While the rest of the world salivates over the human clitoris (© Hex Murda), I would prefer to divert the attention to a rapper worthier of the approbation. The abridged version of this interview — along with a mini-feature — appeared at Pop & Hiss. Comparing Drake and Yelawolf is unfair but not necessarily invalid . One can delve into backstory, skin color, perspective, sense of regionalism, entitlement, et. al., but it’s an easy preference to explain. Regardless of biographical details or narrative scope, one of them spent a decade tirelessly honing his skill set, evolving into a masterful technician and a vivid writer with a knack for getting the small details right. I suppose I am old-fashioned. Expect extensive notes on Thank Me Later tomorrow, provided I do not get too fucked up tonight from shots of prune juice and lines of Vioxx.
Below the jump, the interview and Yela’s classic rock-riffing Stereo, a predictable but worthwhile record — especially “In the Cradle,” which may be the best Doors flip this side of “Takeover.”
I read somewhere that you were first exposed to underground hip-hop through skate videos.
Yeah through skateboarding – and my homies – the whole B Boy culture, really. On top of being in the dirty south, getting all the UGK and Dungeon Family shit, I was exposed to all this underground shit that I had never heard before. I just became attracted to everything.
Who were your favorite underground artists?
Hieroglyphics was major, as was Digable Planets, Black Moon, Onyx – the early shit.
Do the Eminem comparisons annoy you or do you take them in stride?
I don’t put any guards of comparison on, haven’t ever really. There haven’t been that many white artists yet, period. I’m just getting my feet wet. I still got years to go to establish a full concrete Yelawolf sound.
Do you think the Internet’s ability to allow for wide and immediate exposure has broadened people’s horizons to the point where they’ll know that there are other rappers out there more worthy of comparison?
The internet changed the world, you know, musically. It’s easier for the fans to be exposed – my little sister will listen to Lykke Li and then Ke$ha…and then maybe Soulja Boy and then like, Outkast… But I mean, all these kids with these ipods is stupid. I mean in a way it’s dope because of what’s on the Internet. In the next ten or twenty years, the kind of music these kids are going to be creating is going to be phenomenal.
Where are you living now? Atlanta?
I might as well be living in Atlanta. But no, I still live in Alabama, although I am working so much in Atlanta –
Atlanta has obviously emerged as a hub of the industry over the last decade and change. Is it a matter of having to live in Atlanta to network and really advance your career?
That’s where Geto-o-Vision is, and KP kind of brought everybody out to Atlanta. There are so many great artists there. Atlanta gave the South a hip hop identity. Prior to that, it was UGK, Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot, and Suave House. It was exclusively stuff from Memphis Tennessee, Nashville, and Texas – that was it. Outkast really opened up the doors for Southern Hip-Hop.
One of the things that was heartening about you getting a deal and guys like Pill is that you’re obviously a lyrical dude. It seemed for a while that A&R’s were only interested in making rappers insanely simple. Do you feel that there’s been a change in the industry over the last year or two
Definitely. It’s cool because people realize that artists can be lyrical and not necesarily corny — you don’t have to be rhyming ‘lyrical, spiritual, miracle.’
Your mixtape “Stereo” had a lot of recognizable classic-rock samples, which ostensibly would’ve brought you a lot of fans from people who were sucked in by the original source material. Yet it was “Trunk Muzik” that really got you traction. Why do you think “Stereo” didn’t have that sort of success?Two things: The first is that not everybody in hip-hop [messes] with classic rock. The second is that 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.That said, I was really focused on making sure that people understood that I respected the craft and hip-hop. “Trunk Muzik” was dedicated to the trunk riders, with 808s and hard ass [stuff]. It had a dirty Southern sound, and it opened things up.
With “Stereo,” we spent a lot of time digging around and trying to be really tasteful with the samples. I know a lot of people who [mess] with “Trunk Muzik” aren’t into “Stereo,” but I still love it — it contains some of the favorite records I’ve ever done.
How did the video for “Pop the Trunk” come about. Was it scripted? Your mom and step-dad are in it, right?
We shot that video with no light – just a camera – yeah my mom and pops were in that video, that’s my home town, Gadsden. I mean, it was a no brainer to shoot it there because of how descriptive the lyrics were about all of the people and all the situations.
What was it like growing in Gadsden?
Well I mean I was born in Gadsden, Alabama. I stayed there until I was five and then moved to Baton Rouge. I came back to Gadsen when I was six and i went to kindergarten and first grade on the south side. Then I moved to Tennessee. I went to over fifteen schools in elementary and high school. My roots are in ‘bama but I spent so much time in Antioch, Tennessee and Atlanta that those places really opened me up – I mean all my homies in Gadsden – they’re not as exposed as I am culturally. But I mean that’s one reason why i love going home to Gadsden. I mean I’ll be in the kitchen with people who all they know is the simple life. Life is so simplified there, I mean what’s important and what’s dope. I’m so drawn to the culture of Alabama – of red necks and all that hardcore dirty south shit culture because I understand it man – It’s so simple. It’s real black and white. I mean that’s the way life should be. We really have a tendency to complicate our situation.
People come to the south and they’re like this is boring. For me I’m like just chill for a second, relax. We just do different shit in the south – shoot guns or go fishin, go to the club on a Friday night – hanging out in parking lots in cars. It’s the Bible belt and there’s that religious aspect, people are really spiritual. Individuals search for God. It evokes certain emotion and certain songs, I mean, that’s why Soul Food, the Goodie Mob album, was such a classic Southern record.
Or voodoo rap like Witch Doctor.
He’s a perfect example of that spiritualism. That’s what it is out there – they’re a real God fearing people but really hardcore at the same time. Rarely does anybody steer away from God in the south – which is dope.
Are you religious?
No – I’m not religious at all. I’ve always believed in Jesus as a man and a prophet –and a king as a person who changed the world and had healing powers – and probably was like Ghandi. I think it’s a bit like Buddah – it’s the same kind of concept – all religion has the same principles.
Do you go to church?
I’ve been to church ten times but i never got comfortable anywhere.
Was that because you think your personality was inherently opposed to that?
Partly my personality, but also my mom was always an atheist growing up.
That must have been pretty strange growing up in the South
Nobody really knew. When my neighbor introduced me to Christ and told me the story, it became a blanket for me because of the troubles in my house. I was leaning on my prayers as a getaway. Christ and Jesus have always been that staying power for me due to my lack of a father. Regardless of religion or what people say, that’s just my personal relationship with religion. It was my outlet, Christ was just a conveyor. I’ve had my own experiences and know that it’s a real thing so I keep it separate from my music. The south is good for that too, you make your own decisions in life.
But organized religion can be so full of shit. Any collective of people has always been weird to me because there is so much human emotion bottled up in it. When you’re in it you might feel something that you think might be God – but it’s really more that you might just be getting stirred up emotionally. Gadsden is a small town. It has fifty to a hundred churches, a factory, a walmart and a mall –
Did you feel like you had to get out of there?
My mom brought me out of there, that’s why we moved around. But I didn’t leave home until I was 16. Came out to Tampa with my buddy Nathan Smith. Then he was going back to Nashville, he dropped me off in Atlanta where I stayed on my momma’s couch.
Were you always rappin’?
I was always like rappin’ in the car. Me and my boys just like freestylin’ being like, whatever. Being like, horrible. The only problem with that for me was like, when I became serious and when I started to write and shit. I would be in the car and my friends would be like, whoah man you got verses! I mean it just spawned from there. It just got more and more serious. I mean I just started developing my own style.
Who did you want to be like when you first started writing?
When I first started writing I was into NWA. I fell in love with that sound. But it wasn’t until Nashville that I started to understand it. I mean up to that point the music had just been rock n’ roll because i was just a kid. No one handed me the music hip-hop until after my mom’s friends gave me a Run-DMC tape that they had taken home from the road.
Big Cube fan?
Yeah, Ice Cube. Oh and, automatically, when I say NWA, it means Eazy too. The west coast ruled the world. Yeah I mean, I rocked dickie suits, Ben Davis, the Raider’s jackets.
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 in music and in life. Like, damn, this is who i am. I felt the connection – these kids had the same problems that I had at home. And the weed, the dope. But most of the white kids their parents went to work. Like, my mom was a bartender. These kids didn’t have the perfect life and neither did I. I could rap about hard shit, but I was in the 4th grade, so you can imagine like straight out of the country, bowl cut Randy Travis shirt, Butler Brown, no style, no concept of image, nothing like that. everybody at school they’d dog me like, do you skateboard, do you wear air walks, so i started rappin’ and skateboarding.
So what brought you out to Berkeley?
I mean I had dropped out of school – I went to Atlanta with my buddy and then he decided to drive to Berkeley on a skating mission.
Did you ever think about doing Hip-Hop for a career at that time?
Hell nah, I was a skateboarder. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. I knew I loved hip-hop and shit, but I didn’t have a full grip on who I was. I just had this little Honda and we started to drive to San Diego to a trade show, and then we went up to Berkeley and started out making videos. I mean I wasn’t making skate videos, but I was skating and being in the scene. I kept getting hurt though, you know what I’m saying. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. I bruised up my ankle a lot. It just kept getting easier and easier to mess up. Eventually, I met up with some dudes in Oakland while iIwas working at a promotions company, passing out free samples. I ended up going into the studio there –
Was that the first time you ever really recorded?
mmm, the first real time yeah. But i didn’t really end up recording I ended up just hanging out, soaking up game.
What year was that?
2000. I was just out there, just trying to figure it out. It was dope. But I mean, I never really prepared, so I mean I was over it, I was over trying to pursue that kind of skating career – you know – like, I could not handle myself. Other dudes were like killing it. But I kept getting hurt and eventually I just lost my willpower. I was at Food not Bombs in Berkeley. Eventually I was just like fuck it, I’m going back. It’s very complicated. Really in depth in detail, I have this photographic memory of everything, so it’s hard to sum up.
So you ended up back in Gadsden, but nobody from your family was there?
My family was there on and off; my grandparents who I had been staying with in Gadsden had moved so my uncle was at their house. He gave me a room, but we didn’t get along so he kicked me out, so I had to start doing questionable shit.
What sort of questionable shit?
Doing dirt. I’ll leave it at that. I left Berkeley at the end of November, by December, I was on a boat in Alaska. I was doing commercial fishing…Honestly man, that shit, is a movie in itself. First off, I took the greyhound bus from Alabama to Seattle to dock, but I got on the wrong bus. There are two buses, i got on the wrong one to Washington D.C. I fell asleep and woke up in Atlanta, going towards the east coast. But iIwas able to switch buses in Chicago… I spent my birthday on the bus… and then when i finally got to Seattle, I went and stood under a church awning in the snow. Fucking homeless for two days. Then I hooked up with some other kids out there and they got temp jobs work in the morning to pay for a hotel and do it again the next day — that lasted for two days until I got on a boat.
Was it hard to stay positive through all that or was this a dark time in your life?
I guess you know, when your determination and your will outweigh your pocket – it doesn’t matter what you can pay for, you just end up in crazy situations – i’m just so fucking determined to get what I’m out to get, I would risk it all to make it happen.
So how’d you get to Columbia?
Hustling in Atlanta, left the trailer park in Huntsville. – I was in New York for a little bit. Then I moved back to Atlanta, then i moved back to Alabama. I had odd jobs then, you know, anything I could do. Painted a couple murals, graffiti shit, then I was in Nashville, fucking around, just bombing not a real graffiti artists but I had the talent, I was learning to paint a bit.
Are you a fan of street art?
Well yeah, i mean, Banksy. I have looked at his book several times. I love street art – I did a lot of stuff around town – I remember it all. My manager calls me Joe Dirt because I got so many stories and they’re so unbelievable. Or is it really that everyone has unbelievable stories and I’m the only one who remembers.
When you were a Columbia, Rick Rubin came along and got rid of you – you would think the guy who produced The Beastie Boys and Run DMC wouldn’t do that to you…
Yeah that was frustrating. I was just like, you don’t get it? Alright, that’s cool, then I guess I’m extra special. Had to be arrogant because I could have been fucked up. I mean, Rick Rubin didn’t like me? That’s just not me, I refuse, I refuse. I’ve always been that way – stubborn in the way that i would always have to learn from myself in order to figure out that what I was doing was wrong. And then i’ll come back and tell you, you were right. But I mean I will admit to someone when they are right about something. But in order to understand I have to do it for myself. People will tell me, ‘oh wolf don’t do that shit you’re going to hurt yourself. Fuck you man, I’m trying’. And if i land, it’s like ‘eeh man, i told ya. But if i fuck up it’s like, ‘aah man, you were right.’ But I mean, look I ended up at Interscope a few years later.I became this rare breed rapper from all this shit that I had been exposed to.
Before signing with Interscope did you have a lot of offers from a lot of different lables? What made you go with them?
It made creative sense for us, you know what I’m saying? Like we worked so hard to build a sound and we wanted to keep our creative control and our integrity and be able to continue to make music the way we wanted to. And so that people could see me the way that we envisioned it.
Do you worry everyone wants pop music in rap? Do you worry about having to compromise to get your album released?
If you look at my discography of music that I put out, you’ll know that I can go any direction – arena rap or even the bluegrass hip-hop shit. I would never sign myself down to any style. Like if I fucking make a record that becomes a pop hit – who gives a fuck – I’m Yelawolf. I mean I am 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 shit. It will always be a part of what I do in some way. But I plan on evolving. You have to.
The integrity of my muic is always in mind. But I’m out to make long lasting records. I know what the underground is, I’ve been there for a long time.
So what does your album look like?
Some of the records are bananas ahead of the curve, it’s going to be the next step. It’s the evolution of the sound and that will be different from Trunk Muzik.
Well, it’s not more of a step forward. The album will be different, and better, and bigger. I mean all that matters is that you’re making music and a week later you still get what you’re saying and it still sounds good.Will Power is still making beats. Got a record from Diplo that’s fucking dumb. I’m reaching out to Jim Jonsin, he’s got some dope shit. Geto-o-vision – of course KP and Cool.
That’s cool that you’re sticking with the guys who helped you out in the first place. Better than trying to get Boi-1Da or whoever the hot producer is this week that will give you the beats that Drake passed on.
I mean, I’ll shop around I’ll listen to anybody’s beats, you never know where the next record will come from – whether it’s someone famous or not – so I always try to listen.
Are you trying to work with someone famous?
We’re just trying to take things record by record. Sometimes you set yourself up for a wrong situation if you try to think too far ahead before you have actually made the music.
Who would you want to work with?
Wilie Nelson. I mean, he’s Willie Nelson. I really want to work with legends before you know it’s too late. They’ve been putting it down for so many years.