Ben Van Houten

For much of the last year, Seattle music has been caught in the throes of the explosive hiphop phenomenon known as Macklemore. To put it simply, Ben Haggerty, aka Macklemore, and writer/producer/partner Ryan Lewis are blowing up. Their shows are emotive, performance-based rap productions that include live musicians, costume changes, dance teams, Irish flag waving, and palpable, feverish dynamics. Macklemore bounds around the stage with a prowess and a presence that transfixes, electrifies, and galvanizes a fast-building, ever-loyal fan base. Recently, the Macklemore experience enjoyed a three-show run of sold-out Showbox at the Market performances and a nationwide tour of sold-out venues.

On April 8, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed their song "My Oh My" at Safeco Field as part of the Dave Niehaus tribute during the Seattle Mariners' opening-day ceremony. Until his passing last November, Niehaus was the only play-by-play announcer the Mariners had employed since their inception in 1977. He raised a generation of baseball fans here. Through the airwaves, Niehaus's cadence kept you company and put you at ease. He was something you could count on. He could talk about anything, actually—the color of the sky, the sound of a passing train—and it made you feel better.

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When a Mariner hit a home run, Niehaus's graveled voice would cry out, "Belted... deeep. Fly, fly away!!!" On the rare grand slam, it was, "Grand salami time!" And on a big enough moment, he'd christen the call with his signature "My-oh-my!" When Macklemore learned of Niehaus's passing, he wrote a tribute song, and it speaks to a lot of people. Inviting Macklemore to perform the song during the Mariners' Niehaus tribute made sense on multiple levels. He's a devoted fan and one of the many raised by Niehaus's play-by-play presence. I met Macklemore at the Queen Anne Easy Street Records the next day. We went in the back and talked about the performance.

Asking you what it was like seems like too broad a question. Did you see yourself on the Jumbotron during the performance?

No. I was facing home plate, which faces away from the Jumbotron. The experience was massive. You don't really know how massive it is until you're out there, and the lights are on you, with the green, perfectly manicured grass and the dirt and chalk. It was the first game of the season; everything was pristine. It was a full stadium. And when you walk out there, it's completely surreal. I was using in-ear monitors, so I couldn't hear anything. I was just walking out there in silence. The crowd stood up when the music started. I'm so used to shows, with crazy fans and energy—this crowd stood up and just stared at me. Thousands and thousands of eyes on me, but no one was doing anything. And I couldn't really hear anything. I think it turned out better on TV, just because Safeco is a huge stadium that's not meant for live sound.

Each section has a PA speaker?

Maybe. There are areas without speakers. I think for the most part, people respected it. Some people didn't. We're still in an era where rap is not considered music to a great portion of the population in Washington. There were a lot of differing perspectives in the stands. But I think it was a tribute that the people were behind, and I think a majority of the people were into it.

For the performance, did Safeco add any speakers or bolster the audio, or was it just the house sound?

They used the house system. I heard the music wasn't loud enough. So it was almost like a cappella. We had sound check the day before, and it was kind of the same. We were like, "Turn it up!"

Where do you look for the sound guy when you're playing on the infield of Safeco Field?

[Laughs.] Exactly. Turn me up, son! But we did what we could. If it was our show or something, we could have controlled the sound, but this wasn't that. We were honoring Dave, we were a part of his tribute, and this wasn't our thing. We weren't the main act; Dave was the main act. We were there in support of Dave, and whatever [the Mariners] wanted to do, it was up to them. I can't tell you how big of an honor it was to get to do this. The Mariners were super good to us.

Did you meet Ichiro?

I wanted to, but I didn't get to meet him. I hear he's a big Flo Rida fan.

Really? Ichiro likes Flo Rida?

Yes. Flo Rida remixed the song for when Ichiro comes out to bat.

Which players did you get to meet?

Jay Buhner. "The Bone." That was a highlight, getting to meet him. Very cool guy. He said when he first heard the song, it brought him to tears. His kids were our big fans, and he was a fan. To think that Jay Buhner is a fan of my music is insane. I wish I had looked over at the dugout during the performance, but I didn't. I looked over at my family and my girl a couple of times, and they were sitting just past the dugout. So I don't really know if the players were watching.

Did you meet the Niehaus family?

Yes. They were very supportive. Which was great. I got to meet Dave's wife, Marilyn. She was awesome. A great woman. Someone I could definitely hang out with. The whole family was great. These little 5-year-olds even knew my name. When we made the song, we wanted to get the family's approval. That meant a lot to us. We were hoping they would take it as a tribute and an honor to Dave. When they heard it, and liked it, that was huge.

What position would you play for the Mariners? Because the Mariners need help. You look like a second baseman.

The last position I played was third base. The hot corner. It was ninth grade, for CAYA, the Central District Community League. They called me Brooks Robinson. I was the only white dude on the team and was the youngest, and I sat on the bench the entire season. Then I got into drugs. And rap. I traded baseball for drugs and rap.

Well, you are going to be starting for the M's. You can swing the bat. In the video for "My Oh My," you take some nice swings. You've got a good stroke. Don't hide it.

For the video, yeah, we picked the best swings. But there were some really bad ones. Golf swings. The director was clowning me, "Keep your left foot back! What are you doing?" I mean, he had me on top of the pitcher's mound, and when you step to swing, you step down the hill. I was looking dumb. Yeah, no—I'm not fit for that sport anymore.

Has it hit you that you played Safeco Field? What will you remember from it?

It all happened so fast. There was so much energy and mental preparation and time and stress behind the performance. Usually, you put that much energy into an entire show, and that show lasts like an hour and a half. And you have that experience. This was five minutes. Boom, finished. Off the field. So there was this extreme high, and by the fourth inning, I was wiped. Feeling serotonin depletion.

And the Mariners were losing. Bad.

They were getting killed. People were leaving. It was a little bit depressing. When I got home, I was in a really weird mood. There was all that energy and buildup. And after, I talked to a lot of fans. It was an intense night. An intense spectrum of varying degrees of energy.

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Dave Niehaus is an icon in this city. What does it feel like to be such a big part of his honoring? Part of history in a way—baseball history, the history of Seattle. It's huge.

It is huge. And I think, honestly, it's still sinking in. It's extremely humbling. It's crazy that the song has reached the level it's reached. I really have to give props to the Mariners. Today I was looking back and reading some comments in newspapers—there was a poll in the Seattle Times asking what the worst part of the game was, my performance or the final score of the game, and some other stuff. I was in second place for the worst part of the game. I'm like, "Damn!" People don't like rap music, and you can't take that personally. People don't respect the genre of rap music. It wasn't a hiphop crowd, and the fact that the Mariners put me out there to represent Dave and to represent the team and to represent the city was big on their part, in terms of trusting what we would bring to the performance. It's going to take organizations like the Mariners and other organizations where you have a bunch of different types of people coming together like that. There were a bunch of people there who had heard the song before and resonated with it. And there were also a bunch of people there who hadn't heard it. And even if they aren't big hiphop fans but they leave and they think, "That was fresh. That was a good tribute," and they had a positive experience with it, well, that's because of the Mariners. And there may be repercussions. They might catch flack from some people for having me out there being a part of this. The fact that they were willing to take that risk and have me perform means a lot to me. And just to be on that platform—who knows if I'll ever get to play in front of 40,000 people like that again. Probably not, so I give it up to the Mariners for letting me partake. It was for Dave. I wanted to do my best for him and what he has meant to everyone.

I don't know—at the rate you're going, you'll be in front of that many people again in no time.

We'll see, I guess.

Were you more nervous for Safeco Field, as opposed to your Showbox shows?

There was so much hype with this. I think I got around 800 to 1,000 tweets about it the day of, and people being excited about it. But in terms of me walking out onto the field, I was actually less nervous than for those shows at the Showbox. It seemed so impersonal, to be in front of 40,000 people. Hard to connect. But for a show, the people are right there by the stage and there's a personal element and you have to be engaging. There, it was like I was in my own bubble.

For the performance, you were on a tarp of some sort. I was thinking you were going to be jumping around the infield. Did they tell you, "You may not touch the actual grass"?

I wanted to jump around, but I had the feeling I would have been tackled by security. Also, this was a tribute to Dave; it wasn't about me. If it had been my show, under different circumstances, in front of that many people, I would have done some crazy stuff, and wiled out. I would have been running the bases; I would have picked up third base and thrown it; I would have slid home. You know, insanely stupid stuff like that, and probably been banned from Safeco Field for life. But this was for Dave, and I wanted to respect that.

Did you get the chills during the performance? Did you hear Dave in your head?

At the end, yes. When the Garfield High Marching Band drummers came out, and the big toms hit, and I'm going in on the third verse, I definitely felt goose bumps. When I finished, I took the in-ears out so I could hear the crowd and wanted to soak it in. Then we filed off and got to stand and watch Dave's wife, Marilyn, throw out the first pitch. We awkwardly stood there for a bit watching, wondering how long they were going to let us stay. Then the umps came out and that was it.

Tell me you met the Moose.

I did. We had an awkward handshake. We missed daps, trying to give five. He had no idea where my hand was.

How did this all come about—you doing this song and being part of the tribute? You first performed the song at Tendai's For the Love of Music benefit right?

I had heard that Dave passed away while on tour. I was in Colorado and was pretty torn up by it, in terms of someone I had never met passing away. I don't really get emotional about celebrities dying. I mean, I'll be sad if it was someone I liked a lot. But Dave, and this, this was something different. I felt like I knew him, even though I didn't. He was a huge part of my childhood. A huge part of my memories of growing up in Seattle as a kid. I was feeling a strong emotion, and I wanted to put it down on paper. I didn't set out to write a tribute song to Dave Niehaus. I didn't set out to write a song at all. I was just putting my emotions onto paper. Like writing often times is therapy. Getting it out. And it turned into enough material where I thought it would be awesome to make Dave a song. I actually wrote it to a piano loop. So there was a little bit of a song element from the start. There was this piano loop that my friend Noah Goldberg had written, so I was writing to that, and then we turned it into a production. We took it into Orbit Audio in Pioneer Square. They have a nice grand piano there.

How did it get to the Mariners? Did they hear it and contact you, or did you send it to them?

We were in contact with them because we didn't want to get sued. We were using Dave's voice in there, and we were thinking we would get sued without permission. We shot a quick video for it, which turned into kind of a thing. There were like a 100,000 hits in two or three days. It was getting blogged like crazy, locally and nationally. More than anything we had ever put out. XXL picked it up. We thought of it as being just a local thing, which I think it is. But it does speak to people on the nostalgic, sentimental, baseball, growing-up, childhood tip. So we were in contact with them, trying to see what their general reaction was. We wanted to actually film the video in Safeco, and maybe it could have happened, but it was just going to take too long to get permission. It wasn't until the video came out and started getting all the press that they started returning our phone calls. That and the diligence of the fans hitting up the Mariners, telling them that we have to perform it opening day.

It makes sense in multiple ways to have had you perform this song for the tribute on opening day.

A guy in the Mariners organization, Gregg Greene, had a lot to do with it. And a kid, Carston, who's kind of a promoter at WSU, who made the last call. He's a liaison at the college there. He was persistent. He hit them up at the right time, and they had a meeting with us where we got to tell them we wanted to do it and ask them what they thought. That meeting was crazy. It was Ryan and I, Gregg Greene, and one other person at a huge Mariners conference table, straight out of a movie, talking about ideas for what could happen. They gave us Mariners coffee mugs, gave us a tour, and showed us the field. It was crazy. They said they were interested and needed to do some talking amongst themselves; within a week we locked it down.

You're in some good company there as far as musicians who perform for baseball's opening day. Death Cab for Cutie last year, the Grateful Dead with the San Francisco Giants. It's such an iconic nationwide event. You've done it. It's over now. What does it make you want to do? Besides play for the Mariners. Or the AquaSox, more realistically.

Yeah, AquaSox are more realistic for me. Man, I don't really know yet. It was definitely an affirming moment. One of the coolest things, I think, is that it's one step closer for the Seattle hiphop community to be recognized as something legitimate in Seattle. It's slowly been happening. It's taken a long time for it to be considered real music, and I think that's what yesterday did, was put Seattle hiphop on a pedestal it has never been on before in front of that many people, by an organization like the Mariners. That's what's filthy about it to me.

You are ready to play ball. You've got your uniform. You've got your protective cupping in, I'm sure. Even for this signing here today, you had the cup on.

Always. Never can be too protected. You never know when you're going to catch a foul ball in the wrong spot. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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