Macklemore’s Seattle style gains global appeal

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis perform in San Francisco on their 2013 tour. (Photo by Amanda Rhoades / SF Foghorn)

With a fresh batch of Grammy gold under their belts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis might catch their Seattle fans reminiscing about the days when they played small venues around the city for just a few bucks.

The duo have evolved from humble beginnings in the local underground to become a global sensation, all the while continuing to tout hometown values like tolerance and anti-commercialism.

Fresh off of a tour of the U.S. and Europe, the group will set off for a second world tour next month.

Most of the dates are in Australia and New Zealand, but they’ll also headline shows in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Manila.

Amir Zahed, who is a close friend and photographer of the group’s dancers, remembers being backstage at one of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ first big shows at Bumbershoot.

“He went on the stage and I remember sitting by his girlfriend — fiancé, now — who was crying,” he said. “I think people assume that he is very extravagant, wearing his fur coats and seeking attention, but he’s very much the opposite… He’s not putting on a show, he’s not acting.”

Zahed says that after the release of “The Heist” people worldwide started to catch on to the unique narrative style that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis formulated here in Seattle.

“’Thrift Shop’ was fun, catchy and marketable,” he said. “For the rest [of the world], I think his style is a breath of fresh air.”

The song certainly proved its popularity as three of the four Grammy’s that they earned Sunday night were for that specific track.

“I think his passion for his music and his honesty is what other cultures really gravitate to,” Zahed said. “It might be about love, interpersonal struggle, mastering an art form or going on a thrifting spree — there is something that everyone can relate to.”

Anna Matuszewski, the group's choreographer and dancer, with her her partner, trumpet player Owuor Arunga. (Photo courtesy of Amir Zahed)
Anna Matuszewski, the group’s choreographer and dancer, with her partner, trumpet player Owuor Arunga. (Photo courtesy of Amir Zahed)

According to his crew, this relatable nature of Macklemore’s music knows no bounds, even in other countries.

Even with the language barriers and cultural differences, the group found plenty of support from audiences across Europe during their last tour, and are anticipating more of the same in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Anna Matuszewski, one of Macklemore’s original dancers and choreographer, and her partner, Kenyan-born Owuor Arunga, who plays the trumpet for Mackelmore’s band, have worked with the duo since day one.

“Ben talks a lot in the show, but even with the language barrier, [we see] such endearing fans,” Matuszewski said. “The fans in Europe are really on the next level… even by listening to the inflection in his voice or his laugh, they’ll try to participate.”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis fans often are lured by the unique color of their music, which incorporates various classical instruments and eclectic dancers, both of which are pretty uncommon sight in a touring rapper’s stage show.

“Even in Europe, fans would be waiting for him for more than 24 hours just to be the lucky few to enjoy the show right up at the pit. Those dedicated fans were rewarded with meet and greets with Ben and Ryan after the show,” cellist Rebecca Chung Filice said via email.

Filice, who has been playing cello for 20 years, was hired last May to perform at the Sasquatch Music Festival to headline with Macklemore and has been working closely with the duo ever since.

“Strings are not very common to hip hop music,” she said. “It totally changes the timbre and mood of the song and add some really special effects.”

The track “Wings” on the duo’s album The Heist, features the most strings, but Filice and their violinist were incorporated into 80% of the songs performed on the U.S./Europe tour.

Dancer Anna Matuszewski, onstage with Macklemore (Photo courtesy of Amir Zahed)
Dancer Anna Matuszewski, onstage with Macklemore (Photo courtesy of Amir Zahed)

“It’s been pretty interesting to see this group blow up into an iconic image,” said Filice. “I really respect both Ben and Ryan — they’ve stayed true to themselves, no matter how big their music gets or how much their fame grows.”

Matuszewski leads the group’s dancers, dubbed the “Macklorettes” who accompany Macklemore during his performances.

Her daughter, who was on tour with her parents and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, has become a part of the show and a popular Instagram personality.

“The best part about this whole experience for me was to be with my family, traveling, dancing and performing — doing what we love to do.” Matuszewski said.

As her mother danced and her father jammed out on the trumpet, little Anyango would sit on her daddy’s shoulder and play her own horn — a bugle.

Not only has the rapper gained musical fame, but he has also displayed a political voice. One of Macklemore’s hit tracks on the album, “Same Love,” touches on the issue of gay and lesbian rights and was written in support of Referendum 74, which legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state.

“It’s a song that has deep meaning and it’s covering a controversial topic,” Filice said. “[It] was well-received everywhere we performed, even in the more conservative states.”

Though the set list changes with every location, “Same Love” was performed at every city.

“We play Same Love every single night, no matter where we are at,” Matuszewski said. “That song is definitely a highlight of the show everywhere and we’ll find that regardless of where we are, the audience will be signing the chorus with us.”

Matuszewski said the song is accomplishing one of Macklemore’s original goals by encouraging conversation to take place around the issue of equality.

On the Grammy’s stage, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took this conversation a step further and, with the help of Queen Latifah, wed 33 same-sex couples during their performance.

Zahed hopes the group’s fame will bring even more attention, not only to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and the issues their music touches on, but also other music acts in Seattle.

“Hopefully, more ears gravitate to the Seattle hip-hop scene because it’s really unique,” he said. “Seattle doesn’t have one specific style or sound and there is a lot of good music coming out of the city right now.”