Zach Quillen will never forget the first time he met an up and coming Seattle rapper who went by the name Macklemore. After all, it’s not often you run into a guy wearing a full-length fur coat.
“I mean my first reaction was, who is this guy? He stood out to me for sure,” Quillen said during an extended conversation with Shawn Stewart and me on Seattle Sounds.
At the time, Quillen had been booking Seattle hip-hop greats Blue Scholars. And after he got around to actually listening to the music of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, he was hooked.
“It’s what drew me in. There was something unique happening with them. I mean their whole presentation was unique to me.”
That was about four years ago. And Quillen quickly got to work. Their strategy was simple. They would expose Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to as many people as possible through touring, YouTube, and social media.
Quillen booked a national tour, craftily putting the duo only in smaller venues they thought they could sell out to help build a buzz.
“Selling out a show, even if it’s a small show, is a statement to people and it means something to people. So it was always a goal of ours to create as many of those moments in as many of those places as we could.”
It didn’t take long for Quillen to realize they were on to something, even if it would be several years before things really broke big.
“That was a big part of it for me, seeing him perform in New York City, seeing him perform in Boston and realizing that even if there were 200 to 300 kids, that a connection had been made and it wasn’t just the Northwest.”
Those 200 to 300 kids turned into thousands, then millions with the smash success of “The Heist,” the self-produced debut album from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
The album debuted at No. 1 on iTunes charts and soared to the top of the Billboard charts, spawning two No.1 hit singles – “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.”
While Quillen had an inkling the album would do well, he could never imagine what was to come. With the success, came a tsunami as everyone from Saturday Night Live to the Grammys clamored to get Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their stage.
“To say it’s a whirlwind is an understatement,” he laughed.
With no playbook to follow, he admitted he’s “relied a lot on his gut.” But a key was keeping his ego in check, asking for help and relying on the advice of others he trusted in the business to help make sound decisions.
“I won’t lie. There’s a bit of guess work that happens when things are moving this quickly,” he said.
There’s no guess work when it comes to Macklemore and Lewis’ talent and drive. The duo spent three years crafting “The Heist” before finally releasing it.
“The main thing they have in common is they are insane perfectionists,” Quillen said.
“Whatever you put in front of them, they’re going to work at it until they feel like it’s as good as it can be.”
And they’re all learning as they go. Quillen admitted if they had it to do all over again, they’d probably book a few less shows and give themselves a chance to catch their breaths. But without a crystal ball, there was no way to predict such massive success all over the world. And every day brings a new offer, and a new challenge.
“With something that grows this fast, let’s say three months ago an opportunity that came in that we would have taken off our clothes and run down the street to get, is now something that we have to pass on because there just isn’t enough time in the day.”
The ride isn’t expected to slow any time soon. Quillen said after returning from a European tour, the group plans a headlining arena tour across North America with several shows in Seattle (dates to be determined soon.)
Listen to the podcast for more with Quillen, including the inside scoop on the making of the epic, globe-spanning video for “Can’t Hold Us,” the role of collaborators like Wanz, Mary Lambert and Ray Dalton, and the real genius of Ryan Lewis.