Envision a humid world of slow-rolling Monte Carlos and slaughter houses; meth labs and rusting Mossberg’s, inked up arms and haircuts that look like they’ve been chopped by hatchets. Trunk muzik. Southern Pine trees, smoking pine, and pine boxes. Call him Catfish Billy or Yelawolf, just don’t go make him go pop the trunk on you.
Enter Yelawolf’s Alabama—a backwoods badlands of sinners and salvation. He claims Gadsden, but he’s from everywhere. Born Michael Wayne Atha to an absentee father and a bartender mother, he attended over 15 schools while soaking up slang and spiritualism in Baton Rouge, Antioch, Tennessee, and Atlanta. While trying to stay afloat in a turbulent home life addled by drug and alcohol abuse, he discovered rap music in Tennesee and it soon became an obsession, along with the classic rock (Lynard Skynard, Pink Floyd, The Allman Brothers) that he was raised on.
“When I lived in Antioch, they’d bus us down to the projects in Nashville to go to school and everything just started clicking with me with rap music and in life,” Yelawolf said. “I felt the connection, these kids had the same problems that I had at home. And the weed, the dope...”
His music is a new strain of soul food, the traditional Southern cuisine that fortified the Dungeon Family, 8ball & MJG, and UGK, but infused by Yela’s unique experiences as a cross-country vagabond with no place to call home. And, of course, his unparalleled ability to snap off double-timed staccato raps unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
His manager bestowed him with the nickname Joe Dirt because his experiences are so unbelievable. There was the stint commercial fishing in Alaska. An attempt to become a professional skateboarder in Berkeley thwarted by various injuries. Time spent in Seattle and New York, and of course, spots all over the South. The cross-country Greyhound tours around the country like a modern-day Jack Kerouac with the rhyme skills of LL Cool J circa the “Jack the Ripper” era.
Finally settling back down in Gadsden, Yelawolf hooked up with Gheto-O-Vision, who helped him land a deal with Columbia in 2007. Suddenly, the last 20 years of life as a vagabond seemed to be at an end. Yet the perpetual state of chaos soon re-emerged, when Rick Rubin took over the label and started cutting artists left and right. Before he had the opportunity to even finish his debut album or prove himself on a large scale, he was unceremoniously dropped.
“It was frustrating. I was just like, ‘you don’t get it? Alright, that’s cool, then I guess I’m extra special,” Yelawolf said. “I had to be arrogant because I could have been fucked up. I mean, Rick Rubin didn’t like me? But that’s just not my style. I refuse to quit.”
The only solution was to go harder, taking his anger at being slighted and turning it into something undeniable. He dropped a flurry of mixtapes, including “Stereo,” which found him riffing on old classic rock cuts from Fleetwood Mac to Pink Floyd to Heart. But while he continued to build a fan base with each release, something was missing.
“Not everybody in hip-hop messes with classic rock. There was no real element of surprise. I’m from Alabama, I’m into classic rock — it was obvious and there was no shock-value to it,” Yelawolf said. “After that, I wanted to focus on making sure that people understood that I respected the craft. “Trunk Muzik” was dedicated to the trunk riders, with 808s and hard ass music. It had a dirty Southern sound, and it opened things up.
Which is something of an understatement. “Trunk Muzik” dropped on January 1st, 2010, and within a matter of weeks, he was the toast of every blog. The New York Times raved about a live performance, describing him as “fully ascendant” and “striking and assured.” The LA Times declared he was “as safe a bet for stardom as anyone out right now — the rare rapper capable of earning respect from both Kid Rock and Kid Cudi fans.” His insanely energetic performances at SXSW were the stuff of instant-legend.
Songs like “I Wish” and “Good to Go” found Yela capable of going toe to toe with lyrical giants Bun B and Raekwon. While “Pop the Trunk” epitomized his 808-heavy trunk rattling sound, full of vivid pictures of rural redneck life and violence lurking around every bend. But Interscope didn’t just offer him a deal only to tell stories about the South. There are a million rappers capable of doing just that. But none of them can match Yelawolf’s versatility.
Whether he’s rapping over the beat for Cypress Hill’s “Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That,” Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade,” or The Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun,” Yela has the ability to adapt his style to each song. He doesn’t kick 48-bar freestyles, he re-interprets the song to fit a new meaning. He can spit with the most lyrical underground types or he can write an upbeat party anthem like “I Just Wanna Party,” alongside Gucci Mane.
“I can go any direction – arena rap or even the bluegrass hip-hop shit. I would never sign myself down to any style,” Yelawolf said. “I’m always gonna have the darker edgy music - it is always in my pocket because it comes so natural to me. You’ll never stop getting records like “Pop the Trunk” or “Good to Go” - the crunk south stuff. It will always be a part of what I do in some way. But I plan on evolving. You have to. I’m out to make long lasting records.”