I put as much energy and love into the craft as I possibly could,” says Seattle hip-hop MC Ben Haggardy, summarizing the last few years, “to redevelop a relationship I had lost with the art.”
He’s otherwise known as Macklemore, a deft storyteller who recently has seen a decade-long career finally start to emerge from the underground. The Language of My World, his 20-song 2005 album filled with potential energy, revealed an animated and razor-sharp lyricist raised in the tradition of Irish storytelling and b-boy lyrical acrobatics. The album revealed Haggardy flaunting an observant ego one minute and gathering himself in meditation the next, painting crystal-clear narratives on each subject he tackled.
Though the album created short-term success and fame was imminent, the MC began to stray from his own mindful advice and found himself writing songs about staying in the moment without a sense of self-reality. His personal drug and alcohol use left the ensuing years after Language without any new material; even worse, Haggardy felt increasingly disassociated from his audiences.
“That’s a huge part of my live show,” he says, “being able to be in the present moment, and look into the crowd and connect with them and connect with the words that I’m speaking.”
Haggardy is considered a “conscious” rapper, but he also has a bling fascination, a shoe addiction and an Irish liver that eventually forced him to turn inward to reconcile. After years without writing any new material, he sought treatment for substance abuse in 2008, then checked into his parents’ basement to record The V.S. EP in 2009 with DJ/producer Ryan Lewis. The shift in lifestyles and the successful move to sobriety cost him a few years of momentum but refocused his observational lens to show more of himself.
“It’s one thing to just say the words you write on a piece of paper, it’s another thing to actually embody those words,” Haggardy says. “Every single word has an emotion, every single word has an inflection, every single word really has a personality. It’s not just the entire verse — each and every word is different, and that’s what I go for.”
The art of speaking to a crowd — looking at them in the eye, enunciating your words, commanding an audience, whether large or small — Macklemore learned from his Irish family and gave it an application that his grandfather never anticipated. His raps almost sound like stories, but as his style progresses and he moves to less subject-oriented rhymes, it becomes more evident that it’s clarity that engages the listener instead of a thorough lyrical dissection.
Whether it’s his most recent single “Wings,” which begins with the MC’s first pair of Air Jordans and ends as a meditation on the joys and perils of consumerism, or any number of his verses that paint the human experience vividly and honestly, Haggardy views his increasing influence in hip-hop as a responsibility to open up his world for others.
“We’re documenting a piece of history and giving it to the next generation, and that’s why to me it’s important, that’s what MC’ing is,” Haggardy says. “We are storytellers passing on oral tradition to the next generation, and there’s a responsibility to do it in a way that is real.”
Macklemore’s stance in any social or moral debate has always been less soapbox and more “just sayin’,” leaving a legacy that is more substantive than the weed anthems and buzz-hungry mixtapes pervasive in today’s hip-hop scene.
Recently, especially after working with Lewis, Haggardy says he finds himself rhyming less about “over-generalized” social issues and more about documenting the process of becoming a better individual.
He considers it a smarter and calculated move toward any meaningful change, even if it requires him to be the primary agent of that change.
“That is the way I think is the most effective for change right now, and it’s the most real to my life,” Haggardy says. “I’m not a super-political dude, I’m more somebody that is working on himself as a holistic person, and I believe that’s where change needs to start.”
He wouldn’t go into detail about the subject matter he will be tackling next but assured that inspiration is easier to come by nowadays. “The stories are always there; the stories are constantly around us. I think of them probably … on a daily basis. Whether or not they actually get written, or if they’re a good idea, is a different story. But I’m constantly thinking of ways to capture it.”
On the Bill
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis play the Fox Theatre on Saturday, April 30. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Shad and Wheelchair Sports Camp also play. Tickets start at $15. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.