Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
The city of Seattle was on a hot streak in 2012. In the afterglow of Twilight-mania, the zeitgeist was manifesting a splashy hit to come out of the Queen City. Enter: “Thrift Shop.”
The song, by the then-nationally unfamiliar indie-rap duo called Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, was a tootling ode to bargain shopping that briefly took over the world. Now, any cheapskate on YouTube could look at Macklemore weaving through a parking lot on his tricycle and billowy kanuk and think: “That’s me.”
The success of “Thrift Shop” was remarkable given how profoundly low-brow the whole project was. There was no major label puppet master pulling the strings of Macklemore’s musty Grandpa blazer. The song’s hook singer was holding down an office job at the time of the song’s release. The video cost $5,000 to make.
“The video dropped and I’m sitting at my desk watching the numbers go up, it got up to about 1,000, 1,500, I just looked out the window and went, uh oh,” hook singer Michael “Wanz” Wansley told Billboard at the time. I came back the next day and it had tripled in size, and I said, uh oh, and started pushing it out to my Facebook people, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The unlikely rise of “Thrift Shop” and its parent album The Heist became a modern underdog story: an obscure rap group from the Pacific Northwest with a self-released a song that went on to win two Grammy Awards for best rap song and best rap performance. As Sesame Street‘s Oscar would say in the “Thrift Shop” parody: “One Grouch’s trash is another Grouch’s outfit.”
“It had the quality of, nothing else like that was on the radio,” recalls John Ivey, president of CHR programming strategy for iHeartMedia. “I always tell people there’s two kinds of that. There’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nothing like this on the radio!’ Then there’s like, “Ugh, there’s nothing like this on the radio…’ And so it was one of those on the good side.”
While “Thrift Shop” was the cheeky counterpoint to hip-hop extravagance, there was a tumultuous time in Macklemore’s life when excess of drugs and alcohol was seriously thwarting his future. Just after meeting Ryan Lewis for the first time, Macklemore entered rehab for OxyContin abuse. “Being broke, having no career anymore was my rock bottom,” Macklemore told Billboard in his 2013 cover story.
That second-shot spirit is imbued in the playful composition of “Thrift Shop”: Rife with inventive percussion, zaps, scratches and even the “shiiiieeet” from HBO’s The Wire, the music mimes the fanciful feeling of combing second-hand bins with your friends. But the song’s real gift was the later-in-life discovery of Wanz, a fifty-something baritone from Seattle who was working at the time as a software test engineer. His chunky drone is the heart and soul of “Thrift Shop”; he’s the voice who sings the only part you remember: “This is f–king awesome.”
“For a decade, I’ve been known as the Nate Dogg of North End in Seattle in that little circle of underground hip-hop,” he told Billboard in 2013. “I got asked to go on tour. I had never been on tour before. Then, I’m on the phone with my boss’ boss and the HR person and they’re saying, ‘Are you going to come back?’ And I said, well, at my age, these kinds of opportunities don’t come along…”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and their supporting cast were one of the biggest stories in music in 2013, but the attention came with an eventual backlash. “Thrift Shop” drew criticism for its perceived mockery of hip-hop culture (and for an unnecessary R. Kelly joke) from a place of white privilege, and the duo scoring by far the year’s two biggest crossover rap hits of 2013 (with “Shop” and follow-up “Can’t Hold Us”) — in a year where no black artist scored a Hot 100 No. 1 as a lead artist — caused understandable uneasiness in the hip-hop community. It came to a head at the 2014 Grammys, when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis emerged triumphant over Kendrick Lamar in multiple categories — wins whose controversy was further inflamed by a misguided apology text to Lamar that Macklemore screenshot and posted online. The underdog story was feel-good no longer.
The end of the Heist cycle was essentially the end of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as pop stars. Sophomore LP This Unruly Mess I’ve Made was released in 2016 to mixed reviews and failed to spawn a hit on the level of “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us,” as hip-hop evolved rapidly in the streaming age left the duo’s throwback-leaning jams struggling to keep up. Still, neither rapper nor DJ have disappeared from the mainstream, as both found success in 2017 alongside reinvented pop star Kesha — Macklemore collaborating with her on his nostalgic Hot 100 hit “Good Old Days,” and Lewis co-writing and co-producing her resounding comeback single “Praying.”
Still, when most music fans think of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in 2019, they think of “Thrift Shop,” and they think of 2013, when the duo were on top of the pop world. “You release it right now, it might not have the same impact,” Ivey says. “But at that point in time it was released, it was fun and cutting-edge from what was going on. I think that’s why that one cuts through.”