The dirt on Yelawolf: A conversation with Interscope's next great hope
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.
Your mixtape "Stereo" had a lot of recognizable classic-rock samples, which ostensibly would've brought you a lot of fans from people who were sucked in by the original source material. Yet it was "Trunk Muzik" that really got you traction. Why do you think "Stereo" didn't have that sort of success?
Two things: The first is that not everybody in hip-hop [messes] with classic rock. The second is that there was no real element of surprise. I'm from Alabama, I'm into classic rock -- it was obvious and there was no shock-value to it.That said, I was really focused on making sure that people understood that I respected the craft and hip-hop. "Trunk Muzik" was dedicated to the trunk riders, with 808s and hard ass [stuff]. It had a dirty Southern sound, and it opened things up.
With "Stereo," we spent a lot of time digging around and trying to be really tasteful with the samples. I know a lot of people who [mess] with "Trunk Muzik" aren't into "Stereo," but I still love it -- it contains some of the favorite records I've ever done.
Growing up in Gadsden and all over the South has obviously influenced your sound. Specifically, how do you think it affects your conception of the world and your music?
My homies in Gadsden aren't as exposed as I am culturally, which is awesome -- that's why I love going home. I'm in the kitchen with people who don't know anything but the simple life, what's important to them, and what's dope. That's why like I'm so drawn to the culture of Alabama -- of rednecks and all that hardcore dirty South culture because I understand it. It's so simple -- it's really black and white. That's the way that life should be. We really complicate our situation.
The South isn't known for its cipher culture, but you use a double-time speed rap flow that could be Midwestern were it not for your drawl. What were your experiences like learning to rap?
It was always rapping in the car -- me and my boys -- freestyling and being horrible. The only time it ever became serious to me was when I would write and then flow to instrumentals in the car, and my friends would be like, "Whoa man, you got verses." It spawned from there, it eventually got more and more serious and I developed my own style.
How frustrating was it when Rick Rubin came aboard at Columbia and dropped you? You'd think that the guy who produced the Beastie Boys and "Raising Hell" would have wanted to work with you.
I was like, "You don’t get it, cool? Then I guess I must be extra special." I had to be arrogant because I could've been messed up thinking that if he didn't want me, I must have nothing to offer. But that's not like me. I refuse to be like that. I've always been stubborn. I have to learn things myself, but it worked out OK -- I ended up at Interscope only a few years later.
Do you worry that Interscope will force you to write pop rap songs or else you'll be unable to get your album released?
If you look at my discography of music, you'll know that I can go any direction – whether it's arena rap or bluegrass hip-hop. I would never assign myself one style. If I make a record that becomes a pop hit -- who [cares]. I'm always gonna have the darker edgy music in my pocket because it comes so natural to me. You’ll never stop getting records like "Pop the Trunk" and "Good to Go." The crunk South [stuff] will always be a part of what I do in some way. But I plan on evolving -- you have to.
The integrity of my music is always in mind. I'm out to make lifelong lasting records. I know what the underground is. I’ve been there for a long time. You never really know what will break or what won't. If "Pop the Trunk" had had huge marketing behind it to put it on radio and video channels, it might've become a hit.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
Willie Nelson. I really want to work with all the legends before it's too late.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo credit: Yelawolf Myspace