Ben Haggerty has lost his train of thought. Moments ago, the MC—sitting on a park bench in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district sporting salmon-colored, knee-length shorts and a low-buttoned summer shirt—was talking about his early career. Now his piercing, deep-set gray eyes are focused on a group of teenage photography students as a chubby kid takes sly photos of Haggerty while his friends giggle. “Do they really think I don’t know what they’re doing?” he asks, his mouth stuck somewhere between a smile and a grimace.
Being spotted by prepubescent paparazzi in public is nothing new to the 28-year-old MC. “For the most part, every time it happens, I’m grateful for it,” he says. “But you can’t turn it off. If I want to go get a Dick’s cheeseburger at 1:45 in the morning, I know what comes with that.”
Macklemore, who just might be the most painfully self-aware and polite artist in hip-hop history, is well on his way to becoming Seattle’s biggest star. This is nothing short of amazing. The MC—who plays MusicfestNW this week—has no label and no new album; instead he and producer Ryan Lewis have built a rabid national fan base around a handful of videos and singles that exist only on the Internet.
But it’s not the rapid rise and DIY ethos that is most striking about Macklemore. It’s that, in a genre full of fronting, beef and bravado, Macklemore’s music is shockingly genuine. “People compare him to Eminem, because he’s white, but he’s not that kind of artist. It’s all heartfelt, you can see when he performs that he bleeds this stuff—it’s from the heart,” says Sir Mix-A-Lot, the most successful rapper in Seattle’s history. “As far as scope, though, he could be as large as an Eminem, as large as a 50 Cent.”
To Max O’Neal, a 16-year-old student at Seattle’s Ballard High, Macklemore has already eclipsed those artists. “He doesn’t rap about partying, drugs, alcohol and sex, he raps about REAL THINGS...and he does it with a fiery passion,” O’Neal writes. “To me, he reps the 206 better than anyone else out there.”
Macklemore is the anti-Eminem, and he’s coming for your children. This man is going to be huge.
“I grew up on Capitol Hill with two parents and two cars/ They had a beautiful marriage, we even had a swing set in our yard” — Macklemore, “Claiming the City” (2005)Haggerty doesn’t look much like a rap icon—a tuft of slicked-back hair on his high-shaved head; a penchant for fuzzy, vintage thrift-store jackets and a searching, serious face combine to make him look more like a World War I fighter pilot than an MC. Oh, and he’s white. Extra white, at the moment, because he’s spent most of his summer in the studio.
His music isn’t standard issue, either. Macklemore’s lyrics tend toward high-drama cautionary tales, not cars or sexual conquests. He raps about baseball, the most un-hip-hop of sports (“My Oh My” is an emotional tribute to the late Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus). Even his party tracks are unconventional: Midshow, Haggerty likes to don a wig and shoddy British accent, becoming “Sir Raven Bowie” for the Eurotrashy club cut “And We Danced,” his most popular single to date.
Haggerty comes from a stable, two-parent household—a far cry from the standard rap bio—and had the full support of his parents in making his music. But he does share with most performers a desperate need for attention. “I was always an eclectic, weirdo kid, and I would wear my underwear on the outside of my pants and put on shows and dance around,” he says. “My parents took me to see Cats when I was 6 or 7—I dressed up like a cat for a year straight.”
In the fourth grade, he and two friends covered the Digable Planets’ “Cool Like That” in a school talent show—but he doesn’t remember how that first appearance as an MC went over with the crowd. “I just remember practicing and being really serious, spending my lunch hour going over and over it,” he says.
Photos from his teenage years show Haggerty “mean-mugging” (a favorite phrase of his) comically alongside friends of decidedly darker hues. He developed two major passions in life: skateboarding and hip-hop, taking the latter very seriously. There was only one problem. “The raps were just horrible. I was horrible for a long time,” he says.
In 2004, Haggerty recorded “Welcome to MySpace,” a techno-tinged, tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the social network that called out the service’s founder, Tom Anderson. “God damn, Tom, I used to have a life with a job/ Now I’m just eatin’ cereal readin’ what people write in their blog,” Haggerty rapped. Anderson apparently took the joke well, posting the song on the upstart service and winning Macklemore thousands of new fans. (He’d also meet producer Ryan Lewis on the social media service.) It was Haggerty’s first taste of national success, something that’s now an everyday occurrence.
In 2005, Macklemore released his first album, The Language of My World. The self-released disc wasn’t much of a commercial success compared to his highly downloaded recent singles, but it did establish a blueprint for Macklemore’s style: honest, cinematic and perhaps a touch overdramatic. The album’s opening rap, “White Privilege,” indicted himself and his white showgoers for the gentrification of hip-hop. “Now who’s going to shows/ The kids on the block starving/ Or the white people with dough who can relate to my content?” he rhymes.
If Macklemore has strayed from discussing race on the flurry of singles and EPs he has released in the past 18 months, it’s probably because that song did a number on him. “It’s a complicated fucking issue,” he says with a shrug and a sigh. “I also don’t want to be the white rapper that’s talking about the black man’s struggle.”