Exclusive Interview: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the Bowery

To hear Macklemore express his fascination with David Bowie and the 1986 film The Labyrinth, the comparisons in style are almost uncanny. Sure, one deals with hip-hop while the other is an international rock icon. But on Tuesday night’s sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom, as Macklemore pulled from backstage a hand-painted jean jacket of Bowie on the back with matching tassels, he is just as fashionable.

For “Crew Cuts,” Macklemore bouncing up and down on-stage only provoked the crowd to shout louder and jump just as high. Ryan Lewis, Macklemore’s producer/DJ/hypeman, extended the microphone across his turntables that fed the excitement. Macklemore then stopped to ready a cool guy pose, turning around to point at the face of Bowie when rapping, “Never find the baby: David Bowie, Labyrinth.” After that, the crowd’s high-energy increased in volume.

Read the interview after the jump. -Eric Diep

Behind the amounts of confetti that rained down during songs like “Irish Celebration,” the full on transformation to a 80s dancer for “And We Danced,” and leaps into the crowd, Macklemore’s lyrics tell a story. The added visuals props and enthusiasm only provide color for an MC who once had a troubled past with substance abuse. Just check his viral videos on YouTube for singles such as “Wings,” “Otherside (Remix)” featuring Fences and “And We Danced.”  These are more than just songs, but enriched narratives weaving together his honest emotions, thought-provoking rhymes and a riveting delivery. For the MC named Ben Haggerty, his music isn’t created for his growing popularity. It’s made as an outlet, to help express truth for his fans that have gone through similar situations.

Those same fans were all in attendance that night. They arrived early – the same ones who chanted “Mack-le-more!” moments before he came out – and huddled close to the stage to give him a high five. These same fans also rapped along to every word and quickly hushed up when he stopped to recall stories about his life and the tour. With this much respect, it’s almost shocking to believe he has made it this far independently. No major labels to hinder his creativity. No pressures to put out content or mixtapes.

They are Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, two Seattle artists who are great showmen that do this for the love of hip-hop.

So let’s talk about this year, you are currently on your fall tour. How did you hook up with Champagne Champagne and the Xperience?

Macklemore: We got to pick who we wanted to bring on the road. Xperience has been a friend of mine for a long time, like six years we’ve been really good friends and we made a lot of music together so that was kind of a no brainer and Champagne Champagne have been friends for a very long time as well. Both their music is dope, it’s eclectic. Champagne was cool because they’re a band, and XP is obviously a solo artist, to have that kind of contrast of just an opening act, which is one emcee and a band, it was cool to us.

What going on project-wise, any new albums?

M: Ryan and I working on a full-length right now. We’ve been working on it for a while, and hoping to have it out sometime this year, spring, summer-ish timeframe.

Ryan, do you exclusively produce for Macklemore?

Ryan Lewis: We’ve been working together for two years. Fairly exclusively, but we haven’t put out a full-length record yet. Like he was saying, we’ve been kind of chipping away at it for the last year in the midst of doing everything else, from shows to videos, to all the other pieces that go along with it. We hope to have something fully put together by spring.

Is it all going to be Ryan Lewis? You’ve also worked with Budo and Jake One.

M: Yeah, those are the homies, for sure. This is going be entirely collaboration with me and Ryan.

In your music, you’ve shared past stories of your dependency on drugs and getting yourself right. How has sobriety helped you?

M: I was always the type of drug user that I had no moderation. When I was smoking and drinking, I was full on smoking and drinking. And I am also the type of drug user where I do smoke and drink, there’s no creativity in terms of my writing process. I would just stare at the paper for hours and nothing would get done. So I knew at an early age that it was imperative for me, if I wanted to put out any music I needed to get sober. You know, we wouldn’t be in this interview right now if it wasn’t for me getting clean.

Are you more focused?

M: Oh yeah, songs are just much easier to write for me. Being on stage, everything is just easier. I was a real introvert when I was smoking a ton of weed and drinking a bunch. It just doesn’t affect me like it affects a lot of people. And I was smoking a ton of weed and doing other drugs as well. There wasn’t a big push for creativity at any capacity.

Did Ryan help you out during those times?

M: No, it was family that pushed me towards it.  My dad helped me through it. Ryan and I developed a friendship during the midst of me being in and out of it. So I would be sober for a month, and be real adamant about hanging out with friends and developing relationships and being creative and then I when I go back to using drugs and alcohol, it was just a huge difference. I would screen everybody’s calls and wouldn’t pick up the phone, be isolated in my room. Ryan saw me through that. The real inspiration was really just being completely tired of that lifestyle and burnt out and I wanted to change it.

The music you’re producing speaks for itself.

M: Thank you.

Speaking of your music, are you perfectionists when it comes to visualizing the lyrics?

RL: We are definitely perfectionists. I think it makes for great art, but it also makes things take a very long time. At the forefront, outside of just the music, Ben and I have always highly valued the different types of media we are putting out artistically. From our videos, to photography, to font choice, to whatever it be. We worked with Zia Mohajerjasbi and also “Wings,” which was a big video. But we also did alongside Jason Koenig who began as a photographer and a good friend of ours, “My Oh My,” “The Otherside (Remix)” video, and then we did with Griff J“And We Danced” video. But throughout all of those, lots of the videos we put out, we definitely are perfectionists to a fault whenever we have the opportunity.

When you write your lyrics, do you already visualize the video?

M: No, I never really have. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing I would think, ‘this would be a crazy video off the emotion that is coming up.’ But I never think of video simultaneously – I guess maybe I do. There are definitely some beats that I hear that I can see a video to. I think during the process of that it might come up for me.

It’s interesting that you are an artist who focuses on subject matter. Talk about the emotion you have in your music. You are very honest.

M: I use vulnerability as a tool to express my truth. And that’s been something that I have always done, that’s just the type of writing that I enjoy, it’s the type of artist I like listening to. You get a real genuine sense of who they are. And those are the songs that I tend to write. I think that it connects me with the music that I make because in the process of writing I’m figure out who I am on a deeper level. And I think that the fanbase and that other people can resonate with it because hopefully you shed a little bit of light on potentially there experience or articulated something that they’ve gone through in their life.

But you don’t like being labeled a conscious rapper?

M: [laughs] Nah, I’m not a fan of the conscious rapper. I think it’s a very limited term and I think it’s a term that’s outdated. It doesn’t articulately describe the music that we make. I think it puts a box around something that you can’t really frame.

What would you call yourself then?

M: I’m a rapper, I’m an MC, and I make hip-hop music. But it in terms of what type of MC I am, I think it goes into people’s stereotypes.

There a touchy topic I want to address about hip-hop being built on Black American culture.  You have guys like Yelawolf that are shifting the standards of what color really means. How are you taking the craft seriously?

M: I don’t think there’s any active thing I’m doing to take the craft seriously. I’ve just always have taking it seriously. I don’t have to try to do anything. I just make music and do it from a place of authenticity. I think that it’s all about where your intentions come from. For me, hip-hop music was something I grew up with, it was something that I loved since I was a little kid, and it’s something that I chose to partake in an early age. The issue of race is always a touchy one, in our society in general. And it’s one that a lot of people don’t talk about and if they do, it’s on a very surface level. But I definitely made efforts in the past to bring up race, to bring up my privilege of being a white man in America.

Do you feel hip-hop is going color blind?

M: I see it. I think that there’s enviably going to be white kids – and this is happened since the Beastie Boys to Eminem to whoever comes up – being identified to the people who look like you.  Just like a lot of different races that identify with the people that look like them. That’s human nature. But I do think, the gates are kind of open to who’s a rapper nowadays. It does seem more open-ended. There’s still the white rapper box that you can be put in, but that’s going to be there forever. I am a white rapper, it is what it is.

It’s known that you guys are unsigned and not on a label. Do you aspire to get signed one day?

M: I think as long as we can remain independent we will, until it gets to the point where we can’t manage it. But at this point in 2011, signing a major label in particular doesn’t really make a lot of sense to us. And we really like to be control of the music, control of the art behind the music. We have been successful doing it ourselves. There are a handful of artists that show that they can do it themselves. And I like to think we are in that same category. It enables us to be more hands on with our fanbase. In terms of creating a product that we really believe in and having that intimacy within a team of people that we can put our minds together. That’s cool to me, that’s fresh and that’s something I’m proud of.

RL: It enables you take risks too. Clearly, the music industry is drastically changing and will continue to drastically change in the next few years, and I think the advantage of being an independent artist who is conscious of those changes, you can be proactive and not adapt to a very old model of your relationship with your fanbase and the way you present yourself. It enables you to step up and push the boundaries.

How are you pushing the envelope for your sound to be on a national level?

RL: We are drinking a lot of Red Bull. [laughs] For me, it is just a unique merging of a lot of things. Ben, being someone who grew up almost entirely in hip-hop, me having more grown up with rock and such a variety of influences between the two of us, but just a respect for each other’s taste.

M: Both of us take a pretty unorthodox approach to creating hip-hop music. Me on the writing side, Ryan on the production side, it’s a little bit different. It’s an angle that you don’t hear too often on either front. That’s what makes it unique and stand out a little bit from other people.