Yelawolf: Out of the Box
Listen to his new album or looks at his tattooed skin, and you’ll know Yelawolf, the rapper behind “Box Chevy V,” is a proud non-conformist.
From the second he exploded onto the scene, Yelawaolf has presented the music industry with a conundrum: The proudly southern artists has a style that is impossible to fit into a tidy category. Like many of America’s greatest cultural achievements—jazz, Buffalo wings, black-and-gray tattooing—Yelawolf draws from diverse cultural influences and the result is unique.
In order to connect with his fans, Yelawolf often uses social media to hold scavenger hunts, leaving clues in the form of Instagram pictures and challenging his followers to figure out the mystery. So if you want to understand how the boy named Michael Atha became the rapper Yelawolf, you too can just follow the clues…
1. Musical Melting Pot
To discover the secrets of Yelawolf’s unique sound, just look at the hodgepodge of musical infl uences that he experienced in his youth. “I’m from Alabama and grew up on Foghat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Feat, 10,000 Maniacs, and shit like that playing around the house,” Yelawolf says. “Then came Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and N.W.A. And then came metal.”
In addition to the diverse rock and rap infl uences, Yelawolf was inspired by country music (his mom dated a guy who worked on lighting for acts like Alabama and Dwight Yoakam, and young Yelawolf would spend summers touring with them). It’s taken a long time for Yelawolf to channel all of these sounds into something cohesive, but with his new release, Love Story, he feels that he has finally hit his stride.
2. Lone Wolf
While he enjoys working with a tight-knit pack of friends and collaborators, Yelawolf believes he’s at his peak when he is perfecting things on his own. When he was working on his fi rst major label album, he was given feedback from a lot of different voices and ended up throwing in a lot of ideas that he wasn’t 100 percent pleased with. “All of my best records and the fan favorites are the ones that are just solely me,” Yelawolf says. “I’m just that kind of artist. I can’t write for other people— that’s really hard for me—and it’s also hard for someone else to write for me.”
Over the last year, Yelawolf has been hunkered down in a Nashville studio working out material for his album in relative solitude, with only a select few of his most trusted comrades helping out. “We just started zoning out and used a whole new approach to making this record,” Yelawolf explains. “It was artist only—my producer, the musicians, and myself. That’s it. I felt really free creatively to do shit that I haven’t really put out. Like singing and songwriter shit. It’s still hip-hop, but it’s evolving into something. The rock and roll and the country are all starting to gel.”
With the freedom to stop looking over his shoulder to make sure the label heads weren’t getting nervous about not hearing a single (or other such trifl es) Yelawolf says he was able to focus on pleasing his toughest critic—himself. “I think it just took this year of being left alone with my thoughts and shit to see what went wrong and what went right with my music and blending that shit,” Yelawolf says. “I’m just comfortable in my own skin. Critiquing yourself for an entire year will do that. By listening to an entire record for eight months before anyone else has heard it, you fi gure out if you like it before someone else does.”
3. An Almost Full Canvas
From his hairline to his toes, Yelawolf has covered himself with tattoos that reveal elements of his personality and where he’s from. While a significant amount of his body has been inked, Yelawolf has more than a few unfinished pieces, including a back piece that has been on hiatus for close to five years. “My friend Tony came to my crib in Alabama and traced the portrait of Jesus from the wall so it’s actual size,” Yelawolf says. “He started outlining it but then I had to leave for tour and do some shit, so it’s been sitting there outlined for, like, five years. It’s at least 10, 12 more hours of sitting. When you can’t see what’s happening, it sucks. You’re lying on your stomach and you’re just waiting for the needle. It hurts worse.”
In order to avoid having another piece sitting unfinished for half a decade, Yelawolf used a different strategy when his pal John Caleb tattooed his arms and chest. The artist flew to Alabama and did massive sections over the course of six days. Yelawolf admits this may not have been the most prudent plan. “It was insane—it was craziness,” he recalls. “By the fourth day I was projectile vomiting and screaming. … He was only supposed to be there five days, but he had only done one side of my chest so I had to do one more day. Afterward I was like, ‘Damn, man, I did it.’”
Not too long ago Yelawolf took an even bolder step and decided to get a few facial tattoos. The piece on his hairline promoting his record label, Slumerican, didn’t garner that much controversy, but his lip tattoo was not met with the same indifference. “When I did my lip, that changed everything,” Yelawolf says. “The looks that I got walking through the airport made me say ‘Wow.’ I don’t regret it necessarily, but I didn’t expect it to be such a big deal.” The way the public reacted to his new ink was only part of the problem; he also made the mistake of not warning his fiancée before he got the tattoo. Luckily, she is a very understanding woman.
4. A Man of the People
Yelawolf knows that connecting with his fans is the key to a successful career. He spends a lot of the time on the road trying to play as many shows as possible, even though a couple of injuries have prevented him from jumping headfirst into the pit like he used to. And after some initial skepticism, he’s also embraced social media platforms, including Instagram.
“I figured if I was going to do it, I would utilize it to do some fun shit,” Yelawolf says. “It started when I fell really hard doing a skateboard trick while filming it for Instagram. I got so pissed that I threw my board and my shoes up on a roof and said fuck it. I stole the cameraman’s board and skated off. We took a photo of my shoes hanging on the wire and wrote, “Find these shoes and my complete and meet me for a beer.” Some dude climbed up on that roof and found that skateboard and shoes within something like 20 minutes! It’s cool to have that excuse to meet a random fan.”
Since that experience, Yelawolf has been leaving clues all over the place for his fans to find. Sometimes it’ll be something simple like tickets to a show hidden in a snow bank, and other times it’ll be some one-of-a-kind swag. There has also been a fair amount of trial and error to the process. One time, a plan to hide a Slumerican belt signed by Eminem went awry when he and his friends made the mistake of posting a picture of themselves en route to the hiding spot. By the time they arrived, a guy who had ducked out of work and jumped on his bike to ride through the rain was already there to meet them. “We took him out for a beer and he got an amazing piece,” Yelawolf says.
The phenomenon has taken off to such a degree that an intrepid Yelawolf fan is going to end up with a new set of wheels. “Monster, Shady, and I came together and we built a ’67 Chevrolet that we’re going to be hiding and giving away online,” Yelawolf says.
5. Keen Artistic Vision
When it comes to the visual art that covers his skin and graces his album covers, Yelawolf knows exactly what he wants, and it’s often a heavy dose of traditional tattoo art. “It’s probably just my roots coming out,” he says. “I grew up around that scene. One of my mom’s first long-term boyfriends was a biker. Things that you never even imagine that you would be doing come out because they are just in you.”
When he was designing the cover for Love Story, Yelawolf made a very bold artistic decision. “I thought that me holding a gun with a tattoo saying ‘Love Story’ would be a dope cover,” Yelawolf says. But rather than fake the image with Photoshop, “I went and got the tattoo.”
As cool as that concept is, it pales in comparison to the artwork for Psycho White, Yelawolf’s collaboration with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Tattoo artist Franco Vescovi created an image that was half of each man and paid special attention to the ink that was already on their skin. “Franco is crazy,” Yelawolf remembers of the process. “I was at Travis’s crib and [Vescovi] came by and took the photo of us. We all brainstormed the idea right then and there. He asked what I was into and he just murdered it. He’s incredible.”
6. Having the Heart of Dixie
It only takes one quick glance at his stomach, which reads “Heart of Dixie,” to know that Yelawolf is extremely proud of his southern roots. His choice to feature the Confederate flag on his clothing and on his skin has garnered a fair amount of controversy. Some consider it a symbol of racism, but Yelawolf believes it’s merely a representation of the culture he grew up with, the same as watching shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and listening to Skynyrd. “Before I knew that there was a negative stigma attached to the flag, it was just southern,” Yelawolf explains. “None of my friends and none of my mother’s friends were ever down with any racist bullshit, never. I wasn’t raised to be that way. I grew up in a mixed-culture society. My mom would have slapped my head off my shoulders if I said some racist shit.”
Yelawolf defends his use of the imagery by pointing to other southern hip-hop artists who have worn the flag as a symbol of southern pride—notably Andre 3000 in his “Ms. Jackson” video—but he also concedes that he understands why it’s different for him to use it. From the very first video he created, he tried to incorporate the flag in a manner that demonstrated he wasn’t racist, by showing people of different ethnicities hanging together. “I’m not a politician, man—everybody rocks [the flag] where I’m from,” he says. “But when I put it on it became an issue, and that’s probably why I’m going so hard with it. I feel like that by repping it so hard, it puts my back against a wall where I won’t ever take it off. So that’s why I got the [Confederate flag] tattoo. I can’t take it off—ever.”
While once could easily cite any of the preceding clues as the reason Yelawolf stands out from the crowd, it’s the combination of all of them that has created the hard-to-categorize artist he is. “If I wanna sing a song I’m going to sing a song, if I wanna rap I’m gonna rap, if I wanna wear Chucks I’m gonna wear Chucks, and if I wanna wear cowboy boots I’ll wear cowboy boots,” he says. “I’m just being comfortable in my own skin.”