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Macklemore's Hip-Hop Heart

©Robert Sebree

The Seattle rapper talks marriage equality, maintaining his sobriety and remaining independent

By By Travis Hay
MSN Music

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "The Heist" is a hip-hop record with a heart, and that heart is making some noise in the music industry.

Released earlier this month, "The Heist" was already a hotly anticipated release prior to its arrival, thanks to relentless touring, a dedicated fan base and Macklemore landing on the cover of XXL magazine's Freshman Class of 2012 issue. The latter likely made major labels pay attention to the duo, but instead of taking big dollars from a record deal, they released the record independently, without the help of a label, and it made its way to the top of the iTunes charts, beating out the likes of Jay-Z, Mumford & Sons and Ellie Goulding. To go along with the impressive iTunes dominance, "The Heist" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, with 78,000 copies sold in its first week of release.

The album, which is the pair's first full-length effort, combines Macklemore's emotional and engaging lyrical delivery, which often finds the MC spitting heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics, with Lewis' impressive skills as DJ and producer. Macklemore's relatable raps cover a broad range of topics, such as sneaker fetishism ("Wings") and his own struggles with addiction to prescription cough syrup ("Starting Over"). But perhaps the most notable song on the record is "Same Love." Washington is one of four states that will have a same-sex-marriage measure on the ballot this November. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' song has become a pro-gay-marriage anthem, and the video for the track has amassed more than 4.5 million views thanks in part to an endorsement from Ellen DeGeneres.

Bing: Watch Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' video for "Same Love"

Macklemore, who has two gay uncles and a gay godfather, is donating all of the proceeds from the sale of the "Same Love" single, which was put out on vinyl with the help of Sub Pop Records, to the organization Music for Marriage Equality, a Seattle-based nonprofit group working to pass the marriage equality measure, whose other supporters include the likes of Brandi Carlile, Death Cab for Cutie and Pearl Jam. But "The Heist" isn't all serious and sincere story-time raps. It has its fill of fun moments with the secondhand-store anthem "Thrift Shop," which may become the most unlikely club banger ever, "White Walls," which is an entertaining take on the clichéd rap about cars, and "Jimmy Iovine," a playful and fictional tale about why Macklemore and Lewis decided to remain independent.

MSN Music caught up with Macklemore, born Ben Haggerty, via email, and he shared his thoughts on marriage equality, maintaining his sobriety and remaining independent.

MSN Music: You've managed to reach a pretty high level of success as an independent artist and you rap about maintaining your independence. Do you think you'll ever sign to a label or are you content with continuing to do things on your own?

Macklemore: I'm not 100 percent opposed to signing with a label. If it grows to the point where we can't manage it on our own, I'm open to expanding. That could be joining with a major. But, I'm not willing to compromise our creative control, one-third of our merch or one-third of our touring. That doesn't make sense, and that's what a lot of majors are proposing.

What made you decided to record "Same Love"? Was the song a statement you wanted to make for a while?

Absolutely. I knew I wanted to write a song about gay rights and homophobia for over six years before I actually wrote "Same Love." It took me a while to figure out what perspective to come from. What initially prompted it was reading about a 13-year old who killed himself because kids in school were ridiculing him about his sexuality. I felt like I needed to say something, but it's a delicate subject matter to address being a straight male. I had to tell my story, and not somebody else's.

Concert Review: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Homosexuality isn't something that's viewed positively in hip-hop. Were you worried that you would be losing a lot of the momentum you've built up for your career by recording a song supporting marriage equality?

I thought about it. I was a little scared and apprehensive. But you put it on the scale of importance and weigh it out. Is this an issue I'm willing to lose fans, and potential industry friends over? No question.

Some of your critics claim that your biggest strength -- the sincerity of your lyrics -- is also your biggest weakness. Is that something you consider while making music? And how do you balance keeping that sincerity with having the message of your music not sound cheesy?

I never sit down, pick a beat and think  I need to make this a sincere record. It just so happens I m passionate about the issues I rap about. I never want to comprise who I am to appease a small population of people, especially people that probably have already made their mind up about my art. I think that it was imperative that The Heist had a balance. That it showcased a full human being. Not just the serious side, but the humorous and clowning side as well.

You ve made your battle with addiction very public through your music. How has it impacted your creative process?

When I m using drugs and alcohol there is no creative process. When I m sober I believe there s no limit to my creativity. It s very simple.

Expert Witness: Robert Christgau's review of "The Heist"

You collaborate with a lot of artists on "The Heist," most notably Ben Bridwell. How did that collaboration for "Starting Over" come about?

The collaboration came about through the wonderful Megan Jasper of Sub Pop. We took a couple meetings with Sub Pop and they were awesome. Megan was super genuine, creative and just down to help in any way. She hollered at Ben and sent him some links to our music. He was receptive to it, trusted Megan and said he had time. We ended up sending him three songs. He immediately gravitated to "Starting Over" and literally sent back rough Garage Band demos that night, inspired by the late, great Nate Dogg. Band Of Horses was just wrappin' their album in LA, so we went down and recorded with him for a couple days. He's a beautiful and generous soul. No ego, down to just try ideas and completely positive the entire time. I was inspired just being around him. Looking at it now, it really helped re-shape my mentality going into the fourth quarter of recording our album. And it turned out to be one of my favorite songs on the album.

Lastly, you have a very distinct fashion sense, which you sort of address on "Thrift Shop." Where did it come from and what are some of your favorite finds from thrift shopping?

I've always cared about style, ever since I was a little kid. Costumes, music and the mirror were a central theme in my childhood. I like to get outside of the box in terms of what fashion can be. My favorite find is usually the last thing I bought.

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