It’s a warm September afternoon in Atlanta and Yelawolf is slouched on a couch in a corner of the warehouse-like Crossover Studios, bumming smokes from a photographer. Sporting a button-up shirt, khaki shorts with red peace signs printed on them, slip-on suede shoes and a beanie hat, the lanky rapper has just wrapped rehearsals for a show he is scheduled to perform alongside his Shady Records label mates Slaughterhouse three days from now in New York City.
Yelawolf, born Michael Wayne Atha, may bum the odd cigarette. But he isn’t much of a drinker anymore, a fact that he seems particularly proud of.
“I don’t drink at all before my shows anymore,” he says. “I used to get hammered back in the day…really, 2008 to 2009. I was really getting shitfaced before I went onstage. And it’s just, like, I can’t rap. Then I feel like shit the next day, and you can only do that for so long before you’re just like, ‘Man!’ There’s just certain lyrics I just can’t get out, technically, because I’m drunk. You don’t want to be sloppy drunk onstage. That’s not a good look.”
The 31-year-old Alabamian’s life has changed significantly in the eight months since he signed to Shady Records. Prepping for the release of his official debut album, Radioactive, he’s amped up and focused. “I want people to appreciate my take on what an album is supposed to be,” he says of the set, which features tracks from Ghet-O-Vision in-house producer Willpower, The Audibles and Diplo, among others, with guest appearances from Lil Jon, Mystikal, Kid Rock, Gangster Boo and Shady Records founder Marshall “Eminem” Mathers himself. “And, also to understand, up until this point, that I’ve only had the opportunity to do a mixtape run and that this album, sonically and contentwise, speaks more volumes about my inspirations. Radioactive is a play on words: It’s the fallout to this war; it’s the fallout to this struggle. It also means to be active on radio, you know? It’s my take.”
It’s clear that Yela lives for his music. He was raised around the music industry and welcomes most of the life adjustments that his dedication requires.
Yelawolf’s mother, Sheila, was 15 years old when she gave birth to him, in 1979. She was, in his words, “very beautiful and charismatic,” with a penchant for men in the music biz and a host of live-in boyfriends who would heavily influence Yelawolf’s style. His father wasn’t around much—something that resonates more now that Yela has three kids of his own. “My father, my natural father…all he had was a trailer, like, a little roll trailer behind somebody’s house,” he says. “And he just got rid of that. He sold his bike. He had a Harley… That’s all he had for years. He got rid of that… There’s nothing wrong with the simple life, but there’s a lot of problems that come along with not having a provider financially or a father to talk to.”
His grandfather was a big presence in his life. But as a child, Yelawolf found role models in the various lovers in his mother’s life. “Her first live-in boyfriend, his name was Benny Livingston, and he rode Harleys and was friends with some biker gangs,” recalls Yela, who was three at the time. “So there was a lot of Black Sabbath, metal and Southern rock during that time. It was really scary.” When he was seven, they lived with a man named John Orchard, who was the light and sound engineer for a number of groups, including Alice Cooper and Run-DMC. “We lived in the woods—Fort Payne, Alabama… So there was a lot of rock ’n’ roll, like Zeppelin and The Doors…Steely Dan and 10,000 Maniacs.”
Run-DMC came to the house one night for a party, and a preteen Yela got his hands on his first rap tapes: Licensed to Ill, by Beastie Boys, and the “My Adidas” cassette single, off Run-DMC’s Raising Hell. “That was my first introduction to hip-hop,” he says.
Next was David Longwill, the stage manager for country singer Randy Travis. Yela’s mom married Longwill, and the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to start a new life in the city of the Grand Ole Opry. But more than anything, it was when Yelawolf really got into rap music. “I was living in Antioch at the time,” he says, a community on the outskirts of town.
“And we were getting bused from an apartment complex down to this school right by the projects in Nashville. They were doing it to integrate schools. They would take all the kids from the apartments in Antioch and bus us down and vice versa. So we were, like, trading cultures, and we started to listen to some of the shit at the same time. It was, like, Nirvana, Three 6 Mafia.
It was Pearl Jam and Ice Cube. Plus, I was skating, so I was getting a lot of underground music, too. I was getting Hieroglyphics and Group Home.”
**FOR MORE OF THE YELAWOLF FEATURE, PICK UP THE NOVEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF XXL, ON STANDS NOW**