Game love

The biggest surprise out of Seattle's sports scene lately isn't from Pete Carroll's roster

Originally Published: February 5, 2013
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

MacklemoreChris McPherson for ESPN"Sports are part of who I am," says Seattle-based Macklemore.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 18 Music issue. Subscribe today!

TO GET FROM Capitol Hill in Seattle to the Space Needle, you just head west on Denny Way, then hang a right at Fourth Avenue North. You can't miss it.

Or you can take Ben Haggerty's more roundabout path: Grow up on Capitol Hill devoted to sports and rap, start a hip-hop group when you're 14, start performing under the stage name Macklemore, overcome substance abuse, break through with a couple of sports-themed videos, throw pizza parties for your fans, record an independent album called The Heist that goes to No. 1 on iTunes, then watch in amazement as one of the tracks, "Thrift Shop," gets more than 71 million YouTube views.

That's how Haggerty found himself at the top of the Space Needle in January, two days before the start of the Seahawks' unlikely postseason adventure. He and some of the city's other famous musicians were invited by Mayor Mike McGinn to raise the 12th-man flag. Haggerty, smiling as if he'd just pulled off a second unlikely heist, stepped up and said, "My name is Macklemore. My real name is Ben. I'm here on top of the Space Needle to come out and support the Seahawks. We're taking it this weekend! 21-7, my prediction."

[+] EnlargeMacklemore
Lindsey Wasson/Seattlepi.com

Pretty close: The final score was Seahawks 24, Redskins 14. But nobody could have predicted the incredible success of Macklemore and his producer, Ryan Lewis -- not even Haggerty. "It's been a crazy year," he said recently while on a break from his worldwide tour. "Kinda like the Seahawks'."

There is another delicious irony to Macklemore's hoisting that flag for the home team. He would not have been atop the Space Needle -- or the music world, for that matter -- were it not for his passion for games. "Sports are part of who I am," he says. "What I love about them is the stories, and that's what I do for a living -- I'm an emcee telling stories."

Haggerty, 29, has plenty to tell. He grew up in a close-knit, sports-loving family, which he often references in his songs. (He watched the Seahawks' playoff loss to the Falcons with his grandmother.) When he was 14, he formed a rap group called the Elevated Elements, and later, while in high school, he recorded an EP under the pseudonym Professor Macklemore. At the time, the Mariners' second baseman was Mark McLemore, but Haggerty swears he didn't borrow the name, "at least not consciously." Regardless, he became popular on the club and college scenes. After graduating from college, he taught music at a juvenile detention facility while continuing to perform and make a name for himself in Seattle.

But Macklemore's music career stalled periodically as he struggled with substance abuse until he finally cleaned himself up in 2008. Shortly thereafter, he joined forces with Lewis, whose orchestrations added a new dimension to Macklemore's sound. His career didn't really take off, though, until he found the perfect marriage between his two loves.

The inspiration came from, of all things, the death of Dave Niehaus, the Mariners' beloved 75-year-old play-by-play man, in November 2010. Channeling his childhood memories of listening to the Mariners on the radio with his father, he titled the song "My Oh My," after Niehaus' signature call. A new-school tribute to an old-school broadcaster, the track evokes the Mariners' 1995 season with such names as Joey Cora, Edgar Martinez and Junior Griffey. But with lines like "fight until the day that God decides to wave us in," it's clearly about more than baseball. Ending with "It's my city my city childhood my life Niehaus my oh my rest in peace," it has all the elements that made Macklemore popular: his raspy voice, pent-up energy and, of course, great storytelling.

The video, which premiered two months after Niehaus' passing, quickly went viral. It also earned Macklemore and Lewis an invitation from the Mariners to perform the song on Opening Day 2011 at Safeco Field, where they were given customized jerseys.

Macklemore and Lewis then collaborated on another sports-themed song, "Wing$," an ode to Air Jordans that turns into a condemnation of sneaker capitalism. That video, financed through a Kickstarter appeal to their growing fan base, bears viewing again in the wake of the recent slaying of the brother of Arizona State running back Marion Grice over his Air Jordan XI Bred shoes.

But their music, as The Heist demonstrates, isn't just about sports. There's the runaway success of "Thrift Shop," which is No. 1 on the Billboard rap chart. Says Haggerty: "We certainly did not see that coming. Now people can't find anything in thrift shops."

Another track, "Starting Over," is a searing confession about the time Macklemore threw away three-plus years of sobriety for "two Styrofoam cups." His hymn to tolerance, "Same Love," which he and singer Mary Lambert performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, helped the passage of Referendum 74, legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington. The dance-happy "Can't Hold Us," featuring Ray Dalton, became the touchdown song for the Seahawks thanks to a big fan named Pete Carroll.

"Congrats to @macklemore for 'Thrift Shop' going Platinum today!" the Seahawks head coach tweeted on Jan. 3, just before the start of his playoff run. "1 million songs sold!"

But Carroll, who invited Macklemore to watch the 49ers' Week 16 game from his private box, isn't the only sports celebrity to embrace his music. Macklemore counts speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, ex-SuperSonic Shawn Kemp and Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson as friends. Maybe it's because they see him as a fellow athlete -- his high-energy concerts are a study in fitness. "If I'm not in shape," he says, "I'm not gonna give a good show, and I don't want to disappoint anybody in the crowd.

"I was one of them once."

That's the nicest part of his story. Macklemore is still Ben Haggerty.

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer