Ben Haggerty took to the stage on Friday afternoon at WaMu Theater to close out the Summit portion of the first annual Upstream Fest & Summit. After a successful first day saw keynote speeches from Quincy Jones to Portia Sabin, Ron Jones to Mike McCready - it was only fitting for the local rapper, more commonly known as Macklemore, to close out with a session on "How Local Artists Go Global and Global Artists Stay Local".
It's a great topic, especially since no one is better served to speak on it than Macklemore; who, despite international acclaim - has still maintained that Seattle "hometown boy" feel. From filming his music videos here, to constantly repping the Emerald City in his songs (and clothes - check the Seahawks jacket he wore), to living here (and not LA or NY) and keeping active in the community - he has certainly not left Seattle in the dust.
Mack spoke at length in front of hundreds with Elliott Wilson, journalist, TIDAL curator, author and television producer. And while the rapper got very personal with more about his struggles with addiction, the majority of the interview was an open love letter to his city.
“When we asked him to take part today, he didn’t hesitate,” said Upstream Executive Director Jeff Vetting. And truly, the rapper seemed humbled to be in front of a group of his fellow artists, sharing some of the lessons he learned coming up in this city.
Elliott Wilson: Tell me about coming up in Seattle in the 90s. What was the scene like then?
Macklemore: "It was hundreds of people. It was an artist-driven community of folks, it wasn't really fans yet. It wasn't self-sustaining in any way, and it was such an important and imperative part of my process to be in that community and have people that mentored me, and watch other people perform. Feel part of something that's bigger than myself."
Now that you have this voice, this platform - do you feel a certain sense of responsibility?
Yeah definitely. How do we give back to the community in a way to help other people? It's difficult. It's amazing, and it's difficult at the same time. I can't give everyone an opportunity in terms of taking people on tour, or making a song with everyone - it's just not realistic. We've tried to give as many people as we possibly can, the look. We don't go to LA for musicians, we take them from Seattle. And we take people from Seattle all over the world with us. Seattle is a small big city, but it's a small one. It's very closely knit.
I can't give someone success or fame, but I can give them opportunity. Sometimes that equates to getting lunch and having a conversation, sometimes it's making a song.
It's interesting how you still live in Seattle, and kept it at the core of what you do.
We ended up traveling so much [on "The Heist" tour]. And I thought about it, moving to LA. There's more of an industry there. But it's not home. There's no WaMu Theater in LA! (crowd laughs) No, but I want to be with my family and friends. I can always shoot down to LA or go to NY. Now, I live a mile away from where I grew up. I live on Capitol Hill still. This is the fabric that made me who I am, and I'm sticking to it.
You probably couldn't wear a Raiders jersey in LA.
Although, I might have to cop that Marshawn Oakland jersey. I'm going to give myself a pass for that. Just to let you guys know now, first, I'm buying that jersey.
The struggle of being an artist trying to make it is real; the rejection, the time and money it takes. Can you tell us about that?
It's no secret I spent a good part of my youth struggling with drug addiction. That lead me to stagnation creatively. The days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years, and pretty soon I'm in my mid-20s and I've been high on a couch. When I went into rehab in 2008, I was like - this is it. Any local momentum I had, playing at Capitol Hill Block Party or Bumbershoot or getting written up in The Stranger, that was gone. I moved into my parents basement, and I got a job.
Where did you work?
Goran Brothers Hat Shop on the Ave. I lasted about four shifts. Four four-hour shifts. And I received five free hats. Received. But then I had a show at The Paramount, I opened up for Blue Scholars. They gave me an opportunity, they gave me a shot to open up. 3,500 people later I sold some t-shirts and I'm like, I'm out!
Your business and personal life is very intertwined. Your wife works with you, as do friends and family. How is that?
My wife is probably working right now on travel, booking, merch and sales. She's really a very integral part of our history and story. When I first met her in 2006, I printed out t-shirts and she would stand in the back of the shows selling them. She really grew the business. We got approached by a lot of third party people like Walmart saying 'can we sell Cold Ass Honky t-shirts'? And I was like - 'No Walmart. You can't.' It was hard though. That was a big ass check. But keeping it ourselves, it's that direct to fan relationship that's absolutely the foundation of who we are.
How does the visual part of your work - like music videos - contribute to your success?
The one thing about music videos that’s interesting is most labels would have never been like 'Oh you wanna do that size of music video with that budget ? Yes!' They would have been like, 'hell no.' Ryan and I get in a room, and we start talking and the budget just goes. But being control of our art, you get to invest in it. You look at people who the art first and what is costs second. People like Kanye. You can go out and do the bare minimum, or you can go out, build a set, get a choir - whatever it is. Not to say that more is better, but putting that thought and heart into those little decisions.
Like "Thrift Shop"?
Yeah - it was a viral song on YouTube before it was ever played on radio. That video costs us $5,000 - $10,000. We shot at the Goodwill down the street and up at Value Village. It didn't have to be a huge budget, it just had to be thought out and executed well.
You had a pretty good following here in Seattle before that too, right?
Yeah. I will also say, so much of all this shit is just timing and luck that is beyond my control or anyone else's. Without the support of Seattle - because we had support in Seattle on an incredible level before the rest of the country knew we existed. Because we were able to sell out three shows at The Showbox, and booking agents in new York heard about this. They were like wow this is something different, what's going on in Seattle? It's on that grass roots direct-to-fan relationship we had built with our fans. I don't take that for granted.
Sometimes people can blow up without ever being established in their own city. And I get that it can be frustrating. It's easy to get disgruntled and be like 'F*ck Seattle', or 'insert city here'. The Blue Scholars were headlining and I was like, why aren't I headlining? It can be really frustrating.
What was it like after "The Heist" tour, coming off that?
We were out there, Elliott. We were performing for way too long. I think we were out for two straight years touring. Most people are out at a year tops, then get back in the studio. But I was so overwhelmed with the success, I didn’t have voice or energy to go into the studio after the shows to record new stuff. I was still going back in and out of drugs, trying to cope with something that was brand new to me. Starting "This Unruly Mess I've Made", it was a hard process. Particularly the beginning. I'm coming out of relapses, I'm scared, I'm fearful.
What was that like, to think you were clean and you'd be over it [drugs] for the rest of your life?
I'll say that I know through firsthand experience, I'll never be over it for the rest of my life. It's something I have to wake up and commit to every day. It was the worst version of myself that I could possibly be. I can't be happy in that space, I can't be creative. So I'm sobering up, I'm telling Ryan what's bene going on - and now, let's make an album.
There was a lot of fear, particularly in then beginning. But we just decided to make really unconventional songs. Like an eight minute song about race, or a song about mopeds that's almost six minutes. Whatever is the norm of what radio is, f*ck it. Let's make what we want to make. I have 36 bars of what I want to say, and I'm not going to take it to 12. I'm going to say what I want to say.
Yeah, like the song 'Wednesday Morning' after Trump won.
It was necessary to touch on that in that album. I woke up after the election and felt that pit in my stomach - did that really happen? And wrote. And you can't make that happen. I can sit down as often as I possibly can and hope to catch that spirit. But it's just a matter of, am I an open enough vessel. I also don't want to be only one thing. I'm not political all the time, or talking about race all the time, or at the thrift shop all the time. Even though I am. My favorite artists are people who were conflicted. I'm trying to be a bunch of different things. I want to make music for whatever the day calls for. At the end of the day, what did I leave here on this Earth?
Any final thoughts?
Thanks to Upstream. I think this is really, at the core foundational level, this is a well-intended festival. And hopefully it's here to stay. It’s the first year of it - this is our city. Oh and, I went to the Seahawks training facility today on a side note, and we’re looking good guys. We’re looking strong.