When the dust settled on the first day of 2012’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, the big story on most Twitter feeds in Austin and elsewhere was the hair-chopping, guitar-smashing spectacle director Terrence Malick staged with Val Kilmer and Black Lips on the festival’s Blue Stage.
A mere half hour later, just after sundown on roughly the same spot, the Seattle-based independent rap group Macklemore and Ryan Lewis put in a celebratory and well-attended performance that earned them accolades and cheers, though nothing approaching a deafening buzz on social media.
Fast forward three months, though, and the tables have turned. In that time there’s been barely a peep about Malick’s music-focused film that is still without a title and is almost certainly far from completion, while Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have ridden their goofy and accessible hit "Thrift Shop" to the top of the music world.
The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks, "Thrift Shop" is sort of a sugary musical confection that takes listeners along with rapper Macklemore (real name Ben Haggerty) as he flaunts his offbeat and often musty secondhand clothes. The song’s secret sauce is in producer Lewis’ beat with a wiggly alto saxophone line, and deep bass chorus sung by R&B artist Wanz. All that together has led to more than 83 million YouTube views, an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, a world tour and even backlash pieces from critics who claim Haggerty’s thrift shop excursions are just exercises in white privilege.
The group’s success is also a milestone for Fun Fun Fun Fest — Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is the first group to have a No. 1 pop hit after playing the event that specializes in indie, punk, metal and hip-hop and, thus, doesn’t feature many acts with broad appeal.
Festival booker Graham Williams of Transmission Events said Macklemore and Ryan Lewis got on his radar because of a reputation as an entertaining act that appeared to have a solid fan base — they’d sold out the 300 capacity small room of Emo’s in late 2011 — and progressive songs like "Same Love," which advocates for gay rights.
"After we confirmed them was when their album started to explode and their manager told me ‘You guys got a steal getting them when you did,’" he said. "It kind of shows the power of the Internet because people see that video and then they tell 10 friends about it."
While there is something of a disposable, one-hit wonder feel to the song — it’s been pegged as the "first favorite rap song" for many in this half-generation, analogous to Young MC’s "Bust A Move" 20-plus years ago — Williams said Haggerty and Lewis have the skillset to last as successful artists even if they fade from their current pop heights.
"They were already popular when they were here for Fun Fun Fun and you can always tell the flash in the pan artists, but I don’t get that with them," he said. "If they only appealed to 13-year-old girls it’d be one thing, but they’re different from what you saw with all the ska-punk bands or what it seems is going to happen with dubstep."
Currently on tour in Australia, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will be back in Austin during South by Southwest next month as an official act. They haven’t locked down any other deals or appearances yet, according to manager Zach Quillen.
One person hoping to bring them back is Austin promoter Sascha Guttfreund of ScoreMore promotions and marketing firm. A longtime friend of Haggerty — who back in 2006 was a downbill performer on shows with Houston’s Devin The Dude — Guttfreund said he’s been thrilled to see the duo’s rise, which is almost unheard of for an act with a self-released album ("The Heist") and no major backing.
"I cannot give you one other artist with a No. 1 single that’s completely independent, and once you establish that precedent why would you look elsewhere for anything else you’d want to accomplish?" he said.
"Who else in rap has the level of transparency they have? Maybe Kendrick Lamar and the fact that both of them are on top right now shows that that’s what people are responding to."
Asked if he has anything big in store for the pair during his company’s assorted events during SXSW, Guttfreund said nothing has been finalized but he’s hopeful a deal can be arranged with his old friend Haggerty.
Williams of Transmission and Fun Fun Fun, though, isn’t holding his breath.
"I’m pretty sure they’ll be too expensive by then," he laughed.