“I’m a backpacker,” stresses Macklemore, aware of the absurdity of his situation, while preparing for the Occidental show. He’s wearing a casual blue dress shirt, washed-out torn jeans and Nike dunks. He wears two small chains with pendants and a $200 Michael Kors watch; four rings, which he picked up at various mall kiosks across the country, are on his right hand. He still flies on Southwest Airlines. “I went four times Platinum on a song about second-hand clothes.”
As part of a high school graphic arts class assignment, Ben Haggerty was given a superhero figure with neither logo nor name. He named his hero Professor Macklemore, apropos of nothing save for “something from the vaults of bottled-up creativity.” When he went to New York the following summer, he would wear mismatched outfi ts from the thrift store—plaids and fringes and denim and oversized hats. He had a fake ID so he would get drunk as a teen. He called this drunken character Professor Macklemore, just because. At 17, Ben released his fi rst album, Open Your Eyes, as Professor Macklemore. The first track on the 2000 album is called “Welcome to the Culture” and begins: “In life’s ever-going symphony/I orchestrate my music willingly/Making moves, making history/Mentally we’re manipulated by the music industry/It’s time for chivalry, creativity lyrically/… For it’s evident that the dead president is taking our culture out of its element.” Says Macklemore, “I was just trying to figure out who I was and experiment with tonality and cadences.”
It was 2005’s Language of My World that showcased the Macklemore that is on record today—focused song concepts with earnest sermonizing where he treats huge ideas personally, polemicizes intimate issues. There’s a silly but serious song about wishing he had a bigger dick; “Inhale Deep” where he plays with Buddhist concepts and admits to fearbased drug addiction; “Ego,” where he talks about hating on his peers that signed record deals— “And that’s hard to admit/but since I’m really being honest/I wanted to be one of the first to make it as a Northwest rap artist/ Instead of taking it as a plus for my region, I took it as cut to my dreams.” On “White Privilege” he takes himself to task, noting “Most Whites don’t want to admit this is occurring/’Cause we got the best deal: The music without the burden/Of being Black in a system that really wants you to rot/Because all you need is a program and you can go and make hip-hop.”
Many of Macklemore’s detractors (who are overwhelmingly White; Black people still don’t pay too much attention to him) write him off as sounding like Slug of Atmosphere, but it’s a lazy and sinister comparison—said à la Guerrilla Black, somehow assigning him as a biter. While there are similarities in the older work, the newer work would be more reminiscent of Rhode Island’s Sage Francis. But only to a point. Which is all to say that Macklemore sounds like what he is—a White underground rapper who steers past revivalist pedantry and shock value. Until now, the credible White rappers that have cracked into mainstream hip-hop’s awareness have mimicked, catered to and paid homage to Black culture; a handful have portrayed themselves as ethnic hicks. But Macklemore is the first commercially successful White rapper who’s just a regular White guy.
“The gatekeepers—the people that are probably close to my age, that are my same skin tone—that threatens them in a certain way,” observes Macklemore. “If I wasn’t in my position and I was them, or I was another MC, I would feel threatened, too. The culture that we know and love that is a certain thing, that’s a certain era, it’s a certain person, it’s a certain sound, it’s a certain texture, it’s a certain city, it’s a certain look, it’s a certain style of dress. That becomes threatened. When you see a line of 2,000 kids in some private school in California waiting to get into a Macklemore show, you know that the majority of those kids have not grown up listening to hip-hop. That this White kid that’s rapping about thrift shops is one of the most popular rappers in the country, the thing that you love the most you feel like, maybe this is being compromised. The Pandora’s Box is opened and now it’s not just mine anymore and this is not what hip-hop represents to me.”