Ben Haggerty begins his days with thirty minutes of deep meditation. This is how he finds his equilibrium, a place he can create from. It wasn’t always like this, he says while sitting in the reading loft above Caffé Vita’s main coffeehouse in mid-November. The twenty-seven-year-old emcee better known as Macklemore is laying out his spiritual belief system. “It’s retraining the mind to not react to craving,” he says. “To be balanced, neutral.” This is the philosophy of Vipassana, the challenging ten-day silent meditation he has just completed at the Dhamma Kuñja, a meditation center in rural western Washington. Haggerty’s practice of Vipassana, along with his study of the Ba’hai faith, has taught him to avoid the traps that he says have caused him great misery in the past: craving, aversion and ignorance.
Photo by Andrew Waits.
Haggerty is looking forward to the release of his album VS., which features his first new music in almost four years — nearly a lifetime in the fast-paced and often unforgiving music industry. Within Seattle’s hip hop scene, the record, a collaboration with up-and-coming producer Ryan Lewis, is one of the most highly anticipated projects of the year. With the release date looming and work still to be done on the project, Haggerty seems distracted. He checks his phone often, explaining that he is expecting a message from P Smoov, a local producer with whom he recorded a verse for a remix just this morning. “I don’t know how I feel about it,” he says, looking at his phone. “I don’t even know if he’ll like it.”
This type of anxiety is nothing new for Haggerty. In 2004, as a young emcee, he released his first single, called “Welcome to MySpace,” a song about his need for validation and the rapidly growing social networking site that provided it. That time, he didn’t have to wait long for approval. Seeing the opportunity for endorsement, Haggerty sent a copy of the song to Tom Anderson, the acting president and operator of MySpace, who in turn sent it to nearly everyone on his voluminous contact list. Haggerty awoke the next morning to find between ten and twenty thousand messages regarding the song in his inbox, and he was a featured artist on the site’s front page for a solid week. “I didn’t know how to take it. People talk about overnight success, and that could take like three months or six months or whatever, but this was literally like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
He recalls the attention becoming inescapable. “It was weird,” he says. “People started treating me different; people were calling me that I hadn’t heard from for years. It was strange, but it was great; it really gave me that confidence that people like my music.”
Haggerty found himself in a unique position; not only did he have an eager fan base, but people were actually preordering an album he hadn’t even finished yet. He was high on the success. As the attention mounted, however, so did the tension, and he started to slip. He partied hard, to the point that his friend Budo, the project’s primary producer, had to work overtime to keep the momentum going. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if it would have gotten done,” Haggerty says.
In 2005 the two finally released Macklemore’s debut album, The Language of My World, which met with overwhelming praise. Solid album sales — around seven thousand units — and a subsequent feverish year of touring only cemented the duo’s status on the indie-rap radar. To Haggerty, the culmination of their success was their performance at Bumbershoot the next year. “After I did my set and saw all the kids that knew all the words and everything, that’s when the ego changed,” he recalls. “Something shifted there, and I started looking at myself in a different way. It kind of fucked me up.” It was at that point that Haggerty says he lost touch with the humility that was once such an integral part of his personality. “I didn’t know about remaining humble,” he explains. “I did at one point in my life before that, but I kind of forgot about it. I started making music for the wrong reasons, I started writing for the wrong reasons. I started looking for attention for the wrong reasons.”
When the touring slowed down, Budo came away from it inspired by the duo’s success and went right back to work. “I think we both had the expectation that we would make another record,” says Haggerty, “but I was getting fucked up.” Although the two were living together at the time, the arrangement turned out to be far from productive, as Haggerty’s using was spiraling out of control. “I just wasn’t pleasant to live with, or to be around,” he says. “I wasn’t a contributing member of that household in any way. Our relationship went through some ups and downs for sure.” He did make some music, but in relative isolation, and even the beats given to him by his own roommate rarely made it back across the hall. “Something shifted in both of us, in our music and our lives, that pushed us apart,” says Budo.
Over the next year, Budo kept working on his music, continuing a creative ascent that would find his beats featured on a multitude of influential albums by the likes of Grieves and A.R.M., as well as the most recent Definitive Jux compilation. Haggerty sank into a deep isolation, distancing himself from his friends, his family and his music. He fell under the spell of a number of different substances from pills to cough syrup, faking cold symptoms to get prescriptions, and drinking heavily when he did make it out of the house and into the high-energy swarm in Capitol Hill. Smoking weed became as natural as breathing. At that point, he says, he really started “blowing it.” He missed family events, shows, even entire festivals, and was losing more money than he was making.
Haggerty recalls one instance in particular when he actually managed to keep an engagement. He was asked to co-host KEXP’s Street Sounds on a Sunday evening. He showed up, but he was in bad shape. “I had been partying hard all weekend, and I showed up way late,” he remembers. It came to be his turn to get behind the mic and freestyle, but when the beat cut out, he lost his wits, and what he was able to spit came out as a jumbled stream of disjointed thoughts. A close friend who was listening that night called him later and told him he had sounded horrible on the radio. “It was really embarrassing,” Haggerty recalls, though the experience did not end his slide.
At one point, Haggerty was prescribed a moderate dose of Percocet following an injury. After the prescription expired, he called a friend who sold drugs and told him he was trying to get his hands on more of the painkiller. Since Percocet was only a minimally popular drug and hard to get a line on, his friend recommended OxyContin, which, like Percocet, contained the substance oxycodon but was up to fifteen times as potent. Haggerty initially refused to risk the higher dosage. Then desperation took hold, and he agreed to take the pills.
Haggerty hit bottom on a sunny day in the summer of 2007. After a frustrating recording session, Haggerty left the studio and stood outside in the warm sunshine. With the steely hands of withdrawal tightening their grip on his body, he sank to the curb and buried his head in his hands. He sat like this for the better part of an hour. As the tears washed over him, he realized that the substances he depended on had finally stripped any sort of happiness from his being. “I couldn’t remember what it was to be happy,” he remembers thinking. “I couldn’t believe I’d let it get like that.”
Understanding that he needed to rid himself of the opiates that were causing his growing physical and emotional withdrawals, Haggerty willed himself through several days of intense detox. “I was sweating through the sheets at night, really nauseous, waking up in the morning and falling over, passing out. It was pretty serious.” When he finished, the opiates were gone; however he was still hooked on a number of different substances that were severely clouding his mind. He began a pattern in which he would stay clean for a week or a month at a time, occasionally recording music, but would always fall into the same traps in the end. Craving, aversion, ignorance. After Haggerty suffered yet another relapse in August of 2008, his father, who had watched him try and fail time and again, finally approached him. Haggerty’s father told him it was time to get help. Reluctantly, Haggerty listened to his father’s advice.
“Treatment was like a reality TV show,” he remembers, “but it gave me the tools I didn’t have prior to going that helped me stay sober.” A key factor to achieving his sobriety was rediscovering his faith after having checked into treatment “spiritually bankrupt.” His sponsor during his stay, a devout Buddhist, invited Haggerty to his temple for healing. It was during a walking meditation ritual that he finally reached a moment of clarity that restored a long-absent purpose to his life. “People were chanting and doing mantras, it was beautiful. I remembered what it was like to be connected, to have a faith and connection to God, and know that it’s bigger than me. I remembered everything that I had forgotten.” Once again he was able to smile.
Almost a year and a half has passed since Haggerty’s eyes were reopened at the temple. In that time he has been able to maintain a clear mind even in the midst of temptation. “If I couldn’t be around [the temptation], I couldn’t perform,” he says, and he feels that performing is essential to his new role in the world. For Haggerty, sharing his journey with his fans is the culmination of his efforts. To capture this sentiment, he posted this statement on his blog just before his most recent Vipassana session:
If I’m not connected to God, there is no music. If I’m not making music, I’m not being of service (to my utmost potential). If I’m not being of service, I will never know God. If I never know God, I am not fulfilling my purpose on this earth. If I’m purposeless there’s no reason for me to be here…and I’m just wasting a perfectly good Twitter username that someone else could have.
Haggerty has tried to minimize his time on sites like Twitter, MySpace and even his own blog, as they were once one of his biggest vices. Instead, he has been working with people in person more often. “It really helps remind me how lucky I am, and that people still want to hear my music.”
Unlike his old material, which was often tinged with self-doubt and regret, the VS. album is filled with post-traumatic insight and bittersweet ballads that look at the artist’s struggles through the past few years with a clear eye. Although Haggerty has clearly poured his soul into the project, the lessons he has learned from his spiritual ventures have taught him to remain humble. “I don’t know what the reaction is going to be to this new music,” he says, “and it’s not really my business what other people think of it.”
Sitting in the coffee shop, Haggerty sums up his past. “I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because it’s got me here, and it’s got me to a place where I’ve connected with God and it all makes sense.” He looks at his phone. “But a lot of the doors are closing.” Haggerty has just gotten a message from P Smoov saying he liked the verse. A satisfied look washes over Haggerty’s face — but only momentarily. He breathes deeply, saying he can’t let even small things like this go to his head; he must stay within himself. He gets up to leave for a video shoot. I reach to shake his hand, but before I can thank him for the interview, he thanks me for listening.