How Macklemore Conquered Addiction and Teamed With Rap Royalty for New LP

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Originally Published at http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/how-macklemore-conquered-addiction-and-teamed-with-rap-royalty-for-new-lp-20150910

Photo copyright rollingstone.com

September 10, 2015 – An hour before they took the stage at MTV’s Video Music Awards in Los Angeles on August 30th, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were sure their set was going to be a total disaster. The Seattle rapper-producer duo had just finished the final run-through of the performance — an ambitious outdoor version of their new single, “Downtown,” involving tricky choreography and multiple guest vocalists — and nothing was going right. “We watched the playback, and Ryan was bummed,” says Macklemore. “He was like, ‘Dude, this isn’t good. It’s going to be a s**show.'”

In the end, their first televised performance in more than a year went off without a hitch — but it was a high-stakes moment for more reasons than one. The last awards show Macklemore and Lewis performed at was the 2014 Grammys, where their platinum-selling The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar and others for Best Rap Album. The backlash that followed was swift and brutal: Many fans saw them as symbols of the advantages that white artists have even in a historically black genre. Last fall, the rapper — who went sober in 2008, but relapsed into drug use during his sudden rise to fame — got clean again, and he says the 12-step philosophy has helped him deal with criticism. “There’s this tendency to be like, ‘Where’s the negative stuff? How valid is the criticism?'” says Macklemore. “But honestly, what people think of me is none of my business. If I live on the Internet looking for public approval, I’m going to be miserable.”

The day after the VMAs, Macklemore is calling from a mountain cabin in eastern Washington, where he and Lewis are putting the final touches on their follow-up to The Heist. “I’m feeling great about this album,” he says. “It has a diversity of sounds and textures and concepts. We’ve been able to take our time with it, and it’s a great feeling to get to that point.”

His relief at having gotten through the VMAs is audible. “It was intense,” he says. “You’re sitting in your seat, Kanye’s giving his speech 10 feet away from you, and you realize how many people are out there watching and commenting and judging and making memes. This Internet culture that we’re in feels so foreign and so strange sometimes. The VMAs, the Grammys, Twitter, Facebook — all of that is artificial. What’s real is creativity.”

The “Downtown” video has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube; the song is the result of an 18-month-long recording process that began when Macklemore and Lewis were on tour somewhere in the American Midwest. “Ryan made a beat called ‘Moping Around,’ and I thought it was about mopeds,” Macklemore says with a laugh. He began writing rhymes about the vehicles that he and Lewis had bought to relieve the monotony of life on the road. Lewis took this theme as a production challenge, building “Downtown” into a five-minute epic packed with stylistic detours into Seventies rock, show tunes and more. “We worked at whatever studios were available when we had random ideas,” Lewis says. “There was a long time when I didn’t think I was going to be able to capture what was in our heads.”

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