Seattle had never seen a more symbolic passing of the mic.
In March 2011, rising hip-hop star Macklemore relinquished the Showbox stage to iconic veteran Sir Mix-a-Lot. Two months later, the pair reconvened for a conversation about dedication, humility, and that momentous night.
Macklemore It took me about halfway through “Posse on Broadway” to realize what was going on. I’m sweating and I’m drinking water and all of a sudden I look up, and my best friend who I grew up rapping with was right next to me. He hit me and was like, “Dude, do you see what is happening right now?” I got goosebumps. I’m getting goosebumps right now!
Sir Mix-a-Lot That’s funny ‘cause we were doing the same thing. Me and Outasight were sitting there going ‘Does this guy know how fucking big he’s about to be?’ I mean we were doing the exact same thing! Somebody said, ‘Does he remind you of you when you started?’ Fuck no! He’s way bigger than me when I started! [laughs] Are you kidding me? I couldn’t fill up the Showbox!
Mack It was a crazy moment. The kids completely knew “Posse on Broadway,” the people in the bar knew it. There’s just some music that transcends generations and the next generation picks up on it. I think your music is like that.
Mix It blew my mind how connected you were with your audience. And this was beyond “rock the crowd.” I listened to you say, ‘I’m gettin’ ready to go to Frisco, let ‘em know I’m comin’!’ While you’re performing, the crowd’s pulling out cell phones. To not be virally connected now and try to release a record is suicide.
Mack Going into releasing our EP a year and a half ago, we knew we’d have to really connect on the Internet. It started here, in Seattle, so it was easier to connect with the fanbase when you’re doing shows around your city. But we knew that we had to have an Internet presence and that we had to get looks on blogs, etc. We’re still not there 100 percent. It’s definitely picked up in the last year and on a lot of hip-hop blogs, but we’re still trying to figure out how to get in that door.
We’re in an age now where people want to figure out who you are as a person, and we’re able to do that with these social networking sites. We can be vulnerable and let our guard down and not just be artists but be human beings first and foremost. Because it really is more than just the music. I’ve put out less than 20 songs in the last two years, but it’s me connecting with people on a personal level that has taken it to the next level for me.
Mix That’s the beauty in the way music is released today. I mean, gone are the days where you get a million-dollar advance and you sit back and let the labels do the work. That was a beautiful time for me, but there was one downside to it, a major downside: You as an artist could not shape how you were viewed by your public. You didn’t have that power. Because I couldn’t connect then, and you can now—you can control how you’re viewed, you can control access to your brand. How that brand is viewed is solely dependent on how you want to be seen, and you use it to the fullest. A lot of guys don’t. A lot of guys just get fucked up after the show and have sex with a groupie. And then they wonder why their brand is diluted, right? So it’s how you use it and I think it’s a power that you use. It’s an art to watch.
Mack Thank you very much.
Mix When I got started, I was a typical rap geek. I was a hip hop fanatic. [DJ Nasty] Ness would come back with crates from New York and we would just dig through the crates, wanted to hear what was new. I remember there was one particular group that I was a fan of that came to town. And I wanted to take them around, that was my thing. So I shined up my ‘84 Caddy with the stolen, classic spare in the back, and I’m driving them around, and I could kind of feel them popping at me in the car without saying anything directly to me. It was a letdown as a fan. I was like, ‘Wow, you guys are garbage. You’re talking about me ‘cause I’m broke, but I’m trying to show you my town.’ I never forgot that. I always said if I ever reach that point, I wanna be as accessible as possible.
What I like about hip-hop now is that these cats are businessmen. I’ve always felt that the whole anti-capitalist bullshit rap that we heard back in the day—I say bullshit because they weren’t giving those CDs away, right?—I always thought that was the worst message to send kids growing up in America. What are you teaching them? Go and work for free?! If you wanna give back, give back. But earn. There’s nothing wrong with that. Go earn it, man. I idolize Jay-Z in that he keeps making money in so many different ways. But when I look at you, if you reach that level, you’ll make 10 times the money. Look at how well connected you are to your fanbase versus Jay-Z. It’s a night and day difference. If you ever get that kind of exposure, you’re talking Gaga dollars.
Mack Well, that would be the day. That would be dope. But the thing that’s to an artist’s advantage now is that the fanbase can grow with you. They feel like they discovered you. There’s some cats in New York that are like, “We knew Jay when he was... “ but when it comes down to it, nowadays people can grow. They’re like, “I remember when Macklemore had 200 followers on Twitter.” They can grow with an artist. They feel an ownership. They feel something like a relationship with that artist, that a lot of these people, if they just come out the gate and boom! they’re famous overnight and it’s like some YouTube sensation type of thing, you don’t have that connection with your audience. It will fizzle out quicker.
Mix There was something else you did at your show that I noticed. There was a sense of...you’re humble. You understand that the fans drive this bus. I didn’t see the arrogance you see in a lot of artists, y’know, grabbing your nuts, ‘You’re here to see me! Swoon over me!’ You didn’t do that. It was almost like, ‘I’m here for you. I work for you.’
Mack I strive for that on-stage. You have to be humble. If I let my ego get out of control or if I start expecting things from the audience, then that humility and connection go away. There’ve been times where I’ve lost it, just for a split second. I did a show a week ago, a prom. I wore a sunglasses and a fur jacket—you’d have been proud of me!—and I came out and dropped the fur and did a song. Around here, I’m used to a certain response from a crowd. Particularly with the kids. It was a high school crowd, and I’m used to very energetic things. They were into it, but it wasn’t crazy. I realized during the first three songs, I am not connecting with my audience at all right now! ‘Cause I’m expecting something from them. I’m not working for that love and that fandom, I’m just expecting it. The minute I expect anything from the audience is the minute I’m not doing my job to the fullest extent. To do that you have to have humility, you can’t just talk about it.
Mix When I used to hit towns, we would drive all over the town and soak it in. Soak in the culture, soak in what’s cool about that town, so that when I hit the stage, I always had this thing where I’d stop in the middle of the set and talk about their town, and they’d be like, how in the fuck he know where Johnson Street is?
Mack I do that exact same thing! Every show I try to talk about the food that I just ate, even if it’s dumb, if it’s like, “I just got a hamburger from Mary’s down the street.” People are like, “He knows something about us! It’s not just us learning about him, it’s him actually taking the time to figure out who we are.”
Mix Anybody that’s been in the business as long as me, you see fans who like an act, and you see fans who live through an act. Two different things. When I was watching your fans singing your songs, they meant that shit. They were saying the words like, we feel that! There’s only a few acts that can do that. Prince—his fans live through him. Tech N9ne—live through him. Marilyn Manson—live through him. Lady Gaga—they live through her. When you have fans like that, the longevity never stops. You never see an artist like that go broke, unless they start snortin’ or something...
Mack [laughs] Let’s just start doing coke!
Mix [laughs] Exactly. That’s where I’m a big square. I ain’t fucking with no drugs, man.
Mack Nope, me neither.
Mix Really? I didn’t know that. I meet people who are like, ‘You wanna eat this weed?’ and I’m like, “Nah I’m good, man.” Smoking, drinking has never really been my thing. Didn’t make me a saint, but that was never my thing.
Mack I think the general consensus from fans is that they don’t wanna get preached at. I’m on that line, I could go either way in terms of how you look at my music. It just depends on whose lens you’re looking through. For me I try to make it personal so I’m not telling you how to live, I’m applying it to my own life, I’m applying it to what I’m going through. And I’m not here to tell anybody how they should exist in this world. That’s up to you. But this is what I go through, this is what I struggle with, this is what I’m thinking about, and you can decide if you like it.
Mix You’re closer to real hip-hop than most of the stuff I’ve heard. So if people don’t like it, fuck ‘em. [laughs] ‘Cause it’s all hip-hop to me, and I love hip-hop, and I love when I see an act that’s going to keep it alive, keep it going. There are acts that have contributed to the damn near death of it. I may be one of them.
Photography by Kyle Johnson