Taking Us All Downtown: Macklemore’s Hip Hop History Lesson

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It’s not going well if Macklemore starts to feel like a best case scenario. That’s how it looked when 2015 started. After Macklemore swept the country as an independent rap sensation, the rising backlash against his cultural presence came to an eruption after he won the Best Rap Album Grammy over rap titans Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West (even I had something to say). Right after the Grammys he went into hiding; no more music, no more videos, no more performances. In his stead there was now a Post-Mackled world. There was Iggy Azalea, G-Eazy, and other white rappers that were pushed on us after Macklemore proved successful at being, as Kris Ex says in Macklemore’s return Complex cover, “the first rapper to dominate the commercial sphere by speaking from a purely white gaze.” At least Macklemore had something to say, seemed concerned by his white privilege and his distant relationship with rap’s core fanbase. But his comeback’s queasy attempt to pay homage to hip hop’s golden era proves he’s just as clueless as the rest of the record industry and that he hasn’t learned anything from his Grammy debacle.

At first he seemed harmless enough. His first comeback song landed with a thud. “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song)” carries all the same detritus that dragged his previous work. Sappy overwrought production courtesy of equal partner Ryan Lewis, banal cliched lyrics from Macklemore, and a feature from Ed Sheeran to symbolize the vanilla coating on Macklemore’s flavor. After a tepid response, it looked like maybe Macklemania was over. But “Growing Up” was only testing the waters; Macklemore had his big radio single waiting in the wings. “Downtown” hits all the marks of his previous massive singles: big soaring chorus, expensive goofy video, an innocuous inclusivity aimed at liberal America.

“Downtown” comes with some important distinctions that separate it from his previous massive singles “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” The silly concept of the video (a moped gang fight a la West Side Story) acts as a tribute to the old school park jams of Hip Hop’s birth. There’s the sparse breakbeat that’s the backbone of the song, the crew posturing in the video, the song title that recalls the downtown/uptown divide of New York in Hip Hop’s early years, but most notably there are the three features from OG legends: Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel. “Downtown” is a clear attempt by Macklemore to prove his Hip Hop bonafides. Even the most cynical critiques can’t take away the fact that three of the most important, most underappreciated legends in the game are on a pop song in 2015. Maybe the song really was made with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Downtown” is exactly the type of cultural carpetbagging that those old school rappers were afraid of in the first place.

If this is Macklemore’s response to the racial critiques of his victory lap, then it’s also indicative of why he received those critiques in the first place. His absurdist moped gangland fantasy infantilizes the genre that it uses as inspiration. Instead of reveling in the complexities that made Hip Hop special or acknowledging the unjust conditions that caused black kids in New York to create this new music, he takes only the fun parts and incorporates it into his white world. His split between serious “important” songs and fun “party” songs isn’t Hip Hop; the mixture of the two is the dynamic heart of the whole genre.

Even though he’s using hip hop’s glory days for self serving purposes, the action of putting those legends on the song would speak louder than anything. But if anything Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel are left in the dust on “Downtown,” reduced to nameless black men that form Macklemore’s posse in the background. Their moments in the song are all rapped together in a generic old school style, with no distinction between them. Even the video, while it throws their names on a marquee, makes no attempt to identify these legends that Macklemore is using for his own street cred, and rest assured his fanbase watching the video doesn’t know either. References are embedded within hip hop, with rappers shouting out influences or paying respect to history through more subtle ways. Macklemore’s failure to do that is a damning silence.

“Downtown” specializes in the smug, self-serving condescension that Macklemore has perfected. Once again, his attempt to join in the culture actually further serves to divide it further. His response to the cultural and racial appropriation critiques that have been leveled at him is basically “I know more about hip hop more than anyone else does.” Even more sinisterly, he’s claiming that he knows more about REAL hip hop than anybody else. For all of his grandstanding about white privilege, Macklemore still doesn’t know the one rule about being a white ally: cede the mic and let other voices be heard. Now, Melle Mel and others have called out current rap stars like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar for not being true to the culture, as if their ambitious musical work pushing for civil rights and black pride is less important to Hip Hop than Macklemore’s moped. Rap music has always been about innovation and the future. It makes sense that the harbinger of the white takeover of the genre would also be the one to musically commercialize its past.

“Downtown” did not do nearly as well as his older songs. It topped out at #6 on the Hip Hop/R&B chart and failed to crack the top ten on the Hot 100 (peaking at #12). Maybe it’s a sign that Macklemore fatigue really has set in, or maybe it’s that his fanbase does not care about these 50 year old rappers he put on the track. But just because he doesn’t explain who they are doesn’t mean they have to stay in anonymity.

Kool Moe Dee, one third of the Treacherous Three before a successful solo career, is most known for inventing battle rap as we know it. In his live battle with party rapper Busy Bee Starski in 1981, he focused his rhymes not on rocking the crowd but on shaming his opponent. A whole new aspect of rapping was born.

Grandmaster Caz was a member of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the most popular live rap acts in the early days. His greatest accomplishment isn’t even credited to him. His manager Big Bank Hank stole Caz’s rhymes for his verse on the first hip hop song to break nationally, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.

Melle Mel probably held the crown for best rapper alive before the Def Jam era. The lead MC for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel was the voice behind one of the greatest and most important rap songs ever made. “The Message” is a six minute tour de force rapped entirely by Melle Mel, starting political rap and pushing the genre into more conscious territory. Plus it bangs.

All of this material is more satisfying than “Downtown.” Hopefully they won’t be replaced by it.