I’ll just come out and say it: I like Macklemore. Yes, he’s kind of goofy, but he’s also genuinely enjoyable and funny, something that you rarely find outside of novelty music, and he has incredible breadth as an artist to be able to make something as unabashedly silly as “Thrift Shop” and something as honest and personal as “Starting Over.”
Like most people, I got into Macklemore when The Heist got popular, but I was surprised to discover that I actually already owned a song featuring Macklemore: “Tommy Chong,” off the Blue Scholars’ album Cinemetropolis*.
The Blue Scholars are a rap duo from Seattle with an unusual career trajectory: They were studying engineering at the University of Washington before they quit to make music instead. Overall, it’s not surprising that they and Macklemore knew each other, since the Seattle rap scene isn’t exactly huge, but there are a lot of similarities between the two artists that make me wonder how much they collaborated in their early days. Both are lyrically rich, topical, and often political, with the Blue Scholars tending to be more, well, scholarly and Macklemore focusing more on the personal. Themes that they share include:
- Humility: Far from typical rap boasting, both artists speak humbly about their lives and their accomplishments in their lyrics. There’s “Thrift Shop,” obviously; the Blue Scholars’ song “Ordinary Guys” says “Got holes in the soles of a third of my socks” and “Finally got a comma in my bank account balance.”
- Critique of rap culture: Both artists openly criticize the negative aspects of rap culture. In “Otherside,” Macklemore points out “The fact of it is most people that rap like this talking about some shit they haven’t lived,” while (again in “Ordinary Guys,”) the Blue Scholars criticize rap’s materialism: “There’s no use, just sitting asking why these ballers/Rock chains like a ball and chain just to stay fly.”
- Race issues: The Blue Scholars, who are Filipino-American and Iranian-American, often sing about race politics, such as in “Opening Salvo”: “It’s not right how they martyr our leaders and target our children/Disrespect the sisters and wonder why we militant.” In “A Wake,” Macklemore shows concern about racism and his own privilege: “Fighting for a freedom that my people stole/Don’t wanna make all my white fans uncomfortable/But you don’t even have a fuckin’ song for radio/Why you out here talkin’ race, tryin’ to save the fuckin’ globe.”
- Liberal politics: Many musicians, of course, are liberal and have songs with progressive lyrics, but I think Macklemore and the Blue Scholars are unusual in their specificity. Macklemore mentions Trayvon Martin by name in “A Wake” and wrote “Same Love” in support of Washington’s Referendum 74. Among many other political songs, the Blue Scholars’ “50K Deep” is a recounting of the 1999 WTO riots.
- Seattle: Both artists stay true to their roots and often reference places and things from the Pacific Northwest. Macklemore sings “sounds of the city on Capitol Hill” in “Cowboy Boots” and has performed in a Sonics jersey; the Blue Scholars’ song “Joe Metro” is a detailed account of riding the bus through the city.
- 90’s culture: The similarity of their backgrounds is apparent in their parallel accounts of growing up, Macklemore’s “Crew Cuts” and the Blue Scholars’ “Morning of America,” both full of references immediately recognizable to any child of the 90’s, from bowl cuts to Super Mario Brothers 2. Macklemore discusses one of the most prevalent brands of the 90’s, Nike, and its influence in “Wings.”
The two artists collaborated again when Sabzi of the Blue Scholars remixed Macklemore’s song “The Town,” lending it a sound similar to the music of Cinemetropolis.
Macklemore has rocketed to popularity since he appeared in “Tommy Chong,” but the Blue Scholars remain unjustly obscure outside their hometown. Will they collaborate further in the future, and will Macklemore help bring the Blue Scholars into the spotlight? We can only hope.
*There’s a clever subtlety here: After the Blue Scholars have been singing mainly about the positive aspects of marijuana, Macklemore, who famously got sober after struggling with addiction, comes on to caution the listener about the potential negative effects.