Bright and early the next morning, Yelawolf strolls into the Cherry Tavern in New York's East Village in a zombie-like state. Not just to get an early start at the bar, but for a Complex photo shoot. Six feet tall, tatted up to his ears with a face like an old-Hollywood matinee idol, he’s rocking a plaid button-down, low-slung cargo pants, and big, disco-style sunglasses with his signature mohawk mullet matted across his head.
When he isn't mugging for the cameras, he's resting his head on the bar, trying to shake out the cobwebs from all those after-partys. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the show he put on last night, but his grueling tour schedule might just be catching up to him. Dude’s been on the road for nearly two years straight. He racked up over 250 shows in 2011 alone.
There were some records that I thought were just too big...and [Eminem's] like, ‘Your opinion is WRONG.’ What am I gonna say? He’s sold more records than the Beatles.
Cracking a cold Budweiser longneck, he starts to perk up. The jukebox clicks and a new disc drops. Johnny Cash. Black Sabbath. Slick Rick. The Beastie Boys. Yelawolf nods and mouths the words to every song. Where a different white rapper might shy away from his country & western or hard rock roots, Yelawolf embraces all the contradictions.
He’s tapped into those diverse influences on Radioactive, which is quite literally his attempt at becoming more active on the radio. “I grew up on great radio, man,” he says. “You think about all the greatest bands, they all had great radio records—all of them. I just wanted to join that club.”
One of Yelawolf’s most important inspirations, of course, is Eminem—a rapper who’s mastered the balance between a legit underground career and massive radio success. There are a few easy comparisons to be made. The artist Em called “White Dog” in the latest BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher (and “beige sheep” in a recent Vibe interview) is lyrically dexterous in a way few mainstream rappers can match. Both Em and Yelawolf are brutally open about the hardship they faced coming up, their history of recreational drug use. But musically, they are very different.
While Wolf may be tired of comparisons to his label boss, it’s better than being likened to any of the other legion of white rappers currently flooding the scene. On "Animal" Wolf raps, "If you wanna compare me, compare me to a legend / Don't compare me to a young fool."
“Honestly I thought that getting on Shady was going to kill the comparisons, but it almost amplified them,” says Yelawolf. “He signed me. He’s definitely not trying to replace himself. If I haven’t already proved that I’m creating my own space, then Radioactive is definitely going to do that. I have a long career ahead of me. Marshall is twelve years deep, with great music and a great career. It’s only fair, you know?”
“I know at some point someone is going to be coming out and they’ll have to deal with comparisons to me,” he says. “It’ll be on down the road, but it will happen.”
On Radioactive, Eminem served as more than just an inspiration and record exec. Beyond his work as a co-producer, Wolf appreciated the personal guidance Em offered him along the way. As KP points out, “Wolf doesn’t have anyone else he can relate to being a white rapper who’s dope, who is respected by black MCs, and respects that art as black culture.”
“He was fully a mentor on this project,” Yelawolf says of Eminem. “I have to trust his experience. There were some records that I thought were just too big, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can pull this off.’ It was completely new territory. I said, ‘In my opinion, it’s just not gonna work.’ And Marshall told me my opinion was wrong. [Laughs.] He’s like, ‘Your opinion is WRONG.’ What am I gonna say? He’s sold more records than the Beatles.”
But Em gave his artist full control when it came to songwriting. “He never stood over my pen and pad,” says Yelawolf. “It’s a mutual respect, honestly. He gets excited with the verses that I put out, because that’s the whole vibe. It’s that MC shit.”