American Songwriter March Cover Story: Macklemore Finding His Purpose

Every day, Macklemore (the Seattle-born rapper and businessman Ben Haggerty) wakes up knowing he will grapple with the realities of addiction. But he wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world, he says. Addiction is a disease. It’s the only one, Macklemore notes, that you can pretend you don’t have. Even those who work hard on curtailing their addictive personalities—giving up alcohol or some other mind-altering vice, let’s say—can weaken, forget how just one beer or one cigarette (or worse) can tip the scales toward demise. This is what Macklemore grapples with daily, like millions of others around the globe. It’s his cross. But it’s also his salvation. For Macklemore, his compulsive tendencies made him who he is, for better or worse, and, in that way, they create the lens that allows him to see and discover who he is acutely. To view himself clearly—not by over-indulging in any drug (not anymore, at least), but by providing an unflinching truth and way to know himself. This and much more comprise the subject matter of Macklemore’s new album, Ben, which is out March 3. 

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“It has absolutely made me the human that I am,” Macklemore tells American Songwriter. 

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Not only that, but his addiction has opened him up to a community of people he wouldn’t have otherwise known before, he says. The recovery community. It’s given him a purpose and means with which to dig deeper and closer to who he is, to both his gifts and character defects. Acknowledging his addictive ways allows him to investigate past traumas and past mistakes. But beyond the woes, being uber-focused on one thing can also be a boon. That is true for Macklemore, especially when it comes to his relationship with music. 

“I think my ADD personality has suited me well in certain aspects of my life,” he says. “When I go in, I go hard. If I’m like, ‘OK, today we’re in the studio,’ I’m probably going to be the last one in there. I don’t give up on shit. I keep it pushin’, and that’s what got me to this point.”

To wit, Macklemore remembers being around 15 years old in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder telling himself he was going to figure out how to use it. Same when he got an 8-track a few years later. He might be in his room for 12 hours a day, working and tinkering. More recently, things like golf have become an obsession (leading to his new Bogey Boys clothing brand). Addiction doesn’t have to be a negative thing if honed and focused toward the right direction. But that’s part of the work, part of the balance, part of the day-to-day struggle. 

“There’s another side of addiction for me,” says Macklemore, who admits he had a relapse in 2020, “which looks like wanting to change [my mental state] with drugs and alcohol. That is where I start playing a much more dangerous game that resembles Russian roulette.”

The 39-year-old Macklemore’s road to becoming a Grammy-winning, Diamond-certified artist began around the age of 5 in the Emerald City. In fact, Macklemore remembers the first song that hooked his heart. It was “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. The distinctly ’80s song (from 1984, to be specific) is a driving, melodic, goofy track that could easily make anyone start dancing in their socks in the living room. Michael Jackson was the next big name in Macklemore’s burgeoning musical life. Then rap (specifically, “Gangsta rap”) became the thing. Sprinkled in was the hip-hop artist Shock G of Digital Underground—specifically the album Sex Packets from 1990. At 15, Macklemore started rapping in earnest. At first, it was more mimicking than original, but it grew. 

“You figure out who you are by rapping along with other people,” Macklemore says. “When I started to record, I was, like, screaming. I had no idea how to use my instrument.”

He began to experiment with his voice in high school. At the time, he says, it was a very different era in rap. In Seattle, styles were prized. Specifically, one’s ability to switch flows, sounds, tones, and cadences. The focus on styles caused Macklemore to find his own. At 20, he remembers being in college and making songs for the first time. Like he still does today, he’d listen to them in his car. By this time, he knew he couldn’t mimic anymore. He now had to be his own vocalist. The result is a signature raspy sound that bites with confidence and flows with passion. It’s truly his. 

[RELATED: Macklemore Announces 2023 Fall North American Tour: “I Wasn’t Sure We Were Gonna Ever Be Able to Do This Again”]

“Authenticity is what it comes back to,” he says. “If you’re trying to sound like somebody else, it’s going to sound contrived or forced.” 

Another common theme in Macklemore’s music is his home life. Whether talking about his supportive parents or the city in which he grew up, the “Thrift Shop” rapper remains loyal to his roots. Home is his foundation and sense of belonging. It’s his childhood and his present. Today, as a father, Macklemore gets to take his kids to the parks he used to run around in. In truth, he owes a lot to his city, which is why he’s often giving back. Macklemore and his friend and producer Ryan Lewis rose to fame in 2012 with their album The Heist. And seemingly every track on that album boasts a local legend, from Hollis Wong-Wear to Allen Stone. Seattle’s legendary rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot has been a big proponent of Macklemore, too. The Pacific Northwest is as much a part of his origin story as anything. 

“That’s my foundation,” Macklemore says. “I’ve always wanted to share that story with the world.”

Share that story with the world he and Lewis surely did. Along with “Thrift Shop,” which was the biggest song of 2012, their track “Can’t Hold Us” also has been certified Diamond. The two toured the globe several times over, won Grammys, and played every late-night show imaginable. Their follow-up to The Heist was the LP This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. While that album was fun yet deep at times and featured names like Chance the Rapper, Idris Elba, and more, it was not the giant success its predecessor was. No matter, though.Today, Macklemore and Lewis remain close friends. Macklemore calls his musical counterpart his “brother for life.” In fact, Lewis contributed beats for two recent Macklemore songs: the turn-the-page anthem “Next Year” and the hit single “Maniac,” which is on Ben. Macklemore says he expects the two will “definitely make more music in the future.” In the meantime, he hopes he can focus on what’s already been done and appreciate it. 

“You know, there’s always—we don’t celebrate long enough to really be able to take it in fully,” Macklemore says. “As a culture, we have that dilemma. And as myself, as an individual, I think that dilemma—that sense of what’s next—it’s always like, ‘Cool, you just did that, but what are you going to do next? What’s next?’”

The to-do list never shortens, he says. Even for someone who has worked with former President Barack Obama (as Macklemore has on curtailing the opiate problem in the United States), there is always that need for more, more, more. Addiction. It’s in him, and it’s largely part of the fabric of America. Content, content, content. The grind continues. But Macklemore knows how important it is to stop and smell the roses. Part of his ethos as an artist is to put music out when he wants. He doesn’t wish to, nor does he have to, force it. For example, his most recent solo album prior to Ben was the LP Gemini, which dropped in 2017—the first without Lewis since 2005. That record went Gold and featured songs like “Glorious” and “Good Old Days.” Macklemore says he intended to release something around 2020 but the pandemic halted those plans. So, he sat back and waited for the right time. 

“I am really proud of Gemini,” he says. “I think it probably exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Despite that album’s success, Macklemore says he does his best not to value himself or his creations based on their commercial returns. If you worry about what other people think and you make work to satisfy those mouths, then no matter what, you’re going to be disappointed eventually, the rapper says. That is especially true today when so much attention is rooted in algorithms and digital media. It’s the Wild West. 

[RELATED: The Top 10 Macklemore Songs]

“By no means do I want to define my art by the new guard of this fast-paced, fast-food music industry,” he explains. 

When it comes to making new work, Macklemore says his approach in the studio is “less thinking and more feeling.” That’s what he tries to tap into when writing. While working, he doesn’t want to “overcomplicate” anything that’s happening in his heart with what might be circulating in his head. His goal as a songwriter is to strip away layers, get vulnerable, be honest, and push himself into areas where he feels uncomfortable. That, he says, and to tell the truth. Ben has had many iterations given the derailment from COVID. But the product ready for release now, as the title suggests, elucidates Macklemore’s personal story. It’s composed of musical styles he loves, from pop to gritty boom-bap. It’s intimate. 

“For me,” he says, “the only thing that’s been consistent in my albums is there is no consistency. There are all sorts of textures.”

He’s inspired by a lot, so why not include a lot on his records? He embraces that. He doesn’t mind the fact he can’t be put into a box. Born on June 19, he cites his dualistic Gemini astrological sign. He makes no apology for incorporating many slices of the musical pie. He does not want to conform and, as a tremendously successful independent artist, he doesn’t have to. 

Hits on Ben include the heart-on-his-sleeve opener, “Chant,” which highlights Seattle basketball history along with the music school Macklemore runs, The Residency. Macklemore, who is part owner of several Seattle-area professional sports teams, knows how to make a statement. And songs like “Heroes,” “Grime” and “Tears” showcase his ability to rap stalwartly as well as openly about his origins as a young musician and his difficult relationship with substances. 

“I love ‘Heroes,’” Macklemore says. “We just shot a black-and-white music video for that. It’s super grimy. We just ran around New York City for a couple of days. DJ Premier is in it. But that’s [the kind of music] I grew up on.”

Macklemore says one of his goals as an artist is to bring lots of different kinds of people into his world where they can enjoy lots of different kinds of songs. He wants his albums to feel cohesive, but not one note. It’s a fine line and he walks it well on Ben. Now that the album is ready for the world, there is a lot on the rapper’s plate in the near future. Not only is he a parent alongside his wife, Trisha (who also helps with his career in big ways like planning music videos), but there is an upcoming European tour in the spring, festivals, potential U.S. dates, and even something in the works in Seattle—a “homecoming” show, he says. It’s all going to be tight, schedule-wise. Joyous, too. 

[RELATED: Macklemore Opens Up About Addiction, Premieres Video for Sobriety-Inspired New Song]

But the “greatest job” for Macklemore, as “corny” as it sounds, he says, is seeing his kids grow up. He gets a chuckle watching them fake being sick to try to skip school. Sounding like a matured Ferris Bueller, Macklemore says he wrote the book on those moves. Looking even further down the road, though, he wonders what’s out there for his interests and curiosity. For someone who played to tens of thousands every night while on tour over the summer with Imagine Dragons, he sounds as if he may even be contemplating hanging up his microphone. He says he’s been “rapping for a long time” and even questions “how much longer” he wants to do this. 

Right now, though? He’s “super excited” for what’s next. And whether he’s rapping, making beats, helping others, or chilling with his family, music will always be with him for each important step. Like the time he heard John Coltrane with the snow falling decades ago. 

“Music pulls at the core of who we are on this journey of being a human being,” Macklemore says. “Music touches us. It moves people. Like when I hear John Coltrane’s ‘Wise One,’ I remember what it felt like being 17 years old. I remember the streetlamp and watching the snowflakes come down. Music can freeze a moment.”

Listen to Ben, HERE.

Photos by Jake Magraw / Highrise PR

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