The Heist, the title of Washington state rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis’ independent 2012 album, couldn’t be a more fitting description of how the two have approached the music industry. For starters, the blonde mohawk-sporting Macklemore just doesn’t look like a typical rapper, much less a Billboard-charting rapper. When the two secured a spot on last year’s Paid Dues Festival, I admit I was sleeping on them in large part because I didn’t think they had anything to bring to the table. I hadn’t heard any of their songs at that point. In fact, it wasn’t until months later than I realized the oft-played “Thrift Shop” – a decidedly off-color song as far as rap topics go – was by Macklemore and Lewis. By that point, they had arrived as emerging superstars.
This week, the duo made Billboard history. Their new single “Can’t Hold Us,” featuring Ray Dalton, sits atop Billboard Hot 100, following “Thrift Shop,” featuring Wanz, which held the top spot for six non-consecutive weeks. The feat means Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are the first duo to have its first two singles reach No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 55-year history. And chances are they aren’t done, as The Heist may spawn other singles (how great would it be if “Jimmy Iovine,” featuring Ab-Soul and named after the Interscope Records chairman, became a chart-topping single?).
Considering the changing industry, Macklemore & Lewis’ success as an independent act makes a lot of sense. They didn’t just come out of nowhere. They’ve paid their dues and are fully in control of their careers similarly to Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, whose debut album on independent Rostrum Records moved more than 150,000 units its first week out.
In fact, Ryan Lewis told HipHopDX’s Omar Burgess in an interview that he and Macklemore spent more than three years working on The Heist (which has been certified gold by the RIAA). He also explained how instead of being signed to a major label, the two essentially hired Warner Bros. Records themselves.
“The situation with Warner is so unusual … It really is a new setup for independent artists,” Lewis explained. “We got offered a wide variety of record deals before as well as after The Heist came out. None of those deals really made sense for us and we remained independent … You can go the route we went way back in the day with a CD Baby or a Tunecore and just go digitally. But I think we really cared about having a physical CD, and so we did a collaboration with ADA [Alternative Distribution Alliance] who’s one of the bigger distributors for independent labels. We did a deal with them, and they’re a subsidiary of Warner Bros…. We were in the unique position where Warner was willing to push “Thrift Shop” to pop radio with no record deal.”
Cross-promotion with other brands has also helped. The success of “Thrift Shop” paved the way for talk show performances and a major placement in the promos leading up to and during the NBA All-Star Weekend, exposing the pair to a mainstream audience. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are a prototype of how to succeed in music today. It will be fun to watch what their next step will be. Will they partner with a major label the way Top Dawg Entertainment did with Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records? Or, will they explore other avenues? One thing’s for sure: a lot of eyes and ears are attuned to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to see what comes next.