ADDICTIONS ARE COMPLEX, wildly polarizing beasts. Depending on the particular fixation, they can be enormously debilitating, devastating everything in their path—or, in some cases, serve as a vital propellant towards success and self-respect.
Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty has seen both sides of the coin. Despite a promising debut in the early ‘00s, the 28-year-old rapper’s career languished in the later half of the decade as he struggled with an addiction to painkillers, weed and cough syrup. But after a successful stint in rehab in 2008 he burst back on the scene the following year, teamed with a new creative partner (producer Ryan Lewis) and an addiction to something else entirely—work.
Since dropping the critically-acclaimed The VS. EP in late 2009, Macklemore and Lewis have torn up the underground hip hop circuit with a blistering run of pensive, sonically complex songs with equally inventive videos. The duo’s latest clip is set to their remix of “Otherside,” perhaps the finest and most emblematic piece of their short cooperative career. While the original version of the track was a Red Hot Chili Peppers-sampling stomper, the remix is both minimal and melancholic. A haunting chorus from Seattle songwriter Fences serves as the perfect frame for Macklemore’s graceful, introspective and candid verses through which he chronicles his battles with substance abuse.
Though it lacks the ingenuity of the sneaker-philosophizing “Wings,” or the sheer sentimental value of “My Oh My” (their tribute to Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus), “Otherside” is in many ways Macklemore and Lewis’ strongest video yet. Co-directed by themselves and frequent collaborator Jason Koenig, it’s subtle and moving—less of a spectacle—emphasizing the song’s potent message without hitting you over the head.
Ben, the song is remarkably powerful, but it’s also extremely personal—it delves deep into your trials and tribulations with drug addiction. Was it difficult for you to write?
MACKLEMORE: Not at all, actually. It flowed out very naturally. Ryan looped up the Red Hot Chili Peppers sample and put a kickin’ snare behind it—initially we didn’t have any of the orchestral pieces that are in it now—and I just started rapping.
There are certain songs that you have to think a long time about and really kind of figure out what area you want to hit them with, but with “Otherside” it just came immediately. It was like the ink poured on to the page and it kind of wrote itself.
Is it strange for you to have such a personal song out there? It’s your story and your struggles and it’s floating out there for everyone to hear. I can imagine that must feel kind of weird, but is it gratifying in a way that people are connecting with it?
MACKLEMORE: Yeah, it was a decision that I made when I got out of treatment and committed to staying clean that I wanted to put it out there, and since then it really hasn’t been weird—it’s become normal. It’s a part of who I am and I didn’t want to hide it on records. I wanted to be honest and speak openly about it. Now it’s part of our music, and it’s part of the way that people identify with the music and my story. It’s an important element.
Was it important for you guys to get the concept and visuals right to go along with it? Did you want the video to have a similarly strong impact?
MACKLEMORE: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s probably our most popular song. The visuals had to be able to stand up to the music and really reinforce the content and what the fans had initially resonated with.
RYAN LEWIS: “Otherside” is undeniably one of the best songs Ben has ever written. It’s just one of those songs that you can’t take a bar out. I thought there was so much potential in the message and his performance that it just deserved to have a great canvas—visually and musically— underneath it.
This video was really unlike anything we’d ever done before—it went in so many stages. We shot the footage over the course of a year and a half, so when we started back in April 2010, all we had was the original “Otherside.” But about halfway through shooting we did the VS. Redux album and made the remix, and that changed everything.
What was it about the remix that made you change directions?
MACKLEMORE: We liked it better, for one thing, but we also didn’t want to get sued by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. [Laughs.]
RYAN LEWIS: The remix had a much more cinematic feel to it, and it generated a lot of different ideas for a video. We all really wanted to go with it instead.
How did the video change conceptually from what you’d already filmed?
RYAN LEWIS: The original concept was much more literal. It very blunt, and basically ran parallel to the lyrics—a lot of the early scenes with people smoking and doing drugs came from that initial shoot. When the remix came together, it gave us a chance to do something a little less obvious. We scripted this whole idea of Ben traveling through a dream and taking this trip through a miscellaneous location. It was a lot more abstract. So many of our videos have been this tangible thing, and I really just wanted to make a piece of art that’s not so completely in line with every part of the song.
The aesthetic in a lot of those early drug scenes reminded me a bit of Requiem for a Dream.
JASON KOENIG: It’s funny you say that, because before we even started the video, Ryan goes, “I want to make this like Requiem for a Dream!” I’d never seen it. I’d sort of watched parts of it, but that was about two or three years ago. It definitely did have a little bit of an influence, though.
So why did it take a full year and a half for you guys to finish the video? Did you see yourselves grow creatively, in some ways, over the course of the production?
JASON KOENIG: Well, after we’d shot the original version, we felt like what we’d done was a little too linear, a little too obvious. We couldn’t figure out what we wanted to do, and then Ben and Ryan left on tour and I got swamped with work, so we just kind of let it sit for a while. It wasn’t until later that winter, once the remix had come out, that we really got rolling again.
We’ve all definitely grown and learned a lot over the last year and a half. When we started working on this video, it was our first attempt at a video project. But throughout the production of “Otherside,” we’d individually done multiple other video projects. Ben and Ryan worked with [director] Zia Mohajerjasbi on “Wings” and “The Town,” and I’d filmed for a non-profit in India. And to top it off, in the middle of this project we decided to do the video for “My Oh My”, which we shot in two days and then cut together. By the time we finished this video, we were all far more experienced working with film.
The biggest thing for me in the last year or so was the emergence of video on digital SLRs. I’ve been a pro photographer for nine years, so suddenly working with film became very easy for me. I got to use my own lenses and understood how the cameras worked, and all of my technical knowledge was relevant in this entirely different medium. It’s opened up a lot of new avenues for me creatively.
A lot of the visuals feature these gorgeous landscapes and nature scenes. Is that to pay tribute to your Northwestern roots?
RYAN LEWIS: Yeah, you know, we live in a place that is beautiful and offers scenery that so many other places don’t. The whole concept of the video allowed us to take full advantage of the environment around us. We found this lake in the middle of nowhere that we nicknamed “Stumpland,” and filmed a lot of the nature scenes out there.
JASON KOENIG: Ryan and I went up there originally and mapped the entire thing out and laid the video out shot by shot. But when we brought Ben back to film, it had all filled up with water. [Laughs.] We lost all our shots that we’d storyboarded, so we kind of had to make do and we weren’t really sure that we’d gotten it.
What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
MACKLEMORE: Filming this video was one of the most challenging physical things that I’ve ever done. I was out on that boat in the middle of December, and it was like 30 degrees with crazy winds and sideways rain. I only had a flannel on, and it was absolutely freezing.
RYAN LEWIS: It was definitely more difficult than some of the other videos we’ve shot. It was all out in the middle of nowhere with 30 to 40 mph winds, and it was just long and challenging and you’re fucking carrying this boat through the trees, going down a hill.
What made it even more challenging was the sheer amount of material we’d accumulated. By the end, we had 800 gigabytes of footage to go through.
How difficult was it to whittle all of that footage down into a 3-minute video and retain a cohesive creative vision?
JASON KOENIG: Honestly, the hardest part was finding time for the three of us to sit down and edit. We basically had to lock ourselves in the studio for three or four days with blow-up mattresses, and we edited non-stop with a few wiffle ball breaks here and there.
Once we established the storyline, though, it wasn’t too bad. We went through all the footage and pulled the strongest shots that we really liked, and then started to piece everything together according to the basic story. Ryan and I discovered that we work best from about midnight to 4 AM. Every night we’d hit that point and then just grind it out on Final Cut and accomplish a ton throughout the early hours of the morning. We were all backwards.
There was one point during the editing process where we decided there were a few extra things we needed, so we went out and shot them in a couple hours that same night. We used ‘em as some of the filler shots you see in the video—the pill being cut up, the eye, and Ben looking in the mirror.
Are you relieved that it’s finally out? And how proud are you of the finished product and what it represents?
RYAN LEWIS: I’m relieved and excited to share it. It’s one of the most artistic things that we’ve ever done. We really pursued something that was just different and didn’t follow any type of linear path. My whole attitude going into this video was I didn’t want to worry about how much it was going to line up with our reputation or what we’re known for or anything like that. I just wanted to make something that was really dope, and I think Ben and Jason were really in the same boat.
We didn’t really go into this with any pressure, and now that it’s out, I feel like I value it as one of the stronger pieces in our catalog. It’s going to be something that I look back on in the future, I hope, and remember the process of making it and all the great times we had putting it together.
JASON KOENIG: One of our goals was to do it in a way that would emphasize the lyrics without polarizing people like it was a public service announcement, and figuring out a storyline that wouldn’t take away from the message or distract from the song at all. I think we pulled it off.
What do you guys hope viewers will take away from “Otherside”?
MACKLEMORE: I hope that it’s inspired some people in terms of analyzing their life or their own issues with drugs and alcohol. I hope it prompts people to examine the culture’s fascination [with drugs], or even play it for others in their lives who might be struggling with addiction issues. That’s my greatest hope—that it acts as some kind of inspiration to those people who are struggling.
JASON KOENIG: I work with a lot of high school kids here in Seattle, and part of the reason I wanted to make a video for this song was for them. The thing about high school kids is that they don’t want to be told what to do, but they definitely want to hear your story and make their own decisions. Without it being a D.A.R.E. commercial, I hope this will help them to take these matters seriously and go, “Be careful.”
These days, videos are hardly played on television, and pop up a little bit more peripherally on the Internet. Do you think they’re still as important to an artist’s success? Is it just as imperative to come correct with a truly great music video?
MACKLEMORE: Now that anyone can buy or get access to a 5D or 7D and shoot their own thing, there’s a saturation of music videos on the web and I think that it almost makes it more important. You need to have videos with substance, that’ll stick out from every other person that’s throwing stuff up on YouTube.
JASON KOENIG: It’s definitely more about the music than it used to be, but at the same time I’ve been amazed at how many people are watching the video and saying, “This song is amazing!” It’s been out for two years, and they’ve never heard it. All of a sudden it’s giving it new life and it’s taking it to a broader audience.
We live in such a visual era, and I just think it opens up so many more doors. “My Oh My” is a great example of that. When Ben and Ryan made the song, they weren’t sure if people would like it, and they were actually getting mixed feedback. Then we made the video, and there were 400,000 hits on YouTube and we’re getting calls from ESPN and sports radio stations and all the news channels around here. The ability to magnify the power of a song with visuals is incredible.
Ben and Ryan, this has obviously been a massive year for the two of you. Can you tell me a little about how this ride has been for you so far and where you think you see yourselves going from here?
MACKLEMORE: This year has been crazy. It’s been a lot of work. A lot of things have manifested and we’re in a great place with a lot of momentum. Our fans are incredible and to play shows like Rock the Bells in New York, it’s kind of a dream come true in a lot of ways. But in the same sense, there’s a lot more work to be done. We need to come with an album that can live up to it’s full potential and that’s what we’re working on now. I’m blessed, I feel an extreme amount of gratitude for where we’re at and I’m humbled to be playing at festivals and having such incredible support from fans at this point in our career.
RYAN LEWIS: None of us are thinking short term for this—this is something that we’re all highly invested it. We see it being a long-standing collaboration with a lot more to come, and it’s really exciting to watch things build and find out what we’re capable of. As an artist, particularly earlier on in your career, you have a ton of ideas that you aren’t always able to pursue or that aren’t always realistic. So I think as things build and we have more resources, we’re able to get just that much better each time and pursue bigger and bigger things with every release. It’s exciting.