Macklemore's Moment

How a freckle-faced kid from Capitol Hill became Seattle's favorite rapper.

It's easy to get lost in hip-hop's unending torrent of uploaded-one-moment, forgotten-the-next mixtapes and mp3s issued by rappers chasing the dragon of blog buzz, a legacy measured in download counts and dead links. Here-today, gone-tomorrow artists are everywhere. It's the perfectionists who keep a fickle audience waiting months, or sometimes years, who run the most risk, one that carries the possibility of the ultimate punishment: irrelevance.

One Seattle rapper, however, is trying to have it both ways. And by all accounts, he's succeeding.

Ben Haggerty, aka Macklemore, is the man behind songs like the cautionary tale "Otherside," chronicling an all-too-real addiction to cough syrup, as well as "The Town," his anthemic tribute to Seattle. Like most of the 28-year-old Capitol Hill native's work, both tracks have a distinct energy—and a lasting one.

"Most of these blog-buzz rappers, their shelf life is a year or two, tops," says the freckle-faced MC over a cup of coffee. "I would much rather take the time to make pieces of art that, even if they don't become popular, I can listen to in 10 years and be proud of what I made."

Haggerty may be serious when he says he'd sacrifice accolades for artistic freedom. But it's not a choice he's had to make yet. Although it's been six years since Macklemore's most recent full-length record—2005's The Language of My World—his fans haven't just stuck by him, they've multiplied. Earlier this month, he and producer/creative partner Ryan Lewis sold out each of their three dates at Showbox at the Market in less than 48 hours, a feat that booking agent Zach Quillen says puts them in an elite group of locals who've done the same, including fellow hip-hop duo Blue Scholars and the platinum-selling Presidents of the United States of America.

"Even choosing to play the Showbox was taking a bigger step than most people would have made at this stage in a career," says Quillen, who works for both Haggerty and Blue Scholars. "This just never happens. I've been doing this for 10 years with acts of all sizes, and I've worked with some artists who are selling a lot of tickets, but these moved at a feverish pace that most national headliners probably wouldn't sell at."

Showbox talent buyer Chad Queirolo echoed Quillen's sentiment, calling the sellouts "unprecedented and fucking awesome!" (By comparison, local group Shabazz Palaces—signed to indie label Sub Pop and lauded by tastemakers like Pitchfork—filled smaller Capitol Hill venue Neumos earlier this month, but didn't sell out its show so quickly as to require two encore performances.)

The three sellouts are evidence of Haggerty's newfound position at the forefront of Seattle hip-hop, after a rise he can attribute in part to a handful of smart, meticulously crafted releases—last year's Redux, a remix of 2009's The VS. EP, and "My Oh My," a timely, viral tribute to recently deceased Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus—and tremendous grassroots support: Haggerty raised more than $18,000 from fans to film a music video for his sneaker hymn "Wings."

Melissa Darby, founder of local hip-hop promotional group ReignCity and talent buyer for the Crocodile, says Haggerty succeeds because of his ability to make an extreme emotional connection with his fans—perhaps not surprising since the rapper himself admits to struggling with in-between songs, those "I'm cool and these are the reasons why" odes to ego. "Macklemore has this amazing, superhuman power of just inciting tears," says Darby. "I've watched this kid for so long, and he has long been undeniably one of my favorite local artists, let alone people."

Haggerty clearly feeds off that hometown love. But a year ago, after playing a few sparsely attended shows at industry blowout South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, he wondered if staying put meant never getting ahead. "I was feeling trapped without a formula to get out of here," he says. "I thought about [moving to] L.A. and New York."

Haggerty ended up staying, he says, because he realized he couldn't replicate the community he's built in his hometown. And next month, when he returns to Austin, his dedication will be rewarded: Haggerty is not only the headliner of this year's Seattle showcase, he's also a featured player in XXL magazine's prestigious concert alongside Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, and Cyhi Da Prynce—national acts who all made major strides in 2010.

"Will I stay here for the rest of my life? I hope not," says Haggerty, who says he plans to continue work on his next LP after the tour ends. "But this is always going to be home, regardless of where I end up. And it's important right now, more that ever, to rep where I'm from, so the rest of the country gets familiar with what's going on up here."

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