Music Heals: Macklemore Talks About the Struggles of Addiction and Starting Over

Interviews, Music Heals
Macklemore & KEXP's DJ Kevin Cole, 2010 // photo by Alex Crick

That rush, that drug, that dope
Those pills, that crumb, that roach
Thinking I would never do that, not that drug
And growing up nobody ever does
Until you're stuck, looking in the mirror like I can't believe what I've become.

— "Otherside" 

Macklemore's descent through addiction, recovery, and relapse has always been well documented in his songs. In this exclusive interview, as part of KEXP's Music Heals series, DJ Kevin Cole talks with the multiple-Grammy award winning artist about his experience with addiction. 

Kevin: Can you start by telling me about your personal experience with addiction. 

Macklemore: Absolutely, yeah. I have one of those experiences with addiction — or I had one of those experiences with addiction — that started from the very first time that I ever took a drink. I never had moderation. I couldn't get enough every time that I drank or used drugs. That started at the age of 14 and I haven't looked back since. I've never been able to revert to some sort of social drinker or drug user. Because I couldn't stop, it had a drastic negative impact on my life from a very early age. I was kind of an across-the-board B-student — started doing drugs and alcohol and immediately almost got kicked out of Garfield High School because of my grades. Relationship with my parents was very broken when I was using.

And this went on for a long time. It was something that came in and out of my life because I would try to quit and I would always go back. And it wasn't until 2008 that I first went to treatment for the first time. My dad approached me and asked me a very simple question: "Are you happy?" And I was able to reflect for a little bit, was defensive at first, and then he brought up, "You know, I think you should get treatment." I wanted to think that I could do it on my own. I wanted to think that I could white-knuckle it and just stop. At that point, I had had over a decade of trying the same pattern, the insanity of thinking that I can just do this on my own. It wasn't until I went to rehab that I got the tools and opened up to a world of recovery that I didn't know existed. Opened up to a community of people that share the same disease that I have. They were going through the same struggles. You know, I wish that I could say that that was the last time I took a drink or used a drug but, um, it's not. I've been in and out of the realms of recovery. I've struggled with addiction. I will continue to struggle with addiction in some facet for the rest of my life.  It's something that for me, requires daily maintenance and the recovery community to really beat one day at a time. That's what I'm trying to do today: just show up, tap in, and get through the day and live the honest rigorous program and a lifestyle that reflects my greatest potential and that's in sobriety and recovery. 

When you talk about working to maintain that sobriety on a day-to-day basis, what are the tools that you use?

For me, turning my will over to a power greater than myself. A huge part of that comes with service work, it comes from going to 12-step-meetings, and it comes from working the steps in those 12-step-meetings — showing up for other alcoholics, being engaged, getting on the phone with someone that's struggling and going out to coffee, going to those meetings where I share my experience, strength, and hope, and I get to hear somebody else's. That is really the cornerstone of my recovery. And then continuing to just work it myself, holistically. Am I doing all the things that are going to be advantageous in my mental health today? Am I getting exercise? Am I eating healthy? Am I making music that is feeding my soul? All of those things also contribute to my recovery.

When your dad asked you if you were happy — first of all, that's a great approach to take — had you been openly sharing your sorrows with him?

No, not at all. I'd been hiding forever. As an addict — speaking for myself — I think being fully honest is very difficult. I think there are moments of "You know what, I surrender." And he caught me in one of those moments. He knew that I was struggling and he knew that I was going back and forth. He could tell. All of a sudden, I'm picking up the phone again. Now, all of a sudden, I'm showing up to dinner and I can have a conversation. And then vice versa. All of a sudden, I disappear. All of a sudden, I can't look anybody in the eye. All of a sudden, I don't show up to Thanksgiving on time. I'm a completely different person when I'm sober and in recovery and when I'm in active addiction.

Performing at SMooCH 2013 // photo by Dave Lichterman


Was there a lot of fear in taking that next step? How do you overcome that fear? 

Absolutely. To become reliant on a drink or a drug is a scary thing. When you know "I need this in order to function" and to think about the notion that that could be taken away from you. For me, it came down to this notion of one day at a time. I don't need to think about, "Oh, I'm never going to be able to take a drink again." "When I get married, I'm never going to be able to have a drink." "When I get a promotion, I'll never be able to drink, or I'll never be able to smoke weed" and never be able to do that, a little. Those thoughts, that exist in the future, lead people back to drinking or using drugs. It comes back to, "OK, you know today is Friday. I can get through this, just for today." It is so much more manageable to think about, "OK, what are the steps that I have in front of me today?" versus down the line next week or six months or a year from now. Today I know that it is manageable for me to remain sober. I know that that's possible.

What are some of the myths around addiction that need to be dispelled? 

I think the biggest one is that it's a choice. It was something that was in me from the very start. For some people, it's not. Some people, it develops over time. There's this myth that "Oh, they know the harm that they are causing themselves and their loved ones. They should just stop." It's just that easy, it's their choice. And yes, it's not completely like "oh, it's out of my control. It's completely removed from me." But when you have that voice inside of you, screaming at you, that's a very different voice than I think most normal people have. I think that's the biggest one in terms of the myth. There's the myth of, "addicts are bad people". That's not the case at all. Addicts are some of the most sensitive, loving, caring people that I know, with the biggest hearts that have been to really dark places. They share that they have a struggle that is unique and that once they pick up they can't stop.

At House of Blues Chicago 2013 // photo by Dave Lichterman


Do you think artists or musicians are more predisposed to being addicts? 

I know a lot of people that struggle that are creative people. I do think there is something there, but I think human beings in general, we use in excess, and it's all across the board and we become addicted. We have a culture, that is escapism. Tap out, use these apps on your phone for six hours a day. Don't deal with reality. Here's a pill for every single thing that we could possibly conjure up. Take it. If you need more, come back we'll give you more of a prescription. Alcohol is obviously rampant in America. A plethora of other drugs — you know, the legalization of marijuana, which I believe is a great thing. But I drive to the Central District and other areas, and there's the weed shop on the corner. If I was in active addiction or even thinking about it, that would be challenging for me. What I'm saying is that it's everywhere.  It's difficult to not tap into that culture. We're all a part of it. But I do think musicians have something in them that lends itself to what I want to escape right now.

As a musician, to what extent has your music been a form of therapy for you?

Music has been huge. Without it, I don't know if I would be here. For me, Kevin, what it has done is, it has given me, not only an outlet but it has given me a benchmark. It's given me a reference point. If I want to make music — the thing that I love the most — if I want to do that, then I have to be sober. When I'm not sober, my music is horrible. It doesn't work for me. And that was the greatest gift, the fact that I couldn't be creative — truly creative. I can go in and do a show or, you know, freestyle, but to really be creative, to write something, I have to be in my right mind, because it comes with something bigger than myself. If I was one of those artists that had the experience of, "you know, I make great music when I'm loaded," — I would be a lot more tempted to do it. But I just don't. I just don't. And that has been the greatest gift for me. I can clearly see, once I start using, that music doesn't become a priority anymore. Getting high takes over. 

I think that is one of the myths to be dispelled as well, perhaps — that somehow using drugs and alcohol is a gateway to creativity.

It hasn't been for me, whatsoever. When I get sober something magical happens again. You had that like, "Oh I'm back." I can dream again, I have thoughts, I have emotions, I can feel my heart — those things go away in active addiction. Yeah, I think having a creative outlet — physical outlet, whatever outlet it is but something that separates you from, maybe your job if your job isn't your passion. I think that's super important. That love for life and that feeling of "You know, I'm here for a reason." 

In the song "Starting Over" on The Heist, you openly discuss relapse: the struggle, the shame, the guilt, the pain of disappointing family and friends and fans. There's a great line: "But I'd rather live telling the truth and be judged for my mistakes / Than falsely held up, given props, loved and praised." I've got to thank you for being so honest about that. In the song, you talk about the struggle of actually opening up about that but it's something people need to hear. It's a part of the recovery process. 

It is. It is. It's been mine. Relapse has definitely been a part of my story. If I don't work a rigorous program then eventually I will go back. Eventually, self-hatred will seep in. Eventually self-seeking and selfishness seep in. That's when a drink or a drug sounds like the best idea. It's happened time and time again with me. And I know that I don't get to some "graduation" point in recovery. I don't get to a point where I'm, "Oh I have double-digit years and everything is all good and I've done so well the past decade, I can slack off on this." This is a daily maintenance type of thing. I can get giving less than 100 percent for a day or two, or maybe even a week or two weeks, but eventually, that addict inside of my brain starts getting stronger and I start thinking, "You know what? I want to get high." And that's when the relapse comes.

What do you think addicts need and what can friends and family give addicts? 

I think so much of the time as addicts, we think we can stop ourselves, to do it on our own. "On Monday, I'm going to stop drinking and using drugs." I have had so many Mondays. It didn't turn into the Monday that I promised myself during the weekend. For me — and with so many people who I know that are in recovery that are addicts — getting help is so important. Getting the tools and the resources that are out there and becoming an active member of the recovery community. There's no other experience like one addict to another saying what they're going through. There's something magical in that. There's a connection that, "I'm understood." This person knows exactly what I'm talking about. We relate to each other. Through that addict-to-addict, that is how programs of recovery have flourished. Billions of people in recovery, in the rooms of a 12-step-program, has happened. It works for a reason because we relate to each other. I can't go and have a conversation about addiction in the same way if that person doesn't know what I'm talking about. If that person doesn't know that voice, and what that voice sounds like in my head that I'm describing, it doesn't work the same way. So, I think having a recovery can be super important.

I think going to rehab was the best decision that I've ever made. That surrender moment with my dad was the best moment. And I put everything on that. You know, I put my career on that. Without that moment, Kevin, you wouldn't even know who I am. I would've never got my music out there. Obviously, we have these expenses. That's the problem with it. There's detox, and there are different ways to get funding for rehab, but it's challenging. If you can go to rehab, figure out a way to get in, to get it paid for, you can pay for it yourself. That's amazing. To have 30 days where you're under their watch, where you're eating food and sleeping in a bed. And just reminded of having a schedule. We get off track and forget to shower, and to eat, and to take care of ourselves. To have somebody overlooking that is really important in the first 30 days. If you can't do that, I think going to a 12-step-meeting, telling the truth, telling on yourself, letting people know in those meetings — whether it's AA or NA or any of the other "A"s. You know, "This is what I'm struggling with. I need help." There will be a dozen people after the meeting that are ready to help you and make sure that you're taken care of. 

Macklemore, DJ Kevin Cole, Ryan Lewis, 2011 // photo by Nate Watters


What kind of advice do you have for non-addicts who see someone they love struggling?

It's tough. If you have a feeling that something's not right, if you're observing behavior — have a conversation with that person. And not in an accusatory way. Don't take it personal, that they're doing this to hurt you. If it's a friend or a loved one or a partner, this is something that they're struggling with. Coming from a place of love and compassion versus being angry or pointing the finger is so different. It opens vulnerability, it opens up honesty. When an addict feels attacked in any way or that their drug or drink is threatened, they're going to recoil and not want to deal with it. They're going to escape and not tell you the truth. But if you come from a place of love and have some ideas — you know, I think recommending a local 12-step-meeting is a great place to start. "Hey, let's just go. I'll go with you. Let's just go check it out. It's an hour-long, what's the worst that's going to happen?" Initiating that is a great thing. I think if you have the resources to help, whether that's helping financially or helping set something up logistically around treatment, that's a fantastic place to go. Of course, they want to. They're going to want to be willing but that willingness can oftentimes start with just the conversation and in being brutally honest in a loving way. "This is what I see. This is what I observe. I want to help you." You'd be surprised how much people sit back and watch but don't want to get involved or don't know how to get involved. Just have the conversation and come from a place of love.

Addicts get to a point where they don't want to be living the life they're living. They're going through that cycle and that struggle and they need a way out. As you mentioned, it's not a personal choice that you can't white-knuckle your way through it. It's not a personal failing. You need help. And I think that's what we're really trying to do here today is just encourage folks that man, it is ok to ask for help. It's ok to ask your friends, your family, reach out to somebody. There are people, there's a community out there that wants to help and wants to see you healthy and happy and contributing to your highest best self.


What advice do you have for those currently struggling with addiction?

For one, you're not alone in your struggle. There are millions of people out there with the exact same one. There are recovery communities all around the world that are there for you, that need you because we need each other in this fight against addiction. We need to hear that experience of what it's like, what's going on right now, to keep us that are currently in recovery, sober. This is a disease. It is not your fault, but it is on you to get help. You didn't pick the disease, but you can choose to get help for it. There are ample resources out there. That is your responsibility. Your disease is going to be there, but there are ways to treat it. There is hope. There *is* a way out. It can happen one day at a time. But you got to want it. You gotta be willing. You've got to be ready to surrender and to give up the fight that you're never going to win.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), Crisis Clinic (1-866-789-1511), or the Washington Recovery Helpline (a program of the Crisis Clinic). You can find additional resources here. You are not alone.