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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: From 'Thrift Shop' to superstars

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It started as a novelty. A witty rap ditty that expressed a disdain for trends and materialism.

Then that quirky song with the ingratiating horn burps, augmented by more than 400 million views of its video on YouTube, continued to swell. It eventually accounted for more than 7 million downloads and ranks as the highest-selling single of 2013.

Yes, “Thrift Shop” served its purpose of catapulting an independent Seattle-based rapper, Macklemore, and his DJ sidekick, Ryan Lewis, into overnight sensation status. Only, it was seven years in the making.

Macklemore, 30, (he was born Ben Haggerty — and in conversation he is happy to be called Ben) and Lewis, 25, have since made chart history. They’re the first duo to have their first two singles reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a feat accomplished with the ascension of sporting event foot-stomper “Can’t Hold Us.”

Then the most significant song from their 2012 independently produced and released album, “The Heist,” arrived — “Same Love,” an unabashed endorsement of marriage equality.

The song, which earned the duo the honor of Best Video with a Message at the MTV Video Music Awards last summer, spotlighted Macklemore as an uncommon rap lyricist, unafraid of peer response, and as someone who battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout his 20s and has many messages to share.

He’s also a thoughtful conversationalist, answering questions with quiet cheerfulness laced with humility. Calling recently from a tour stop in upstate New York — this arena run, which plays Gwinnett Arena Friday, rolls through Dec. 12 — Macklemore chatted about escaping the label of a novelty act, the craziness of meeting Jay-Z at an MTV after-party, and the love he’s received from some Atlanta rappers.

Q: Reviews of your shows have praised your interaction with the audience and unflagging energy. What do you do before a show to get psyched up, any rituals?

A: Iusually crank out some push-ups, do some weights, stretch, drink some tea. Just mentally prepare for an hour and a half of rigorous activity.

Q: How did you feel about making the jump to arenas? Did you worry it might be too much too soon?

A: Oh, yeah. I think when you go from last year playing 1,000 (capacity) rooms to this year up to 13,000 cap rooms, it’s very different. But there’s a supply and demand in most of these markets.

Q: In the live show, you have horns and a cellist, but not a drummer. How did you decide which instrumentation to do live?

A: I love hip-hop drums, but you compromise a little bit of the sound when you throw a live drummer into the mix. These are the instruments that are on the songs as they are, like our trumpet player plays the “Thrift Shop” line.

Q: How did you hook up with (tour openers) Big K.R.I.T. and Talib Kweli?

A: I’ve known Talib for a couple of years; he was an early supporter of what we were doing. I grew up listening to him - he was a huge influence on me. He’s an MC on my top MC list. Our messages in the music coincide. Big K.R.I.T. I didn’t know too well, but had heard nothing but good things going into the tour. His music is amazing. It’s a diverse lineup.

Q: Did you, or do you, listen to any Atlanta rappers as influences?

A: Oh, yeah. Outkast, the whole Dungeon Family (the Atlanta hip-hop collective). Luda(cris). Those are the ones who stick out to me. I love Atlanta music. I had Big Boi in the “White Walls” video and Cee Lo called me six months ago and complimented me on the music, which is crazy, because he was a huge influence on me. Him and Big Boi I’d put on my list. Atlanta artists have definitely reached out.

Q: What’s the most mind-boggling thing that has happened to you this year?

A: I think doing the MTV VMAs. Performing on there was definitely a highlight, and winning those awards, that was crazy. Then ending up at an after party with Jay-Z and Beyonce and meeting Kanye (West).

Q: You don’t strike me as the type of guy who would necessarily be comfortable in a room full of big stars.

A: As much as I look up to those people as artists, they are just people. I enjoy the sport of talking to people at those types of functions and being myself and seeing if other people can be genuine and authentic in those moments.

Q: When “Thrift Shop” first started to explode, many people — guilty as charged — may have considered you a novelty act. Did you ever worry that might happen?

A: Absolutely. “Thrift Shop” got massive, it was the biggest song anywhere, and immediately with that you have (people calling you a) one-hit wonder. When “Can’t Hold Us” started to pop off, that was a huge relief for me. Even bigger was when “Same Love” came out.

Q: Would you say “Same Love” is the record you most want to be known for at this point in your career?

A: It’s a record that I think is much bigger than myself and Ryan. To play that night after night at these arenas and watch thousands of young people singing along is an overwhelming, beautiful experience. It shows the change and momentum of equality, and, as an artist, it’s incredible to see.

Q: Tell me a little bit about you and Ryan. He co-wrote all of the songs on the album, but how does your partnership work?

 A: I write the lyrics, Ryan makes the beats. It’s very much a collaborative experience with us both overseeing the other person’s jobs. We go back and forth in terms of whose at the helm of each job.

Q: You’re very open about talking about your past and the addiction problems you’ve struggled with. Do you feel like part of your job now is to be a role model to your young fans who might need to hear your message?

A: Yeah. I don’t think of it as a job, but I think of it as a responsibility. I don’t want to censor myself, but at the same time I know who is listening and who is easily affected by lyrics. I take that into account when I write a song.

Q: What’s up next when this tour ends? I assume you’re working on a new album?

A: Ryan just got a studio bus so he’s been making beats on the road. I want to finish this tour and go into hibernation mode and make new music.

Q: Do you write on the road as well?

A: I do, but it’s not as easy for me. I rap out loud when I write and I’m usually pretty tired after doing a show, so it’s usually on the off days.

Q: Will you probably release something next year?

A: I think people make the mistake of trying to keep up with the momentum. I would rather take my time and take a year and a half and make something great than keep up with this false treadmill in the music industry.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. With Talib Kweli and BIG K.R.I.T. 7:30 p.m. Friday. $29.50-$49.50. Gwinnett Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 1-888-929-7849, www.axs.com.

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