Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: Self-Made Music Kings in a Sea of Manufactured

PHOTO: Ryan Lewis, left, and Macklemore pose for a portrait backstage at The Fader Fort presented by Converse during SXSW, March 16, 2013, in Austin, Texas.
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Ben Haggerty, known to millions as Macklemore, is a used-fur-coat wearing, scooter-riding rapper from the not-so-mean streets of Seattle.

Thanks to him and his unlikely music group, you probably know what it means to "pop some tags" after "Thrift Shop," Macklemore and hip-hop DJ Ryan Lewis' track featuring Wanz, enjoyed six non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold more than 6 million copies since it was released last summer.

"Out of thousands of songs that I've written in my life, I never would have thought that 'Thrift Shop' would have been the one that took over," Haggerty said.

Macklemore is an overnight sensation, 14 years in the making. The 29-year-old spent half of his life writing, performing and dreaming at local clubs in his beloved Seattle.

After the release of the band's debut album, "The Heist," last October, Macklemore is now on a grueling international tour, sprinkling in appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and the Billboard Music Awards -- where Macklemore recently picked up another honor: Billboard's Top Rap Song.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis remain at the top of the charts. Their new song, "Can't Hold Us" has spent the past five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And they are churning through the YouTube clicks -- "Thrift Shop" has over 330 million views.

All of their success has come in just a few months, and all of it is on their own. They have no record label and no agents -- just Haggerty, Ryan Lewis and a dream.

"I think, particularly for Ben, life has completely changed," Lewis said. "He's a mega-celebrity now."

Before his shot to fame, Haggerty said he and Lewis had "no money at all."

"We were both living at home," he said.

Self-made is not the way the music industry works. Yet, there they were, making music videos themselves and putting them on YouTube, with Lewis producing everything.

Same goes for their music. Their mix of provocative lyrics and catchy rap verses over floor-thumping beats was a recipe they were told would never work, especially considering their subject matter. Their song "Same Love" is an anthem to same sex marriage. Other tracks are eloquently-worded, first-person accounts of Haggerty's struggles with addiction, and a number of songs are about just plain "being yourself."

"It takes soul searching, it takes using the paper and the pen and turning that into a form of therapy," Haggerty said. "And I think that's why people identify with it."

In short, Macklemore has done nothing by the book.

"This huge label guy came to Montana for a show to meet us. It was right when 'The Heist' had come out and like, you know, things were starting," Lewis said. "And I remember one of the things he said was, 'A label would have messed this whole thing up.'"

Michael Wansely, better known now by his stage name, Wanz, is the man with the pipes behind "Thrift Shop." The endlessly friendly, 51-year-old breakout singer dreamed about a music career but gave up hope years ago and went to work for Microsoft. Then, Macklemore called.

"For me, this is rarified air," Wansley said. "This is dream-come-true stuff. I am living a dream that I have had literally since 1968."

The band's second chart-topping single, "Can't Hold Us," features a 23-year-old gospel choir singer named Ray Dalton who wouldn't join the guys unless his grandmother approved.

"My grandma loves Ben," Dalton said. "She likes his words."

Tricia Davis, Haggerty's fiance, longtime confidante and tour manager, said she knew from day 1 that Macklemore's astronomical success was possible.

"When you fall in love with a drug addict, totally can't-afford-anything guy, and your mom is asking you what the heck you're doing, I mean, there is a reason why you're-- I knew from the first time I saw him perform I was like, 'He has that potential,'" Davis said.

Today, the money, the requests, the attention, all of it is rolling in like an avalanche -- a lifetime of dreams all at once. And this time, it's the music industry on the outside looking in.

"We have the leverage," Haggerty said. "We have control of our music. Why would we want to give that to somebody else? If we would have signed to a label, I can almost guarantee you we wouldn't have had the success with 'Thrift Shop' and with 'Can't Hold Us' and with 'The Heist,' in general."

The rapper is a writer -- Haggerty said what's next for him is either a book or another album -- and he is still trying to figure out stardom, finding himself suddenly longing for times he can drive the old Caddy that once symbolized the pinnacle of success.

Macklemore is living the American dream -- self-made in a sea of the manufactured.

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