Could the indie-rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis get any more ubiquitous in pop culture than they already were, with a single, "Thrift Shop," that's sold 3.9 million copies and is up to 140 million YouTube views?
The answer is yes, when it comes to a galvanizing, leaping-and-bounding appearance on Saturday Night Live that proved they're not just a one-download wonder. The duo's growing legion of fans now know Macklemore, the frontman of the pair, is as compelling a live performer as he is a low-budget clothes horse—as seen in this performance:
Since the duo may well be around for a while, here's a primer on some other things you might not have known about them, besides what a barrel of dynamism Macklemore is on stage:
* He's the anti-Puffy. Thriftiness might rank at the very bottom of the list of virtues held dear among rappers. But with the recession far from over for all Americans, music fans were ready for a hip-hop star who doesn't seem to live in an economical fantasy land. Hence: "Thrift Shop," which made him music's greatest unofficial pitchman for Good Will. “In hip-hop culture we’re constantly being told to buy Louis Vuitton, buy Prada,” he said recently, which is why the hit single "really stuck out.” Who knew you could find a breakout niche just by not acting like you're filthy rich?
* The debut album from Macklemore & Lewis as a duo, The Heist, was a hit right out of the gate. The collection debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard sales chart in October, selling 78,000 its first week—a considerable tally for an independently released album. Three months later, it's still at No. 16 on the chart—and due for another leap back up, no doubt, after the SNL exposure.
* "Thrift Shop" was still No. 1 on the digital songs chart last week, even before SNL raised its profile again. The tune moved 364,000 units in the week prior to their TV appearance, for a total so far of 3,878,000 digital singles sold. If the trajectory continues, it could cross the 5 million mark by the end of the month.
* Real name: Ben Haggerty. Macklemore, 29, hails from Seattle, where he grew up loving progressive acts like Digital Underground and Wu-Tang Clan. In late January, he Instagram-med a photo of the engagement ring he presented to his girlfriend of seven years, Tricia Davis.
* Don't call Macklemore a "conscious rapper"... even though he is. That tag is given to hip-hop artists who accentuate the positive and deal with social issues, as he certainly does. But he's also a throwback to a more carefree rap era and doesn't like to be thought of as preachy. "I just think it's corny," he said of the "conscious rapper" tag in a recent interview. "Am I more or less conscious than everybody else? I'm a full spectrum of a human being. There's songs that are deep and personal and might bring up some social issues, but that's not the full side of me. I think it's just a box, that's just corny. It's very outdated. It's very underground and backpacker-ish and that's not the music I make."
* He's got an flashy side, as you may have guessed from his SNL get-up. You probably won't find that colorful outfit Macklemore wore on the air at any thrift shop in your neighborhood... unless it's a second-hand store that happens to be near one of Michael Jackson's former residences. And you can take a cue about Macklemore's mixed attitudes from a song on the duo's album called "White Walls." It's about having a Cadillac with—you guessed it—white-walled tires. "People say you’re a 'conscious rapper.' You can’t rap about cars,” he said, introducing the number at a recent show. “And I was like, watch me do it.”
* The single they put out before "Thrift Shop" was an anthem in favor of same-sex marriage. They're not working in a genre where gay acceptance is a given, so their song "Same Love" stands out in hip-hop as much as "Thrift Shop," albeit for very different reasons. Misogyny and homophobia "are the two acceptable means of oppression in hip-hop culture,” Macklemore said in a recent interview. “There needs to be some accountability. I think that as a society we’re evolving and I think that hip-hop has always been a representation of what’s going on in the world right now.” Although "Same Love" went to No. 1 in Australia and New Zealand, it peaked at a measly No. 89 in America last year. Would it go over bigger now that Macklemore & Lewis are stars? Hard to say. But it has sold 276,000 copies as a single.
* It isn't just white people who like them. Really. You'll find occasional cries of "Vanilla Ice" from detractors in comment sections. But the duo have been mostly embraced—or at least respected—in serious quarters of the hip-hop community. The magazines XXL and the Source have given them serious props, and they've become favorites on BET.
* But Ellen helped make the duo mainstream. DeGeneres is, naturally, a fan of marriage equality for gay and lesbian people, and she had Macklemore & Lewis on to sing "Same Love" last October. But their follow-up performance of "Thrift Shop" on her show in January gave them their biggest TV boost, prior to SNL.
* They reversed the paradigm of black rappers using white singers for the melodic hook. On "Thrift Shop," they brought in guest vocalist Wanz, and on "Can't Hold Us," Ray Dalton. Both crooners showed up to reprise their parts on SNL (although many viewers noted that the guest singers seemed to be lip-synching their parts). It sounds like Wanz barely ever met them before reprising his part on Saturday night. "A local producer I had done past work with called [and] asked if I’d ever heard of Macklemore," the singer told the Hollywood Reporter. "He told me Ryan Lewis had called asking if he knew of any singers that sounded like Nate Dogg—I sorta had that reputation. That led to being taken to (their) studio... From the time I arrived to the time I went home was a little over an hour.”
* "Can't Hold Us" is their next single. It was also a previous single. Upon its initial release in 2011, "Can't Hold Us" stiffed as a single, peaking on the Hot 100 at No. 92. "It never really got pushed toward the current audience that we have or even the current audience that we had prior to ‘Thrift Shop,’” Lewis told the Hollywood Reporter. So try, try again. “That was always a song that we felt had some radio potential and felt more like a single–it has this huge hook, it’s massive and anthemic. It’s probably one of the biggest songs, if not the biggest song, in the live setting for us to do.”
* Jimmy Iovine supposedly likes their song "Jimmy Iovine," even though it's a slam. Macklemore says they got turned down by most of the major labels. The "Jimmy Iovine" tune, on the other hand, is a fictional account in which the titular mogul offers them a deal at Interscope, but they turn it down as being economically ridiculous. "Rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting f---ed," Macklemore says at the end of the song. So guess who (apparently) likes it? After they appeared on DeGeneres' show, "she was like, 'I played it for Jimmy, he loves it, he thinks it's genius; he wants to be in the video!'"
* Macklemore explores his struggles with substance abuse in another song. "Starting Over," which features Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, deals with how the rapper got clean in 2008—and then had a relapse in 2011 after using prescription cough syrup for an illness. "For me it was mostly an uncontrollable weed habit and alcohol," he said. "And then I got caught up in, you know, a little pills here and there, syrup. I never had moderation with anything... I could never be creative when I was messed up."
* He's a huge sports fan. The baseball/hip-connection has never been a great one, until now. "My Oh My," which came out in 2010 and was the duo's second single, was a tribute to Dave Niehaus, the beloved late broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners. The tune has continued to be played at Mariners games, and last September, he was invited to throw out the first pitch.. Last month, he became the first music star to align with You Can Play, an anti-homophobia-in-sports alliance. "Don't let being gay hold you back, and if you're straight, do not hold others back," he says in a YouTube PSA for the cause, wearing a Seattle Supersonics jersey. "Anti-gay language has no place in sports, or music."
* Where'd the name come from? No, we're not talking about Ryan Lewis—a truly unusual name for someone in hip-hop—but, you know, the other guy. As a kid, he was dubbed Mocklimore, for his ability to imitate grown-up rappers. Eventually it became Professor Macklemore, which is what he was known as when he released his first EP in 2000. He'd lost his professorship by the time he released his first proper album five years later.
* His proud fiancé is no fan of major labels, either—but she may be one of the most accessible hip-hop spouses ever. After the album debuted at No. 2 in October, Tricia Davis wrote (and Macklemore posted on Facebook): "There are certain fans that have gone beyond caring about the music and have become family to Ben and I... When we decided not to sign with any majors, it became clear to me that the fans would be running s---... And now, TODAY, to see that WITHOUT that Interscope money, Atlantic, Warner... money, WITHOUT ANY of that, that the fans ran s--- straight to #1 in the entire country, is so remarkable. I am in awe of you people that you have supported us through this journey. That you bought the album when it could be easily pirated. That you stand in the cold with smiles to show your support... If you see me at the show just say hi, I will always take the time for family."