If traditional hip-hop lyrics are to be taken at their word, a rapper’s true nature is embodied in his car. So what does Macklemore drive? A Prius. Though the 28-year-old Seattle native, whose legal name is Ben Haggerty, jokingly worries it’ll ruin his street cred, the eco status symbol on wheels is an apt reflection of this conscientious musician who’s running clean.
Sober for the past two years and counting, Haggerty hasn’t always been so unpolluted. After the success of his highly acclaimed debut album, The Language of My World (2005), he fell into a serious drug habit—a problem he’s struggled with since his teen years. (Much of the praise heaped on his first record zeroed in on his honest lyrics detailing previous substance abuse.) After stagnating for three years he finally went to rehab and, as he says, “it clicked.” Within a year Haggerty had completed his sophomore effort—Vs (pronounced “versus”) the downloadable EP that landed last November, delighting his long-waiting fans and proving he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He was recently picked up by a booking agency and is planning a national fall tour.
With songs like “Irish Celebration,” a crowd-rousing ode to his heritage, “Otherside,” chronicling cough syrup addiction, and “The End,” a story about the creative muse cloaked in a sweet remembrance of prom, Vs reveals Haggerty’s range. “I try to be clever in my lyrics,” he says, “and take a different spin on things.”
His raps flow with seeming effortlessness—smart, passionate, self-deprecating and, at times, extremely funny (download the track “Stay at Home Dad” and be treated to such gems as “I’m goin’ for a latte, see what’s poppin’ at Pilates”). Beneath the lyrics, local producer/DJ Ryan Lewis—who works in tandem with Haggerty—layers samples from indie rock bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arcade Fire, Beirut) with trumpet, piano and violin. It’s an unusual sound, one whose crossover appeal is immediately apparent.
Haggerty remembers being interested in music as young as age 5. (He confesses his first passion was for Glenn Frey’s 1984 earworm “The Heat Is On.”) His urge to be on stage struck early too, he says, remembering, “I was always that kid performing for friends and family in the living room.” At Garfield High School, he and other students started a hip-hop group called Elevated Elements, which was talented enough to play gigs around town. All this youthful practice is probably why Macklemore—the name comes from an alter ego, Professor Macklemore, he created in high school—is known for outshining the headliner when he opens live shows.
Despite being a devoted thrift-store shopper, one thing he won’t recycle is ideas. “I want to come up with new concepts that challenge me and my audience,” he says. He’s planning to do just that on his new (in-progress) album, also produced with Lewis, in which he hopes to address “the division between rich and poor.” But currently the MC has more driving concerns. “Right now, I’m just trying to make the music and not think too much,” he says. “If the music is there, it’ll all fall into place.”
PHOTO CREDIT: HAYLEY YOUNG