The Triumph of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: How Hip-Hop's DIY Duo Landed a No. 2 Debut With 'The Heist'

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis CD art P

The Seattle-based collaborators tackle topics like gay marriage ("Same Love") and music industry evils ("Jimmy Iovine") in their songs, but it's patience and persistence not controversy that landed them just behind Mumford & Sons on the Billboard 200.

Last week’s surprise chart showing by hip-hop collaborators Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, whose album The Heist debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 selling 78,000 units in its first week, came as a surprise to many in the industry, and certainly to the artists’ management and booking team. Although the Seattle-based rapper and producer act had been growing its fanbase steadily over the last decade-plus, this wholly independent release (distributed by Alternative Distribution Alliance), on the heels of similar successes (namely: Mac Miller’s 2011 album Blue Slide Park, which sold 145,000 copies its first week out), offers new hope to musicians looking to break from the old model of labels serving as glorified banks.

Indeed, the majority of Macklemore’s impressive numbers come from the digital space, with 83 percent of the album’s first week sales attributed to downloads. That’s in addition to over 1 million plays on SoundCloud, nearly 30 million YouTube views and a sold-out 50-date U.S. and Canadian tour, which just kicked off.

“Macklemore’s style is multifaceted and conscious,” says fellow Seattle native and American Idol alum Blake Lewis. “I used to rock shows with him as B-Shorty a decade ago and even then I knew he was unique to the game. He tells his story differently than most emcees. His tone and cadence is unmistakable and the subjects he touches upon are raw and relevant for today’s culture. Not many emcee's out today are going to rap about 'Same Love' and then get witty while talking about buying some grandpa’s hand-me-downs at a ‘Thrift Shop,’ but he does. I’m so proud of Seattle hip-hop.”

PHOTOS: 8 Albums With the Biggest Second Week Sales Drops

Plenty of aspiring music stars know that talent will only get you so far, the rest is about timing, smart decisions and a thought-out and well-executed plan. What did the Macklemore & Lewis project get right? The Hollywood Reporter got the low-down from two key members of the M&L crew.

“Leave No Seat Unsold:” Such has been the booking team’s philosophy for one main reason: “There's nothing greater than the word-of-mouth that comes from people not being able to get into a concert,” says Joshua Dick of the Agency Group who, along with co-responsible agent Peter Schwartz, handles the group’s bookings. “The idea is to have 300 people at a 300-capacity venue who loved it, then the next time there we can do 600 to 1,000 and you go and grow from there. That's really what happened; we started very small and didn't want to skip any steps.” These days, Macklemore and Lewis are selling out 7,500-person capacity venues in their hometown, while in nearby San Francisco, they’re doing two nights at the Fillmore, a 1,200 seater. What keeps the fans coming back for more? “They nurtured a fanbase one fan at a time,” Dick explains. “Macklemore and Ryan would stay at the merch booth until every single fan that came to the show got a chance to meet them. I think that when fans feel like there's that type of real and honest connection there, they're going to support you, and be there for you through thick and thin.”

Have a Message: Macklemore & Lewis’ “Same Love,” a track about gay marriage, is just one of the many messages the “conscious” rapper puts on display. Such strong social commentary also makes the pair stand out from the pack. "It's not an obvious thing or an easy thing to bring up and write about, especially when no one else is," manager Zach Quillen tells THR. Adds Dick: “There is a time and place for everything in hip-hop. When people go to a club, they want to hear party rappers … this is like the Bob Dylan of hip-hop where they’re talking about different things -- some might fit into the format of a fun song, some is serious, some is sad. They make records that people feel like that could be me, or I feel what he's talking about, I feel his struggle.”

Mock a Major Label Executive, Like Jimmy Iovine: Another big reason why The Heist has received so much attention is a track on the album called "Jimmy Iovine," which includes the verses: 

After your album comes out we’ll need back that money that you borrowed
So it's really like a loan? a loan? Come on
No, we're a team, 360 degrees, we will reach your goals
You’ll get it done in the merch that you sell out on the road
Along with the third of the money you make when you’re out doing your show
Manager gets 20, booking agent gets 10
So shit, after taxes you and Ryan have 7 percent?
To split?
That’s not bad, I’ve seen a lot worse

Quillen insists the track is not referencing the real Iovine, but rather an amalgam of hot shot record label heads. "It's a fictional character in the song," says the Macklemore manager. "It's that guy -- the big known, notable record executive with all of this influence and history. There are all sorts of characters like that in the music industry -- [Epic Records chairman and CEO] L.A. Reid or [Warner Bros. Records co-president and CEO] Todd Moscowitz -- Jimmy Iovine just sounds good." But it's meant to be more than simply an attention-grabber. As Quillen explains, "Macklemore spent his whole life thinking that if he got a record deal, then he would have finally made it. But once he learned more about the ins and outs of the business, he quickly realized that it's not what he wanted at all." For the record, the guys have never met the Interscope Geffen A&M chairman and have not heard from him since the song's release either.

VIDEO: 'American Idol's' Jimmy Iovine Produces Steve Nicks, Bruce Springsteen in Vintage Studio Footage

Make the Album an Event: Before The Heist was released, Macklemore & Lewis offered a free stream of the album on NPR. "How many times have you heard a hip-hop album streamed on NPR?" says Dick. "When you put all those pieces together, it makes you realize that this is different." Quillen adds that it's all about creating a moment. "Trying to create a wave that keeps building and building over months and end in this one event," he says of The Heist's set-up. "There were so many things -- the timing of the singles and the tour, the music videos, even the name of the album. Calling it The Heist which implies an event, so all of our marketing is building up towards this one seemingly monumental moment."

Have "It:" “I hate to sound cliché, but the ‘It’ factor definitely exists with them,” says Dick. “If you see them live or even catch one of their videos, you get something that is pretty rare in hip-hop right now. The production, all by Ryan Lewis, has a consistent sound throughout the whole album, where usually it’s a bunch of different producers. Then there’s Macklemore, who’s touching on a variety of issues that really register with people, not just hip-hop fans. Maybe you can't put a finger on it but there's definitely something very special going on.”

Curb Your Expectations: The Macklemore team knew they had a big release on their hands, but landing just behind Mumford & Sons on the Oct. 17 chart with nearly 80,000 albums sold far exceeded the estimates they had entertained. Says Quillen: "I thought we might be at 35,000 or so, and we would have been completely stoked with that, but after the first two days, we realized it was going to be quite a bit larger and it was super exciting." It's a sentiment he shares with his former colleague at Agency Group: "This is a once-in-a-year story -- there's always that one independent band when, all of a sudden, everybody goes 'Oh my God! Did that really just sell 80,000 units?' "

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin