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Macklemore's Brand Of Socially Conscious Rap
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. So maybe you're the type that scours YouTube for the latest music videos and maybe you're addicted to services like Spotify and Pandora. If so, you have probably heard something from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The duo's been rapping since 2000. Now they have their first studio album, and it has lyrics about everything from gay marriage to the merits of thrift shopping.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) Copping it, washing it, about to go and get some compliments, passing up on those moccasins someone else has been walking in. Bummy and grungy, I am stunting and flossing and saving my money and I'm hella happy. That's a bargain. I'm going to take your grandpa's style. I'm going to take your grandpa's style. No, for real. Ask your grandpa. Can I have his hand-me-downs? Velour jumpsuit and some house slippers.
HEADLEE: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took a break from their sold-out world tour to talk to us about their debut album, "The Heist."
Welcome to both of you.
MACKLEMORE: Thank you.
RYAN LEWIS: Hello, so much.
HEADLEE: So we just heard a clip of you rapping about thrift stores.
HEADLEE: Obviously, not your typical hip-hop theme.
MACKLEMORE: Probably not.
HEADLEE: So what gave you the idea to do a song about thrift stores?
MACKLEMORE: You know, I love thrift shopping. It is something that has been a part of my life since I was a young kid, and it's outside of the box. I like to write songs about my life and things that make me a unique person, and thrift shopping is one of those. Hip-hop is usually an art form that is about...
HEADLEE: Bling and Caddies...
MACKLEMORE: ...bling, consumption.
HEADLEE: ...and gold...
MACKLEMORE: Yeah. I have...
HEADLEE: ...and your gold grill.
MACKLEMORE: I have those, too. But I also have a bunch of clothes from thrift shops, and it's about, you know, just saving money. And I think that that's something that's rare in hip-hop culture. It's usually about spending money.
HEADLEE: What's the best bargain you've ever gotten at a thrift shop?
MACKLEMORE: My best bargain, I would say, is whatever I got yesterday, or earlier on today. So I've gotten - you know, I mean, on tour right now, it's difficult, because we're stopping in all these cities and, usually, the first thing I do is go look for a thrift shop. So the bus is becoming filled with used goods from all over the country.
HEADLEE: Is your bus getting filled, Ryan?
LEWIS: It is. The whole back area that we're supposed to be working is just a wardrobe at this point.
HEADLEE: At some point, you're going to have to cut him off. You know that, right?
LEWIS: Yes, I am. He clean - you clean every two days.
MACKLEMORE: Yeah. Every couple of days, I...
LEWIS: I don't know where it all goes.
MACKLEMORE: Yeah. I throw stuff out and donate it again and...
HEADLEE: You know, I've got to ask you: Listening to this album, it sounds really modern to me. That was one of the things that struck me. And I wonder - you know, rap as an art form has really changed dramatically over the past, say, 30 or 40 years. What are you able to do today that you couldn't have done, say, in 1980?
LEWIS: I think that hip-hop, particularly in the last 10 years, has become very cross-genre, just speaking from kind of the production standpoint. And I think that, for me, who has, you know, a background in a wide variety of genres, it opened up the door where it's, you know, OK if you want to mix 808s and banjos. There's an open door now more than ever to be making any type of beats that you want.
HEADLEE: That's Ryan Lewis speaking. You guys' voices sound a little the same. Ryan Lewis is half of the duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, been rapping since 2000, your first studio album, so, of course, congratulations.
LEWIS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: One of the songs that's gotten a lot of attention is the song, "Same Love." You begin it by talking about an experience you as a very young kid. So first, let's take a listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAME LOVE")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay, because I could draw. My uncle was, and I kept my room straight. I told my mom, tears rushing down my face. She's like, Ben, you've loved girls since before pre-K. Tripping. Yeah, I guess she had a point, didn't she? A bunch of stereotypes all in my head. I remember doing the math, like, yeah. I'm good at little league, a preconceived idea of what it all meant for those that like the same sex and the characteristics...
HEADLEE: You also use the song to help voice your support for Referendum 74 that was legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington state.
HEADLEE: But you also acknowledge in this song that rap is not necessarily always friendly to the gay community.
HEADLEE: So why - number one, why do you think that is? And is it changing?
MACKLEMORE: One, why it is. It's difficult to really pinpoint. I think that - I've been asked this question before, and I think - the only thing that I can really trace it back to - for one, the foundation of a lot of the hate that comes - that's directed at same-sex marriages, I think, comes from religion and the foundation of - it's wrong. It's fundamentally wrong in the Bible to be with another man if you're a man or a woman if you're a woman.
And, in terms of hip-hop culture, church and religion play a part in it, but also in just people's upbringing. But also hip-hop was started as a very egocentric testosterone, machismo-driven art form. You have B boys that want to be better than other B boys. You have break-dancers, you have DJs, you have emcees that all want to be better than each other. Battling has been at the forefront of hip-hop culture since its origin.
So, with that, I think you have this kind of over-the-top need to prove your masculinity, and a way that people do that is by calling people the F word or gay or trying to take away that masculinity that is such an intrinsical part of hip-hop music.
Is it changing? Yes. I think that, with people like Frank Ocean coming out or Barack Obama in support of gay marriage and then Jay Z coming out in support of Barack Obama supporting gay marriage, I think that there's that heightened awareness. I think that civil rights issues take a lot of time to develop. Equality takes time, and I don't think that a song like "Same Love" would have been accepted 10 years ago or 15 years ago in the hip-hop community. It's the right time for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAME LOVE")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) We press play. Don't press pause. Progress, march on. With the Bill of Rights, we turn our back on the cause till the day that my uncles can be united by law and kids aren't walking around the hallway plagued by pain in their heart. A world so hateful, some would rather die than be who they are. And a certificate on paper isn't going to solve it all, but it's a damn good place to start.
MACKLEMORE: We evolve as a culture. We evolve as a society, and I think that that's what's happening, and hip-hop is definitely changing because of it.
HEADLEE: I wonder if you agree with that, Ryan. I mean, I think that some rappers would think it would be a risk to, in any shape or form, imply that they might have thought of themselves as gay at any point in their life. They might think of that as too dangerous to touch.
LEWIS: Yeah. I don't know a lot of rappers who wouldn't find that as a risk to put that out there, but I think that, you know, the risk only lies in your own, you know, reputation of being worried about yourself, and that sort of thing. And I think that, for us, we put out the song and, you know, had no idea how it was going to be taken in, and it's gotten overwhelming support. It's like going into places that are classically Republican and conservative and having a new generation of young people, a new generation of thinkers that are singing as loud as they can to that chorus. So it's been crazy, you know, how much support it's gotten. It's been very, very positive.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They are a rap duo together.
I want to take a listen to another song. This is my favorite off the album. This is called "Wings."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WINGS")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) Air Maxs were next, that air bubble, that mesh, the box, the smell, the stuffing, the tread. At school, I was so cool. I knew that I couldn't crease 'em. My friends couldn't afford 'em, four stripes on their Adidas. On the court, I wasn't the best, but my kicks were like the pros. Yo. I stick out my tongue so everyone could see that logo. Nike Air Flight, book bag was so dope, and then my friend Carlos' brother got murdered for his Fours. Whoa.
See, he just wanted his jump shot, but they wanted his Starter coat, though. Didn't want to get caught from Genesee Park to Othello. You get clowned for those Pro Wings with the velcro. Those were not tight. I was trying to fly without leaving the ground, 'cause I wanted to be like Mike. Right. Wanted to be him. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to touch the rim. I wanted to be cool, and I wanted to fit in. I wanted what he had. America, it begins.
HEADLEE: So this takes it a little further - a lot further than just saying I like thrift stores. I mean, this is actually aggressively taking on this idea of bling, consumerism, having what you buy and how expensive it is be a reflection of who you are.
HEADLEE: Why take on this fight? I mean, this is part of what rap is.
MACKLEMORE: It's my fight, personally, first and foremost, so I don't go into it thinking, like, I want to change people's minds or I want to change hip-hop. I go into it thinking, why do I feel the need to consume? Why do I have a closet full of Jordans that I don't really even wear? So it starts with a personal search and then it translates into an audience. But, first and foremost, it's just me going through my closet. That's how this song was written, was just taking accountability for who I am as a person and how I fall into consumerism in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINGS")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) It started out with what I wear to school that first day, like these are what make you cool and this pair, this would be my parachute, so much more than just a pair of shoes. No. This is what I am. What I wore, this is the source of my youth, this dream that they sold to you for $100 and some change. Consumption is in the veins, and now I see it's just another pair of shoes.
HEADLEE: So, Macklemore, I wonder if you mind being put into that label of socially conscious rap. Does it bother you?
MACKLEMORE: You know, I understand - I like the term socially conscious more than conscious rap. I'm not more or less conscious than any other rapper out there.
HEADLEE: Yeah. It implies that everyone else is unconscious.
MACKLEMORE: Exactly, which is false. I think that I, at times, talk about social issues. And so if people want to put me in a box to kind of help compare and contrast between what other rap music is, that's fine. For me - to me, I'm a rapper. I don't think that it's a big deal, either way.
HEADLEE: Ryan, do you think that socially conscious rap is a new thing?
LEWIS: I don't think that it's a new thing. I would agree that it has a negative connotation. I think that, like anything else, it immediately associates you with a certain background of hip-hop or a certain category of a type of rapper, and I think that that's unfortunate for...
HEADLEE: I want to be clear, here, because a lot of people associate socially conscious rap with white rappers, and white consumers who buy it.
LEWIS: Yeah. I think you're probably right. I think that - I think that we have such a wide catalog of music, some of which is on a kind of a deeper level and, you know, social songs. And then some of it is fun music. It feels like a little bit inaccurate to just call somebody socially conscious, because I think it limits what their career is actually, in total, about.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen to some more music. You guys not only tackle the hot-button issue of gay marriage on this album. You also talk about your own experience getting sober. You're pretty honest about it. So let's take a listen to this tune. It's called "Starting Over."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) Those three-plus years I was so proud of, and I threw 'em all away for two Styrofoam cups. The irony. Everyone will think that he lied to me. I made my sobriety so public, there's no (bleep) privacy. If I don't talk about it, then I carry a date of 08-10-08, and now it's been changed and every - when they put me in some box as a saint that I never was, just a false prophet that never came. And will they think that everything that I've written has all been fake, or will I just take my slip to the grave?
HEADLEE: In some ways, this is kind of a sequel to the song "Other Side," where you talked about actually getting sober. And in this one, you're talking about falling back into bad habits.
HEADLEE: So tell me a little about this process and how it changed you as an artist.
MACKLEMORE: Well, I was always the type of person - still am the type of person - that I cannot be creative and use substances. So from a very early age, I knew that if I wanted to make music successfully, in any capacity, I was going to have to get sober. I struggled with that for many, many, many, many years, trying to find some sort of balance. It didn't work for me.
So, in 2008, I got sober and remained sober up until December of last year, and I relapsed. And that's what this song is about. You know, the relapse was something that - I had just gotten off the road. I wasn't going to AA meetings like I normally do when I'm back at home, and I just wanted to kind of escape my own thoughts.
And, at first, I felt an immense amount of failure on a personal level, not only for myself and for the people that love me, but for the fans that had connected with the song, "Other Side," you know, people that would come up to the merch table or email us and say, you know, I have two weeks sober. I have three months sober. I have six months sober, and your music actually helped me get clean.
So I felt like I had failed all those people. I felt like I'd failed Ryan and my manager and my girlfriend, and I didn't know exactly how to deal with it, other than writing a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) And every kid that came up to me and said I was the music they listened to when they first got clean, now look at me, a couple days sober. I'm fighting demons. Back at that meeting on the East Side, shaking, tweaking, hope that they don't see it. Hope that no one is looking, that no one recognizes that failure up under that hoodie.
HEADLEE: I think you're pretty unsparing on yourself and honest about it. At the same time, though, drug culture is a real part of the rap culture, right? I mean, it's often lionized in a lot of songs. A lot of lyrics are about drug culture.
HEADLEE: And yet there's not just your work, but also there's been other rappers. Eminem quite famously came out with his album "Recovery," which is also very honest about struggling to stay sober. I mean, do you think these kind of things, what you're doing, end up having an effect on your - on the kids? I mean, even the preteens who listen to your music?
MACKLEMORE: Yes, I do. I think that it hopefully has an effect on anybody that has been through recovery, wants to get sober, knows somebody that's struggling with addiction. And you really start breaking down these different people where drugs have affected their life in some capacity, and that's a big portion of the population here in American and, really, all over the world.
Drug culture is extremely prevalent, and probably most people know somebody whose life has been affected by drugs, if it's not their own or in their own family. They have friends.
HEADLEE: And you've been sober now how long?
MACKLEMORE: Ten months and a couple weeks, or like a week.
HEADLEE: Coming up on a year.
MACKLEMORE: Yeah. And, I mean, I had - you know, and I had three-and-a-half years. So it's a never-ending process. It's something that - I'm not just cured. I have to continue to maintain spiritual - a spiritual balance in my life, and if I don't have that, then I'll be right back where I was last December.
HEADLEE: You guys are - I mean, it's OK to call you West Coast rappers, right?
LEWIS: Hell, yeah.
HEADLEE: I wonder how large that divide is. Is there a still a huge, gaping West Coast-East Coast, violently angry divide?
MACKLEMORE: No, definitely not.
LEWIS: I would go even beyond that and say that, like, even just the idea of a regional hip-hop, like - oh, that's Bay hip-hop and that's...
LEWIS: ...New York hip-hop and that's, you know, West Coast or whatever. The divide is so small now. I mean, you have like...
LEWIS: I don't know. I mean, I think it's all intertwined within the same just transformation of communications and culture and social media, but it's been interesting. I mean, you can look at small cases, like, you know, and ASAP Rocky's from Harlem and takes on a Texas sound. They're like, you know, a whole new wave and tempo of almost beat or sound becomes stylistically, you know, trendy. And regardless of what region you're from at this point, any rapper can kind of embody that sound within their newest project.
And I don't think that that was, to this extent, always the case. I think that there used to be a bit more of a divide - not in terms of violence, like you were saying, but just stylistic divide between different regions of the country in the world. It is way less now.
HEADLEE: You know, I've got to say, the album is a bargain. There's a lot of music on it. I mean, you guys packed that thing full of music. I wonder if there's anything that you think is absolutely taboo, that you won't be able to talk about in rap.
MACKLEMORE: No. I have tackled everything from gay marriage to white privilege to, you know, satire to different characters. I mean, if you look at my body of work, there is absolutely nothing that I've been - to me, what's exciting about being an artist is being able to tackle issues that you're afraid to speak on, and that's what pushes me creatively, is to be who I am, no filter, and put it all out there.
HEADLEE: OK. So you tell us. What song should we end with?
MACKLEMORE: Let's end it with "Can't Hold Us."
HEADLEE: OK. We're going to go with "Can't Hold Us."
LEWIS: All right.
HEADLEE: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis just released their first debut studio album. It's called "The Heist." They're in the midst of a sold out tour right now. They were kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios.
Gentlemen, thank you so much.
MACKLEMORE: Thank you.
LEWIS: Thank you.
MACKLEMORE: Really appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HOLD US")
MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Singing) Now, can I kick it? Thank you. Yeah. I'm so damn grateful. I grew up really wanting gold fronts, but that's what you get when Wu-Tang raised you. You all can't stop me. Go hard like I got a 808 in my heartbeat. And I'm eating at the beat like you gave a little speed to a Great White shark on "Shark Week."
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin will be back on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.