Ever since Mackelmore’s rise to national prominence in 2012, he and partner Ryan Lewis have had their detractors. Criticisms ranging from allegations of appropriation to accusations of plagiarism to questioning certain bizarre clothing choices (and we’re not talking about “Thrift Shop”) have made them controversial figures in hip-hop.
But the latest firestorm to reign down upon the Heist-masters stems from their latest single “Downtown,” a song about (no, seriously) buying a moped. The most unexpected element of the track (and for a hip-hop single about mopeds, that’s saying a lot) is a cameo by rap pioneers Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel. Yes, the Seattle rapper reached out to rap royalty, absolute legends of hip-hop culture — and hip-hop purists are pissed at him for it.
If you think you’re not familiar with Caz, Dee or Mel, trust us, you are. Grandmaster Caz was the leader of the highly influential late '70s/early '80s rap group the Cold Crush Brothers and is the uncredited writer of the best parts (i.e. the parts not about chicken that tastes like wood) of rap’s first big hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” Kool Moe Dee changed the way every MC after him rapped when he, then a member of the Treacherous Three, battled party rapper Busy Bee in 1981. Grandmaster Melle Mel, best known as part of the Furious Five, was the visionary behind 1982’s “The Message,” which showed the world that rap could work not just as party music, but as social commentary.
Taking the above list of accolades into consideration, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to consider Caz, Dee and Mel the three most important and influential individuals in hip-hop history. If any of the three of them weren’t in the picture, hip-hop would sound drastically different today. Unfortunately, despite their contributions to the multi-billion dollar industry that is hip-hop culture, their names rarely get mentioned among the greatest American musicians of all time, or even listed in any retrospective countdown of rap’s best.
To a degree, it’s somewhat understandable that they’ve been overlooked. For over 40 years, hip-hop has been a youth-driven culture that’s had its greatest creative bursts come from new artists inventing something entirely new and different at an outrageously rapid rate. The phenomenon of “throwback” rap artists nostalgic for a style that was popular before they were born, along with the advent of “old-school hip-hop” radio, is still recent, so you’ve seldom seen hip-hop artists from any era willing to look back at their art’s roots and embrace that history in their own music.
But that's exactly what Macklemore just did. And some people are pissed about it.
Cynics see Macklemore's act of reaching out to Caz, Dee and Mel as one of pandering. They’re suggesting Macklemore merely wheeled them out as relics or props in an effort to gain hip-hop acceptance.
News flash: He doesn’t need it.
The truth of the matter is, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made one of the most popular hip-hop albums of this decade — and self-released it, which makes the success of The Heist even more remarkable. For their follow-up, they could have enlisted almost anybody. So who do they choose, along with the guy from Foxy Shazam? The three men most responsible for the rap industry as we know it today, who also largely never got properly compensated for their contributions. Macklemore, regardless of his intentions, is giving them boosted notoriety and a new revenue stream from what’s sure to be a mega-successful single, not to mention an infinitely repeated performance from the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. It shouldn’t matter “why,” as much as it matters that he did it.
Besides, if Mack and Lewis had really wanted to “pander” to the corners of the hip-hop community that have yet to embrace them, they probably wouldn't have made Caz, Dee and Mel their first choices. Macklemore could have just as easily rapped over an unreleased Dilla beat alongside a newly uncovered 2Pac verse with an unheard Nate Dogg hook and potentially hit millions more listeners based on the name recognition alone. But he didn’t.
Regardless of how you feel about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ music, ultimately three of the men most responsible for giving us the gift of hip-hop now have more money, exposure to new audiences, and potential opportunities to be heard than they did a week ago. That can’t be a bad thing.
In fact, another of rap's all-time greats, Big Daddy Kane, agrees with us. Kane took to his Instagram this week to put down the boom-bap traditionalists dissing “Downtown,” noting, “I don’t see one artist in the game that put Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee or Grandmaster Caz on their new song or let them perform on the VMA’s (Including Me) but people wanna have a problem with Macklemore for paying homage to them? We don’t acknowledge our own and get mad when another color does.” He added that “this is about real pioneers getting recognition in today’s society.” We couldn't agree more.