Macklemore & Ryan Lewis shake up hip-hop paradigm

CHRIS TALBOTT AP Music Writer Published:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Macklemore isn't afraid to tell you he was scared when he saw some of the destinations for his upcoming tour.

Idaho. Montana. Texas.

None of those places in the Heartland seemed like they'd be receptive to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' left-leaning, socially conscious message. A hostile reception seemed more likely -- especially for the lightning-rod song "Same Love," which offers support for the gay community.

To the 29-year-old rapper's surprise, he found the crowds singing the chorus right back at him.

"Those were three places where people probably sang the loudest and it gives me some hope in the power of music and what music can do," said the MC, whose given name is Ben Haggerty. "To hear people's testimonials about 'Same Love' changing the way that they feel about gay people or the language that they use in their everyday life, making them consider changing that language, or changing their hateful perspective on another group of people, it's exciting to see that music has that capability. It just affirms what you already believe, but to see it on a tangible level in these cities has been one of the greatest gifts of my career."

It's a time of plenty for the Seattle alternative hip-hop duo, which released its debut studio album, "The Heist," to great acclaim last month. Haggerty and his producing and business partner Lewis sold more than 78,000 copies of the record the first week of release. That's a staggering sum for an independent release, putting the album at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 all-genre chart.

Haggerty said they expected to sell somewhere between 28,000 and 33,000 copies.

"It's a validation, absolutely," Haggerty said in a phone interview. "It's definitely a reward. But at the end of the day it is a number and you try not to let your happiness be contingent upon a number. What it equates to is the fact people are resonating with the music, that the fans are supporting our album, that people wanted to be part of our record and not just download illegally, but financially get behind it and say, 'We believe in it.' And that is the biggest reward out of all of it."

What's happened in the six weeks since the release has been dizzying. Lewis said offers are coming from everywhere and the fans are increasing exponentially at every show. Things are happening so fast, reacting in real time to the changes in their popularity has been difficult. Used to dealing with fans in a very personal way, they're trying to engage larger groups of people.

"Now we have to figure how to keep that intimate relationship with the fans in the midst of so many people," Lewis said. "And that's across the board. The shows get bigger. How do we adapt our shows to keep it as awesome as it was for 800 people to 4,000 people. We're adapting."

Keeping it personal has been the key to success so far for the duo, who met on MySpace in 2006 when Haggerty showed an interest in a beat crafted by then-teenager Lewis. Haggerty's red rooster haircut and thrift-store finery identify him as a very different kind of MC on the surface, and his rhymes and stories go far beyond the braggadocio and swag-hyping ways of the current archetype. Homosexuality isn't the only subject he looks at closely.

"The Heist" opens with "Ten Thousand Hours," a riff on the theories of author Malcolm Gladwell and an ode to hard work. Over the course of the next 14 songs he tells stories about his personal struggle with alcohol ("Starting Over"), the anti-swag virtues of secondhand shopping ("Thrift Shop"), developing your own identity in a world of copycats ("Make the Money"), the sway held by Nike and the evils of advertising ("Wing$") and the ills of the music industry ("Jimmy Iovine").

It all plays out over high-spirited beats crafted by Lewis with the help of featured performers like Schoolboy-Q, Ab-Soul, Buffalo Madonna, Allen Stone and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses.

"I want to give 100 percent of who I am to the listener and censorship is not an option," Haggerty said. "And when I'm afraid, when I'm fearful, when I feel like I'm divulging too much information is usually when I know I'm writing a good song."

We see that best on "Same Love" as he compellingly relates how when he was in the third grade he came to the conclusion he was gay because he could draw, kept his room clean and had an uncle who was in a same-sex relationship. His mother reassured him he was not, but it's still a discussion you won't find many other MCs leading, even in the post-Frank Ocean age.

Haggerty thinks the song's cultural impact shows how much the notoriously homophobic hip-hop world has changed in recent years.

"I hope we're part of that transformation," Haggerty said. "I don't think a song like 'Same Love' would have been received the same way even five years ago. We as a society and a culture have proven throughout time that we evolve, that we become slowly more compassionate and tolerant and accepting. The last couple hundred years in American culture have shown that. Obviously, there's give and take. There's times when we haven't and times that we lose ourselves, but I do think we're evolving as a society and hip-hop is a reflection of that."

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