Macklemore is the new creative director for CLEAN Cause Sparkling Yerba Mate, a beverage company with a mission to support people in recovery. The partnership comes at a time when alcohol use is rising and overdose deaths are at an all-time high. CLEAN Cause donates 50% of its net profits to help people in recovery, a cause the rapper is passionate about. This is his story.
I first took a drink of alcohol when I was 14 years old. I stole it from my parents’ liquor cabinet, which was above the refrigerator. I had one shot and I wondered what two would feel like. And then I had two and I wondered what four would feel like.
I took 12 shots of vodka by myself. I probably weighed 130 pounds. I ended up on a bus downtown, then in a McDonald’s, where I threw up in a trash can and had to run from the cops. That was my first experience drinking. From the very start, I had the allergy where one wasn’t enough, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
I started rapping around the same time I started using drugs and alcohol. When it comes to creativity, there’s this false notion that musicians are at their best when they are using a ton of drugs — that’s how they channel the spirit. That has never been my experience. When I use drugs and alcohol, I shut off. I have a veil over my eyes. I can’t see the truth anymore. I sit on the couch and play PlayStation with my friends. Maybe I’ll be freestyling in a park, but in terms of making albums, it’s going to be impossible. When I’m sober, I’m prolific and productive.
There’s this false notion that musicians are at their best when they are using a ton of drugs — that’s how they channel the spirit.
I quickly watched my life fall apart within the first year of using drugs and alcohol, but it wasn’t until years later that I hit a rock bottom and ended up a place where I could get some help.
When I was about 25 years old, I was paying bills with my music, but just barely. Any sort of momentum I had locally as a musician just stopped. I was living to get high. I was abusing OxyContin. I was drinking excessively and smoking a ton of weed. I had kind of lost the will to live at that point.
My dad had a conversation with me and he asked me the very simple yet profound question: “Are you happy?” I couldn’t be dishonest in that moment. The answer was that I was not happy at all. I was broken. I was desperate. He wanted to send me to treatment and shortly after that, I surrendered. That was the most powerful thing I’ve ever done — that first surrender. Saying, “OK, I am ready to get help and I don’t think I can do this on my own.”
When I got out of treatment, I moved back into my parents’ basement. I remember thinking, “What am I going to do? Am I going to talk about this?” No one to my knowledge in hip-hop music had been clean and sober before — at least not publicly. I had this moment of, “I should probably hide this. This isn’t cool.” Then I said, “You know, this is who I am. I want to be transparent. I want to be honest. I want to tell my truth. This is my story.”
I was starting to make music with Ryan Lewis and I wrote a song called “Otherside.” I hadn’t had any music really connect until we put out the “VS. Redux” EP. It was a record about the disease of addiction. I would do a show and there would be people at the merch table saying, “'Otherside' changed my life.” It’s not like there was a lane there — addiction and sobriety aren’t marketable things — but there is a lane in terms of other people resonating with the subject. There is power in sharing your stories openly and honestly. It allows other people to share openly and honestly. It’s contagious.
I can’t speak to what anyone else needs, but for me, it was going to inpatient treatment and 12-step meetings. Part of the 12-step literature states that we’re supposed to be anonymous. Because of that, there is an air of secrecy that comes with the program. But at this point, we’re in a very different time. People are dying at a rapid rate. Young people are dying without ever knowing that there was actually a place you could get help — in halls and basements in churches, in buildings all over the world, where you can go and get relief, for free.
Sobriety is not a daily struggle, but it is a daily effort. I have to be proactive about my recovery. When I talk about it, I get a spiritual reprieve. If I’m not reaching out to others, being of service, going to meetings, working the steps, I will eventually forget how bad it gets. I will end up thinking that a drug is the best solution to take me out of whatever momentary pain I’m in.
The last time I relapsed was in 2020. When the pandemic hit and we were all in lockdown, I finally got to press pause. I’d been waiting my whole life to have this period where I’m just at home and I get to hang out with my kids and I can’t even do anything else if I wanted to. I get to take a break. I get to turn my head off. But going to meetings became going to Zoom meetings. Then I’m on these Zoom meetings but I’m on Instagram while I’m listening. Then I’ll listen to half of it. Then I’ll listen to ten minutes. Then I’m just not going to turn it on. I tapped out of my recovery community, and then I relapsed in July.
Relapsing is always hard. It’s traumatic for myself and for my family. I’ve had three relapses in the last six years. The amount of pain and damage that I can do very quickly in losing the trust of others happens instantaneously.
I know that addiction is a treatable disease, but I’m never going to be cured, and I’m completely fine with that. The world that recovery has led me to is beyond anything I ever could have imagined. I would never have had a career in music had I not been able to go to treatment. I would have been dead. These aren’t grandiose thoughts, or for shock value. It’s just the truth. My dad was able to afford a treatment center. I know that a lot of Americans can't, or they can't afford to take the time off work. We need to get people into treatment and CLEAN Cause is doing that, and I'm excited to be a part of it.
I would never have had a career in music had I not been able to go to treatment. I would have been dead.
There is guilt and shame around the disease of addiction. Admitting that you have a problem is a huge issue. Denial is a killer. Addiction is a progressive disease. It will get worse. To people who are struggling right now, recovery starts with being honest with yourself, and then seeking help. The natural tendency as someone with active addiction is to hide, to lie, to manipulate. It is a disease of secrecy, shame and guilt. It’s cunning, baffling and powerful. It’s so important that we’re honest with ourselves and with our loved ones. We are not responsible for the disease, but we’re responsible for what we do about it.
As told to Rheana Murray. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.