Macklemore Protege Travis Thompson on 'Tonight Show' Performance: 'I Had Hella Fun'

Macklemore & Travis Thompson, 2017
Andrew Lipovsky/NBC

(l-r) Musical Guest Macklemore performs "Corner Store" with Travis Thompson on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on. Nov. 15, 2017.

Thompson came up through Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Seattle-based music mentorship program The Residency.

Imagine making your network TV debut on The Tonight Show. Now imagine doing it alongside multi-platinum hip-hop star Macklemore, who took a chance on you when you were just a cocky teen from the small Seattle suburb of White Center. That's basically Travis Thompson's origin story, except to hear him tell it, the journey from troublemaking high-schooler to late-night baller is a bit more magical and way more inspiring. 

"It's definitely ridiculous," Thompson, 21, tells Billboard about his triumphant performance of Mack's "Corner Store" on the iconic late night talker. (He's the one in the yellow hoodie repping his childhood street, Ambaum.) "I don't even have any words for it. It's something I never thought [I'd do]... though of course in my head, I always believed in myself. But to have it happen so early in my career?"

Thompson is a relative unknown outside of Emerald City, but since his appearance on the song (which appears on Macklemore's recent solo album, Gemini), he's been opening for his mentor and performing the song every night alongside Mack on tour for the past few months.

The way Thompson got into the spotlight, though, is a testament to the way Macklemore and his partner in rhyme, Ryan Lewis, have taken it upon themselves to guide and inspire young Seattle artists through the program they co-founded in 2015, The Residency. Thompson, who began writing rhymes as a kid and started focusing on making music just before the arts incubator opened its doors, says he learned a lifetime worth of lessons from the endless stream of local promoters, managers, agents, artists and other Seattle hip-hop movers who came in to talk to the youth in the program.

Along with the other attendees, Thompson learned how to sell tickets and bring fans out to shows, as well as "the ins and outs of being an artist" -- lessons he clearly employed on Wednesday night, when he looked completely chill and in the pocket during his late night debut alongside fellow Seattle up-and-comer Dave B.

"I don't think any of us looked at this in 2015 as a thing that would find us the next feature on Ben's album," says Ben Secord, The Residency's program director. "We were not thinking of it in terms of, 'let's start developing a pipeline'... but in that sense it just happened organically because of the talent of someone like Travis. He is one of many. Every year we're blown away by the level of talent, creativity and passion these young people have." 

The Residency aims to mentor young artists from low-income families by helping them acquire the skills and knowledge needed to carve out a living in the arts. Through the project, aspirating artists get to participate in a vocal or production track, try their hand at writing original songs, record in a professional studio and perform in a Seattle venue. Or in the case of Thompson, y'know, show your skills in front of a television audience of millions. 

Secord says Thompson looked like he'd been performing for a decade when he went up for his first Residency showcase in 2015, absolutely killing a solo song like a seasoned veteran, even pulling off the pro move of putting his foot up on the monitor like a boss. "That's a move nobody else was making that day, and it was a moment where he captured attention," says Secord.

"Ryan Lewis and I helped launch The Residency so that young aspiring hip-hop artists in Seattle have a chance to pursue their passions in music,” Macklemore told Billboard about the organization, which is a collaboration with the Museum of Pop Culture and Arts Corps. “Travis was a standout in the first year of the program, came back in a leadership role the next year, and it's been incredible to watch him grow as an artist over the last three years.” 

After proving to be a mentor himself to the younger kids at The Residency -- where he was invited back in 2016 for a paid internship thanks to his enthusiastic, positive presence -- Thompson was tapped to appear on Macklemore's album and hit the road with him. But the Tonight Show experience is something he still can't wrap his head around.

"I had never done anything like that before, but I've been doing 'Corner Store' every night with Ben [Macklemore], so I just had to pretend it was another show," he says. "I had to act like it wasn't in front of a small crowd with big cameras and Jimmy Fallon and that it was like a big show in Pittsburgh or Silver Spring. I had hella fun." 

Thompson, who described himself as a skater kid with a big mouth prone to doing "dumb shit" with his friends in his younger days, says he's beyond grateful to Macklemore & Lewis for putting local talent on adding, "as corny as it sounds, I grew up listening to Ben and Ryan, and to be on stage with my dude is ridiculous." 


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