Peninsular Place

The Magazine

October 1, 2012



The Redneck Poet from Gadsden, Alabama

Drive about two hours northeast of the beautiful University of Alabama campus and you’ll reach Gadsden. It’s the kind of place where shotguns are toted as loosely as iPods, where you’re more likely to see a cockfight than a football game, a meth lab than a pharmacy, a junk yard than a recycling bin. Understanding this environment is key to understanding Michael Atha, the lanky, tattoo-covered MC known as Yelawolf.

His Shady Records debut, last year’s “Radioactive,” is soaked in the culture of his hometown. Through the slippery and sneering voice of a Southern rebel with a snappy tongue, Yelawolf colors his songs with sly humor and lurid imagery (“Pick up a two-liter but I only need the plastic/ know how to make bombs out of aluminum and acid”). He’s got a novelist’s attention to detail, but what’s immediately striking is his vocal dexterity. Check the album opener, where he spouts quick verses – one on top of the other – each with their own attitude and flow, showcasing a multi-dimensional style that’s hard to come by. To many, it was a perfect introduction. But Yelawolf has been around for a while.Now 32, the once-homeless Yelawolf took a bizarre route to rap stardom. He was raised in a trailer park by a single, bartending mother. He ditched school at 15 and took to the road with his skateboard. After some prolonged state-hopping, he made it to California where he set his mind to living out his skating dreams. Derailed by injuries, he spent some time working on an Alaskan fishing boat before returning to “the gutter.” It was back in the trailer park that Yelawolf connected his roots with his ability to rap.

2005’s “Creek Water” landed with a thud in the underground scene, eventually taking him to the offices of Columbia. His stay turned sour when, shortly after his arrival, Rick Rubin moved in and cleaned house. But Yelawolf proved he had his best hiding up his sleeve. He released “Trunk Music” in 2010, which started “the best white rapper since Eminem” whispers. The two would cross paths soon after, when Yelawolf landed a deal at Interscope and was signed to Em’s own Shady Records.

“Radioactive” was recorded mostly in Vegas over just a few weeks, and Yelawolf has yet to tap the brakes. He played 250 shows in 2011 alone in support of the album. Over the past year, he’s been breathing some fresh air into mainstream rap: he teamed up with unlikely collaborators Ed Sheeran and Travis Barker to produce a handful of singles, and also recorded a conceptual mixtape with three Alabama natives taking production credits. Expect an EP from the Yela/Barker team this November. “We met over a year ago and just clicked, man,” Yelawolf says of their friendship. “We started making records the first night, and we’ve been going back and forth since.”

Recovered from a ruptured spleen that forced him to cancel a few dates back in March, Yelawolf is already a few shows into his Slumerican Tour, which he says “has been crazy so far,” with “mosh pits everywhere and bodies flying all over the place.” It’s another demanding ride with back-to-back shows scattered all throughout the schedule. On the phone, however, preparing for a show in Arizona, he’s relaxed and reflective. “My childhood programmed me for it,” he says of touring. “I’ve always been on the move.”

Most of that moving still involves a board. “I carry a skateboard pretty much anywhere I go,” he says, before listing all the people on tour with him who also pack their boards. “When I’m the only one who skates, it sucks.” He also carries the illustrated story of his life wherever he goes, in the form of some thirty tattoos spread out across his body. Among the mix of creek creatures, song titles and symbols of his Native American heritage, most apparent is the word “RED” running down the right side of his neck in crimson letters. Like the words in his songs, it’s a bold embrace of his culture, packing humor and pride in equal measure.

Though he wouldn’t get into specifics, Yelawolf says a new album with the title “Love Story” is in the works. “It’s in my head and it’s in my heart, so in a way it’s already finished,” he says. “I know what I want it to sound like. Now it’s just a matter of getting me in the studio with my people.”

Yelawolf will be performing at the EMU Pease Auditorium on October 27 with Rittz and DJ Vajra.

About the Author

Paul Kitti
Paul Kitti
Paul is another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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