aka Michael Wansley), whose Nate Dogg-like vocals anchor the track's chorus. "The consensus was, 'Why do it?' So we didn't."

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

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This may seem like a poor merchandising decision, but it's illustrative of how these unlikely hip-hop stars do business. Many of their choices-starting with releasing their debut, "The Heist," independently last October to the topics they rap about-seem counterintuitive in an age when acts rely on brand sponsors for tour financing and crucial revenue, and major labels for marketing and radio promotion, to say nothing of rap's long-standing celebration of swag and flash. But the soft-spoken duo from the Pacific Northwest wouldn't have it any other way. Or as Wanz says, "It's like the emperor is actually wearing the clothes. They check themselves with everything they do." Even merchandising, it seems.

If they've missed out on some T-shirt revenue, they've made up for it elsewhere. This week, the duo's second single, "Can't Hold Us," tops the Billboard Hot 100 for a second week. Its ascension made chart history: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are the first duo to have its first two singles reach No. 1 on the chart. ("Thrift Shop" held the top spot for six weeks.) The Heist, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in October, has sold 703,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Thrift Shop" has moved another 6.2 million units (5 million of those in 2013, making it the best-selling download of the year to date), and "Can't Hold Us" accounts for 2 million more.

To understand how two white guys from Seattle turned into the biggest new hip-hop/pop act of 2013, you have to go back to the '90s. That's when Macklemore, otherwise known as Ben Haggerty, first heard Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance," a track whose unstoppable funk beats were matched by rapper Shock G's comic delivery and mock-pimp styling. "I was only 7 at the time," Macklemore recalls. "I dubbed the tape from a friend who was older than me and became obsessed."

Obsession meant constantly listening to Digital Underground's album "Sex Packets," then immersing himself in any hip-hop he could find. "I would sit outside and listen to music all day long," says Macklemore, a 29-year-old whose pale, freckly complexion and ginger-colored hair make him seem as much suited for an office job as being a rap star. He started mimicking Shock G's Humpty Hump sartorial esthetic, too, and rhyming at local block parties. "This was pre-Internet as a way to get your music out," he says. "So I had to do shows, but I was too young. Freestyling on the street or in the park was where I honed the craft."

Though he began high school at Garfield, whose alums include Quincy Jones, Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix, he was whisked out after his mom noticed he was more into partying than studying. "It was pre-gentrification of Seattle's Central District. And I wasn't going to class and I was doing a bunch of drugs and drinking. So my parents put me in a predominantly white school in the North End and then I did a program called Running Start, which was like a community college. I never got a chance to climb any kind of social ladder anywhere. I was more into making music-and doing hallucinogenic mushroom voyages."

CHART SHARKS: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis 'Hold' Atop Hot 100

Influenced by the free-thinking style of Del the Funky Homosapien, the Hieroglyphics Freestyle Fellowship and other alt-rap acts, Macklemore would go off into Seattle's outlying forests and trip as a means to soul search and be creative. "I'm always in a process of trying to find out who I am and why I'm here," he says. "And that hasn't changed. That's what The Heist is about." A summer spent at the School of Visual Arts in New York when he was 17 helped him further explore his identity, though not quite in the fashion of his rustic, psychedelic sojourns. "I would go to thrift shops and buy really crazy outfits, and put them on and drink malt liquor and call myself 'Professor Macklemore,'" he says. "I wore a lot of plaid, bell bottoms, older golfer, grandfather-type outfits. I didn't want to look like anyone else."

According to his brother, Macklemore has long had a distinctive flair. "He was always wearing crazy outfits," says Tim Haggerty, 26, who sang on the duo's VS. EP. "He's always been an eccentric person and always liked clothes. And I also noticed that the things he would wear would become trends a few months later."

The get-ups somehow helped free him up to write about topics that mattered to him. "The first song I remember writing that I really liked was about Martin Luther King Jr. I guess I've always been into consciousness-raising. What I tend to write about falls into four categories-spiritual, social, personal and fun." Indeed, as funny as "Thrift Shop" is, it's one of The Heist's two songs that take on consumerism, and the feel-good "Can't Hold Us" is about rising above one's own fears, with Macklemore's lyric about "looking for a better way to get out of bed" taking on deeper meaning if you know about his own struggles.

Shortly after meeting Lewis, a serious guitarist/producer and photographer/visual artist who was 17 at the time, Macklemore entered rehab for OxyContin abuse. He had also met Tricia Davis, a former nurse who became his fiance earlier this year. She now acts as the duo's road manager/video producer in addition to wearing many other hats. "I'd had some success in 2005 as Macklemore," the rapper says. "But being broke, having no career anymore was my rock bottom."

He emerged from rehab in 2008 a new man, and has been sober ever since, except for a slip with cough syrup in 2011. These days, he tries to head to meetings as often as he can, though being on the road proves arduous in terms of trying to find one that fits with his schedule. "Tricia tries to make sure I get to where I need to," Macklemore says. "Because it's tough, this lifestyle."

Indeed, backstage before a gig at Amherst College in Massachusetts, the rapper has the dark under-eye rings that are evidence of more than nine months of nonstop shows with a couple of days off a month to regroup with family in Seattle. It's this relentless schedule that breaks many a resolved soul. "I tend to be an overindulger in general," he says, confessing to a weakness for shopping -- yes! -- and candy. "Like I've just eaten two bags of chips and I had a shitload of candy from a gas station last night. I don't have moderation in my life. I really have to work on it. So with drugs and alcohol, I had no moderation. Smoking weed and drinking hindered my creative process. They were the veil over my eyes. It never really worked for me, in terms of being prolific." And there's no room for that now.

"We've been flying every other day," says Macklemore, sipping on tea because coffee is another thing he doesn't touch. "We feel lucky when we get in a bus for a week. This will be our third U.S. tour in the fall, after hitting festivals and touring Europe this summer. We used to play 1,000-cap rooms. We just sold 6,300 tickets in an hour in Paris."

NEXT PAGE: An overnight sensation,
eight years in the making

Though they seem an overnight sensation, the two have been working solidly for about eight years, since Lewis friended Macklemore on Myspace. "He recorded a track called 'Welcome to Myspace,' and there wasn't anything like it at the time. No one was writing about meeting women on Myspace or checking your messages over and over again," says Lewis, 25, who was into the early-2000s thrash metal scene that included Skrillex's band From First to Last. According to Macklemore, he released the song in 2004 and emailed it to Myspace founder Tom Anderson, who blasted it to his millions of friends on the social network. It was a powerful early lesson in the reach of social media. "I remember opening my email and there were thousands of emails," Macklemore says. "I thought someone had hacked into my computer. At the time, Myspace wasn't at its peak. If he would have done that at its peak, it would have really been insane."

Or perhaps, it would have been similar to the response "Thrift Shop" got when it was released in the fall and went viral, garnering more than 36 million YouTube views so far. "It was very much like a 'Thrift Shop,' in the sense that you pull in certain people with a fun track, and then they delve deeper and realize there's a whole body of other songs that sound like nothing like it," Macklemore says. So far the strategy has worked for the pair, who started with no money, working out of a studio the size of "two freight containers on a boat," Lewis says. "We never had an investor. We found our small-ass place on Craigslist and everything we earn goes back into the business." Their modus operandi: record a mixtape in their studio, offer it as a free download, shoot a video themselves and upload it to YouTube, then pump out remixes of their tracks from other producers.

"We had to make sure those songs had the biggest life expectancy they could, because things were taking so long for us," Macklemore says. "That free mixtape we were supposed to make in two weeks took nine months. That was VS." Songs from the 2009 EP have indeed had a long life-Macklemore and Lewis released a remix of "Otherside" less than a month ago.

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

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