CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hardly need an introduction. If you've turned on the radio lately or watch TV, you've probably heard them. They've been rapping since 2000, and their first studio album has lyrics about everything from gay marriage to the merits of thrift shopping.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")
HEADLEE: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took a break from their sold-out world tour last year to talk to us. I spoke to them in November about their debut album "The Heist." And I began by asking Macklemore what gave him the idea to do a song about thrift stores.
MACKLEMORE: You know, I love thrift shopping. It is something that has been a part of my life since I was a young kid and it's outside of the box. I like to write songs about my life and things that make me a unique person, and thrift shopping is one of those. Hip-hop is usually a art form that is about...
MACKLEMORE: ...Bling, consumption.
HEADLEE: Caddies and gold and your gold grill.
MACKLEMORE: Yeah, I have those too. But I also have a bunch of clothes from thrift shops and it's about, you know, just saving money. And I think that that's something that's rare in hip-hop culture. It's usually about spending money.
HEADLEE: What's the best bargain you've ever gotten in a thrift shop?
MACKLEMORE: My best bargain, I would say, is whatever I got yesterday or earlier-on today. So I've gotten, you know, I mean, on tour right now it's difficult because we're stopping at all these cities and usually the first thing I do is go look for a thrift shop. So the bus is becoming filled with used goods from all over the country.
HEADLEE: Is your bus getting filled, Ryan, with his purchases?
RYAN LEWIS: It is. The whole back area that we're supposed to be working is just a wardrobe at this point.
HEADLEE: At some point you're going to have to cut him off. You know that, right?
LEWIS: Yes, I am.
MACKLEMORE: It smells good.
LEWIS: You clean every two days.
MACKLEMORE: Yeah, every couple of days I...
LEWIS: I don't know where it all goes.
MACKLEMORE: ...Yeah, I throw stuff out and donate again.
HEADLEE: You know, I got to ask you - listening to this album, it sounds really modern to me. That was one of the things that struck me. And I wonder, you know, rap as an art form has really changed dramatically over the past, say 30 or 40 years. What are you able to do today that you couldn't have done, say, in 1980?
LEWIS: I think that hip-hop, particularly in the last 10 years, has become very cross-genre, just speaking from, kind of, the production standpoint. And I think that, for me, who has, you know, a background in a wide variety of genres, it opened up the door where it's, you know, OK if you want to mix 808s and banjos. There's an open door now, more than ever, to be making any type of beats that you want.
HEADLEE: That's Ryan Lewis speaking. Your guy's voices sound a little the same. Ryan Lewis is half of the duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, been rapping since 2000, your first studio album, so of course, congratulations.
MACKLEMORE: Thank you.
LEWIS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: One of the songs that's gotten a lot of attention is the song "Same Love." You begin it by talking about an experience you had as a very young kid. So first, let's take a listen to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAME LOVE")
HEADLEE: You also use the song to help voice your support for Referendum 74, that was legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington state. But you also acknowledge in this song that rap is not necessarily always friendly to the gay community. So why - number one, why do you think that is, and is it changing?
MACKLEMORE: One, why it is. It's difficult to really pinpoint. I think that I've been asked this question before and I think the only thing that I can really trace it back to, for one, a foundation of a lot of the hate that comes - that's directed at same-sex marriages, I think, comes from religion and the foundation of it's wrong, it's fundamentally wrong in the Bible to be with another man if you're a man, or a woman if you're a woman.
And in terms of hip-hop culture, church and religion play a part in it, but also in just people's upbringing. But also, hip-hop was started as a very egocentric, testosterone, machismo-driven art form. You have b boys that want to be better than other b boys. You have breakdancers, you have DJs, you have MC's that all want to be better than each other. Battling has been at the forefront of hip-hop culture since its origin. So with that, I think you have this, kind of, over-the-top need to prove your masculinity and a way that people do that is by calling people the F-word, or gay, or trying to take away that masculinity that is a such an intrinsical part of hip-hop music. Is it changing? Yes.
I think that with people like Frank Ocean coming out or Barack Obama in support of gay marriage, and then Jay-Z coming out in support of Barack Obama supporting gay marriage. I think that there's that heightened awareness. I think that civil rights issues take a lot of time to develop. Equality takes time. And I don't think that a song like "Same Love" would have been accepted 10 years ago or 15 years ago in the hip-hop community. It's the right time for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAME LOVE")
MACKLEMORE: We evolve as a culture. We evolve as a society and I think that that's what's happening in hip-hop is definitely changing because of it.
HEADLEE: I wonder if you agree with that, Ryan? I mean, I think that some rappers would think it would be a risk to, in any shape or form, imply that they might have thought of themselves as gay at any point in their life, they might think that that is too dangerous to touch.
LEWIS: Yeah, I don't know a lot of rappers who wouldn't find that as a risk to put that out there. But I think that, you know, the risk only lies in your own, you know, reputation of being worried about yourself, and that's the thing. I think that for us, we put out the song and, you know, had no idea how it was going to be taken in. It's gotten overwhelming support.
It's like going into places that are classically Republican and conservative and having a new generation of young people, a new generation of thinkers that are singing as loud as they can to that chorus. It's been crazy, you know, how much support its gotten. It's been very, very positive.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They are a rap duo together. I want to take a listen to another song. This is my favorite off the album. This is called "Wings."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WINGS")
HEADLEE: So this takes it a little further - a lot further than just saying I like thrift stores. I mean, this is actually aggressively taking on this idea of bling, consumerism, having what you buy and how expensive it is be a reflection of who you are.
HEADLEE: Why take on this fight? I mean, this is part of what rap is.
MACKLEMORE: It's my fight personally, first and foremost. So I don't go into it thinking, I want to change people's minds or I want to change hip-hop. I go into it thinking, why do I feel the need to consume? Why do I have a closet full of Jordan's that I don't really even wear?
So it starts with a personal search and then it translates into an audience, but first and foremost, it's just me going through my closet. That's how this song was written, was just taking accountability for who I am as a person and how I fall into consumerism in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINGS")
HEADLEE: So Macklemore, I wonder if you mind being put into that label of socially conscious rap. Does it bother you?
MACKLEMORE: You know, I understand - I like the term socially conscious more than conscious rap. I'm not more or less conscious than any other rapper out there.
HEADLEE: Yeah, and it implies everyone out there is unconscious.
MACKLEMORE: Exactly, which is false. I think that I, at times, talk about social issues. And so if people want to put me in a box to, kind of, help compare and contrast between what other rap music is, that's fine. For me - to me, I'm a rapper. I don't think that it's a big deal either way.
HEADLEE: Ryan, do you think that socially conscious rap is a new thing?
LEWIS: I don't think that it's a new thing. I would agree that it has a negative connotation. I think that, like anything else, it immediately associates you with a certain background of hip-hop or a certain category of a type of rapper and I think that that's unfortunate for...
HEADLEE: I want to be clear here, because a lot of people associate socially conscious rap with white rappers and white consumers who buy it.
LEWIS: Yeah, I think you're probably right. I think that we have such a wide catalog of music, some of which is on a, kind of, a deeper level and, you know, social songs and then some of it is fun music, it feels like a little bit inaccurate to just call somebody socially conscious because I think it limits what their career is actually, in total, about.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen to some more music. You guys not only tackle the hot-button issue of gay marriage on this album, you also talk about your own experience getting sober. You're pretty honest about it. So let's take a listen to this tune, it's called "Starting Over."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")
HEADLEE: In some ways, this is kind of a sequel to the song "Otherside," where you talked about actually getting sober, and in this one you're talking about kind of, falling back into bad habits.
HEADLEE: So tell me a little bit about this process and how it changed you as an artist.
MACKLEMORE: I was always the type of person, and still am the type of person, that I cannot be creative and use substances. So from a very early age I knew that if I wanted to make music, successfully, in any capacity, I was going to have to get sober. I struggled with that for many, many, many, many, years trying to find some sort of balance - it didn't work for me.
So in 2008 I got sober and remained sober, and I relapsed, and that's what this song is about. You know, the relapse was something that, I had just gotten off the road, I wasn't going to AA meetings like I normally do when I'm back at home, and I just wanted to kind of escape my own thoughts.
And, at first, I felt an immense amount of failure on a personal level, not only for myself and for the people that love me, but for the fans that had connected with the song "Otherside." You know, people that would come up to the merch table or email us and say, you know, I have two weeks sober, I have three months sober, I have six months sober, and your music actually helped get clean. So I felt like I had failed all those people. I felt like I had failed Ryan and my manager and my girlfriend, and I didn't know exactly how to deal with it, other than writing a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARTING OVER")
HEADLEE: I mean, you're pretty unsparing on yourself and honest about it. At the same time though, drug culture is a real part of the rap culture, right. I mean it's often lionized in a lot of songs. A lot of lyrics are about drug culture.
HEADLEE: And yet there's not just your work but also there's been other rappers. Eminem, quite famously, came out with his album "Recovery," which is very - also very honest about struggling to stay sober. I mean, do you think these kinds of things, what you're doing, end up having an effect on your - on the kids. I mean, even the preteens who listen to your music?
MACKLEMORE: Yes, I do. I think that it hopefully has an effect on anybody that has been through recovery, wants to get sober, knows somebody that's struggling with addiction. And you really start breaking down these different people where drugs have affected their life in some capacity, and that's a big portion of the population here in America. And really all over the world.
Drug culture is extremely prevalent and probably most people know somebody whose life has been affected by drugs, if it's not their own or in their own family, they have friends. It's a never-ending process. It's something that, I'm not just cured, I have to continue to maintain spiritual - a spiritual balance in my life.
HEADLEE: You guys are, I mean, it's OK to call you West Coast rappers, right?
MACKLEMORE: Hell yeah.
HEADLEE: I wonder how large that divide is. Is there still a huge, gaping West Coast, East Coast, violently angry divide?
MACKLEMORE: Definitely not.
LEWIS: I would go even beyond that and say, that like, even just the idea of regional hip-hop like, oh that's Bay hip-hop, and that's New York hip-hop, and that's, you know, West Coast or whatever. The divide is so small now. I mean, you have now...
LEWIS: ...I don't know. I mean, I think it's all intertwined within the same just transformation of communications, and culture, and social media, but it's been interesting. I mean, you can look at small cases like, you know, an Asap Rocky's from Harlem and takes on a Texas sound or, like, you know, a whole new wave in tempo of almost beat or sound becomes stylistically, you know, trendy.
And regardless of what region you're from at this point, any rapper can kind of embody that sound within their newest project and I don't think that that was, to this extent, always the case. I think that there used to be a bit more of a divide, not in terms of violence like you were saying, but just stylistic divide between different regions of the country in the world. It is way less now.
HEADLEE: You know, I got to say, the album is a bargain. There's a lot of music on - I mean, you guys packed that thing full of music. I wonder if there's, I mean, anything that you think is absolutely taboo, that you won't be able to talk about in rap.
MACKLEMORE: No. I have tackled everything from gay marriage to white privilege to, you know, satire, to different characters. I mean, if you look at my body of work, there's absolutely nothing that I've been - to me, what's exciting about being an artist is being able to tackle issues that you're afraid to speak on. And that's what pushes me creatively, is to be who I am, no filter and put it all out there.
HEADLEE: OK, so you tell us, what song should we end with?
MACKLEMORE: Let's end it with "Can't Hold Us."
HEADLEE: OK, we're going to go with "Can't Hold Us."
MACKLEMORE: All right.
LEWIS: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HOLD US")
HEADLEE: That was Macklemore and Ryan Lewis talking about their debut studio album, it's called "The Heist." They joined us in the midst of a sold-out tour last November, here in our Washington studio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HOLD US")
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.