A fishing boat off the coast of Alaska is a long way from where one might expect to find a skinny kid from Alabama whose pondering a career in rap music, but that was where Yelawolf, born Michael Wayne Atha, was a few years ago, trying to raise some fast money to put together a recording studio.
Although the plan didn’t work, Yelawolf’s luck has improved considerably this year, and hardwork was no small part of it. In the last few months, following the release of his free album Trunk Muzik, he’s won over massive crowds at this year’s South By Southwest and garnered critical acclaim from across the spectrum of media — from hip hop bloggers to the Washington Post.
This week, Yelawolf lands in Savannah for a Friday show at AASU — open only to AASU, Georgia Southern, and Savannah State students — alongside fellow rapper Wiz Khalifa and R&B sensation Jeremih.
We caught up with Yelawolf by phone last week while he was on his way from Washington, D.C. to New York for a show.
Looking back, what made you cross over from listening to hip hop to writing rhymes?
Yelawolf: I’m just an extremist. The first time I listened to rock I wanted to be Axl Rose. The first time I heard the Beastie Boys or NWA or Snoop, I wanted to be like them. I didn’t really think about it too much. I just did it. I’ve always aspired to be what’s cool to me. I wrote my first rhyme in 5th grade. I didn’t start pursuing it as a profession until ’07. I’d always been writing.
What was it that made you decide to try and make it a profession?
Yelawolf: I was in Berkeley, CA. I went out there to pursue skateboarding and I kept getting hurt. I was growing tired of the skate game, growing tired of being a rat, living with friends on couches. I stood up, literally, and decided that was it, I’m not gonna pursue skateboarding because I’m more passionate about music. I made that decision at the end of December and in January I was on a fishing boat in Alaska trying to get my money up to get a studio.
Why a fishing boat in Alaska? That doesn’t seem like a traditional path for a dude from Alabama.
Yelawolf: In Alabama, you either work in a factory, your parents are paying for you to go college, you sell dope, or you’re pursuing sports. I’m not a hustler. I didn’t have parents to put me through college and I’m not built for a 9 to 5.
Some friends hit me up and said “I heard we can get go to Seattle and get on a boat and make like 20 stacks for a months worth of work.” I was like fuck it, let’s go. I hopped on a Greyhound bus and went for it.
Is it like that show Deadliest Catch?
Yelawolf: Yeah, that job. Winter time. Bering Sea. A factory trawler. 20 hour days. 7 days a week.
But you walked away with $20 grand?
Yelawolf: Hell nah, I walked away with like $1500. That’s what happens when you make decisions with no plans, which I have a history of. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.
What’s the origin of the moniker?
Yelawolf: Yelawolf is Cherokee. Yellow represents the sun, light, power, hunger, knowledge and wolf represents the Bible and being a pack leader. My father is Cherokee.
You got a label deal pretty quick that fell apart because of politics. You’ve got some buzz right now, and you’ve got folks curious. Are you trying for another label deal? Do rappers need labels anymore in the post–internet industry?
Yelawolf: Labels will always be around to better an artist’s situation. They’re still good for making you bigger, but the internet and the hustle has changed. It’s going back to rock. Just getting out here and doing what we’ve been doing – putting out music and doing shows and meeting people. You can’t download the live show experience. You can’t download a T–shirt. You can’t download a handshake, a hug, the ways you connect with fans. You’ve just got to give people what they can’t get online.
Is it harder to get credibility as a white rapper in the South? Do you feel like you had to work twice as hard to get respect initially?
Yelawolf: Nah. My friends see it more than I do. I put a shell around me. I don’t read media, I don’t go online. I don’t watch show footage. I just let it live. I leave comparisons up to everyone else. I do understand that it’s human nature, but there’s no one else you can compare me to really.
Em? Bubba? Who else? There’s a lot of white MCs, but not nationally or internationally known. It’s a different road for a white artist. There’s consistent issues with being a white rapper. On one hand I understand why there are misconceptions or why people cross their arms and wait. I would too. I don’t know too many people like myself. There’s not many out there.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t gotten to work with yet?
Yelawolf: Andre 3000, I’m looking forward to working with him. I’ve got my sights set big. I want to really do some genre-bending style. I’d like to work with Carrie Underwood or Anthony Kiedis — really take it somewhere else and make some innovative music.
Having moved around so much, what is it that brought you back to Alabama?
Yelawolf: I was born in Alabama. I live in the hometown I was born in. My family for generations have lived in Gadsden and Southside and Rainbow City. I love it there. It’s where I find my inspiration. That’s who I am at the core.
I’m Southern. I just love it down there. I can’t say I won’t move somewhere else in the future, but for right now that’s where I’m comfortable. I’ll always have a crib in Gadsden.
You’re really writing about more personal stuff than a lot of other folks in the industry. Where is the line between you and your stage persona? Is there one?
Yelawolf: I won’t write about anything I haven’t experienced. I’m not walking around angry every day, of course. “Pop the Trunk” is not a good example of how I am on the day to day. Or “Love is Not Enough” — I don’t walk around broken hearted. “Good to Go” — I’m not crunk every minute of the day.
It’s just different pieces of my life on different days, different inspirations from different times that collectively I make records with. I derive all my inspiration from real life situations but there’s no record that defines me entirely. I don’t think anyone on earth has that has that kind of record. People are too complex.
Jeremih, Wiz Khalifa, Yelawolf
When: April 9, Doors: 8pm, Show: 9pm
Where: AASU Fine Arts Auditorium, 11935 Abercorn St.
Cost: $10/adv, $20/door
Only open to AASU, SSU and GSU students