“When that ‘Bama’ shit was going around, everybody in Alabama was like, ‘fuck that shit,’ he says about the deprecating term used to belittle his home state. “What the fuck you mean ‘Bama’? I know you ain’t talking about us. That was an era that made us really strong. It really made us proud,” he continues. “You notice, you don’t hear it much anymore.”
To be sure, Yelawolf’s hair isn’t the only thing about him that’s a bit unruly or unorthodox. As the latest signee to Eminem’s Shady Records, at ﬁrst blush, he’s an oddball among more traditional MCs. Eminem’s previous signing was Slaughterhouse, the slick-talking battle rap cats, comprised of Joe Budden, Crooked I, Royce da 5’9” and Joell Ortiz. Alongside Eminem, they offer an updated, lyrically enhanced version of D12. In this grouping, Yelawolf comes off as a foreign object. His clean-scrubbed all-American good looks clash with a tall wiry frame splattered with body art, which includes the word “red” etched in bold crimson ink across his neck.
Yelawolf and Catﬁ sh Billy are his colorful aliases, but he was born Michael Wayne Atha, named for two of his mother’s favorite actors—Michael Landon and John Wayne. While he has embraced the origins of his namesakes (both faces tatted on his right arm), he reached for a greater connection for his self-appointed spiritual moniker, Yelawolf.
“My father has Cherokee [blood] and my mom got Cherokee and Blackfoot,” he says. “Yela represents hunger, life, light, ﬁre, power. Wolf speaks to my ﬁ ghting spirit. The soul I put in my music.”
Before he began MCing on a full-time basis, Michael Atha appeared to be your typical counter-culture white kid who journeyed out to Berkeley, Calif., in search of a career as a professional skater. Instead, he collected a bunch of injuries (broken collar bone, a few concussions) and wound up working on an Alaskan ﬁ shing boat in the Bering Sea, braving below zero temperature for money he’d hope to use to make music. He’s lived in Atlanta; Baton Rouge, La.; and Antioch, Tenn., but he called the sleepy town of Gadsden, Ala., home. There, he was raised on a musical diet of classic rock. When he moved to Antioch in the ﬁfth grade, he was bussed to Memphis’ hardscrabble Carter Lawrence School. He was a white kid with a bowl cut and a Randy Travis sweatshirt, an ideal target for bullies.
“There was this kid named Cedric who seemed like he was 6 feet in the ﬁ fth grade,” Yelawolf remembers about a speciﬁ c tormentor, his own D’Angelo Bailey. “I was in class and he said something about my momma. I didn’t know anything else to do but stand up to him and pick my chin up. ‘What!?’ He was like, ‘Please, white boy, I will fucking kill you.’ He grabbed my ankles and held me upside down like a baby. ‘I will drop you on your fucking head right now. Country-ass white boy.’ I was just changed after that. I wanted to get fucking tough, man. I was already culture shocked, straight out the fucking country of Alabama, and I was already listening to hip-hop. N.W.A and Ice Cube and Snoop. I just knew that I had to start making changes about how I was perceived.”
So young Michael did the best he could to ﬁ t in. He shaved his bowl cut, bought himself some Bo Jackson cross trainers and blue Dickies. “Finally, I said, ‘Fuck it,’” he says, remembering when he realized that blending in took too much of a toll. “It wasn’t until later on in life when everything started making more sense about why I went through what I did. I was built to put this on paper. Yeah, I have animosity, a chip on my shoulder. But I love, too. That part of my life was very crucial.”
As a result of his varied life experiences, he’s become a kind of cultural platypus, a mixture of backwoods “redneck” and Southern B-boy ethos. Along the course of his musical evolution, you can hear his dueling sides play out like Aerosmith bumping up against Run-D.M.C. in the “Walk This Way” video. Each extreme ﬂ aring up from within, ﬁghting to be heard on one stage.
Yelawolf’s ﬁrst big break as a rapper came in 2005 as a contestant on UPN’s talent competition show The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott. He was eliminated when he requested some “ﬂy beats” instead of the one Elliott was offering up. But he kept on his grind, and caught the attention of Kawan “KP” Prather, CEO of Ghet-O-Vision, who helped guide the sound of the legendary ATL-based Dungeon Family collective, Usher, T.I. and others. Yelawolf was signed to Columbia, only to be dropped when Rick Rubin took control of the label in 2007.
“I used that anger, that rejection, to give me rage onstage,” he says. “That translated to the fans. It ain’t nothing against Rick Rubin. But man, having to go back and rebuild is a big blow.”
His mixtape releases tell the story. The playful 2008 Ball of Flames: The Ballad of Slick Rick E. Bobby played up the simplemindedness of the NASCAR comedy starring Will Ferrell, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Yelawolf matches Ferrell’s high jinks with playful song titles like “Beer Buzz,” “Boyz in the Woodz” and “My Box Chevy.” On Stereo, Yelawolf ran lyrically roughshod over tunes by Fleet-wood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd. He then stretched genres with the ambitious, if experimental, Arena Rap EP, on which Yelawolf rapped alongside a live band—ﬁddle, acoustic and electric guitars.