Words by Rick Levin • Photos by Todd Cooper
Yelawolf has finally come home. You can see it in his face these days, in his open smile, in the relaxed clarity of the blue eyes he locks on you when he speaks, and you can hear it in his voice — especially in his voice, that cool, smooth instrument with the drawling lilt which, at the drop of a hat, can erupt in rapid, punctuated syllables that spit a kind of embattled authenticity, equal parts urge and urgency.
Home, in this instance, is less about place than a state of mind, though certainly the place of his birth is all over Yelawolf's latest single. From it's opening chords, all slapping bass and apocalyptic bayou rhythms, "Till It's Gone" is a pure piece of Southern gothic: a hip-hop song that is so genre-defying it seems to found a brand-new style, blending rat-a-tat verses with the atmospheric hum of R.E.M. and the twang of country, and anchored by a dark, catchy chorus that has taken alternative radio by storm. "Just because you got yourself in some shit," Yela sings in his cautionary tale about lives lived wrong, "It doesn't mean I have to come deal with it."
Yes, at 34, the Southern hip-hop artist born Michael Wayne Atha has come full circle, having released several mix tapes between 2005 and 2010, one of which, Trunk Muzik, revealed an artist whose talent for penning powerful lyrics was matched by his fierce gift for delivery, language being both Yela's vehicle and the high octane that fuels it. Not since the ascendance of his label founder Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, had the world encountered a rapper whose wordsmithing — aside from being madly slammed and cleverly curlicued -— created such complex layers of meaning. The man is a writer's writer, capable of evoking atmosphere and scene and character with concision and dark beauty.
But if, artistically speaking, Eminem and Yelawolf share a common caliber of verbal genius, there the similarities begin to end. Whereas Eminem carved an identity and a voice for himself out of the gritty life of Detroit’s 8 Mile, spewing relentlessly brilliant diatribes that bounced between anxious grandiosity and satirical self-immolation before spinning out into homicidal fantasias of surreal wordplay, Yelawolf’s perspective is less confessional, more straight-up reportorial, more literary: He peers outward at the world, with curiosity, compassion and angst, bringing his songs to bear upon intimate and often grotesque scenes of real life. Yelawolf is hip hop’s low-beat author, its Townes Van Zandt, telling sad stories in a honed, poetic language drawn from dirt and rust and empty shell casings.
For the get-go, what distinguished Yelawolf from the often indistinguishable swarm of rappers rapping up in the club about shit and shinola were his strong roots in Southern culture, a kind of fidelity to the Deep South that found its perfect expression in a song like "Pop the Trunk" off Trunk Muzik: "He got an old Mossberg in a Mossy Oak duffel bag laying in the back of the donk, boy," could be a line from a William Faulkner short story updated to the Age of Scabs, where meth has replaced moonshine and the Hatfield and McCoys have swapped sawed-offs for semi-automatics.
With his alliterative knack and natural narrative abilities, combined with his unique vision of life as it's truly lived among the downtrodden and dispossessed of rural America — what he calls Slumerica —Yelawolf has always promised something explosively new in hip hop, and not just hip hop but popular music in general. Which made it all the more confusing when, in 2011, he released his Interscope debut, Radioactive. Despite some standout tracks, Radioactive seemed an album created at a remove, and it felt like Yelawolf might have lost his way, having been wedged into a glitzy pre-fab machine of synched beats and klieg lights that fit him like a hair shirt.
Sometimes, though, even bullshit moves, whether enforced from without or attempted from within, are a necessary phase in a true artist's development. Rather than throwing in the towel or, worse yet, succumbing to the sell-out, Yelawolf assessed the false step of Radioactive and decided what he did not want to be. This process of deconstruction compelled him to strip it all down, to go back to where he started in the humid swamp of his childhood Alabama digs and the stuff he grew up with: down-home people living their lives amid everyday defeat and ragged glories, country style, set to the big bad thunder of rock (AC/DC, Skynyrd, Nirvana) and the sad waltz of country (Waylon, Johnny, Willie), and shot through with that distinct verbal assault.
So that, in the end, is home for Yelawolf. It's a place of integrity and truth, where the man is what he is, and proud of it. Fuck it. Take it or leave it, he seems to say, ‘cause I'm done playing. Such defiance is triumphant, a rebel yell of liberation, and its sound obviously reverberates with fans, old and new, who have turned "Till It's Gone" into an unexpected radio hit. Radioactive, indeed. According to Yelawolf, that singe is the first in a series of songs that will lead up to the release of a new record, Love Story, sometime after the holidays. So Merry Christmas, y'all. It's going to be a good year.
EW caught up with Yelawolf before his recent sold-out show at WOW Hall. As he fielded questions inside the tour bus, Yela occupied himself with dinner, cooking up in the toaster oven an open faced sandwich of Swiss cheese and jalapenos. "That's how I rock this boat, son," he said.
You mentioned something early about 'the evolution' of your band. What’s the evolution?
Basically, you know, before Trunk Muzik I had a full band. The first time we met, my first deejay, Artime, he was a part of that band. We were making music, you know, like, bluegrass, rock, rap shit, but we couldn’t get a deal for it. So they told me, the people I was with, “If you can go make a rap album, we’ll give you a record deal.” So, I was like, alright, and I went and did Trunk Muzik and I turned it in and it got me a deal. I got into this zone of hip hop and it got me all the way to Shady Records, thankfully. Now I’m just trying to reintroduce those early ideas I that was having, just polished, you know what I mean? Yeah, just bringing it all back together. The evolution is definitely the perfect deejay, the perfect guitar player, not for-hire band bullshit. These are my boys.
Is "Till It’s Gone" pretty representative of the album?
Well, you know, it’s kind of like it’s its own thing. We kept it all in the same vibe, but every song’s different. In it’s own right, it kind of encompasses everything: the hip hop, the country, the rock. It’s kind of got all of that in there — rhythmically, and songwriting wise, you know what I mean? That’s also another thing that I’m challenging myself with on this album. To write songs, not just spit quick, sixteen rap type hooks and trying to be lyrically impressive more than I am just trying to write a good song, you know?
So you’ve gotten more into the narrative side? Telling a story?
Well, I’ll always be into the m.c. challenge, rappin’ this shit. But yeah, I’m really paying more close attention to the power of the song. And it’s great, because this particular song was never intended for that. That’s what’s so cool. It’s a song that I’m passionate about, that I was passionate about shooting my first video for. It was like, dude, we put out "Box Chevy 5" to be reminiscent of what we were kind of leaving, and then we were like, “Yeah, the first record’s going to be ‘Till It’s Gone.’” But the fact that it’s fucking making traction on radio? Fucking new alternative radio? Are you kidding me? I’m the happiest man ever. Especially because it’s that song. Really, man, it’s like, to do something that’s dope, that breaks on radio, that you don’t have to say “V.I.P,” “in the club,” fucking all the other fucking bullshit nonsense that it usually takes to break in radio, is like the best feeling. Especially when, with my last album when they were trying to push me toward that with the wrong music, and people weren’t buyin’ it. It was like, “Dude, I mean, I’ll try it if that’s what y’all say is what’s up…” and I was right. And then their favorite records were, you know, the ones that I was passionate about off that album. The other shit, they were like, “Ah, man…” Fans are smart. They're not fuckin’ dummies. We’re not dealing with a bunch of fucking do boys. Fans are intelligent, and they’re getting smarter, because it’s so fucking available. My little sister's iPod is, like, Zeppelin, Mobb Deep, Blink 182, Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, James Taylor, you know, Muddy Waters, fucking Justin Bieber. It's just like, bing! It's not like how we had it. I didn't have Internet growing up. So in short, the point of what I was saying is that I'm just really stoked that it's that record and it's not a record that's, you know, attempting to be on the radio. It just happened to make it there. Even the label didn't see [“Till It’s Gone] coming. Australia picked it up. Canada picked it up. And then the states were the actual last.
Has the songwriting process changed for you a little bit?
Yeah, absolutely it did. A good example is I walked into the studio [for Radioactive], and Lil’ Jon was already on the record. The hook was already there, you know? The beat was already done. That’s multiple records. But those people are fired. Done. You know? They don’t even exist any more. So this time, it was literally, like, “Marshall, please, just – that wasn’t me, man.” And he knew it. He knew it, because he was a fan of Trunk Muzik. But, you know, he’s the homie, he’s like, “Alright, man, if this is what you want to do.” It was my production crew that was creating these sounds and bringing in all these writers and bringing all this shit in that I had to get rid of. So I just said, “Man, just give me the key to the studio in Nashville, we’re gonna go back, I’m gonna put this shit together, and then, when I turn out the album, then it’ll just be you and I. We’ll take it from there.” So that’s when the process was closed-door, invite-only. You know, everything made from scratch. It took us five months to get the first record. We recorded thirty, forty ideas before we were like, “Boom. That’s the sound of the album—that’s what it’s gotta be.” So we set a bar and made records after that. It took a while, because, you know, it’s finding the right musicians in Nashville, finding the right sound out of the right musician, not to compromise the roots of my music and making it blend. ‘Cause it can be really corny when you do live music to hip hop, or try to – the art is to try to make it fuckin’ stay cool without killing it. And God, it’s been done wrong so many times, man. So, it is the challenge, you know? That was the whole challenge of that album—bringing everything we’ve done, from Psycho White to Arena Rap to Stereo to fuckin’ Trunk Muzik, polishing it, and making it the best that we can do. And not—with our fingers crossed, too, ‘cause I hope people love this. Because I’m passionate about this.
It’s the perfect storm, dude. Like, gettin’ in the game with fuckin’ “Thunder Rolls” or “Country Boy Can’t Survive.” You want that one first record to be fuckin’ crazy. But the thing about this is, if we’re fortunate enough to break in all those markets – which, country music might not happen – but if it does, we’ll be the first in history. Alternative rock, hip hop and country all at the same time. So that’s exciting.
Does country radio seem receptive to that?
I just had a conversation the other day with the homies. They’re going to give it a shot on Monday in Florida. It just starts with one place. It started with KROQ, really. After KROQ picked it up, then, you know, the rest of the country will.
Just one taste-maker?
Yeah, like, fuck it, they’re playin’ Nelly. Nelly’s rappin’ ass on the country radio. Why not?
How would you describe what you learned over the past two, three years? Back to your roots, or…?
Man, it’s funny. It’s like, yeah, I think that I’m probably closer to my ten-year-old, still-in-Alabama, country self than I ever have been. I just feel comfortable, man. You know, in this game, it’s like when you’re doing something that’s new and shit, for me, it’s just slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle. It’s kind of like exhaling. Like, if I wanna wear a cowboy hat, boots, then fuck it. You know what I mean? Whatever it’s gonna be. Even when I was entering hip hop, I still had a different style. But it wasn’t too soon after thatm a lot of people started getting that style too. The white boy with the tattoos and the mohawk look. And hip hop and shit, it’s like, man, I gotta fuckin’ figure this shit out. I really need to do some shit that is damn-near impossible to imitate. And I knew what that was. It’s just some shit that you gotta be from where I’m from to even get it in the first fuckin’ place, you know what I mean? And then, to actually be talented enough to compete with it, that’s a whole other level. ‘Cause, you know, I was making – Trunk Muzik is awesome, but I was also making shit that could be easily recreated, stylistically speaking. Maybe not technically, but... And what I’m doing now – again, you know, I’m sure there’ll be people who will come out after with the same kind of shit, but the difference is, I’m so comfortable with it.
How does it feel playing that stuff live?
It’s so much fun, man. Yeah. It’s so much fun... Every show's different, you know? Like sometimes the kids just go off. Sometimes they just chill out... Oh, speaking of, there was a kid in line who said he's coming to five shows, him and all four of his boys. Which is rad as fuck, but to me, I'm like, 'Fuck, dude, I hope you don't get bored.' It made me think, though, it may be time to start switching the set up a little. Shit.
Dude, that thing's a monster.
It's a manwich. A manwich? How funny was that, a jar of Manwich. Remember that shit? Talk about fuckin' -- what is that -- sexist? You're not a "man" without a jar of Manwich. I'm like fifteen years old (in a squeaky kid's voice): '"I want some Manwich." My mama made some good manwich, yo.
You gotta put some mustard in it, some ketchup, some tabasco, some brown sugar...
Brown sugar? Holy shit, that sounds terrible.