As Yelawolf prepares to drop his major label debut under the Shady Records banner, Complex jumps on the bus to find out how Catfish Billy made it from the gutter to the stars.
This feature is a part of Complex's Yelawolf Week.
“You gotta be a tough motherfucker to be white and from Alabama and make it in this shit!”
Yelawolf takes a moment to let that sink in. The floor at Irving Plaza in New York City has turned into a wooden trampoline. Everybody in the building is bouncing as the President O’ Bama electrifies the crowd. From the instant he took the stage he made it clear: no one puts on a live rap show quite like Yelawolf.
“He knows where he is at all times,” says Kawan “KP” Prather, who produced Wolf’s major-label debut, Radioactive. KP knows what’s he’s talking about—a former member of the Dungeon Family group PA, he went on to work with the likes of TLC, OutKast, Beyoncé, Usher, and T.I.—to name a few. KP, who signed Yelawolf to his Ghet-O-Vision label in 2007, says Wolf “connects with the crowd.”
That’s one way of putting it.
Honestly I thought that getting on Shady was going to kill the comparisons [to Eminem], but it almost amplified them. If I haven’t already proved that I’m creating my own space, then Radioactive is definitely going to do that.
Yelawolf demands a connection with the crowd, and he’s not afraid of using on-stage theatrics to get it. It’s just a few days before Halloween, but Wolf’s already got tricks and treats. At one point he comes out in a rubber wolf mask with a pair of Super-Soaker-toting goons in alien costumes hosing down the crowd.
A master of creating tension, he’s unwilling to let his audience’s attention wander for even a second. During “Love is Not Enough” Yelawolf pulls a chair into the middle of the stage, bums a cigarette from a fan, grabs a bottle of Jack and sits down like he’s chilling on a porch in Sweet Home Alabama. Then he pops open the bottle and performs one of his rawest, most emotional songs. He sings the last few bars a cappella—indulgent and showy, but startlingly on key. “She said, ‘I know you gave me everything, but love is not enough. Love is not enough.’”
It might seem contrived—a lil’ something for the ladies—but you can’t help but feel like what you’re watching up there is real. Especially when he talks about losing his girl to some “punk-ass Abercrombie-wearing motherfucker” and ending up “broken-hearted in the Chevy.” Sounds like the real Yelawolf, born Michael Wayne Atha—just a kid from Gadsden, Alabama who raps like a demon poet.
“I try to become those records, man,” Yelawolf says. “To physically manifest those records live, because I enjoy great live shows, and I hate, hate boring shows.”
Yelawolf’s live show is the opposite of boring. The hordes of screaming girls are not bored. The ecstatic fresh-faced youths who look like they’ve never seen a live hip-hop show before—they’re definitely not bored. Not even the old heads, lurking in the back, watching intently with their arms folded across their chests, hats pulled down low, heads bobbing. Even the most jaded New Yorkers are not bored. Far from it.
This show is one of the last Yelawolf will play before the release of Radioactive, the record he’s been working on since getting down with Eminem’s Shady Records in January 2011. Radioactive is also Wolf’s first official album, although it was his hard-hitting 2010 mixtape Trunk Muzik 0-60 that really put him on rap’s GPS. Having been in the game for a long time, riding the undercurrents, surfacing for a BET Awards cipher, or to drop a verse on a track for Big Boi, Game or Travis Barker, Radioactive represents the moment for which Yelawolf’s been patiently waiting.