Leader of the Pack: Yelawolf
Yelawolf, a.k.a. Catfish Billy, a.k.a. Michael Wayne Atha, is in a van rumbling through rough and huge Canadian mountains, about as far away from a comfort zone as possible for a NASCAR-loving, shotgun-blasting, catfish-wrasslin’ rapper, as the creation myth goes. But there’s a good reason the Gadsden, AL-born rapper is balls deep in wilderness, bound for Vancouver: He’s in the midst of a 45-day tour, his biggest yet, and this is his second chance to blow up, something nobody in this business gets. Cell-phone waves seem to get sucked up by the hills; sleep is in short supply thanks to the jostling of the rubble-strewn road. Yet he knows he’s lucky, and so the rapper accepts that this is his row to hoe, his grind to complete.
“There’s no time to fuck around out here, man. This shit is straight work,” Yelawolf says, ticking off his brutal regimen of two shows a day, “slot gigs” that suck up his days off and a frequent-flier history that makes traveling salesmen look like regional paper mill executives. “We get on the road usually anywhere from four to six in the morning, and we travel five to eight hours. We go straight to sound check, we do the show, we hit the hotel and then we back at it again. That’s how it’s been.”
Signed to Interscope Records this year after a series of hype-boosting mixtapes and a guns-blazing SXSW appearance, the rapper has nailed most of the plot points of the well-thumbed rock star script. Before there was the tour schedule to end all, the one that aims to leave no college town uninitiated, there was the beginning.
Yelawolf’s creation myth is well worn — and balanced on that edge between caricature and hoary marketing cliché and genuine biography. Take an unexpected guy — in this case, a white dude who grew up 30 miles from the Talladega Superspeedway — and uproot him like an itinerant, shaking loose his sense of self. Make him a high-school dropout, and mix in a dose of wayward wandering (Yelawolf moved to Berkeley, California, to pursue a pro-skating career, succumbed to injuries and eventually took a failed swing at crewing on an Alaskan fishing boat). Then layer on, top an eventual burst of self-discovery in an unexpected genre, in this case, rap. Cue fame and fortune and, finally, a disheartening major-label affair that ends in ruins.
In Yelawolf’s case, that major-label dalliance was with Columbia Records, a union that washed out unspectacularly after Columbia brought in Rick Rubin to clean house. Later, Yelawolf. For many artists, that kind of savage boot to the ass might have spelled the end.
But Yelawolf didn’t let some bearded Svengali’s whims hold him down. Regrouping in Alabama with a posse of loyals, he formed like Voltron into Ghet-O-Vision Entertainment, an independent label, and hit the studio to churn out a series of EPs and mixtures. The self-determinism was all the road he needed.
“I grew up with a real sense of pride in classic hip-hop,” he says. “Hieroglyphics, Black Moon, Wu-Tang, Outkast — I think that every year of my life, honestly, there was one or two records that made me love hip-hop that much more. But Paul’s Boutique was the first one, really, that made me say, ‘Oh my god, what the fuck is this music?’ At the time, I was way off into grunge and shit, just a kid. I had never even heard the 808 sound before. I just bugged out about it. I didn’t even know it was hip-hop. That was the turning point for me.”
Yelawolf’s 2010 release, Trunk Music, couldn’t have dropped at a better time. Featuring Bun B and Juelz Santana, the release helped stoke a hype inferno that grew into a rager by the time SXSW rolled around in March 2010. The Interscope deal followed, after a mosh pit of A&R execs elbowed each other for a chance at Rap’s Next Big Thing, and then everything old was new again.
“We needed a place to go fuel up,” Yelawolf explains. “We had a working vehicle, as it was, but we just needed a station to gas up so we could continue to work. We needed a boost. We didn’t need any changes creatively, we didn’t want to rearrange our squad. It was working. We didn’t want to fuck with it. When you build this shit on your own, there’s a sense of pride between you and your crew. When you have success it’s extra special. And when you hit a bump in the road, it’s easier to handle. When you’ve got four or five people with the same vision, that shit is powerful.”
Proof that the Ghet-O-Vision crew was on to something? Five of the fan favorites from Trunk Muzik are going to be on his debut, Trunk Muzik: 0-60, which drops November 23, and features production from everyone from Diplo to Travis Barker. “We kept it real solid with how we wanted to see this shit come to be. We signed with Interscope because they understood and respected the work we put in already,” Yela says. “And that album we’re still considering a warm-up.”
In the meantime, Yelawolf knows enough to keep his head down: Let others influence your work — the label, the critics — and your work suffers.
“Trunk Muzik was really the first time I had any kind of presence,” he remembers. “I would go online and look and I just got really irritated and fed up with the critics. I shut it off after a couple of weeks and I haven’t been online at all for nothing. I don’t give a fuck what it is. I just go straight to my BlackBerry and I go to Twitter and that’s it. If you’re a painter and you paint a canvas and you put it up in a gallery for people to come and look at and critique and buy, but you’re not going to go in there and say things to a person and critique it with him. I just made the artwork for other people to enjoy. I can’t allow myself to get into the critique side of it. It might change the way my paintings come out.”
(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)