Seattle Saves Hiphop, Again

The Connection Between Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop"

Seattle Saves Hiphop, Again

mike force

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Many years ago, KEXP DJ Riz Rollins pointed out to me the significance of Sir Mix-A-Lot's biggest hit, "Baby Got Back." At the time of its release in 1992, hiphop had two great camps: East Coast and West Coast. The East Coast was dominated by a pro-black, Afrocentric program with a militant side (Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and so on) and a bohemian side (A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, and so on). The West Coast was all about the gangster realism of Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, whose track "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" became the anthem of that dangerous way of life. The music from both camps tended to be righteous, serious, and all about reality. Dr. Dre, for example, would spend hours in the studio trying to capture the exact sound that an automatic weapon makes when fired from a moving car; A Tribe Called Quest rapped about the importance of eating healthy foods and appreciating black cultural heritage. Then, out of nowhere, some rapper from Seattle released a track about loving big butts.

According to Rollins, Sir Mix-A-Lot's success caught everyone by surprise because (1) Seattle was completely off the hiphop radar, and (2) there was nothing in the mainstream that sounded remotely like his music. Sir Mix-A-Lot did not rap like Ice Cube or Chuck D, nor was he swept up by the Das EFX fast-rap "-iggedy" craze of that moment. Sir Mix-A-Lot rapped only like Sir Mix-A-Lot. As for the beat, with its weird mix of electro stabs and hectic robot bass, it was made by a producer who seemed to be completely ignorant of the mainstream trends—the G-funk of the West Coast and the deep jazz moods of the East Coast. Sir Mix-A-Lot's hiphop was like a weird plant (purple leaves, red stem) growing under the blended and bending light of two distant suns. But most importantly, Sir Mix-A-Lot wasn't so fucking serious. "Baby Got Back," which opens with a conversation between two white girls disgusted by a black woman's huge butt, returned laughter to the hiphop charts and the dance floor. The record felt like a window being opened in a stuffy room. Finally, someone wasn't rapping about being shot, or shooting a nigga, or returning to Africa, or being proud about the color of their skin. "This," Rollins explained to me, "was Seattle's big gift to black America. People remembered it was good to have fun now and then. And it could only happen in Seattle because we were so isolated. We were free to do whatever we wanted." "Baby Got Back" spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard chart.

Last week, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop" became the top-selling single in the United States, the first rap record from Seattle to reach that position since "Baby Got Back." Though two decades separate these records, it is curious that they have so much in common. To begin with, "Thrift Shop" sounds like nothing else out there. Its beat is on its own, all alone in that homogenous realm of contemporary pop music. The warped horn, bouncy boom, buildup of the bridge—all of this sounds as if it were made in a world that had no idea hiphop centers like Atlanta, NYC, or LA existed. As Sir Mix-A-Lot raps only like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore raps only like Macklemore. Indeed, many of the commenters on his YouTube videos compare him to Tupac, not because they sound similar, but because they share a style that feels honest and direct. Finally, "Thrift Shop" also returned laughter to the dance floor and the pop charts. In a rap world that's still obsessed with gold, executive automobiles, and getting those Benjamins, Macklemore raps: "Draped in a leopard mink, girls standin' next to me/Probably shoulda' washed this, smells like R. Kelly's sheets (piiisssssss)." In fact, during the week that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are ruling the top 10 singles, the only other track that has a sense of fun and play is by a man rapping in Korean.

Because Seattle is so disconnected from the mainstream in this small corner of the huge United States, we could never produce the kind of predictable rappers who are obsessed with gold everything (Atlanta's Trinidad James) or have a serious boner for fucking problems (NYC's A$AP Rocky). Our rappers are instead asking girls to buy them drinks (Don't Talk to the Cops!), or having Christmas on the moon (THEESatisfaction), or celebrating the greatness of a Filipino deli on Beacon Hill (Blue Scholars), or feeling like $1,000 in 1988 (Fresh Espresso), or dealing with an old beat-up Volvo (Grynch). "Thrift Shop" will sound like something that came straight out of the blue if you don't come from "The Town." recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.


Comments (38) RSS

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"Macklemore raps only like Macklemore."

Macklemore raps like SLUG.
Posted by Jeff on January 30, 2013 at 10:20 AM · Report this
posse on broadway is in the discussion for greatest cruising song of all times. Lifetime pass for that.

I'm too old for rapping anymore (I won't go as far as to say rap's not around to be saved), but Macklemore strikes me as just barely closeted Christian rapper. Ugly Duckling North. Hey we're just going to talk about our own lives goofy we're good guys we know all the songs we know our history we know we can't get away with pretending to be anything we're not and we have a deejay who cuts the choruses live (still haven't heard the dude--am I right?) but man we love this music for life bro you can't front on that...

Old people were talking about saving rap in 93. Falling into that trap--like I guess I just did--is pretty much announcing you're old. Rapping isn't for old people.
Posted by so I'll shut up now on January 30, 2013 at 10:47 AM · Report this
snacktruck 3
I saw Macklemore perform a few years back and it struck me as being very fun and positive yet nothing too special. Upon further listens to his recorded stuff, I come away with his flow as being like an early 90's poetry slam with his starting slow and going into some yelling like bravado.

Congrats to him for his success however I just think "Thrift Store" really sucks. The song is not as fun as "Baby's Got Back" and Mix is a much better MC.
Posted by snacktruck on January 30, 2013 at 10:58 AM · Report this
Macklemore either does pop stuff like Thrift Shop or emo-rap stuff EXACTLY LIKE THIS (I keep going back to this parody because it's so spot on)…
Posted by The CHZA on January 30, 2013 at 11:21 AM · Report this
If "Baby Got Back" was "Seattle's big gift to black America," "Thrift Shop" is Seattle's big gift to white America. Clean, happy, catchy, "relatable."

@1 is dead on, I'd also add Brother Ali.

And the thought that "Thrift Shop" SAVED HIPHOP? GTFOH. There could be plenty of arguments made for the exact opposite.
Posted by Mike Ramos on January 30, 2013 at 11:59 AM · Report this
It's true... Type murdered that emo shit.
It's simply indie pop rap. It targets teenagers, college kids, and soft white people who are scared of black people but want to be cool to their kids. Macklemore can rap, he just chooses not to anymore. He'd rather tell stories.

But fuck, at least someone is rapping about gay rights n shit.
Posted by 2Old_Fred3 on January 30, 2013 at 12:01 PM · Report this
Paris might have been on Tommy Boy Records, but he was from Berkeley and went to school in Davis. That's hardly "East Coast."
Posted by lopes on January 30, 2013 at 12:02 PM · Report this
And I have no idea why someone would make a joke about R. Kelly anymore. That's shit's dated. People are gonna hear that in ten years and think this came out in 2004.
Posted by 2Old_Fred3 on January 30, 2013 at 12:04 PM · Report this
No matter what the aficionados and purists of hip-hop and the pop-music scene might say, Macklemore and “Thrift Shop” are the freshest, funniest and most interesting thing on the pop scene right now. I don’t know if he is saving anything, but he is riding high for the moment. More power to him!
Posted by dbgill56 on January 30, 2013 at 12:05 PM · Report this
All y'all talking about soft white people and black rap versus white rap, and generally knocking the man need to STFU. YOU are the ones perpetuating racism. I didn't even know he was white the first 20 times i heard the song. It's just a good song, by a talented local performer. Go Bulldogs!!
Posted by HelloTygerlily on January 30, 2013 at 12:48 PM · Report this
Any thoughts on the racial politics of a white guy trashing the conspicuous consumption of (implicitly) black men? I feel like Macklemore's oppositional stance towards mainstream hip-hop culture is problematic as fuck, on a racial basis, on a class basis, on many, many bases.
Posted by Joseph Staten on January 30, 2013 at 12:57 PM · Report this
lol his flow is just talking in sentences... anyone could do it like that. go on, you try, just read this comment to yourself. And as each sentence is read, your raaaAAAise the intensity of your voice. Then make it softer. Then raise it again and mention Seattle.

Nothing original or amazing there - other than he would be able to write a half decent essay. Props to him and Ryan tho. Any why did it take so long for the public to clue in to him, he's been at it for years!?

Here's hoping SEA brings something fresher, soon.
Posted by venk on January 30, 2013 at 1:02 PM · Report this
Your praise of Sir Mix-A-Lot completely ignores DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Who actually predates Sir Mix-A-Lot. So, yeah. Seattle isn't all THAT cutting edge.
Posted by Seattle Isolation on January 30, 2013 at 1:19 PM · Report this
I'm 85 Years Old 14
Why don't all these people hate as hard on shit that sucks worse that is from OTHER CITIES. Who gives a fuck if it is the best song ever written? Is from Seattle, his video ups Seattle, and puts us on the map for something other than grunge. It's nothing but good for this town so why hate?
Posted by I'm 85 Years Old on January 30, 2013 at 1:20 PM · Report this

That's the problem, it's POP. The rest of Seattle hiphop isn't all out-there shit like Shabazz Palaces. Dyme Def and Fresh Espresso ought to be getting play but they won't because of the permanently whack-ass direction popular rap has taken. Macklemore is popular because of a dopey pop-rap song and his actual rap is fucking lame.
Posted by The CHZA on January 30, 2013 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Belly 16
Article: thumbs up. Comments: thumbs down zzzz
Posted by Belly on January 30, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Report this
There's no reason to deprecate anything Macklemore --or any other artist really-- works on to "merely pop/indie/rap music" other than to stroke your worthless ego, and to make yourself feel unique that you listen to "the real stuff." All music is to be enjoyed, and bitching that music that is too obviously pop music isn't "hard enough" does nothing but makes you look like a huge baby.

@11 I don't know where you're getting that assumption, because white people also participate in conspicuous consumption.
Posted by a cat using the internet on January 30, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Report this
I kinda liked Macklemore better back in the day when he was still biting Freestyle Fellowship and Chillin Villain Empire.
Posted by Chancematic on January 30, 2013 at 2:50 PM · Report this
you like the song, you do not like the song. blah, blah, blah. fact: he has no label and somehow he has become successful (hugely successful). i know that was not a main theme of the article, but maybe it should be the main theme of the commentary...which i am really sorry i read. ya get the gas face...references never die, they just get more obscure.
Posted by bizzyb on January 30, 2013 at 3:58 PM · Report this
MK1 20
I thought Paris was from San Francisco..?
Posted by MK1 on January 30, 2013 at 4:00 PM · Report this
Charles Mudede 21
21, that was my mistake. he was signed to Tommy Boy Records and i had thought the label was completely dedicated to east coast acts.
Posted by Charles Mudede on January 30, 2013 at 4:05 PM · Report this
mister_fusspot 22

Posted by mister_fusspot on January 30, 2013 at 5:12 PM · Report this
You're all a bunch of negative nancys.
Posted by Chester Copperpot on January 30, 2013 at 8:11 PM · Report this
Posted by rap fan on January 30, 2013 at 11:02 PM · Report this
Mix was always different. 1992 there were other fun light hip-hop artists at work. 2 Live Crew, Digital Underground, Young MC, etc. Would take another couple of years for hip-hop to really double-down to NYC or LA, until Atlanta and New Orleans opened it back up by '96.
Posted by redchapterjubilee on January 31, 2013 at 8:00 AM · Report this
if the scope is confined to chart-topping tracks, then maybe i could agree with this thesis. maybe that's reasonable bc exposure matters for effect. i like the track a lot. but i have yet to listen to a rap album that doesn't have hilarious tracks or crack-up interludes throughout. i guess they just don't make it to the charts typically. so i'd say it's more about audience response than macklemore breaking any real ground.
Posted by nonotford on January 31, 2013 at 9:22 AM · Report this
merry 27
Y'all "purists" are such a crack-up... Can't groove to something if it doesn't conform to your rigid personal list of What Is Pure...

S'okay, all you guys can be over there in the corner, talking amongst yerselves about the 'good ol days', while the other tens of millions of us will be having a good time with Mackles and his GREAT songs... silly us, lol...
Posted by merry on January 31, 2013 at 10:29 AM · Report this
In 1990, "The Humpty Dance", a humorous dance number that reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, #7 on the R&B charts, and #1 on the Billboard Rap Singles chart.

Fun hip hop could happen in places other than Seattle and did before "Baby Got Back," as good as that song was. Seattle needs to stop sticking its' head so far up its' ass that it thinks it is some kind of outsider hip hop mecca that couldn't/doesn't exist elsewhere.

That said, Shabazz and all those affiliated cats are putting out some unique, nextish level shit.
Posted by maggotronix on January 31, 2013 at 1:48 PM · Report this
Tired of hearing this shit about how out of the loop and above the rap/hip pop fray Seattle is. There is plenty of hip hop from all over that isn't caught up in the predictable themes. For example…

Posted by maggotronix on January 31, 2013 at 2:11 PM · Report this
Never met Macklemore but find his music fresh and interesting. I love that he's critical of our consumer culture and turns the usual pimp braggadocio upside down by bragging about how LITTLE he spends on clothes. His fearless support of gay marriage makes me proud to be from the Northwest. I don't know or care if his skills compare your rap purist ideals. All I know is he's not boring. On the other hand, your criticisms (which seem more jealous than anything) are a total snoozefest. Maybe, instead of imagining that he's less of a true rapper than you because he doesn't wallow in the negative (and really, how many more songs do need to hear about gang violence?), you should take a page from his playbook.
Posted by TBne on January 31, 2013 at 2:11 PM · Report this
BBC 1 radio has Thrift Store from #24 to #8 in last week. So somebody likes his stuff. Hey, Seattle, ride the wave! God knows, nobody gives a rip about us. And the Seahawks are done for the year! (Sob!)
Posted by pat L on January 31, 2013 at 7:14 PM · Report this
Hey strawman arguer TBne,

Plenty of hip hop from the beginning through today doesn't wallow in the negative. That doesn't make it good, though it is what I prefer. Don't mistake your lack of hip hop history as the summation of hip hop. Just b/c Macklemore is the first rapper many of the hip hop uneducated PNW have heard that isn't about pimping, drugs, misogyny, violence doesn't mean it is unique, nor good. And you can talk about that stuff in a thoughtful, critical, yet funky way, i.e. "The Jungle," Public Enemy, the Roots, etc.

Not trying to hate on the guy. He does what he does cause he loves it and can support himself doing it while spreading good messages. Great for him. But anyone claiming Macklemore to be great is an ignorant motherlicker who needs a hip hop education. Egotrip is a good, broad starting point.

Posted by maggotronix on January 31, 2013 at 8:29 PM · Report this
derek_erdman 33
MAN, that Mike Force illustration is so good.
Posted by derek_erdman on February 1, 2013 at 4:11 AM · Report this
Man, it cracks me up when people with differing musical opinions assume you're ignorant of all the stuff they like. Maggotronix, I have all those records and still like Macklemore. Go figure. That being said, the parody TheCHZA posted is HILARIOUS.
Posted by TBne on February 1, 2013 at 2:02 PM · Report this
JLuck 35
Macklemore is equivalent to McIlvaine for Seattle. Hmm... The music is jokes – you know this right? Not sure how someone could feel that and track these songs. It's funny some of these comments that don't know Shabazz Palaces is the bright light on the dark side of town? Has Macklemore released a classic song yet? It appears it's not in him. Anyone feeling Macklemore tracks, I'm sorry, you've got to get on your music history and start feeling some soul. All I know is Palaceer Lazaro does laps on the field, and it's mesmerizing.
Posted by JLuck on February 1, 2013 at 10:33 PM · Report this
So. Much. Posing.

Look, rap in 1992 was roughly divided exactly as Charles divided them: The hippie-earnest-jazzy bucket that held ATCQ, Arrested Development, and much of the Tommy Boy stable; the gangbanging cinema verite of the LA crews; and their compadres on the East Coast who embraced their own form of militancy.

Meanwhile, the rap that was crossing over was, well, none of that. The first #1 rap single in the US? "Wild Thing" by Tone Loc. Vanilla Ice dominated 1990-91 radio. The media was more focused on 2 Live Crew than they were on NWA and Death Row Records. The hippie-earnest-jazzy guys would peek through with Digital Underground, Arrested Development, and (to a lesser extent) Naughty By Nature, but even then, hair metal still had more cache.

"Baby Got Back" did a number of things -- it finally crystallized a formula for making rap into pop; it finally got blacks and whites together around the idea that hip-hop and rap could transcend race (and seriously, as a college student in the summer of '92 there was nothing funnier than watching a bunch of white upper middle class kids going on about LA faces and Oakland booty); and it also was the final non-gangsta non-coastal hit rap song in this tripartite division of rap. The Chronic would come out that December, 39 Chambers the next year, and Arrested Development would be a TV show and an embarrassing #1 choice for the Pazz And Jop Poll.

But here's the other thing: Mix got absolutely pilloried by the rap community for the EXACT reasons the commenters above are ripping on Macklemore. He's too pop. He's not a good rapper. Anyone could sing about this. He's giving the Seattle scene a bad name. The only reason we look at him with pride now is because it's been 20 years.

I have no idea if Macklemore is going to be just a flash in the pan. I have no idea if he's going to finally get the hip-hop zeitgeist to look Northwest and see what a plethora of talent we have in the local scene. I hope for the best. But consider that 50 years ago, a flash in the pan band from the Northwest made a muddy recording of a Jamaican ballad that generated a huge amount of controversy... and also evangelized garage rock, the progenitor of American punk and the distant relative of the grunge that every other band in Seattle was pushing alongside Mix. And no one today would dare diss "Louie Louie," played into the ground as much as it has been.

I really hope this is the turning point in hip-hop. Charles is right -- it really has taken itself way too seriously. So maybe this is truly a bookend to "Baby Got Back" and we're going to see hip-hop try hard to be fun again, even though it's turned into an angry scold who wants it all to be real.

But it says something that Macklemore is absolutely killing in Australia right now. He sounds like the Hilltop Hoods' long-lost American cousin. Australian hip-hop sounds more like what that hippy-earnest-jazzy camp would sound like had they not fallen into obscurity with the coming of gangsta.
Posted by dw on February 2, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
All I know is that you don't know shiit. If you don't like what I like or you can't understand the way I understand, you fail. You can't decipher genre like I do so you must be wrong. If you don't like what I like its because you don't know what to like. You obviously don't know the true essence of hip hop if you don't like the artists I like. Feel me.
Posted by WhateverIsayistrue on March 2, 2013 at 1:57 PM · Report this
Posted by lot on April 22, 2013 at 10:08 AM · Report this

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