Yelawolf: Breaking Bad (2011 Online Cover Story)

Yelawolf: Breaking Bad (2011 Online Cover Story)Story by Noah Johnson (@noahvjohnson); Photography by F. Scott Schafer; Shirt by Acapulco Gold

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.

RELATED: Superglued - Yelawolf Concert Photos, Videos, and Tickets

”Don’t play me for weak or underestimate me,” he rapped back in 2005 on his independently released debut, Creek Water. “What you see ain’t exactly what you expect it to be.” Two years later he recorded a full-length album called Fearin’ and Loathin’ in Smalltown, USA for Columbia Records that was never released. When Rick Rubin was brought in to run Columbia later that year, he cleaned house, leaving KP without a job and Yelawolf without a label.

A year later, he dropped two mixtapes, Arena Rap and Stereo, both of which went relatively unnoticed. Then in March 2010 he released the lyrically dizzying opus, Trunk Muzik, through KP’s Ghet-O-Vision imprint. With features by Bun-B, Raekwon, and Gucci Mane, the mixtape solidified Yelawolf’s place as one of the most acrobatic rappers of this generation, and certainly the best white rapper since Eminem. Apparently Em thought so too, making him the first white rapper to join the Shady Records roster, which also includes D12, 50 Cent and Slaughterhouse.

 

I kept it so real, [my music] became brutally honest. Because, you know, on top of being a white rapper, I never wanted to be called out on anything.

 

Most of Radioactive, minus two songs, was recorded over a few weeks in Las Vegas last January. Yelawolf laid down over sixty songs in total before deciding on the final sixteen tracks. The result is a remarkably well-balanced rap album, with roots firmly planted in an eclectic range of musical sounds—from Southern-fried rock to electronic dance beats and power ballads.

“We wanted it to be a little more accessible,” KP says. If Trunk Muzik was Yelawolf’s opportunity to prove himself as a rapper, Radioactive is Catfish Billy’s chance to hook a wider audience. But as he casts his net as widely as possible, Wolf doesn’t want to lose the fans who’d rather see him to pop the trunk than see him go pop. But when it doubt, he just brings it back to simply telling his stories. “This generation of MCs,” KP asserts “no one tells a story like Yelawolf does.”

Not so long ago storytelling was a dominant mode in hip-hop. But the great tradition—from Slick Rick to Ghostface and Wolf’s personal favorite, Outkast—has become something of a lost art in rap’s ADD/Hashtag moment. Maybe because storytelling isn’t very well-suited for gloating. But Yelawolf’s knack for storytelling is one of Radioactive’s greatest strengths, and Wolf’s music is deeply steeped in his own story.

On new songs like “Write Your Name in the Sky,” he raps about a sixteen-year-old getting pregnant. It’s easy to imagine that he wrote the song for his own mom, but like many writers do, he maintains a shroud of fiction to allow himself some distance from the story.

“It kind of came from like this whole ‘keep it real’ thing, where I kept it so real, it became brutally honest,” he explains. “Because, you know, on top of being a white rapper, I never wanted to be called out on anything.”

"I’ve been lost ever since I could walk,” he rhymes on Radioactive’s final track, called “The Last Song”: “But I learnt quick / That my daddy wasn't never gonna come around / And I didn’t give a shit / 'Cause me and my momma we held it down / No new kicks / First day of school I'm Goodwill bound..."

Like Rabbit in 8 Mile, Yelawolf will always beat you to the punch.

His boldest pre-emptive strike may be the three bold block letters tattooed on his neck, spelling out the word RED. “Because of the perception, and the story that I tell, I started getting called a redneck,” he says. “It was empowering to be called that. You own it and you break the stereotype.”

As much as Radioactive is an unapologetic declaration of his identity, the experience he’s peddling in these songs is universal. Anybody can wind up at the bottom, or “the gutter,” as Yelawolf calls it. That’s a place where we all end up at some point in our lives. One of the new tracks Yelawolf has been testing out on tour is “Growin’ Up in the Gutter” featuring his fast-spitting protege Rittz, who’s clearly thrilled to be making his first trip to New York, having recently quit his job at a Georgia BBQ spot to chase his own hip-hop dreams.

For Yelawolf, the Gutter is a trailer park in rural Alabama. It’s being raised by a single mother who had him when she was just 16. It’s riding the school bus from Antioch, Tennessee to the projects of Nashville and feeling hip-hop connection. It’s smoking weed at 11, dust at 12, acid at 13, and selling ecstasy by age 16. It’s living on the streets in Berkeley, California, skateboarding and doing what he could to get by. It’s working as a commercial fisherman on a boat off Alaska, thinking about what it might be like to jump off the deck into the freezing sea.

“I don’t give a fuck if you’re from the trailer park, the projects, the suburbs,” Wolf hollers. “If you’ve ever been through anything at all, put your motherfucking hands in the sky.”

After the show, on the sidewalk in front of Irving Plaza, there is a small mob of people lurking near Yelawolf’s tour bus. Most of them look like desperate groupies, hoping to be invited aboard for whatever antics take place on the bus.

But Yelawolf is nowhere to be seen.

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.”

Prior to recording “Let’s Roll,” the second single off the album, Yelawolf drove to Kid Rock’s house near Detroit with Eminem, KP, and Shady Records co-founder, Paul Rosenberg.

“We were all joking around, like, ‘You know how much white rap is in this room right now?” Yelawolf recalls. Kid Rock gave them a tour of his property, including the warehouse where he keeps his cars—including the original General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard, Hank Williams Senior’s Cadillac, and the first Cadillac ever to roll off the line in Detroit. “I felt like I was being sworn into the elite of white rap,” Yelawolf says with a laugh.

 

Those two are the world’s biggest...I’m cut from both of those pieces. The Americana of Kid Rock, the country, the rock. The hip-hop, the lyricism, the pain, the struggle of Marshall. I kinda married those two feelings in one.

 

“Those two are the world’s biggest,” Wolf adds, noting that he didn’t feel the least bit intimidated chopping it up with the two veterans—perhaps because he shared so much in common with them. “I’m cut from both of those pieces. The Americana of Kid Rock, the country, the rock. The hip-hop, the lyricism, the pain, the struggle of Marshall. I kinda married those two feelings in one.”

Yelawolf’s southern redneck pride is just as important as his commitment to hip-hop, and he’s made it his personal mission never to compromise either one. But don’t get it twisted: he’s not one of these white rappers who thinks it cute to drop the N-word. Way back on Creek Water he was a white boy putting “the truth in my rhymes,” like on the moody title track: “In New Orleans they got them gators that will bite you / In Alabama we got moccasins that strike you / Sometimes they wear white hoods, even the cops do.”

“He’s guarding a couple cultures at the same time,” KP says. “He will correct any fan who steps to him the wrong way.”

One of the stand-out songs on Radioactive features Yelawolf’s friend Killer Mike. “This ain’t even about race,” the Dungeon Family affiliate spits, “If I’m on the bottom, and you on the bottom, we the same color.” The point rings true, considering Yelawolf’s place in society. If hip-hop in its essence is an art form about overcoming adversity, then Wolf’s as real as they come. The white kid who came up playing black clubs in Alabama and Georgia now headlines all across Europe, and holds down the main stage on Warped Tour.

He’s looking a bit warped right now as he tinkers with a makeshift chemistry set on the Rose Tavern bar. Star-spangled bandana wrapped over his face, a maniacal gleam in his eyes, Wolf seems to have caught a second wind. “We need more funk!” Yelawolf shouts, as a beaker of gurgling green liquid belches smoke all over the bar.

This side of Yelawolf is magnetic. Watching him come to life like this, you can see why he’s a star. He’s having fun with it. Not taking things too seriously, and always showing tremendous amount of respect for all kinds of people.

“I’m a hard motherfucker, man,” he says after the shoot is wrapped. “I’m down for the fight. I grew up in ill situations that made me tough. I cuss a lot. I’ve seen a lot of really horrible things, and experienced a lot of really horrible things. I’ve seen some motherfuckers pop the trunk, and I’ve also seen people being pulled out of a car by complete strangers, their lives having been saved. But I love people.”

The catchy country rap song “Made in the USA,” is Wolf’s ode to the American working man, sung in the first-person plural. “I just wanted to be ‘we, we, we instead of ‘me’,” he says. “Look at us, here we are. It’s not so easy to have it ‘Made in USA.’ It takes a lot of hard work.”

And he should know.

The DIY chemsitry set is running out of funk, time is running over, and Yelawolf’s manager, “J-Dot” Jones is getting anxious. Yelawolf is already late for his next show in Baltimore.

Joining us on the tour bus for the ride to Baltimore are various friends and stagehands, three-time DMC Champion DJ Craze, and Wolf’s signee Rittz, and Fefe Dobson, a cute Canadian pop singer with her own burgeoning career. She is featured on one of Radioactive’s strongest songs, “Animal,” a ferocious lyrical blitz from Yelawolf, with a throbbing dub-step beat courtesy of Diplo and Fefe providing the cool melodic hook.

 

I know that my days of trying to get on are over. It’s time to rock. I don’t have to prove I can rap anymore. I don’t have to try to get a deal. Now its time to write songs and make great albums.

 

Yelawolf’s spirits are high after the shoot, thanks in part to the half bottle of moonshine he’s brought along from Complex’s Southern booze tasting. I’m trying to persuade him to sit down for a quick interview, but first he piles some cold cuts onto a couple pieces of bread and retires to the back of the bus.

“He’ll be much better after,” J-Dot tells me. A big, sleepy-eyed black dude from Atlanta, J-Dot treats Yelawolf with a mixture of professional respect and “this dude is crazy” bewilderment, nudging him along his career path and reminding him of his schedule when necessary—which can be often.

Yelawolf appears back in the doorframe.

“Talk to this dude,” he tells me. “That’s Rittz. If I don’t make it, he’s not gonna make it either.”

Everyone laughs as Yelawolf returns to his bunk.

Rittz looks a little sheepish, like he might have gotten into some unsavory activity the night before. In fact, everyone on the bus that hazy, “last night was mad real” vibe about them. No one has slept much. Even Rittz needs a little time before he agrees to an interview. But after a shot of moonshine and a sandwich he’s ready to talk.

Trollish, with long frizzy red hair tucked under a black beanie, Rittz is one of Yelawolf’s closest collaborators. They met through mutual friends in Rittz’s native Atlanta. “When we first met we were two rappers doing the same thing,” Rittz says. “And as time went by, he became somebody I look up to and learn from.” He praises Wolf for “His passion, the way he writes, and how creative he is, just the energy he has to put into it, I admire his shit. I definitely learn from him all the time. I’m always taking notes.” His long gold chain with a diamond medallion and his big gold watch indicate that Rittz is a quick study.

By the time the bus arrives in Baltimore, the doors are already open. DJ Craze runs off the bus with his gear to get on stage. Yelawolf hasn’t reappeared since he went to the back of the bus. J Dot goes to the back to wake him, then leaves.

When Wolf finally emerges he’s groggy, but amiable. He may be due onstage within the hour, but he remains calm. Sprawled across the seats, he speaks slowly, carefully. There’s no one on the bus now. Windows closed, shades down, we can hear the thump of DJ Craze’s opening set.

Radioactive is like waking up in the morning,” he says, he stretches his arms out wide. “Walking out like, ‘Ah, yeah, motherfuckers—here we go.’ Because I know that my days of trying to get on are over, man. It’s over, no more, and that’s a huge thing. I was trying to get a career, and it’s done. It’s time to rock. I don’t have to prove I can rap anymore. I don’t have to try to get a deal. Now its time to write songs and make great albums.”

He seems genuinely satisfied with his current place in life. And why not? He’s a kid who escaped from the gutter and now he's reaching for the stars.

“In the grand scheme of things I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says before stepping off the bus to take the stage once again. “But I’m just getting started.”

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