No bigoted lyrics or gang slang for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - this fun, fresh hip-hop duo genuinely want to make a difference, writes Scott Kara
Few music acts - in recent memory at least - have had a rise in popularity quite like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. In under a year, the duo of rapper Macklemore (real name Ben Haggerty) and his producer mate Lewis have gone from an aspiring, little-known act out of Seattle to one of the biggest names in hip-hop.
When their Auckland show was announced late last year they were scheduled to play the 1200-capacity Powerstation. That was later upgraded to the Logan Campbell Centre, and now Vector Arena. That's on top of playing sold-out shows in Wellington and Christchurch, and at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium.
This success is not just confined to New Zealand, with Macklemore (above right) and Lewis hitting the top of the charts and selling out shows everywhere from Britain and France to their homeland, despite proffering a brand of socially conscious and fun hip-hop that is not typically what you'd expect to come out of the US.
This new-found fame is something Macklemore, who's on the phone to TimeOut from San Francisco en route to Australia and New Zealand, sounds like he's still getting to grips with himself.
"This year has been, you know, in a lot of ways, you work for your entire life to get to a place like this," he says, sounding a little bemused but chuffed at the same time. "And it's been a long time in the making, but at the same time, it's happened very fast."
By this, the 29-year-old means he has been in the music game for years, starting out in the early 2000s, releasing a handful of EPs and mixtapes and a reasonably well-received independent album, The Language of My World, in 2005. However, around this time his musical output was blighted by alcohol and substance abuse problems - something he talks about on 2010 track Otherside where he ponders, "We live on the cusp of death thinking that it won't be us."
It was after getting sober in late 2008 - he has relapsed once apparently, which, being the open book that he is, he documents on The Heist's Starting Over - that he met Lewis, and the pair have been busily making music every since.
"We connected first and foremost on an artistic level," he says. "Ryan's always been someone who really values the process and working until it's done. Working until the record is finished, until the concert flyer is finished, and working hard on his craft of being a creative person.
"And I like to think of myself in the same way, so, it started with something that was creative and grew into a friendship and now he's like my brother."
Following the release of two EPs, the pair hunkered down to record The Heist, an album that's poignant and sensitive on songs like Same Love and the almost new romantic-sounding Thin Line, but then uppity and cheeky on Thrift Shop and tough and fiery on Make the Money. It's not what you expect of an American hip-hop act in both sound and sentiment, and that, reckons Macklemore, is why they have become so big.
"I think people wanted something different and when Ryan and I were making The Heist, and when we were wrapping it up, it kind of hit me that this is so different that it's either going to work or it's going to be too left-field and people aren't going to understand it," he laughs. "But I think that people just wanted to hear something different, some new music, and The Heist was that.
"But we never anticipated it would do as well as it has, and we definitely never thought we would have a No1 record in New Zealand, Australia, and France ... so it's exciting and it's also different, trying to keep up with life and it's moving pretty fast right now."
It also helped that Thrift Shop and its madcap video, with Macklemore and Lewis wearing fur coats, surrounded by a vast cast of freaks, was so incessantly catchy and entertaining.
"Not a lot of hip-hop music sounds like that right now. The beat is infectious, the hook is very catchy, and it's fun and playful.
"Also, it's a record that people connect with. These days, while most hip-hop music celebrates how much money you can spend and what type of material possessions you can buy, that song goes against all of that and that in itself goes against anything else you might hear out there these days."
Just in case you're wondering, given the subject matter of their next biggest hit, Same Love, Macklemore is straight. There are many photos of him and his fiance on the band's website.
But he's big on gay rights, although, he admits with a laugh, Same Love was a song that took a long time to write because he had to figure out how to do it properly.
"You know, coming from the perspective of being a straight male, how do I approach this subject knowing that I will be speaking about and for the gay community, but not being a part of that community? Holding myself accountable, holding the hip-hop community accountable. I wanted to bring up something that I feel isn't addressed particularly well, not only in American culture but around the world."
He has a chuckle when TimeOut tells him about Prime Minister John Key's "gay" red jumper quip, but then more seriously he points out how in the US you still can't be gay and be a boy scout.
"That's amazing to me. But we are evolving. We're evolving slowly. And last year there was a lot of forward progress made in terms of equality and the fight for civil rights."
He's a socially conscious chap, and someone who genuinely would like to make a difference with his music - and he manages to do it without being an earnest do-gooder.
"Music has been a tool for me to find out who I am, and to figure out some sort of inherent truth within myself and in the world I live in. Really, that's what my music is for, breaking down culture, breaking down society, and breaking down myself.
"I like to put my personality in my music and a lot of people only showcase one side of who they are, but I have a serious side, and I have a sense of humour and I don't take myself too seriously. It's about showing people who you are."
Who: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
What: Chart-topping Seattle hip-hop duo
Where and when: Vector Arena, Auckland, February 22. Also playing UCSA Ilam Gardens, Christchurch, Feb 20 (sold out), Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Feb 21, Wellington Opera House, Feb 23 (sold out)
Listen to: The Heist (2012)