Playing for Ws: Ryan Lewis and Macklemore

In a little over three years, Seattle rapper Macklemore and DJ-producer Ryan Lewis have gone from a promising collaboration to the Next Big Thing. The duo's honest rhymes, killer showmanship, and atypical production have earned them a hardcore fan base both at home in the Northwest—they sold out Friday's WaMu concert a month before the show—and abroad. On a recent European tour, they sold out eight of ten gigs—all this before the release of their first official LP. And while Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) is the face and the voice of the project, producer/brand manager Lewis deserves just as much credit for driving the duo to the top of Seattle's hip-hop scene. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's new album, debut LP The Heist, dropped today. Despite being independently released, the album currently occupies the No. 1 spot on iTunes. This isn't just a local thing anymore.

To celebrate the release of The Heist, we caught up with the hyper-busy Lewis (a self-described "over answerer") to chat about his symbiotic relationship with Macklemore, the many roles he plays besides producer, and getting Ws.

How would you describe the sonic changes on The Heist?

The VS. EP from two and a half years ago was completely sample based. The whole intrigue and idea around it was to be flipping fairly contemporary indie rock-ish types of samples—from Beirut to Arcade Fire—and sort of reimagining those, not in a conventional sense, but playing more live instruments. The Heist, on the other hand, doesn’t have any samples on it at all. It’s really been interesting. I was never really a beats salesman, so The Heist pulls from what we agreed on to be the best of the best of both of our work from the last three years. It really does capture the last three years of both of our lives. I mean, “Can’t Hold Us,” I made the original foundation of that beat, with the drums and the piano, in 2007.

In terms of textures, it has a wide variety—whether it be in the content and the messages within it or the moods, from something you can just bump in the car rolling that’s just kind of chill or party music, or much more introspective, quieter, deeper music. Texturally I think it’s very interesting, and I don’t think by any means it’s exactly what people are expecting. In the past year and a half a lot of my productions have revolved around piano and very organic sounds. Stylistically, whether it be a “My Oh My” or “Wing$” or “Make the Money,” I got very into strings and piano and a particular palate of textures that I think The Heist goes far beyond.

Did you expect such a huge positive response to “Same Love”?

I knew the song was incredibly important and I really wanted to make a video that complimented it well and, similarly to the song, walked that very fine line of being able to effectively talk about an issue without pointing fingers or doing rash things, like making music videos entirely centered around bullying. I think my general idea for “Same Love” was, would just telling a very normal, almost mundane, love story about a couple that happened to be gay be enough? And you know what? It just kind of was...

I thought it would do good. Did I think it would beat “Thrift Shop,” which is just your general, run-of-the-mill, high, high, high entertainment value type of video? No. I think that it’s always hard to believe in today’s music atmosphere—that something that has a strong message is going to make its way out of the pool of just immediate entertainment songs, and catchy factor, and humor, and comic value. So the fact that it’s wildly spreading and did 350,000 plays in less than one day is so encouraging. I think it's just refreshing for humanity.

Since beginning to collaborate, how do you feel you’ve shaped Ben’s approach to music and how has he shaped yours?

I think that, right there, is the root of our success. It’s very hard to find a collaboration where you have that trust...where you don’t like identically the same thing, but you both have similar artistic value and taste. You have care that goes into everything, from the music to the fonts to the photography to the fine details. We both share that and have a mutual respect for each other’s artistic opinion. That then gets played out in the creative process. I’ll make a beat and have Ben come in and share the things he likes about it, or critique it, saying, ‘I don’t like that snare. I feel like a snare like this would work more.’ Sort of coming together on the roadmap of the song, and vice versa. For him to be writing verses or coming up with concepts that he would rap for me... and me going, ‘Okay, these four bars sound weaker than the others,’ or, ‘These four bars sound like a hook to me. We should just write on those.’ It really comes down to every aspect of our business and collaboration. It’s far beyond the music, the merch; everything is a conversation. At this point, being independent, we have so much on our plate that neither of us are really sleeping at all.

Any post-show routines?

We either say the show was a “W,” which hopefully happens often, where somebody will just yell from the other room, “THAT WAS A W!”. Or if the show doesn’t go well, everyone just kind of hibernates and talks about why it was a disaster.

How do you feel about your own performance live? Do you consider yourself a showman?

I’ve played every show with him since the Bellingham show in 2009, before The VS. EP came out. I think I missed, like, a show. I have worked hard to become a lot of different things: a producer, a musician, a videographer, blah de blah de blah. I don’t think I ever aspired to really be a DJ, but I think from the get-go, I loved sharing the music that I’d been working on in a live setting with the people. And obviously sharing the stage with Ben; I think Ben is a pretty notorious performer. I think that’s the core of our live show. He was born to be a showman. And I think a DJ is a DJ. I’m the person who knows every aspect of what’s about to happen and the beat. I think the real job of the DJ is to lead the mood and the atmosphere of the show. I’m so happy to be on stage and to be going on tour. And beyond that, it’s the greatest opportunity that an artist has to have a personal relationship with fans.

Well, I tend to agree with that. Though you’re always self-referred to as “Macklemore and Ryan Lewis,” people see Macklemore out there as the face, but don’t know who exactly this Ryan Lewis guy is. I mean, most producers don’t have their name attached to everything, but I think it speaks to how tight you guys are. How would you describe your role?

There’s the one hand: I do all the music, I mix all the music, I structure all the music, I engineer and record all the music, as well as all of Ben’s vocals. I produce music videos; so while the bulk of our music videos have been collaborations with other directors, almost every one I’ve actually cut myself. I’ve color edited almost all the music videos. “Same Love” is a great example of that. That’s a video I codirected with Jon Jon (Augustavo), but cut it and then went into the color editing process. I do all of our photographic editing. I do all our web design. I do a lot of our typography design. I could keep going on a list of a bunch of technical shit that people really don’t give a shit about. But I think ultimately, when Ben and I met, both of us are very much visionaries, but my role has been to execute what both of us want to achieve. Whether that’s on a musical palate, or mixing records, or pursuing a music video idea; the ideas have been entirely collaborative and Ben has an equal hand in sitting though all of these processes, but I’ve been kind of the person who sat down and put together all the varieties of media that come out of our brand.

That’s just the nature of things. Of course motherfuckers don’t know what I do and of course motherfuckers don’t care. Like, what is intriguing about an artist or a personality? I think the most interesting thing of all is what is somebody saying, and what is somebody’s life? And so much of our music is Ben’s story and Ben’s messages. It’s the nature of being a producer; your face won’t be at the forefront and you are behind the scenes. And I think, for the most part, I agree with that. I’m also the person that can still go to the mall and walk around like a normal person. Ben can’t. And that’s not just here—he was getting stalked in Europe, walking around Paris. There’s pros and cons to being the person that’s kind of behind the curtain.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
Oct 12, WaMu Theater, sold out

October 9 only: Jet City Stream plays The Heist in its entirety today starting at 4:30pm.

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