It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Seattle’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. After appearing on XXL‘s 2012 Freshmen Class cover, Macklemore set out to release the duo’s studio debut, The Heist, independently. The album enjoyed a successful debut, pushing nearly 80,000 units in its first week thanks to Mack and Ryan’s years of building a widespread and ardently devoted fan base. But then something unexpected happened: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis blew up.
Heist‘s fourth single, “Thrift Shop,” picked up momentum six weeks after its official release in August 2012 and quickly (thanks to an extremely catchy beat and viral video) began climbing the ranks of the Billboard Hot 100. By early 2013, “Thrift Shop” was dominating the charts, holding onto the No. 1 spot for 16 weeks straight and selling 6 million copies. The single’s success helped The Heist sell upward of 700,000 copies to date, making it one of the most successful independent album releases in hip-hop.
At a recent performance at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College—the last stop on the pair’s lengthy college tour—Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sat down with XXL to catch us up on their blur of a year. After an exhausting hour-long performance that was nearly cancelled due to turbulent weather conditions, the duo chopped it up about the success of “Thrift Shop,” maintaining their creative independence and dealing with criticism about their ubiquitous crossover single.
XXL: Since the release of The Heist, you guys have charted two No. 1 singles with “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” Has your success made you have a “See, I told you so” feeling toward the industry?
Macklemore: That’s exactly what it is, like, “See? I fucking told you!” [Laughs] No, for us, it was more like, “Damn, that happened?” All of this was an extreme surprise, so we haven’t really had that moment. It’s cool that somebody could even look at it that way, but I think the thing that’s been underestimated with our music is its connection with people. The connection it has on a personal level, people just don’t value that. I read shit, and people don’t get it. They don’t understand that it’s resonating with people on a personal level, and when music infiltrates the spirit it has a power way beyond any normal club record or flavor of the month. It has lasting power, and that’s why The Heist is still selling 30,000 records a week seven months after it came out, which is more than I thought it was gonna do its first week.
One of the songs that really stood out to me on The Heist was “Jimmy Iovine.” How true is the story behind that song?
Macklemore: Since releasing the song, we met with Jimmy Iovine to chop it up. Me and my manager went in and kicked it with him for a couple hours, but for the song we didn’t meet with him. We’d met with numerous other people in the industry who were offering us deals, and we did the shake hands, eat a meal, play records, awkward situations. All of those experiences kind of accumulated into the song “Jimmy Iovine.” And my whole life I was like, “I want to get a deal. That’s the only way you can be on and be famous is sign a deal.” That was the epitome of success for me, but I think that as Ryan and I continued to put out music and really set our own lane, it became obvious that we didn’t need what a label had to offer. That’s really what the story of that song is: me stealing this record deal, this kind of fictitious record deal, and realizing that I don’t even want it now that I’m here. But Jimmy was super cool. He had a lot of great things to say. The reason we picked him was because he’s like that dude in the industry, but he turned out to actually be a good person.
You guys have created a unique brand. What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists who are hoping to create a brand of their own?
Ryan Lewis: I would say, first and foremost, even if it’s a cliche, to work extremely hard. I don’t think you get anywhere without logging hours and becoming extremely good at your craft. I also think that if you’re going the independent route, there’s so many different things to fulfill to operate your camp, from the design of your album to your visuals, your photography, your merchandising. All of those different things are reflective of your artistry beyond the music, and that’s where I think labels often times fall short. You might have a great record and then you bring it to a label and it goes to their graphic design department and your whole branding and the way that you visually look sucks. I would tell independent artists to start filling in those pieces that make a huge difference in terms of your general impression on listeners.