Three years ago, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took over the pop music stratosphere with a series of inescapable hits and an album, The Heist, that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The duo’s huge singles—“Can’t Hold Us” featuring Ray Dalton, “Same Love” featuring Mary Lambert and the ubiquitous anthem “Thrift Shop” featuring Wanz—dominated the charts for months, taking the two artists from their status as local Seattle hip-hop heads to veritable international superstardom. For a solid year, The Heist stuck around on the charts and on radio, eventually selling over a million copies; whether they liked it or not, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis became household names.
To many in the hip-hop world, however, Macklemore was another example of a White rapper lifting whichever aspects of hip-hop culture seemed convenient and trading on its cultural relevance to line his own pockets. The backlash came to a head at the 2014 Grammy Awards, when The Heist beat out Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city—not to mention albums from Drake, Jay Z and Kanye West—for Best Rap Album; Macklemore then compounded the situation by texting Kendrick an apology for winning the category, then posting the exchange on Instagram, which many saw as a cheap way to pander to the hip-hop community. Macklemore was branded privileged, tactless and ungrateful; he was a pop star, not a rapper, went the argument, and had no business being compared to his contemporaries making “real rap.”
Since then, Macklemore had largely disappeared from the mainstream consciousness, ostensibly touring and working on his second album. But he finally re-emerged last month, with a new baby and a comeback single, “Downtown,” which arrived with a music video that featured some of the originators of hip-hop as an artform: Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee, legends of the early 1980s whose work helped set the stage for hip-hop’s mainstream takeover. (Four days later, they would join Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as performers at the MTV VMAs.) The inclusion of the trio of OGs split the hip-hop world again, with some claiming it as another cheap attempt from Macklemore to ingratiate himself within hip-hop and others celebrating him for shining a light on some of the most important—and overlooked—MCs in hip-hop history.
Behind the scenes, another hip-hop legend, Big Daddy Kane, was fuming, but for a different reason. The Brooklyn rapper is friends with Macklemore’s manager, Zach Quillen, and had been instrumental in helping the Seattle duo get in touch with Mel, Caz and Moe; with his encouragement, the three flew out to Washington to record the song and film thesprawling, theatrical video in the city of Spokane, with 2,500 extras and a production that drew comparisons to a Broadway musical. Kane’s issue had less to do with the video, with Macklemore himself or with the reaction to the song; instead he was upset that it had taken such a long time for someone to reach out to the genre’s originators in the first place. “We’re talking about the inventors,” Kane told XXL during a phone conversation last week. “And no other rapper in this current era of hip-hop has done that: reached back to the people that invented this thing that everybody else is getting paid off and paying homage this way.”
Ahead of their performance with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 9, XXLspoke to Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee—Grandmaster Caz was contacted for this story, but was unavailable for an interview as of press time—as well as Big Daddy Kane, about the song “Downtown,” the evolution of rap from the block parties of New York to the global mainstream, hip-hop’s history problem and the future of the genre. —Dan Rys
XXL: Initially, how did you get involved with Macklemore for “Downtown”?
Melle Mel: Well, initially the call came from Big Daddy Kane. Kane is good friends with Macklemore’s manager [Zach Quillen] and Kane reached out to everybody. He actually put the whole thing together.
Kane, what was the initial conversation you had with Macklemore?
Big Daddy Kane: Well, I was told that Macklemore did a song and the hook for the song had that Furious Five feel and was there any way that I could get in contact with some of the legendary pioneering rappers and would they be interested in working with Macklemore. So I reached out to the original top three; before Jay, Biggie and Nas; before Kane, Rakim and G Rap; I reached out to the Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz. The original top three. And they all were down and they made it happen.
Melle Mel, what was your initial reaction when Kane reached out to you?
MM: Well I actually didn’t think that it was gonna go down. You know, a lot of times—it’s happened quite a few times in my brief career—somebody said they were gonna do something or there was gonna be a project and it didn’t actually go down. But everything they said they was gonna do, they did. We came down to do the cut, a week and a half later they said it was gonna be a single and they was gonna do a video. We came out and did the video and the rest was history.
What did you think about the song when you first heard it?
MM: To me, when I first hear a song, unless it knocks me out it’s all right. So when I first heard the song I was like, “This is all right.” And when I first heard it I knew it was a different kind of song; it wasn’t like the classic MC’ing song, it wasn’t trap music, it wasn’t gangsta music. So it was like, aight.
What did it mean to you guys to have someone like Macklemore reach out to you?
MM: Well, it’s like a double-edged sword. At some point, any MC will need certification. If you really wanna be an expert or great at what you do, you have to have that authentication. Any MC will do that; a lot of them do it just by casual conversation or who they know, you know what I mean? And we would need verification as far as, “He’s still got it, he’s still good.” So it’s a question of authentication and verification. And it worked really well because this is actually the first time something like that was actually done, that somebody was reaching out to the classic cats, so we could verify what we do and they could authenticate what they do. He had the insight to actually reach back.
As far as hip-hop, I think doing that it was, in a sense, historic because it had never been done. But I also think it was just a good thing to do, because a lot of times there’s a wall in between the original cats and the modern cats. And he basically broke down that wall by reaching back and saying, “This is what I’m trying to do, it has an old school feel, let me reach back and get a couple of the OG cats and make it happen.” So it worked out for everybody and like I said, it was definitely a good look for hip-hop.
BDK: In respect to what Mel is saying, whenever a new artist reaches out and says that they want a legend on their song, they’re normally talking about Jay Z or Nas. If they use the term “Old School artist,” they’re normally talking about me, Rakim or Kool G Rap, somebody like that. What this brother did was he reached out to the real legends. Because [when] we talk about people like myself, Rakim, Jay Z, Nas, you’re talking about the Charlie Wilson’s, Teddy Pendergrass’, the Michael Jackson’s of the game, the people who came into something that already existed and took it to a different level. When you’re talking about Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, you’re talking about the Ray Charles’, Quincy Jones’ of the game. We’re talking about the inventors. And no other rapper in this current era of hip-hop has done that: reached back to the people that invented this thing that everybody else is getting paid off and paying homage this way.
Kool Moe Dee: For me, it just said something about the consciousness. I think a lot of times we get lowered—and I do mean lowered—into a conversation that breaks things down either demographically based on age—and we have ageism—or race—there’s definitely racism—or sexism or classism. And the thing that we constantly underestimate and overlook is just the consciousness that is the real separation or alignment. And the fact that he reached out showed me—regardless of what anyone thinks about as him as an MC or an artist or a rapper or whatever—that his consciousness is at a stage where, at the very least, he’s thinking about things in a realm that has very little to do with whatever is hot or what the status quo is or going along with the flow.
So that kind of consciousness is the first thing that piqued my interest. And when Kane gave us the call and told us what it was, the first question [I had] in all honesty was, “Why?” And I didn’t get that question answered until I got out to Seattle, sat down and had a conversation with [Macklemore] to see that he was one of those artists that actually thought from an artistic standpoint, not from a standpoint of heat. They got this ridiculous term called “relevance.” And he basically understood—and what I would say everyone should understand—is that heat is not relevance. Heat is just heat. So I think the fact that he reached back and I had that conversation with him and he went kind of in depth with it, that I knew that he was conscious, that he understood the difference between heat and relevance. And putting us on the record had nothing to do with heat, it had way more to do with what was relevant. He was tapping into a cadence that started back in the time when we started it and basically said that the best way to pay homage was to put the guys that actually started the cadence on the record. And again, you’d be hard-pressed to find any quote-unquote “hot” artist of today who would think along those lines and do anything of that nature.
Do you feel like hip-hop has a history issue? That hip-hop only acknowledges things so far back?
MM: Basically, some of these cats, they don’t want to understand. Even before hip-hop, any kind of music. When we first started doing this, the music of hip-hop was everybody’s history, so we had to study the history of the record. Because it wasn’t just hip-hop music; it was music that we all indoctrinated into hip-hop. So the history of the thing is what makes it all important, and a lot of the young cats just don’t feel like what was done before them was important enough to actually study. When if you really want to be good at your craft, you have to study the history of the thing. Not even from Caz, Moe Dee and Melle Mel; they should know even before that, the James Brown’s and Bootsy Collins’.
Why do you guys think that more artists aren’t going back to the root of the artform, diving back into the history of it?
MM: I truly believe that they just don’t think that that is important enough to do. They feel like what they’ve done is the crowning achievement of what it is and they don’t need to study it no further than what they might have grown up on. And it could have been other reasons, but that would be the basic reason.
BDK: Another reason would be this. When you turn on your radio, you turn on your radio station and hear an ad that goes, “Back in the days… 2010…” [Laughs] So it’s like, we’re being taught that this all started a couple of years ago, you see what I mean? It’s not presented to the youth. Like, when you were in school and you took social studies, you learned about Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, but you also learned about Frederick Douglass and George Washington. All this is taught in history, as opposed to right now, what you hear on radio or what you see in publications really only teaches you about the past few years. They don’t really reach back and study the roots or the origins of this here whole hip-hop thing. And then the knowledge is not being presented to the youth correctly.
MM: And to add on to that, the average skill set… And this is my opinion. The last great era of hip-hop—which would be that Rakim era, that’s Kane, G Rap, and all [those] cats—all of these guys strove to be great MCs. So they went back and they studied the greats. It’s a style of entertainment; how to be, how to dress, fashion, they studied all these things, as well as us. Nowadays, the average MC, he could basically be a kid, gets out of bed, doesn’t even have to wash his face and he could be one of the top guys out here. So it’s not like it’s a craft that you take from the stage to the studio and try to hone it all in a 360 package to be this great entertainment entity. They just want to be real. Like, “We gon’ keep it real.”
So it’s really a one-dimensional talent that you need to have to be an MC [now]. You don’t necessarily have to study, because the only thing you gonna do is, the same clothes that you wear on the street, you gonna wear them on the stage and you gonna wear that same thing in the studio and be that same thing in the studio and that’s that. Everything’s based on the street, the ghetto, the “keepin’ it real”-type of MC. From the Rakim era and everything going back, it was based on, you have to be a good entertainer, you had to be good on stage, you had to write good and be good in the studio. So it took a lot more of a process, of a studying process, to be an MC. And then up to a point the process didn’t matter. You didn’t have to practice. And that’s why a lot of these guys now, they’re not really lyricists. They make songs, people like the songs and that’s that.
To change course a little bit, Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee, tell me about your experience shooting the music video.
MM: Well I personally liked that, because he shot it like a mini-movie. He set it up real well. It was in Spokane, but he blocked off like four blocks and there was like a Macy’s or a Sears right there. So unless they gave him some love, he spent a lot of money. He had about 2,500 extras. A lot of thought, a lot of money and a lot of man hours and manpower to make the video. There’s a lot going on; a lot of talent and it showed, in the video and in the performance that we did [at the VMAs]. It really showed. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna do this video and just get the guys together.” They went through a process, they did a lot of choreography, scoping out the locations and I had a good time. It was a fun video, we had fun doing it.
KMD: The video surprised me. I honestly thought it was gonna be a record that we did, like, “Good shout out, good reach back.” I never imagined that it would be a single, I never imagined that they would shoot a video for it and I definitely never imagined that they would lead with that single and then have us on the VMAs. The fact that he pushed the button as far as he went with it was overwhelmingly surprising to me. And for me, as far as somebody who critiques it, I feel like on a spiritual level you can never really criticize somebody for paying homage. And on the business side—if you look at it from the OG’s standpoint—it’s a great strategic move for us. And we’re definitely fans of hip-hop—from artist to artist it is what it is—but from a strategic standpoint, what other place would you go to see the three of us at that level in that space, on that stage? I don’t think you could even pick another artist who would even do anything that.
Last year, Macklemore came under a lot of criticism after the Grammys for being a White guy who came in and took a lot of awards, in a lot of people’s eyes, away from somebody like Kendrick Lamar. Did you have any hesitation about working with him because of something like that? What was your view on that whole situation?
MM: Actually, I wasn’t aware; I’m not totally in tune of a lot of what goes on in hip-hop [now] because it’s based on this little petty beefery that, you know, I’m 54 years old and a lot of that goes over my head. So I didn’t really hear about it. But I knew from the records that he made that this was definitely something that you were going to go into with both eyes open. And at the end of the day, it turned out to be that he was trying to get to that next level. And that goes back to what I’m saying; the authentication thing. It was a planned move; he had a plan and the plan worked. Because what I’m gonna say from here on in is that he’s a good dude, he’s a real dude and he’s a friend to hip-hop. That’s what I’m gonna say.
And my whole thing was this: I know for a fact that J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar or Rick Ross or Jay Z or any of these cats, they would not have done it. Ever. They would not have done it. It took him to do it. And all those other so-called “real cats,” they should hang their heads. Because somebody should have done it by now. They could have reached back to any of us. If you’re making records and you say you’re hip-hop, you’re supposed to have a connection to what hip-hop really is. And nobody made that connection until Macklemore made the connection. And I’ve had this conversation quite a few times since everything happened and had that little controversy of, yeah, the White boy, using the OGs, or blah blah blah. And like I said, none of those other guys would have ever done it. And it’s a shame that that’s the reality of what the game is right now.
KMD: I can understand people not liking the record, I can understand the fans who don’t necessarily appreciate him as an artist, but I can’t understand anybody who couldn’t appreciate or respect the move that he made in terms of what he did and what it means to us. And I’ll even separate myself and Melle Mel from it and say, for a brother like Grandmaster Caz who never had the hit record—Melle Mel’s had hit records, I’ve had hit records—Grandmaster Caz has never gotten any of his just due, in my opinion. So it was great to have him be able to be in that kind of light. Because as thoro as he is and as deep as he goes in hip-hop, for him to be able to finally feel some of that kind of love at the highest pop level, was a great kind of move, spiritually. So it’s a big win all the way around the board.
As some of the originators of hip-hop as a whole, how do you feel like it’s evolved today? I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but would you say that the vision is corrupted in some way? That it’s gone away from its roots?
MM: Well, it’s definitely gone away from its roots; any time you have a tree, you’re gonna have different branches of what’s going on. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming impact of what hip-hop is and what it was supposed to be is two different things. Like, for me with hip-hop, I wanted to be a star. I came from the streets and I wanted to be a star. I used hip-hop to do that. I had a plan, I stuck to my plan and today I’m a Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer like Elvis and The Beatles, Chuck Berry and all of those cats.
With today’s hip-hop, it’s almost in reverse. They wasn’t real dudes in the hood and they used hip-hop to have this image that they were these dudes in the hood. And that’s the part that defines hip-hop. And to me, that don’t sit well with me. We worked too hard to make hip-hop this worldwide phenomenon for that to be based on the “hood is good” mentality. Hip-hop has every representation except for the true essence of what the game is. Hip-hop is not about breakdancing, graffiti, DJ’ing and MC’ing [now]. Hip-hop is about smoking weed, just the basic overall direction that everybody focuses on: the guy from the street, he sells dope and he writes rhymes. But then at the end of the day, you’re using hip-hop to certify yourself more in the street than you are to certify yourself with the essence of hip-hop. And I think creatively, and even socially, everything took a step back. Because it should mean more than that. It should mean more than the “hood is good.” It don’t make much sense as far as signing artists and it definitely doesn’t make much sense as far as the longevity of the artist, because as the game changes, these guys don’t change with the game. They don’t know how. They’re one-trick artists.
BDK: Let me say this real quick. I think a statistic came out today or yesterday showing that hip-hop is the second-biggest-selling form of music, right behind rock, and it’s bigger than pop right now by a nice margin. What happened with hip-hop is it’s become commercialized. Anything in the world, once it becomes commercialized, quantity comes in and quality goes out because of mass production. So when you look at artists who come in and they’re making music real fast but the quality of music isn’t that good… And I’m not saying that in a way to disrespect any new artist, I’m saying that in a way to make a young artist understand that this is your career. Don’t let it end in 15 minutes. Because songs like “The Message,” that’s a song with staying power, an everlasting song. “Wild Wild West,” that’s an everlasting song for Moe Dee. There’s a lot of artists today that have songs that will be hot for a month or two and then forgotten. And I hate to see that with the young generation where you’re wondering what happened to your career, why you’re not poppin’ no more. I want to see the young cats of today win. I want to see them be successful. I want to see them doing things 20 years down the line. I want to see another White rapper bring one of the young rappers of today on stage 25 years from now. You know?
Do you feel like there’s any hope in reversing that trend of commercialism?
MM: I think it’s happening now. It’s gonna get to a point where to go forward, you’re gonna have to reach back. And that’s been happening now with radio stations; we’ve been getting a lot of work that we’ve never got in years because of the simple fact of radio stations switching over their format to classic hip-hop and R&B. It’s like hip-hop has gone into oldie-but-goodie mode. So the genre is being cherished from the beginning as well as the end. [It’s] almost like you got a second shot at greatness. There’s a lot of people, even young people, that want to hear what we were talking about back then instead of hearing about selling coke, the gangsta rap and the violence of it. They wanna hear a form of music for what it is; the classics. And I think that’s the major shift that’s happening in hip-hop.
Do you see a positive future for hip-hop?
MM: Now I do. If you’d asked me that same question five years ago or 10 years ago I wouldn’t. As far as hip-hop in a family, it’s gonna have a representation for the artists, that everything is gonna balance out and everything. It’s not just gonna be the young cats. It’s not just gonna be represented by the youth.
KMD: I have a whole different take on it. I understand the critique, I understand the apprehension that a lot of the new artists have about the older artists. The problem is when you look at the game like a snapshot instead of as a moving picture. And life is always moving. I’m in the studio again with Teddy Riley, I’m gonna work on this Three Kings album, a record with Mel and Caz. And I just think there’s way more to be heard from the artists that I loved growing up, that came after me but I still loved them growing up, because I don’t separate new school and old school that way. I just met A$AP Rocky and I’m a fan of his.
I think that if we start to bridge the gap—kind of like what Macklemore might have set the tone for—where older cats are doing records with younger cats… I think that bridges the gap. And I had this conversation with Quincy Jones many years ago and he said, “[If you're] a hot artist and you always give somebody new a break and somebody old a second chance, then you are never out of the mix. Because at some point you’ll be at one of those stages, no matter what.” And if we keep doing that, that would absolutely keep everybody in a quote-unquote “relevant” space and a very current space. And everybody will have hit records. There are ways to eat in this industry that have nothing to do with having a hot record.