“Back to the Basics, man. Let’s. Make. This. Right.” Yelawolf Talks Major Label Redemption & The Dixie Mafia

From having the #1 Rap Song of 2010 on this site, to dropping a brick with Fefe Dobson, Yelawolf now knows the ledge. Jimmy Ness breaks cornbread with Catfish Billy.
By    January 16, 2015

Art by Bas Van Uyen

Jimmy Ness gets the club kickin’ like chicken

In 2011, Yelawolf was on a victory run. The half-Cherokee rapper born Michael Wayne Atha had escaped a dangerous career in deep-sea fishing, weeks of homelessness and being dropped from Columbia by Rick Rubin to prove he was rap’s next big star. Atha had raw talent and could rhyme over any style of music, even embracing his country roots without coming across as yet another novelty act. Trunk Muzik released the year prior had amassed a huge online following and Eminem quickly signed Yelawolf as one of the first acts on the newly revived Shady Records. Spirits were understandably high when he told XXL in an interview that year: “I can tell you that when you’re willing to give your life up to see a dream through, the reward is great. And now that I’ve become an apprentice to one of the greatest artists in the world, my potential reaches beyond anything I ever imagined.”

Unfortunately his debut album Radioactive never delivered on his potential. Atha sounded misplaced on several tracks containing uncomfortable collaborations, uninspired beats and forced crossover attempts, later admitting he had given up creative control to his formerly trusted production company. In 2012 he suffered a ruptured spleen during a performance in Wisconsin and was placed in the Intensive Care Unit, an accident that he credits for putting his life under renewed focus. Determined to put out a project that his fans deserved, Yelawolf released the Trunk Muzik Returns mixtape last year. He spent the latter half of 2013 recording his second LP in a secluded Nashville studio with only a few close collaborators. During our interview we talked about the recording process this time around, convincing Big Boi to let him rap, working with Eminem and which “Box Chevy” chapter is his favourite. Recharged and shaking off the ghost of Radioactive, Yelawolf is convinced sophomore album Love Story will continue his return to form. I for one believe him.

You’ve said previously that your friends in your hometown Gasden, Alabama aren’t as exposed as you culturally and live very simple lives. In some ways you feel that’s how life should be? 

There’s definitely a piece of me that’s always there. The more years that I’ve spent on the road with travelling and stuff, obviously I’ve become more culturally aware, but there’s people back in Gadsden that have never even left Alabama. I appreciate that life, you know. I admire the simple life. I could never live it because my mind is too out there, but I love it man. It’s like drinking a glass of Muscadine wine. It’s just a really good throwback feeling to go home and go fishing and just hang out. Listen to the crickets by the campfire type of deal.

I’ve made home in Nashville too and I’ve spent a lot of time out there in Tennessee. I’ve moved back to Nashville now and it gives me the same feeling to go back.

Have you heard of the Dixie Mafia? 

It was an old dealing crew who sold dope. They would move it around and stuff like that, from what I’ve heard. One of the dude’s nephews from the Dixie Mafia was a friend of mine and we had started a little crew called the Dixie Mafia.

Yeah, I saw that you were featured with a group called the Dixie Mafia on Wiki. 

In my Wikipedia? Jesus, they need to update that damn thing. That was like 10 years ago or some shit.

You took a few years away from the internet and being active on social media, did you take that time to rediscover yourself?

Yeah, for sure. It was time to regroup, rediscover myself. Go back and get my roots together. Ultimately stop studying social media. For a while it became such an annoying job. I had to figure out if I was going to do it, how I was going to do it and why. It had to be as consistent as the music that I’m trying to make, image wise, what I say and how I say it. Sometimes I’ll walk around with a post for three or four hours before I’ll hit send. I approach it in a totally different way now. The break was needed. It definitely hurt my followers, but I’d rather that than to have continued on the way I was, fighting with random people from random places about whatever. Making myself look stupid online by paying attention to the wrong people.

Do you look at your second album as a chance at redemption?

It’s definitely redemption. Maybe some day there will be a behind the scenes and I’ll be able to explain and people will be able to know what happened with Radioactive. For example when I walked into the studio on my first album, Lil Jon was already on my record and I’d be like “Oh…” Or when I walked in the studio, the hook would already be on a record. “You can do this, just rap on this shit, it’s a hit.” That type of feeling. It was very rushed. It was mine and Marshall’s freshman album, so people were crawling to be a part of it. This [new] album was made where I locked the studio door. Back to the fucking basics man. Let’s. Make. This. Right. I fired my old production company that blew all my money from Radioactive. There was a lot of stuff man. I’m still owed like $100,000 just of my own money that my production company robbed me for. It was a big, big fucking mess. At the end of the day it just came down to people being greedy. So yes, this is redemption. That’s what “Til It’s Gone” is about. It’s about not being taken advantage of anymore.

Did Eminem feel in some way responsible as executive producer for what went wrong with your album?

No, not at all. Unfortunately, Marshall and I, we pretty much got separated on the first album. My production company was like “nah, nah, nah, we’ll handle that.” It was just a mess, man. I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Now it’s completely different. It’s me, my manager, Paul Rosenberg and Eminem. That’s pretty much the circle. There is no one else. It’s really cool.

It seems like Interscope has learned a lesson as well. I can’t imagine them allowing you to release a single like “Til It’s Gone” on your first album. That’s not a typical commercial sound. 

Yeah well you know, John Janick is the new president and we have a great group of people working there. “Til It’s Gone” wasn’t supposed to be a radio single, it was just something we all knew had a great sound. It was a great first record and it’s just made traction, which is the best way. We’re all really happy with it. I think it’s important for fans to understand that there’s a lot of good people in the industry. The industry gets a bad rep of being evil and shady and all of this, but it’s not always the case man. A lot of times you’ll find the people that last the longest in the industry, it’s because they treat people right. A label will learn from mistakes, so it’s like yeah they listen to me and my crew more than ever and we’ve earned that. They still kill it at what they do, so sometimes it takes time to work out the kinks in a relationship. That biggest kink that I’ve worked out, it’s gone. It was a big big deal to get rid of the production company.

The people that you choose to work with, you feel a personal connection with them as well as a musical one. 

I’ve always been pretty hardcore on features. I’ve made one and I mean literally one mistake of taking money for a feature just to get the money. Man, I’ll never do it again. It wasn’t worth it, you know what I mean? People ask me all the time “how much for a feature?” I’m like “eh, I just don’t work like that bro, but I appreciate you.” I have to like the song and I have to be into what you do, and what you do has got to make sense with me. I try to be as picky as possible.

Again, I had a production company that would throw features at me and tell me it was a good look. At the end of the day it didn’t hurt me per se but it’s just like it didn’t really throw me out there like it was supposed to have. So it’s like now I’ll write the right one or the right song. For instance, I gave birth to the idea of having Eminem and Gangsta Boo on a record. That was my idea. It’s very quirky and very me. It’s my style to want to do a record like that. That’s a good example of a choice that I made and you know what, honestly it’s still one of the fan favourites.

Outkast is one of your favourite groups ever. Would it be fair to say working with Big Boi is one of the most meaningful moments in your career thus far?

Absolutely, when I met Big Boi through my old manager Bear who hooked us up, it was pretty surreal. I sat there and listened to his album all the way and he let me hear the whole thing. He was like “so what’s up man, let’s rock, let’s do something.” So he starts playing me these beats, he plays me like this wannabe rock and roll record and he wanted me to be that white boy that sings a rock and roll hook. Which I fully understand his angle, but I was like “Big Boi, man, if would please just let me, I’d would rather just rap with you.” And he starts going through beats and he plays “You Ain’t No DJ.” I was like “hey man, how about that one, how about that one!” He was like “naaah shawty, uh-uh, Andre 3000 made this beat, you ain’t getting on this beat.” I was like “aw man, come on just give me a shot. Listen if you don’t like it, I swear to god, I’ll still fucking love ya’ll like I always have and we can work something else out no problem.” I took that beat and I wrote like 70 bars man. It was like ba-ba-ba-ba just going off and we eventually ended up cutting it. Those two verses I have are cut out of one really long verse that I had written originally. Then he brought me on the BET Awards with him, wearing a Hank Williams shirt, let me just throw in there. I rocked that show. It was a moment man. I really really appreciate Big Boi and that co-sign for sure.

I’m sure your old manager Kawan Prather from Dungeon Family had some good stories about recording ATLiens. 

Yeah he had some good stories man, about recording it all to tape and everything being non-digital. All SE 12300S, reel to reel or adat tape. All those old beats. I mean you can hear that, that warm hiss.

As a kid your mom’s then boyfriend who worked lighting would take you on tour with country acts?

My momma’s boyfriend was doing June Jam, which was a big country music festival in Alabama. So yeah, that year was Randy Travis, Alabama, Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, David Allan Coe, so yeah I was deep in that. Then we went to Nashville and after she left that one guy, her and her husband got remarried and he was the stage manager for Randy Travis. So I was around that stuff for years. I went to church with Shooter Jennings, Waylon Jenning’s son. One of my best friends is Waylon’s grandson [Waylon Struggle Jennings]. I’ve definitely always been in the country world somehow.

Why do you think you’re one of the few artists who is able to rap over rock or metal without coming across as contrived?

I think part of it is just because of my taste for music of any genre. I would like to think I have good taste, no matter what genre it is. Like if it’s metal or country or hip-hop. I’m picky about it. I don’t like something just because it’s rock or just cause it’s metal. It still has to be good. Growing up I used to hear people rapping over country and oh god, it sounded so wack! Or hear some random rapper put a metal guitar over his wack beat.

It always seems so forced. 

Yeah, so it has always been a challenge to me to try to figure out how to do it. How to make it right and respectable from every angle so hopefully that’s coming across because I certainly care about it. Definitely consider myself as one of the people giving an evolution to it, because I didn’t invent this shit. You can’t reinvent the wheel, man. Beastie Boys did this, Rick Rubin did this. Rick Rubin actually nailed it. He did it in the ’80s. Rage Against The Machine nailed it. Red Hot Chilli Peppers nailed it. You know. Kid Rock nailed it. It’s not that it hasn’t been done before, I’m doing it the way I see it. 

How are your guitar skills? 

I mean dude, I hang out with one of the best guitar players ever so I suck terribly. My buddy Bones Owens who is out here playing with me, he’s incredible. Yeah… no man. I can write, but I’m far from performing live with a guitar. I can write in the studio and play shit and hand the guitar to my boy and be like “see, see what I did, now do that better.”

You described how you were working on your new album as how a rock artist would, with a full band and everything? 

Yeah, it had to be that way. I brought my boy back Malay who produced Arena Rap, which was before Trunk Muzik. It was like the meeting of the minds, all of my close friends and most trusted producers and musicians. Getting the right musicians took us about five months, so it was a passionate project.

How long did you and Eminem spend in Detroit and what was the vibe like in the studio?

Well I went to Detroit and recorded a few records for Eminem. I think three of them. It’s always fun in the studio. It’s never too serious. I mean, you keep it light when you’re with artists because you want to save that seriousness for the booth. So even if you’re cutting a serious record it doesn’t mean you have to light candles and dim the lights, you know what I mean? You save that aggressive energy. You don’t have to create an intense energy in the studio to get an intense record. So to me it’s always been about having fun. I actually like to have a party when I record. I like to have groups of people. Some people don’t like to have anyone around, but for me it’s always helped me to make better records.

What’s the meaning behind your new album’s title Love Story?

Well the title just represents the passion to continue man. After all the problems and things that were going on with music and my personal life. The Love Story is the album’s story. The Love Story is my life. My life is the Love Story. I just wanted to make a project that followed that. The title came before the first song was recorded. I’ve done that with every project, that’s how I make music now. Write the title, do the artwork, fill in the pages so that way I know what it needs to be in between the front and the back page.

Do you have a favourite from “Box Chevy I, II, III, IV and V”?

I think maybe [Box Chevy] one because it just opened up the lane. The first one I did was a singing one, all singing, and I have to give credit to the O.G, the original “Box Chevy.” But, my favourite sonically, just the one that’s jammin’ is definitely [“Box Chevy”] five. I think most people will pick part three with Rittz off of Trunk Muzik, but I think five is my favourite. By the way, I’m giving away the Box Chevy that’s in that video for my album.


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