I saw Macklemore & Ryan Lewis perform for the first time at the end of last May. The day was already shaping up to be one of the most exciting musical encounters of my life — a friend and I had driven some 20 hours from Calgary to Minneapolis to catch the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Big K.R.I.T., Danny Brown and the Wu-Tang duo of Ghostface Killah and Raekwon at Rhymesayer’s annual Soundset Festival.
I’d listened through The VS. EP by the now-famous duo a handful of times before Soundset, and was certainly digging Macklemore’s intelligent rhymes and Lewis’ textured beats. But I was by no means prepared for their phenomenal 30-minute, live-band assisted set, which might have been the top showing of the day (perhaps tied with the magnificent Lamar). The music was outrageously good and we even got a taste of “Thrift Shop” a few months before it took over mainstream radio.
But the most powerful moment was halfway through the show: Macklemore took off his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that read “Legalize Gay Marriage.” I freaked out. The emotion I felt has been matched only when I read Frank Ocean’s beautiful Tumblr-published coming out letter. Both statements represent incredible bravery, considering the tragic levels of homophobia in hip hop and in America.
Most of us know the remainder of the story: The Impressions-esque song “Same Love” dropped in July, with an accompanying video in October. Ellen DeGeneres caught wind of the track and quickly brought Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on to her show to perform it. Then the duo exploded with the exuberant “Thrift Shop”. Now it’s headlining festivals around the North America and Europe, scheduled to play everywhere from Sasquatch to Oshega this summer.
For me, the ascent of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis is one of the more exciting stories in recent years. They make approachable hip hop, weaving together chill Pacific Northwest vibes — think the Blue Scholars or Shad — with the pop influences of Kanye West and Big Boi. They’ve worked for their success too; Macklemore independently released his first, phenomenal, mixtape Open Your Eyes way back in 2000 (under the name Professor Macklemore).
But more importantly than indie production or statement T-shirts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are writing music that matters. Rap that expresses some form of real dissent doesn’t tend to make it to the top of the charts — the last well-executed protest song I recall getting plenty of airtime was the Jay-Z-assisted remix of Kanye’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” And that was almost eight years ago. Continue reading