One year ago today, Ryan and I were posted in front of a laptop in our 500 square foot studio & merch “distribution center,” staring intently into the illuminated screen as our album The Heist was finally released into the universe. A dense mix of excitement, fear and relief was heavy in the air. I was sipping from a bottle of Martinelli’s; Ryan a bottle of Jameson. Tricia was in the other room with 5 other newly hired employees (three of her friends from high school, my brother, and his fiancé) where they had been stuffing gator boxes into envelopes the last three weeks straight. Packing supplies and CDs were strewn across the space where Ryan and I had spent the last three years crafting the album we had finally completed.
To say the process of making an album is tedious would be a drastic understatement, especially for the two of us. We scrutinized every kick drum. Every snare. Every bar. We fell in love with songs, and then days later hated them. In moments we believed we were geniuses and hours later we despised ourselves, and the art that we were butchering. There is no tally sheet for the hours logged, or all-nighters pulled. There’s no accounting the bars written or Protools sessions saved. Honestly, no documentation exists other than the music. We put every ounce of ourselves into this body of work that was now being set free.
When we decided to release The Heist independently, forgoing the offers we had gotten to sign to a record label, we knew there were going to be sacrifices. For one, we would never get played on the radio; that was a fact. We wouldn’t end up with a big advertising budget or have the capital to take over full blog sites with our banners. The rollout to our campaign wasn’t going to be nearly as grandiose as our peers who had label backing. Yet in our minds, maintaining our independence and thus creative control was far more important in the end.
When the album officially went up for sale on iTunes, the electricity I felt was like when Obama won in 2008. Not that our album was in any way a comparable feat, but the vibe and the high we were on was reminiscent of that I can’t believe this is finally happening, tears-in-your-eyes feeling. Refreshing the page in 2-minute intervals, we watched our album make a climb that we never thought was possible. #9 to #7. #4 to #3. And finally, we ended up in that slot that is unattainable, yet you can’t help but distantly dream of: the #1 album in the country on iTunes.
I honestly thought iTunes was broken. And if it wasn’t broken, our position would surely descend in a matter of minutes. But we ended up holding onto that spot for 4 straight days. We had hoped for 20k-30k in sales the first week. Then the projections came in at 70k-80k and now I was POSITIVE iTunes was broken. We ended up selling 78,000 copies that week, which turned out to be the most unexpected and overwhelmingly beautiful 7-day stretch of my life.
The numbers were one thing. Those numbers made it so the industry couldn’t ignore what had happened. The media couldn’t pretend we didn’t exist. It was finally a story. Seattle was on. But the very best part about it was that our story was driven by THE PEOPLE. The fans. No cosigns. No label backing. No media leg-ups. Just the strength of person-to-person connectivity through our music.
A couple days after the first week numbers came back, LA Reid called. He and his team at Epic Records were very enthusiastic about The Heist and wanted to fly out and see a show. And it wasn’t the “we’ll catch a show sometime” vague industry verbiage, it was the “Where’s your next show, we will be there.” Well, our next show just so happened to be in Missoula, Montana, in a grimy, stale beer-stained theater that smelled like taxidermy and an ashtray of Pall Mall’s. Sure enough Reid and five members of his label flew in, and we held a meeting in the basement green room.
Reid was smart. He knew that we’d made it this far without a label, and there was no way we were signing a major label deal a week after we put our album out. So what he proposed was his label Epic would work The Heist to radio for free, and in return, we’d consider a deal with them for our second album. We humbly turned the offer down, but it gave my manager Zach an idea that would eventually go on to change the music industry as we knew it.
Our distribution company ADA had been working our song “Thrift Shop” to Alternative radio stations pro bono. And surprisingly enough, program directors at those stations had started to put it into rotation. This interest led Zach to think about what LA Reid had proposed, and how we might be able to capitalize on Thrift’s success, while maintaining our independence. Knowing that ADA’s parent company, Warner Brothers, had a large radio promotion department, we had the ability to start a conversation with them. Zach pitched them an abbreviated version of the idea LA Reid had proposed. Basically, they would get a small percentage of our sales. In return, they would promote our songs to Top 40 and Rhythm radio stations, no strings attached.
The difference between Zach’s idea and what LA had come up with was simple. In this new scenario, we would maintain our independence without having to sign a label contract, while simultaneously benefiting from the one service major labels still have a monopoly on: radio promotion. It was everything that we had always wanted: maintaining our independence with access to radio and thus the masses. At first, Warner said no. But after weeks of going back and forth, they eventually sided with us and confirmed the deal. As far as we know, it’s the first of its kind.
I was in Madison, Wisconsin. We were about two-thirds of the way through our first “World Tour,” a title we were beating people over the head with, trying to enforce our premature “stardom” on the world. I was skating around the city, looking for lunch, when Zach called me. And I’ll never forget the way that Zach explained what this deal meant in regards to me.
He said, “Basically, if you sign this deal there is a potential that you will turn into a super star. Your life will change drastically. And once that happens, there is no going back. If we don’t go this direction, there is a ceiling to your career. You can continue to play the same rooms you’ve been playing and have a strong run as an underground rapper. But taking it to the next level will not be attainable. I see positives and negatives to both sides, and will support you either way. What do you want to do”?
I knew immediately that this a decision that would alter my life forever. I knew that getting played on the radio would alienate a core group of fans; that I’d be labeled a sell-out, maybe even a “one hit wonder” if the song got big. But despite those risks, I knew at the core what I wanted.
My logic was simple. If “Thrift Shop” blew up, the floodgates would open. People beyond even the core group of supporters would learn about our music and buy the album. The masses would not only hear a song about saving money and bargain shopping, but would discover songs about marriage equality and homophobia, consumerism, addiction, sobriety, relapse. My story would be told. That is what mattered to me.
I always stood behind Thrift Shop. The raps, beat, hook and the message. But there was more that I wanted to share with the world. Ever since the age of 17 when people would ask me how big I wanted to be as a musician, my answer has always remained the same. I want my music to be heard by as many people as possible. This was the way to do it.
As we hit the beginning of 2013, a monster had started to grow that nobody could keep up with: a little song called “Thrift Shop.” What had started out as a concept I had four years prior was spreading across the world and had gotten completely out of control. Television offers from just about every outlet came flooding in, and our calendar began to drown. Private parties, Vegas nightclubs, venues and colleges from all around the world wanted us. Never having experienced these types of opportunities and not knowing when the well was going to dry up, we said yes to pretty much all of it. And it was killing us.
We never planned for this year to be as busy as it’s turned out to be. We planned to do a handful of colleges in the spring. Ideally our weekly schedule was going to be 3 days of shows then off for 4 days to rest at home and get back in the studio. Yea, right. We were literally on a flight every day for months on end. The airport was our home and the coach seats we occupied were our beds. We were all fried, operating on 1-3 hours of sleep a night. And while all of this was happening, “Thrift Shop” had undisputedly become the biggest song in the world. You couldn’t get in a cab, go into a store or walk past a nightclub without hearing a saxophone and Wanz’s baritone voice. It was everywhere…and so was the criticism.
To many skeptics, I was immediately casted as a “one hit wonder,” the new Vanilla Ice, “just another white kid appropriating a culture”. Despite my self-assuredness, it began to wear on me. The fear crept into my psyche: what if I’m only known as the ‘Thrift Shop guy’ for the rest of my life? What if they never hear the other songs I’ve written?
Due to that fear, combined with lack of sleep and virtually no down time, I began to unravel a bit. I was in that fucked up place of just wanting to escape the success I had always dreamed of. What had I signed up for? I literally couldn’t go outside without it turning into a photo shoot. My privacy was gone. Even the old baseball hat and hoodie trick were proving to be ineffective. I felt corned by a song I once loved, and was at times regretting what the radio had made it. And then… ‘Can’t Hold Us’ happened.
Sure, it didn’t come with a social message or deep underlining meaning. But it didn’t have to. It was a record that wasn’t “Thrift Shop,” and the radio began eating it up. Soon, “Thrift” began to fizzle and “Can’t Hold Us” replaced it as #1 on the Billboard charts. The “1 hit wonder” fear began to dissipate, and sales for The Heist were consistently picking up. For the first time in 2013 I was able to take a step back, sink into my skin and appreciate the ride for what it was.
“Can’t Hold Us” didn’t live for as long as “Thrift” at radio, so naturally the program directors were pushing us to give them a 3rd single. With two back-to-back #1’s, we now had leverage, and a chance to give them something of substance. Something that was long overdue. A record that I believed in more than any other song I’d ever written. “Same Love.”
With debates in the Supreme Court over marriage equality simultaneously happening as the song was released to radio, it couldn’t have come at a more influential time. This is what was on the minds of America, and with “Same Love” getting played on the radio; it became a component to the conversation. This was the type of impact I had strived for, the music I wanted the world to remember me by.
Every song I’ve ever put out, I have believed in. But Same Love was different. It was a moment that was way bigger than us. Watching teenagers come up to me after shows, with tears in their eyes, gasping for breathe in attempts to find the right words to explain to me that they came out to their family after hearing the song…that reaffirms everything. That. Right there. That is the reason why I do this. That is no publicity stunt. That is no calculated move. That is art affecting the quality of people’s lives, the way that other artists influence mine. If it wasn’t for Blackalicious, Talib, Pac, Nas, Outkast, Cee-lo, Kanye, people that said what the fuck they were thinking and feeling without any regard to how they might be judged, I would not be in this position today.
Same Love was the scariest song I’ve personally ever put out. “When I was in the 3rd grade I thought that I was gay”? That’s my favorite bar I’ve ever written. Cause it’s the truth. It was scary as hell to say that shit to the world, and I did it anyway. I was even afraid ScHoolboy Q wouldn’t want to be on the album. I assumed Hip Hop would think I was gay (which probably 25% of the world still does). But that means nothing to me now. I knew it was beyond me. If I could approach this subject with 100% authenticity, it would potentially give others a platform to do the same. And THAT is why I make music. THAT is why ‘The Heist’ worked. People were so thirsty for something NEW. Somebody that said what they were ACTUALLY thinking, not what they thought people wanted to hear. Production that was inspired by all different genre’s, that redefined what Hip Hop music sounds like. That is progression. And the masses were ready to make progress.
At some point in the quest for success, you peer group begins to change. It’s almost like I woke up one day and we were at the VMAs, tied for the most nominations with Justin Timberlake. I walked the red carpet with my fiancé who has been with me since I first pressed up Macklemore t-shirts, when we needed to sell at least $100 worth of merch at the show in order to pay rent or else we were fucked.
As we nervously entered the Barclay Center, like freshman teenagers at a high school dance, a parade of cameras followed us to our seats, and I was acutely reminded, as I had been many times through the year, how apt the title of our album was. I felt like I’ve snuck into this award show, made it past the metal detectors, bypassed the security guards and for some reason didn’t get caught. Like I’m not supposed to be here, yet ended up with the best seats in the house. I walked over to Birdman and chatted for a couple minutes. Drake came over, and we’re cracking jokes. Bruno Mars strolled by, gave me dap and told me he’s a fan, how proud of me he is. 2 Chainz walked over to congratulate me, and I realize at this point I’m actually friends with 2 Chainz. Lady Gaga tweeted about our performance and cheered when we won an award. Shit is really weird. And this is legitimately my life now. And it’s not better. Or cooler. It’s just different.
It’s still weird. It’s strange to walk around Europe with a hat, sunglasses and hoodie hopping you can go about your day causing as little of a scene as possible. I try to be as appreciative and polite as I can, but at a certain point it begins to wear on you. The zoo that Kanye speaks about is very real, and sometimes you don’t want to be the animal people are staring at. Following. Taking pictures of. Standing outside of your hotel waiting for you to leave. BUT, I understand it. I was that person waiting outside of the venue at one point in my life. And those people are the ones that have made this experience what it is. I always try to remember that, have patience and show gratitude.
Here I am. On a hotel bench in Milan Italy a day after concluding our European portion of our World Tour (still beating people over the head with that phrase. It just sounds triumphant). We played 25 shows to over 200,000 people, in sold out arenas all across Europe. We watched arena’s full of young people, in thick French/Irish/German/Italian accents singing the Chorus to ‘Same Love’ or rapping ‘Wings’ word for word with me. The experience brought tears to my eyes during numerous performances.
Headed back to the US for 2 months of straight shows, I’m ready. I’ve spent over half of my time on this earth, studying my craft in front of audiences of 20 people, 35 people, 100 people. I learned the art of performance in venues where nobody knew or cared who I was. Where they would rather drink at the bar and socialize than hear what I had to say. I worked for their attention. I know to a lot of you, this last year seems like it happened overnight. And for how big it’s gotten, there have been times where I’ve felt the same. But I’ve fought for this. Ryan fought for this. Our team has fought for this. And we sacrificed everything for what has transpired.
To date we’ve sold over 1 million albums in the US this year. We’ve received platinum plaques from counties I’ve never even been before. We have 3 multi platinum singles (Thrift 7x, Can’t Hold Us 4x, Same Love 2x). We’ve performed on Ellen, Conan, Letterman, Leno, Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Billboard Music Awards, Good Morning America and the MTV Video Music Awards. It was just announced today that we’re nominated for 6 American Music Award’s, and yesterday it was announced we’re performing at The Grammy’s nomination night.
With all those accolades listed and experiences etched into history, the most meaningful and fulfilling experiences have come from being on a stage in front of the people that got us here. You all. There are the fans that will hop onto the Thrift Shop bandwagon when it rolls through, and the people that will still be here when it leaves. You are the people that are still reading this novel after 6 pages (ha!). I have you guys to thank. You’ve made this year what it is, and I will never be able to find the words to properly articulate my gratitude. I can only give you everything I have in me, night after night, and hope that when this all slows down a little bit, I’ll have enough courage to write about this insane experience. I Love you all. #Sharkfacegang.