Thrift Shop has to be the most unlikely hit of the year. Who would have thought that a song about buying hand-me-downs would make it to number one on the Hot 100. I could see it as an indie favorite, sort of an underground hipster hit, but number one in the country? Didn't see that coming. Apparently, neither did Seattle based rapper Macklemore. It's been said that they picked that song as the first single because they "didn't really have a single." Thrift Shop is sort of an anomaly in a genre filled with materialistic boasts and rappers that create entire songs and albums based on how much money they spend. Here is a song where the rapper boast about how much money he saved! And it goes to the number one spot in the country, not to mention number one in the UK, Canada, France, Denmark and other countries around the world. One interesting fact is that Thrift Shop is the first song to top the charts from a Seattle rapper since Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back."
At first listen, I figured "Thrift Shop" to be a simple track centered around a catchy sax sample. After more detailed listens, in the studio and in headphones, my initial assumption is only partly true. It is centered around a sax sample, but simple it is not. The sax riff is super catchy no doubt, but the devil is in the details. Ryan Lewis's energetic production never stands still or gets complacent. As infectious as that sax loop is, after a minute or so it could easily get boring. To keep things interesting, Lewis changes the drum pattern constantly - every 4 bars or so. This causes the song to stay fresh after multiple listens and it never gets boring. The hook also breaks up any chance of tedium. Synths enter the song and gives the listener some melody to savor, while Waze sings about "Poppin tags with only twenty dollars." The synths are a welcome addition, giving the track a definite and fresh "today" sound. Sound efx are skillfully used, but not overdone. There are plenty of sweeps, scratches and whooshes, all in the right places; they don't stand out and they're not supposed to. The sound efx are functional as they bring in the hooks and verses while keeping the track colorful and eventful. Fans of HBO's "The Wire" (best show ever!) will recognize "shiiiieeet" when it is sampled on the second verse. Ryan earned his money with Thrift Shop's production, you can hear the time he spent getting it right.
For the most part, "Thrift Shop" does not have a normal radio pop record structure. It begins with a kid asking Macklemore to go thrift shopping, followed by 8 bars of a simple beat and someone saying "wha wha wha what." I've never actually heard this intro on the radio and when I first played it I thought I downloaded the wrong song! After the song starts proper with the sax loop and drums, we hear Wanz singing a teaser of the hook, then we enter the first verse. One thing that's interesting to me about the beginning of the first verse is that Macklemore's vocals are pretty laid back. He doesn't get fully into it till after he says "it was only 99 cents." After that, he's full throttle, showing off his skills with a rapid fire cadence. I can't help but think how some other rapper would have started the verse with that rapid fire style, and burned out by the end. The first verse is a long 24 bars, something we don't hear on pop radio very often. It even has a 2 bar break in the middle when he talks about his Mink smelling like "R. Kelly sheets." You gotta love indie artists. They don't care about traditional structure, and while it is harder to make a hit record that doesn't follow pop radio rules, when it happens it's great to hear.
In the hook we get 8 bars of Wanz's old soul baritone which contrasts the contemporary production he's singing on. It's like Ryan called his older, blues singer uncle that was sleeping on his couch to sing the hook for them! It's funny when you think about it, and totally left of what were used to hearing on a hip hop record. Of course, it works famously, and we'll probably hear Wanz on more hooks in the coming years.
The second verse is also a little unorthodox coming in at 22 bars, not counting the 4 bar post verse or pre hook section when he says "you hella won't." We also hear the kid again on this section, adding to the songs playful vibe. Macklemore's flow on the second verse is ever changing, keeping in step with Ryan's varied drum programming. He stays on topic and keeps things bouncy and fun till the hook comes back in.
After the hook, we are treated to an 8 bar bridge with Wanz telling us how he looks incredible "in yo granddads clothes." Great stuff. Structure wise, this is the most normal section of the song. It's 8 bars with familiar synth chords and Wanz's memorable, stay-in-your-brain melody. The song ends a few seconds later with the kid asking Macklemore if that's "his grandmas coat." Cha-ching! Money in the bank.
Thrift Shop is a what they call a smash and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis did it their way - the indie way. They followed their own rules while giving the listener plenty of infectious and commercial elements to keep the song engaging.
The mix on "Thrift Shop" is a fairly straight forward affair. Highlighting one of the most important rules of mixing: Don't muck it up. "Thrift Shop" is one of those songs that would be a hit even with a basic mix. There are no tricks here, no fancy delays, and no intricate effects to divert your attention. The production and vocals do it all the work. All the elements in the song are presented well with clarity and definition. The vocals are dry (no reverb) and sit in the mix nicely. The 808s come through loud and clear. Don't get me wrong, the don't muck it up rule isn't easy to pull off. Over time, we mix engineers amass an extensive bag of tricks that we are always itching to use. When a song comes across our desk where we don't need to use them, it's hard to restrain and just make it sound clean and good. Usually, we want to flex our skills, but sometimes leaving the tricks in the bag is what's necessary. The Thrift Shop mix is a good lesson in what not to do.
I think because Macklemore had been a successful indie artist for so long, he, in part, didn't care so much about radio. Well, not as much as the average artist on some major label. Thrift Shop is a risky bet that worked. Macklemore being an indie artist makes the success of Thrift Shop that much more significant. Think about it: a relatively unknown indie rap artist self releases a single with no major label assistance, no well known guest feature, no major artist affiliation, and makes it to number one in the country. Not. Normal. Many, many have tried, and more will continue to try, but Macklemore pulled it off. I would love to talk to the people behind the scenes to find out how they made it happen. Surely, that amazing video had a lot to do with it. So all you indie artists out there - go make an amazing, crazy, eye-catching, funny, weird, well produced video for your next hit. Do it! That's the magic trick, other than of course, making a great record - that's magic trick number one.
Released on August 28, 2012
Key: A flat minor
Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 6 consecutive weeks.
6 million copies sold
Over 300 million views on YouTube