Feature: Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Yelawolf?
Yelawolf talks upcoming album Love Story, being swagger jacked by Macklemore, working with Wu-Tang and his problem with that long-ass Shady XV cypher
Photo credit: Juan Vidal
For Yelawolf, Alabama’s best-loved son, it’s about challenging perceptions, head-on and unapologetically. Cowboy boots, wool hats, biker-style ink all over, it’s easy for the uninitiated to make assumptions about the man. That he’s a completely singular rapper—one whose core sensibility bares no resemblance to any artist in popular music today—is hard to question.
Yelawolf, born Michael Wayne Atha, sits backstage at the Gillioz Theater in Springfield, Mo. He’s on eBay perusing Andy Warhol originals, looking for just the right piece to buy his fiancé, the singer-songwriter Fefe Dobson. Outside, Rittz is working the crowd of just under a thousand rowdy fans, each of them expectant.
“Look at this one,” Yelawolf says, directing attention to Self-Portrait, 1986, a 9×8 print signed by Warhol himself. It’s not ridiculously high but it’s also not cheap. “If they’re not up there, for some reason I don’t believe them. This has the certificate of authenticity.”
“Rolltide!” is heard from a short distance.
In the green room, it’s what you might expect: Cases of beer, loose bags of herb, energy drinks. Yelawolf is in good spirits, he’s comfortable.
“I’m happy, man. Happier than I’ve ever been,” he confesses. “We’re selling out shows, I’m nicer to my fans. There’s two and three generations out there every night, makes me emotional. And I’m making the music I’m supposed to be making.”
Several albums and a host of lauded mixtapes to speak of, Yelawolf, according to him, is just now coming into his own. After signing with Shady Records in 2011, he instantly became one to watch. His fast-paced flow enticed listeners; he was the backwoods white boy who, stylistically, seemed to have no predecessor. Sure, there were hints of Twista, maybe a dash of Andre 3000, but Yelawolf’s twang has always been his own. And he’s noticeably grown musically over the last year, as seen by his latest offering, “Till it’s Gone,” from his forthcoming album Love Story out “early next year.” The single was recently featured on the television series Sons of Anarchy, which helped it become Yelawolf’s biggest song to date. “It was just the perfect storm,” he says. “The video, everything.”
For a while, things were not so pleasant.
“I was bitter for a long time,” he explains. “I had a lot of negative people in my mix that I let affect me creatively. Plus, I got so tired of people biting and getting away with it, from the music to even my styling and designs.” He’s referring to last year’s public dispute with Macklemore, which had Yelawolf confronting the “Thrift Shop” MC after the Osheaga Music Festival and accusing him of shark-biting his deer logo. “It’s whatever though, now I’m using all the stuff I’ve dealt with to make the music I want. It’s liberating to get to show all of me.”
It’s true that his sound has undergone considerable shifts as of late. “I grew up on Souls of Mischief, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin,” he says. “And I’ve always written melodically, I’m just putting it all in there now. There are songs on Love Story where I’m just singing all the way through. For a while we were tip toeing in the right direction, and I feel like things are finally lining up.”
I ask how has his relationship with Eminem has impacted his own artistry.
“Look, respect to Marshall for giving me the keys to do what I want. We both come from the true school, where you weren’t aloud to be OK and white. Like, you had to be dope, the best. And you had to be authentic.”
He starts reciting Bubba Sparxxx lyrics for what seems like a whole minute.
As evidenced by his contribution on the “Shady XV Cypher”—which featured him alongside Eminem and the animals from Slaughterhouse—Yelawolf is of a different breed than his battle-rap comrades. And while he can surely hold his own on the slick-talking tip, his verse was of the self deprecating, confessional brand. And he stood out because of it.
I’m 33, I’ve got 3 kids and I just popped 3 pills
I don’t know which one’s which or what it’s for
Safety ain’t really a habit I’ve formed
I still smoke to the cigarette butt
I still drink till I end up being that klutz
Clumsy, self-destructive dummy
I have nightmares about my momma getting beat up in the yard
Wake up feeling like half a human
Hit the studio and unleash this guilt and regret
For my lack of union between rap, you and the rock and roll community
Even when he turns on the bravado, it’s masked in something more telling, more characteristic of a rapper interested in substance over material.
Moonshine, gold watches, gold rings
All fake, no bling, don’t hate, that’s my thing
“As far as the cypher,” Yelawolf says, “it was a moment for me to show that I love my boys but I’m also not like my boys. But honestly, the video was edited in ways I wasn’t happy with at first. Certain tattoos, certain lines were cut. I felt like there was, and still is, a fear of my truth, of who I fully am.”
So who is he?
“I’m a kid from the slums, outlaw country. This whole Slumerican thing, it started out as a pun. Then it became a song, now it’s an identity. We’re patriotic but we’re fans of the slum, too. Chameleons.” He’s intent on making clear he’s not a part of any “movement,” it’s a family of musicians and visionaries. “I, we, just want to take things forward,” he says. “The artists that do progress have always had something else in the bag, like CeeLo Green. I have stuff I want to touch on, a lot of vision. Me and Wu-Tang have talked about doing records together; Raekwon and Meth. It’s gonna happen.”
Before long the crowd starts to yell for Yelawolf. And as he makes his way out, joined by his DJ, Klever, and guitarist Bones Owens, things take to another level of uproarious. He runs through his classics like “Good to Go” and “Catfish Billy”, everyone mouthing along and transfixed. He brings Rittz back out for “Box Chevy” and tosses beer into the sea of kids moshing, his shades on the entire time on stage. New songs are teased and well-received. To close out a good night, Yelawolf and Bones break into an acoustic version of “Till it’s Gone,” phones lighting up the theater like a firework show. And while he’s accomplished a lot up this point, the consensus seems to be this: the kid’s going to be big.
With the “Slumerican Made Tour” continuing on through December, Yelawolf will soon be gearing up for his second release under Shady Records. “Love Story is a passion album,” he says. “And it’s everything that I’m about.” Here we have an artist on the brink of something, whatever that is. —Juan Vidal
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR, Esquire, and VIBE. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove