Not too many rappers can say A Flock Of Seagulls and Bob Dylan helped build their buzz. But that's exactly what happened to YelaWolf (nee Michael Wayne Atha) when he was featured singing the hook on Slim Thug's "I Run," which re-interpolated A Flock Of Seagulls' "I Ran (So Far Away)," and Juelz Santana's "Mixin' The Medicine," which re-interpolated Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." The Alabama native first started getting attention after signing to Columbia through Ghet-O-Vision (T.I.'s first label) at the end of 2007, but Yela ended up leaving the label shortly after when Rick Rubin took over. Thankfully, intense and belligerent rhymes, smooth melodies, and a musical sensibility molded by growing up on everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to N.W.A. (along with hip hop's ever-increasing genre-blending) put in place a good structure for Yela's buzz to reach deafening decibels.
Complex has been keeping tabs on Yela, so it was no surprise to us when labels started coming back around earlier this year. The talent was hard to ignore especially after Yela dropped his stellar mixtapes, Stereo, which was chock full of classic rock samples, and Trunk Muzik, which featured Bun B, Raekwon, and Juelz Santana, and the "I Wish (remix)," which featured hot newcomers like Pill and CyHi Da Prynce. Having inked a new deal with Interscope earlier this month, Yela took time to talk with Complex about his long journey from the bottom to the top...
LISTEN: Key YelaWolf Songs You Should Know...
"I Run" (2008) w/ Slim Thug
"Mixin' The Medicine" w/ Juelz Santana (2009)
"Pop The Trunk" (2009)
"I Wish" w/ Raekwon (2010)
"I Wish (Remix)" w/ CyHi Da Prynce & Pill (2010)
Interview By Toshitaka Kondo
Complex: It seems like you were influenced by a diversity of different types of music.
Yelawolf: My mom got pregnant with me at 15, and had me at 16, so I grew up around a really young crowd. She was really into classic rock, and she dated men that were in the music world. I was always surrounded by it. Journey, Yes, 10,000 Maniacs, Fleetwood Mac, Zepplin, and Little Feet, to name a few on the rock side. Lynyrd Skynyrd obviously, Phil Collins, and Mother's Finest. There was just a lot of classic rock that I was absorbing at an early age. At some point, my mom's boyfriend brought me "My Adidas" and Licensed to Ill, and that was the first time I had heard the 808 sound. He didn't hand it to me and say, "This is hip-hop," so I didn't know how to define it. And I was only six years old.
When I moved out to Nashville from Alabama, I started getting a taste of all the hardcore gangster rap that was around. NWA, Snoop, and The Chronic was a huge influence. I literally bought a Dickies suit when The Chronic dropped. I had the Bo Jackson cross-trainers. I was G'd up! [Laughs.] Along with what was poppin' on the mainstream or what was on television, I was also at the same time getting a wealth of hip-hop through underground skateboard videos. Black Moon, Souls of Mischief, and Digable Planets. I was hearing a lot of good hip-hop from all over the place. I've actually skated everywhere I've lived, Alabama, Tennessee, Atlanta...
Complex: Why were you moving around so much?
YelaWolf: My mom was just searching. Trying to find it for us. She was a bartender, so that's what she did my whole life.
Complex: So you were in bars if your mom couldn't find a babysitter
YelaWolf: Yeah, I've done that a few times actually. Nobody's ever asked me that, and up until you just asked me, I didn't even remember doing that. When I got around 11, 12, she stopped [taking me to work]. I'd just be at home by myself.
Complex: With surroundings like that, did you grow up seeing a lot of ill stuff?
YelaWolf: Man, I saw a lot of crazy shit. My mom was wild. I saw my moms beat up people. I saw my mom beat up her boyfriend! [Laughs.] I've seen my mom throwing slalom skis into some dude's head. My mom is 'bout it. He was bloody. Just rock and roll man. She dated men in that business, and one in particular was just wild. He was a player, a rock n' roll cat. My mom used to be real short-fused. She's calmed down a lot obviously now, but it was wild times.
Complex: What type of kid were you growing up?
YelaWolf: Well, I was always super smart with my troublemaking. I never got caught. Always was really slick. But I started smoking weed at like 10, 11...
Complex: What other drugs did you do?
YelaWolf: I did mushrooms. I never smoked crack, I never shot up, none of that shit, but anything else pretty much.
Complex: You ever smoked meth?
YelaWolf: Nah, when I was younger, I snorted it though.
Complex: Compare meth to yay.
YelaWolf: Um, well, it's been so many years. I was doing all this shit at like 16. I cashed out at 18. All I do is drink now. But the difference is, crystal is more clear and up all fucking night, and yay is more like wild party-style. Crystal makes you feel like you wanna run through a wall.
Complex: Was there something that happened at 18 that made you feel like you had to stop doing drugs?
YelaWolf: Yeah, I had did a shitload of acid, mushrooms, and I had this trip that wouldn't go away. It was like a few days! I got scared. That was off of this shit called "pyramid," which was like these gel caps... liquid mescaline, just some crazy "white boy" shit. They looked like little black diamonds. I had two, but I took them within an hour. I was fucking tripping balls, as they say. [Laughs.] Anyway, I got off bad off them, and then I went to Alabama, and my boys were like, "Do some mushrooms!" I was like, "I'm telling you man, last time I had a fucked-up experience." They said, "They ain't the same! They ain't the same!" And then I took these fucking things. I swear to you dog, I must have tripped for months.
Complex: Sounds intense. How old were you when you started rapping?
YelaWolf: I started writing in 5th grade, and then just with my homies, skating, in the car, and at a skate spot. But I didn't really stand up and say, "I really wanna try and pursue this shit" 'til later in life. I can't really consider any of that shit anything real up until '07, when I pursued it as a professional career. I remember writing a rap to the Crooklyn Dodgers beat. That was actually one of the first times I sat down and tried to write to a beat. I was really attracted to the East Coast sound, even though I was from the South. There was something about the Premier-style beats or the Hieroglyphics-style beats, Digable Planets... and then I had this obsession, too, with DJ Magic Mike. It kind of tells the tale on how Trunk Muzik came to be because all of that if you listen, you can hear all of those influences. If you listen to "Speak Her Sex," it's got a crazy break beat, but the 808 is still really knockin' underneath there.
Complex: Before you started to seriously pursue rap in '07, you actually decided to pursue skateboarding and moved to Berkeley, California right?
YelaWolf: I was 18 or 19. I was with a homie of mine named Will Loach, and we had been skating a long time. I wanted to go out West to see what I could find out there for myself. But when I got out there, it was like the skateboarders out there really put shit in perspective. They were really fucking good. I knew right away that I wasn't gonna cut it, skill-wise, on a professional level, even though I'm completely comfortable on a skateboard, and I got tricks. I mean I still got flip tricks and grind tricks. I'm an average skateboarder, compared to a Paul Rodriguez. There's such a huge difference between a professional [and an amateur], and it became clear as soon as I got there. On top of that, I was getting worked. I kept getting hurt really bad. Both of my ankles got really fucked up. On top of being a skate rat for so long, living in Berkeley as a bum, literally eating at Food Not Bombs every day, and lurking out at abandoned frat houses, I was starting to realize that I wasn't passionate about it anymore, and I wanted to change my life.
Complex: You were homeless while you were out there?
YelaWolf: Yeah, some nights. And then I stood up and decided, "Alright, I'm bouncin'." I called my mom like, "Buy me a plane ticket home for Christmas." When I got to Alabama, wasn't nobody there, so I hit my homie up and he was like, "Yo, let's go get on a fishing boat in Alaska and make some money." [Laughs.] [I did that] in '01 for one season.
Complex: I heard it's dangerous, but you get paid well, right?
YelaWolf: Well, most people do, but I didn't get paid shit. We got fucked. We were just green, out there on a fucking boat with a shitty captain, I worked like 20 hour days for 7 days a week, and took home like $1500 after a month.
Complex: During that time period, did you see people die out there?
YelaWolf: I saw some broken arms, and people almost dying of seasickness, but I ain't see nobody die. Thank God nobody lost their life. It is fucking dangerous, though. There were some boats that went down during our season.
Complex: What did you do once you got back?
YelaWolf: I was kind of hustling. Doing the 9 to 5 thing, I sucked at hustling. [Laughs.]
Complex: You were selling drugs?
YelaWolf: Yeah, I tried that shit a few times, but I just smoked it all up. I was just fucking up stacks. I don't mean literally, but I mean, being too damn friendly, giving people too much weight for too cheap, so I never really made money at it.
Complex: What kind of 9-to-5's were you doing?
YelaWolf: You fucking name it. I mean, you'd think that if I got on a boat in Alaska, I'd do anything. I never [waited tables] though. One thing I never liked doing was being in front of people, because I wanted to definitely do this music shit. I ain't about to wait no fucking tables. [Laughs.] You ain't about to be able to see me. That's why the boat made sense for me. Or I'd go work construction out of town, or big ditches, or just do random shit where I could be with people who didn't know me.
Complex: You ended up linking up with your partners that manage you now, right?
YelaWolf: Yeah, I ended up signing with Ghet-O-Vision, and with Columbia. [In '06] I met my manager in Huntsville, Jeremy "J Dot" Jones, and shortly after, moved to Atlanta, started doing shows, we met my other manager, Brother Bear. They're partners now. I was in Huntsville in this trailer park, and not doing much. Nothing was coming, but I moved out to Atlanta to meet people and start doing shows, and I had recorded some music in Alabama. We had this demo tape, and Brother Bear gave it to KP (of Ghet-O-Vision), and literally within three months of the demo getting in KP's hands, I had a situation.
Complex: You signed to Sony, and literally four months later Rick Rubin came on. Did you ever meet with Rick Rubin?
YelaWolf: Nah, I never met him. Shit, man, I would still love to work with him. But Columbia seems to be this rite of passage for artists. [Laughs.] They dropped so many motherfuckin' acts that end up doing something. I make it clear to people when they come at me like I got dropped, let me make it clear, this was a collective decision. We left as a team. The team I went to Columbia with, I left with. All of 'em. Including KP.
Complex: I feel like if Rick Rubin would have met with you during that time period, you guys would have actually artistically clicked.
YelaWolf: Everybody had that impression. When we actually heard he was coming, we were like, "Oh, god! It's over. We're killin' it." But it just wasn't the case. But I can't speak for the man, who knows. He might be a fan for all I know. Politics of labels, you never really fucking know what's going on. I didn't have any records out, didn't have a real presence online, so it's whatever. It didn't stop us, though.
Complex: Were you at some point signed to Jim Jonsin?
YelaWolf: Nah, I never signed to Jim. He just became a good friend of mine. I met him through KP. When we first got our deal, KP brought him to New York to work, and we just clicked. That's become like a brother. We're cut from the same cloth. We're so much alike, it's strange. He's got the whole classic rock influence of course. That's why we did the A Flock of Seagulls record for Slim Thug. [Click here to read complex's recent interview with Jim Jonsin, where he discusses working with YelaWolf.]
Complex: How'd that come about? Whose idea was it to use that part of the hook for the record?
YelaWolf: It was his, fully. We were on the way to the studio from the OZONE Awards. I had got nominated for an award for the Stereo mixtape around '08. On the way there, he played it, and I just did my interpolation of the hook, laid it down, and when Slim came, he really loved it. Had the single.
Complex: You weren't in the actual video though right?
YelaWolf: Nah, it was Christmas. I wanted to be with my fam, and I made a personal decision. He invited me out there, but it was Christmas, and I hadn't seen my family for like four months.
Complex: Artistically, it seemed like it would have been a real good look for you to be in the video.
YelaWolf: It was a bigger look to be with my babies on Christmas.
Complex: So you don't have any regrets about that?
YelaWolf: Nah, man. I was with my babies. On Christmas. [Laughs.] Fuck that. Nothing's more important than that.
Complex: How many kids do you have?
Complex: After "I Run," were a lot of people reaching out to you to do hooks?
YelaWolf: Yeah, the Stereo mixtape was a hip-hop tribute to classic rock, and I was performing the shit in Atlanta. So after we did the Slim Thug shit and we were grinding with Stereo in Atlanta, Kane Beatz hit me up to do the interpolation of the Bob Dylan record for Juelz, and Juelz came out and loved it, so it became his single. That was my first look with a major artist, so that really kicked the door wide open for me at that point. Then we followed up with the Raekwon record ("I Wish"), and then after Raekwon, the Bun B record ("Good To Go"), so it was just a really good time for me.
Complex: You had Pill and CyHi Da Prynce on the remix for "I Wish." How did that come about?
YelaWolf: I had a long relationship with Pill. I think we met in '07. I had been doing shows for him for a while. Prynce, I had never worked with, but honestly, when I came to the studio, they were on it already. KP just made it happen. [Laughs.] I just walked in the door and was like, "Damn!" It was a pleasant surprise for me. I thought they both did good and killed it.
Complex: When did the labels start reaching out to you again?
YelaWolf: After the Columbia shit, I didn't care anymore. I didn't give a fuck about no label. Done. I've had that attitude up until I signed with Interscope, which was a couple days ago. I didn't really focus on that, and it really worked for me. Kept my mind where it needed to be. I just think artists are at their best when they're not thinking about labels. You just make music that feels good. Try to make music that's gonna change shit, and not worry about that. They will come. If you make enough noise, they will come.
Complex: Did you sit with Jimmy [Iovine] before you decided to go with Interscope?
YelaWolf: Yeah, we kicked it. I came out to L.A. and met with him, and we went to his crib, and had a discussion about the angle, how serious everybody was, the way everybody wanted to go about doing this, and it just all made sense. We were just talking about music, and where we thought it should be going, and family and friends and really just chilled. Ghet-O-Vision did a lot this past two years, so they already knew they liked it, it was what we wanted to do. We kicked it for like an hour or two, and then we went to the Lakers game.
Complex: Who were the Lakers playing?
YelaWolf: I don't even know. I don't even keep up with basketball. [Laughs.] I was just trippin' that I was sitting there on the floor, drinking beer and eating pizza.