There are immediately daps and hugs as Macklemore hops out of his Cadillac and onto the pavement of the parking lot. Nearby, people are beginning to congregate for a 12-step meeting.
It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday in late July — no more than two hours after news broke that the rapper relapsed on drugs, amidst the whirlwind of success he and Ryan Lewis enjoyed over the last few years.
But the daps and hugs — from men and women of all ages and races — aren’t because he’s Macklemore, world famous rapper. And his showing up to this hour-and-a-half long meeting isn’t to save face given the public revelations.
The daps and hugs are because he’s Ben Haggerty, a man in recovery, just like those doling out the love. And he’s here because it’s where he goes everyday.
“I heard that it was on ‘Good Morning America’ today that Macklemore relapsed,” he says the next morning in the living room of his Seattle home, with neither surprise nor scorn in his voice. He’s less referring to himself in the third person than embodying the media chatter and spectacle that his life-update sparked.
Now a day removed from Complex publishing the cover story where he discussed his recent drug use, the news that one of the biggest artists in the world had relapsed, has only spread. And while much of the piece did focus on his bout with addiction, based on the tidbits and headlines other outlets picked up and ran, you could have convinced someone it was the only thing written about in the story.
But Ben gets it. And he seems to be OK with it.
He knows his platform is as unique as his struggle is typical. He knows his speaking about it can be — and has been — a help to others. And that’s why, as we’re sitting in that living room, despite his recognition of the eagerness of media outlets to publish a new chapter in the ongoing Macklemore As Recovering Addict narrative, he willingly shares details of that struggle before I even directly ask.
“I was not at my best when I found out Tricia was pregnant, to say the least, and I’m not proud of it,” the new dad says of the day he learned he and his now-wife were expecting. “I was struggling with addiction. She was late like a day, maybe two days. And she said, ‘I want to get a pregnancy test.’ And [I’m] thinking like, she’s tripping. Like, it’s a day or two. I shot to the store, I came back and I gave her the test. And I got down on my knees and prayed just like, ‘God, I’m not ready for this right now. I’m not ready to be a father — I can’t even get sober. I’m not ready.’”
In the three years since October 2012’s The Heist became the catalyst that turned Macklemore & Ryan Lewis into overnight stars after years of underground and localized success, there was an almost unfathomable ascent: the album debuted, independently, at No. 2 on the Billboard 200; “Thrift Shop” became one of the most inescapable songs of the last decade, hitting No. 1 in countries around the world and finishing 2013 atop Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100; “Can’t Hold Us” was another international No. 1, and became the most streamed song on Spotify in 2013; “Same Love” played a role in a historical and cultural moment; and “White Walls,” the album’s least-ubiquitous single, reached all the way to No. 15 on the Hot 100.
Yet, that unprecedented climb was not paved purely with praise. On the other side, Macklemore became, in the eyes of some, a pop rapper with few lyrical bona fides. Many positioned him as the face of cultural appropriation and felt his white skin played trampoline for his career. Negative headlines and tweets came with the same sort of frequency as iTunes single sales.
"I think that if I was on the other side of it — if I was myself at 20-years-old looking at the ‘Thrift Shop’ guy, I would probably be like, ‘Yo, f--k that dude,’” he says. “‘This [other] person deserves this award.’ Or, ‘He shouldn’t have this stage.’
"There was absolutely no doubt that my race played to an advantage. I think that what was difficult for me is that I agreed with [the criticism]. I thought the exact same thing [about privilege]. And you can talk about it. You can talk about it in interviews, or you can break down the advantages that my skin has afforded me in this industry, but there’s still gonna be that criticism. I felt the same way as a lot of the criticism.”
Ryan felt the weight, too: “Just as a human being, I think when you have a year, year-and-a-half, two years of essentially being critiqued, whether that’s your art, you as a person, what you’re wearing, or something that you said, when that is going on for so long, I think it takes just a second for you to reboot in just knowing who you are from your own perspective."
And so the success and criticism stewed together with other important factors — including that relapse and pregnancy — and led Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to disappear from the public eye for much of 2015. But now they’re ready to reemerge — they dropped “Growing Up,” their first track in almost three years, in early August, and more is on the way — and ready for all that comes with it.
“I think I took it personally for a while, and wanted to be like, ‘Yo, but I can actually rap!’ and like, ‘I’ve been talking about this same issue for a while,’ and, ‘Let me defend myself,’” Ben says. “And then, at a certain point, it’s like, let your actions defend, you don’t have to defend yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Be who you are. You’re gonna get through this.”
Macklemore looks different now than when his face was everywhere.
He’s ditched the hairstyle he made famous. The one with plush, slicked back locks on top, balanced by a near skin-tight buzz on the sides and back. Instead, it’s cleanly parted from left-to-right, still short by the ears, but as you move up the scalp, it increases in length far more rapidly now.
At the risk of reading into it too deeply, it does seem metaphoric: For someone who was so closely associated with the hairstyle he rocked, it’s like a new chapter is about to unfold. It’s not an escape from the past, but an update on it. And it feels like a better reflection of where he is in this current moment. He’s a dad. He’s been forced to grow up (though that’s an ongoing process, as he outlines in the song).
“One of the beautiful things about fatherhood is that you have no idea how much you are going to love your child,” he says. “You can look at this little tiny human being and you just have met this human and yet you love it more than anything in the world. And I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t think, until you’re a parent, you ever can. It’s this unconditional love that happens instantaneously.”
You may not be able to experience it until you’re a parent, but you can sure see it.
Ben bounces with a palpable glow as he holds his child, whether blissfully bopping down the block or gently cupping her soon-to-be-Air-Jordan-rocking mini feet, calmly taking in the sunset from his roof overlooking Seattle.
"It was exciting to see all those clichés just kind of come true and to continue to come true,” Ryan says. “He’s just been happy. Very happy. There’s a sense of joy that I think comes from that. You know, it’s completely different than anything else. An album’s not going to give you that. iTunes isn’t going to give you that. It’s human; it’s family."
Maybe it’s the haircut, maybe it’s the baby strapped to his front, maybe it’s the early morning hour, or maybe it’s that this upscale neighborhood is just respectful of people’s privacy, but the internationally recognized rapper and proud Seattle son moves around in public more freely than I anticipated.
Early Tuesday, a couple hours prior to the 12-step meeting, we spend a few minutes catching up at his home — Ben and I first met a couple years before The Heist but haven’t seen each other much in the time since — before heading out the front door, joined by a couple other MTVers, as well as Tricia and baby Sloane, who’s riding on her pop’s chest.
We walk for 15 or so minutes, heading towards a nearby coffee shop, and though some of the blocks are completely desolate, others offer plenty of chances for people walking dogs or driving in their cars to notice him and approach.
But it doesn’t happen.
We’re crossing the closest thing to a main drag in this serene neighborhood, and a woman in her car slows down at the intersection to let us by. She smiles and waves us past, looking something like the sort of “soccer mom” fan that contributed equal parts to making “Thrift Shop” a sensation and making Macklemore publicly polarizing. Maybe she identifies him in her head and is inspired to slow down. Or maybe she’s just Pacific Northwest Nice.
When we enter the coffee shop, there’s probably a dozen other people in there, reading, snacking, drinking. As Ben orders his coffee, it’s evident that the man and woman behind the counter both recognize him. They may know him because he’s Macklemore, platinum-selling rapper, or they may know him because he’s Ben, area dad who frequents their café — probably, they know him for both — but they only treat him as the latter. No one in the place bats an eye.
"I like being able to walk down the street and not take a picture every block that I go down,” he says later. “And not feel like a spectacle and not feel like I’m in a zoo, and feel like people don’t even know who I am, but they know that, That’s a tiger and I’m supposed to take a picture with the tiger. That was a weird feeling. And I like just being around here and walking to the coffee shop and getting up with kids and talking about music and being a member of the community and going to a show. And being a person again. For a while, I didn’t feel like a person.”
I can’t help but think of other musicians with a comparable sales pedigree functioning similarly with wildly different reactionary results. I can’t quite wrap my finger around why the task we’ve just accomplished — menial for us regular folk, but presumably nearly impossible for stars — went over so smoothly.
But it’s fortunate it’s this way, because it’s part of an established, crucial daily routine that allows for some much needed daddy/daughter time.
“The step game is crazy,” he jokes, adding that he had to buy a pair of “dad shoes” specifically because of how much time he spends on his feet and walking with Sloane attached to his body. “She’s either wide-eyed and taking it all in, or she just passes out — both of which are awesome, ‘cause she’s not crying and in discomfort; she just enjoys it.”
Once we leave the coffee shop, the walk back to his home is a little more brisk. Ben and I venture ahead of the rest of the crew — discussing music from Drake and Meek Mill’s beef to Surf and Chance the Rapper’s independent grind — because he’s running a couple minutes behind schedule.
He needs to pick up the pace to make it to the next part of his daily routine.
“I think that if I put anything above that program, I will lose it,” he later says of his recovery. “I have to put the program before everything because everything else depends on it. So if I put music before it, if I put my family before it, if I put anything before it, then I will lose those things.”
The love in the room of the 12-step meeting is overpowering — and not just for Ben, but everyone who’s there for support. But that wasn’t always the case when the “Thrift Shop” guy walked back into the program.
“I did feel judged,” he tells me, about one particular incident. “I kind of got called out by somebody and I left that room and I went somewhere else and I found a family there and I found a community that I’d been missing.”
As for his other family — blood and musical — he hid his habits from them for an extended period of time.
“There were some difficult conversations with my managers and with Ryan and with Tricia and my parents,” he says about finally coming — and getting — clean late last year. “It’s like, if I’m going to do this again, if I’m going to do this right, I have to be fully honest. And I can’t be like, ‘Hey I slipped up; I was smoking weed in August.’ No. I was doing drugs for like a-year-and-a-half, two years. Sneakily.”
They’re conversations he’s had before. He first got sober in 2008, distancing himself from prior vices like drinking, smoking, pills and lean; he documented that struggle on 2009’s “Otherside.” But he relapsed while working on The Heist and wrote another song, “Starting Over,” about the experience.
“When I was on tour, for the most part, I was sober,” he says. “But there’s definitely pockets of time that I wasn’t. And I would go through it [while performing those songs]. I’d be in my f—king head like, ‘Yeah, you’re a fake. What are you talking about? You’re not living your words.’ And that’s all that — as an MC, as an artist — that’s what I have, are those words. And if I can’t back that up…”
Getting back on track took time, though.
“I was going into 12-step meetings, high, trying to get sober. I was going in like 15 minutes late with sunglasses on, leaving ten minutes early, trying to get something. And then I would immediately go get high in the car. I was trying to get something out of it. I know that these programs work. It’s me that’s the issue.
“But going back, it’s tough. The thing that’s beautiful about these 12-step programs is that most people have gone in and out. Some people have been there forever but, for the most part, everyone can identify with it.”
It’s this feeling of community and collective compassion — which was abundantly clear at the meeting, as people told raw, moving stories and earned positive reinforcement whether they had three days, or three decades sober — that is at the root of his continued willingness to share his struggle for sobriety with the media and fans.
“I’m just one of millions of people in this country that has this disease, and I can either be honest about it, or I can push it under the rug and be like, ‘I’m fine, I’m cool.’ But I find that when I say, ‘I’m fine, I’m cool,’ I’m usually not. And if there’s anybody that can relate to this, to me, that’s what this is about.
“It took me probably two, two-and-a-half weeks [to get sober],” he says. “Once I was finally able to get over that hump and live life again and start working the 12-step program again, I felt amazing and music started to come.”
You may never have heard of Ben and Ryan’s youth and music camp.
It wasn’t highly publicized — in fact, I only found one outlet that covered its existence — and it wasn’t launched for that end. But because I’m here on a day when Ben is scheduled to speak for the kids, we drive there after the meeting and I get to tag along for a glimpse.
Known as Hip-Hop Artist Residency, the two-week intensive program is held at the EMP Museum for roughly two-dozen local kids with creative aspirations. There was an intense recruitment and application process, involving recorded music and interviews, and all the participants come from homes that don’t fall above a certain annual income level. And unlike most camps, where you have to pay, these kids get transportation money plus a $400 stipend upon completion.
For the course, they’re broken into small groups, and go through various writing and music workshops. The ultimate goal is recording a song, which they’ll do during studio sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, and perform it for family and friends Friday.
Because he was shooting a video, Ben didn’t get the chance to stop by the camp during its first week. But he’s here now, in front of the inquisitive, enthusiastic group in a dimly lit auditorium that can hold at least five times the amount of people currently occupying it. He fields questions for almost two hours, talking about everything from how to hold a microphone at a live show to writer’s block to Seattle’s local music scene.
This is the first year they’ve done the camp, but odds are there’s more to come in the way of giving back. The 30/30 Project, launched by Ryan and his mother in 2014, aims to increase access to healthcare by building 30 medical facilities worldwide. Within their relatively small, in-house operation, they even have a Director of Community Engagement, who is essential in endeavors like the camp.
When I ask if Ben’s thought about a single becoming a worldwide smash again, his answer has less to do with the music or the reception or the accolades than the opportunity.
“If I had success with another song like ‘Thrift Shop,’ the thing that’s exciting is not, We’re back on TV, We have a song that’s number one,” he says. “That’s cool. But actually, what does that translate to tangibly for action? That, to me, is what’s exciting about it.
“The opportunity I have to help the people that helped me get here, that’s what’s truly fulfilling. Not reading your name at number one in the back of a Billboard magazine.”
We’re back in the Cadillac pinballing around the neighborhood the next morning, and I’m getting my first taste of how the guys, musically, are going to follow up their incredible breakout moment, and whether or not another “Thrift Shop” could actually be on the way.
In addition to the Ed Sheeran-assisted “Growing Up,” I hear four other tracks. So I can confirm this much: New music does exist.
The guys won’t let me say much (or anything) else about the songs. Not vague descriptions, not sounds I heard, not lyrics I caught, not feelings they gave me. They are, understandably, protective of what’s about to come.
What I will say is this: I’ve been a fan of the music they make, and after listening, I found myself eager to hear more.
They’ve still got work to do, though.
The album isn’t finished, and they want to get it out this year. What will it all mean when the world hears it?
"I think that the records we made were exactly what we wanted to make,” Ryan says. “I think we had a couple pretty crazy ideas that I spent a really, really, really, really long time trying to get right and I think whatever that does, however that’s received, whatever people f-k with or not, I don’t know.
“For me as a producer, it’s not like, Is this going to be popular? It’s more like…did I give that person goose bumps, did I make them cry? Move over to the next one, this sh-t is supposed to make me feel hella cool or ride hella hard or I want to feel this in my chest. Did that happen or did that not?”
“I’m well aware of the sophomore slump,” Ben says. “I’m well aware of the public. I’m well aware of how I wanna come back out. I’m aware of it, and I think in an ideal world, I’m just an artist that’s in the studio making art. Is that even a possibility? No. My mind is too powerful. The fear does seep in.”
But he’s lately been able to block that mental noise out.
“Keep making the music, because the album’s not done. And if you enjoy this, then it’s gonna be fine. If this resonates with you, someone else is gonna get something out of it. It might not be the audience that we had before, but I’m OK with that. That might be the best thing for me. That might be the best thing for my family.
“In all honesty, I’m not convinced that this life, this rap game, this chase for spins on the radio and popularity, I’m not convinced that that’s the best life for me. I’m gonna put out another album, this album, and I’m gonna do the TV stuff, and I’m gonna do the interviews, and I’m gonna do it how the best version of trying to ascend looks like, but if I don’t like myself, it’s not worth it to me.
"I’d rather be playing in a 500 cap room in front of people that liked my music before and will like my music after. Maybe this happens again and I realize I just need to do this, this, this and I’m OK. But I wanna be real with myself. The pursuit of being the best, this competitive MC nature that I think I’m always gonna have, this competitive, Let’s make this the biggest that it can possibly be thing, might not be the best version of who I am and who I’m trying to be.”