How to Become a Rap Star on the Internet: The Rise of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

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Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's  super-catchy track "Thrift Shop" went viral this summer, rising to No. 82 on YouTube's top 100 (just ahead of Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass"), thanks in part to the slick and highly entertaining music video below. The lyrics (packed with expletives) celebrate looking good and saving money -- true recession-era values. 

In his in-depth documentary portrait of the Seattle rapper, né Ben Haggerty, and his producer/director Lewis, Jabari Johnson reveals how the same principles shape everything the creative team does. In one telling exchange, Johnson sees Macklemore loading his own rented U-Haul truck during the "Thrift Shop" shoot and asks, "do you ever think, If I was on a label, I wouldn't have to do all this?" "Absolutely!" Macklemore says, but at the end of the day, creative control is worth more than a $30,000 budget and hired drivers. "I'd just rather do it." 

Like many hip hop stories, the documentary chronicles the rise of a hard-working underdog and the complexities of fame, money, and creative genius. Macklemore and Lewis, though, represent a new wave of independent artists that have succeeded by selling music and merch directly to fans, without the backing of a big label or a major marketing push -- a class of creatives powered by YouTube, iTunes, Kickstarter, and social media. Their latest album "The Heist" shot to the top of iTunes and their music video for "Same Love," in support of marriage equality, went viral on YouTube last month with more than 5 million views. They performed it on Ellen. Johnson explained his goals in making the documentary in an email:  

What inspired me to do the doc was seeing Macklemore and Ryan's work ethic. I've known the guys for a few years now and they have not let their lack of mainstream attention deter them from their goal. They focused so much on their art and not on publicity that the later finally ended up coming naturally. To me they are true artists who have a hand in every aspect of their art. They were the perfect fit for my documentary series Jabari Presents. I'm trying to inspire youth culture to chase their dreams by telling the stories of people who are living theirs.

For more work from Jabari Johnson, visit http://www.iamjabari.com/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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