Yelawolf’s manager calls him “Joe Dirt.” The nickname is only partly attributable to the Gadsden, Ala., rapper’s predilection for sporting a rat-tail haircut best described as a domesticated mullet. Like the titular protagonist of the 2001 David Spade vehicle, the MC born Michael Wayne Atha has endured a series of wild and barely believable experiences on the path to prospective rap stardom.
However, talking to Yelawolf before his performance at skateboarding legend Rob Dyrdek’s SK84life charity event, it’s impossible not to take him at his word. The 30-year-old tank-top-sporting ex-skateboarder, ex-commercial fisherman, ex-everything speaks with the guileless conviction of a lifetime vagabond, one too exhausted to lie — the embodiment of Bob Dylan’s claim that you have to be an honest man to live outside the law.
Shuttling among Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama (with temporary sojourns in Berkeley, New York, Seattle and Alaska), he refers to Outkast as the greatest group of all time. The Atlanta superstars have reciprocated the praise, with Big Boi enlisting the half-Cherokee, half-white rapper for the lone Andre 3000-produced track on his forthcoming “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty.”
But the outcast appellation also appropriately describes a chaotic upbringing plagued by drug abuse, an absentee father and a bartender mother. Attending 15 schools throughout elementary and high school, Yelawolf was exposed to rap when one of his mother’s friends brought him an early Run-DMC tape -- which he began to understand only in the fourth grade, when he was bused to school alongside kids from the Nashville projects who boasted similarly hardscrabble origins.
At the moment, things have settled somewhat. He’s the darling of the blogs, with his most recent mixtape, “Trunk Muzik,” winning universal acclaim and earning him a deal with Interscope Records, which presumably is already brainstorming ways to turn Yelawolf into the next Eminem. And thanks to his pyrotechnic double-timed raps and eye for narrative detail, the Slim Shady comparisons are certain to dog him for the immediate future. Yet Yelawolf’s rap roots bear a love of everything from cult heroes such Hieroglyphics and Twista, to Goodie Mob, to the dirty South devil waltz of Three 6 Mafia.
Unafraid to sketch the redneck culture of meth labs, Monte Carlo’s and Mossbergs, the Motion Family-directed video for “Pop the Trunk” portrayed the backwoods exigencies of life in Gadsden with a grim and careful eye. Yet this represents only a fraction of Yelawolf’s sound, eliding his skateboard past, his love of West Coast underground rap and his classic-rock fixation (an earlier mixtape, “Stereo,” sampled Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Doors). Signed to Columbia until a Rick Rubin reorganization foolishly jettisoned him back to the blog blob, Yelawolf is as safe a bet for stardom as anyone out right now — the rare rapper capable of earning respect from both Kid Rock and Kid Cudi fans. Provided he doesn’t get eaten by a crocodile first.Being a white rapper is always going to engender Eminem comparisons even if you are half Native American. Have those grown tedious yet or have you just tried to take them in stride?
I can't be mad at the comparisons because I'm still just getting my feet wet. I've got years to go before I establish a full concrete Yelawolf sound. Right now, I'm focused on saying what I have to say. I have to do Yelawolf right now and not worry about anything else. That said, I think it's a fair comparison. There haven't been many white artists in hip-hop, and there's only a handful that the average person knows about, so it is what it is.