Who's the Mack?

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 11/28/2012

Rising indie-rapper Macklemore on blowing up, gay rights and addiction.

Macklemore at the Soundset festival in May.
Leslie Plesser

Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty is hardly a rap-game rookie. But seven years after the release of his first album, the Seattle emcee is on star watch in 2012.

The on-the-cusp indie-rapper got some mainstream-rap-mag love earlier this year, being named to XXL’s Freshman Class and earning an Unsigned Hype nod from the Source. Major labels were already calling before his sophomore album (the first with producer pal Ryan Lewis), “The Heist,” which dropped in October. But after selling 78,000 copies in its first week — behind only Mumford & Sons — the fervor spiked.

“I think I just hit a tipping point,” said Haggerty, amid a world tour with nary an unsold ticket. “The fans did a great job of spreading the music to the masses. It wasn’t necessarily the media. It wasn’t a label. It wasn’t a co-sign. It was fans being passionate about the music and really being the message carriers of the brand. It was very organic in that way.”

It is the fans, after all, who racked up YouTube views (single “Thrift Shop” has nearly 20 million) and helped him start selling out venues last year, and his Twin Cities supporters are no hype-train hoppers. Pointing to a Rhymesayers-built culture, Haggerty says our fair cities are one of his strongest markets outside his hometown, noting that his First Avenue stop last year (which was moved from the Varsity Theater) was the biggest room he played on that tour. This weekend he makes his Mainroom return — this time for a sold-out two-night stand.

The inspired rhyme-spitter’s appeal isn’t tough to trace. Haggerty has plenty of cred with the conscious-rap crowd, thoughtfully tackling topics such as consumerism (a recurring theme on “The Heist”), as well as the ability to kick a good-time goofball number such as “And We Danced” from 2009’s “The Unplanned Mixtape.” “Thrift Store” off the new record best showcases his socio-party rap puree. It’s a cheeky riff on consumer culture paired with a Lewis beat made to bump in a ’92 LeBaron while cruising past trendy nightclub lines, top dropped, flaunting Goodwill swag. This dichotomy is neither an accident nor contrived.

“That’s me. That’s who I am,” Haggerty said. “I’m somebody that tries to think about things in a critical way and analyze myself and the world that I live in and find the inner truths to my being here on this Earth. And I’m somebody that also likes to dance and put on a wig and a cape and wild out at a show.”

Said cape and wig, performance fixtures, weren’t even the most notable aspects of his wardrobe when Haggerty ran around the main stage at this year’s Soundset festival in a shirt bearing the words “Legalize Gay Marriage,” as Minnesota was preparing to vote on the since-defeated constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Last month voters in his home state passed a referendum upholding a state law allowing gay marriage.

Haggerty and Lewis’ “Same Love” single, which they recently performed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” turned the Catholic-reared rapper into a gay-rights spokesman in a genre largely tolerant of homophobic slurs. It was a subject he had wanted to address for a year or so before ever penning a bar, after his mother gave him a newspaper clipping about a 13-year-old who was bullied in school for being gay before committing suicide.

“It just hit me, this is an issue that’s becoming an epidemic in America that is overlooked by mainstream media and overlooked by artists in general,” said Haggerty, who has two gay uncles and a gay godfather. “People that use the 'F word’ or people that use the saying 'that’s gay’ or just put down the gay population, in particular rap lyrics and popular culture in general, there is no accountability.”

While today the buzz abounds, a few years ago Haggerty, who’s documented his addiction issues in song, wasn’t in the happiest place. From 2006 to 2008, the 29-year-old said substance abuse left him creatively stagnant and unfulfilled. At one point he logged four months clean, but it wasn’t until his father offered to put him in a monthlong rehab program that he got serious about sobriety. Personal demons aside, spare Haggerty the pity party.

“I think one of the greatest blessings of my career is to be able to share openly and honestly about the struggles I’ve had with addiction, and to see how many people have connected on a personal level with that story … has been amazing,” he said. “It put me back a little bit. I might have been more successful at an earlier age, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Although Haggerty said addiction is something he’ll always struggle with, “very rarely” does he now have to think about it. The open-book emcee addresses his recovery on the painfully honest penultimate track on “Heist,” with a hope chaser. Its title, “Starting Over,” could almost be a metaphor for Haggerty’s recent success, if it didn’t imply a back-story cleanse.

The day he spoke with Vita.mn, Haggerty was in Carrboro, N.C., for yet another sold-out stop. He was fighting a mid-tour cold, but it seemed inconsequential considering that lawn-chair-toting kids began waiting outside the venue for that night’s show around 9 a.m.

“I’m reminded on a daily basis how much the music is spreading and how incredible our fan base is,” Haggerty said between coughing spells. “So, it definitely feels like a new chapter and it feels like an exciting moment right now, in my career and my life.”