We talked to one of the greatest rappers of all time
Once a secret tip for insiders, the legendary Alabama rapper Yelawolf is a bright star in the universum of hip hop. And for all those who did not realise, he has recently manifested his legacy as one of the most talented, diverse and sophisticated rappers of our time in the now famous April Onslaught, a celebration of the genre with four album releases in only four weeks. We have talked to the artist, entrepreneur and very cool guy – and realized that you never stop being impressed.
Green work trousers and a yellow t shirt that leaves enough space to reveal the tattoos that run up and down his arms, Yelawolf sits in his car, casually handling the steering wheel. It is somewhere near noon in the South of America, he is blowing cigarette smoke out of the window. “I am just driving around a little”, says Yelawolf, and stretches out on his car seat. His row of releases has newly sparked media attention in the artist, and his managers are busy delegating loads of mails. “When Covid happened, we were in the middle of a sold-out tour in Europe, and then Trump made a call and told us to come back. When I got back to Nashville, I took all my mobile studio equipment and built up my own studio”, he tells us. “I spent the entire quarantine writing and making music because I am just not comfortable sitting still, I have never been.” And he has not sat still at all – first he released Turquoise Tornado, then Slumafia and Mile Zero, all three collaborative projects that combine thorough technique with ear-twisting wordplay. The “onslaught” finally cumulated in the studio album Mud Mouth that was released end of April. “Since I started with a major label, they always put breaks on my creativity, they weren’t ready to release it, or they had plans on this or that”, says Yelawolf, and calls it “music business or whatever”. But now, he says, there was an open space to write music and to put it out. “I just had the freedom to do it. I could probably put out a hip hop album every month. It just comes naturally to me, and writing is a quick process when it comes to hip hop.”
“I could probably put out a hip hop album every month. It just comes naturally.”
Stylistically and contentwise, the projects differ substantially, and display the wide array of talents Yelawolf has acquired over the years. “Every album is different. For Mile Zero DJ Muggs would send me loops and then I would write to it. Mud Mouth, on the other hand, was fully produced with musicians, with Jim Jonsin in a studio in Nashville, and it started with the music and the melodies”, says Yelawolf, and starts driving again. “Metaphorically, Mud Mouth is about life, death and rebirth. It is a chronological and stylistical view on my story.” A story Yelawolf has a lot to tell about. Born when his mother was still a teenager, he grew up in rural Tennessee and Alabama. Family constellations not always easy and drug abuse never far away, Yelawolf grew up in an underprivileged, resilient and uniquely American environment, or has he calls it, raised in the gutter. He had to move around a lot, faced drug abuse when he was still a child, and struggled with his missing father and the stepfathers taking his position. His songs are an expression of the America Yelawolf represents: Dusty, struggling, underprivileged, resilient, always keeping the chin up, hardworking and very southern. “The way anybody grows up shapes you as a person and personality, no matter where you are from. Your development is created and crafted through your upbringing.” Yelawolf says he has had a very unique family with unique perspectives. Especially his mother has left her mark on his attitudes and views. “She had a unique lifestyle and brought music into my life at full speed. It was music from so many genres that is now intertwined with my own style. So much music, and so many angles, that it made me creatively bipolar”, says Yelawolf, looking back.
This lifestyle of the simple, hardworking, tough Southerners found its ultimate expression in the Slumerican label that Yelawolf created, a word creation of Slum and America. “When I started Slumerican, the idea was that the whole world can relate to a struggle. What society in which part of the world cannot relate to that? There are always underdogs anywhere. Every town has a bad area, an “outside”. I knew that would resonate with many people. It took a long time to make that make sense. Hip hop especially was more decorated in a materialistic way for a long time and you had to have a chain, a car, a house. But for whatever reason, even though I grew up on food stamps, I never had a desire for certain things that would make me fit in. Something like diamond chains and watches – there is nothing wrong about that, but as an artist it never fitted to the ideas I represent. It took a while, standing on stage with a mohawk and tattoos, drinking whiskey… It did not immediately make sense to the masses, I had to work hard to get respect as an artist, also from other notable emcees”, reflects Yelawolf.
“I never had a desire for certain things that would make me fit in.”
For him, Slumerican is a lifestyle. An ideology, but not, as he is quick to point out, political in any way. “I pay very little attention to politics. I was a huge fan of Obama, but because I appreciated his character. For me, this is the turning point. I get involved with someone based on how genuine I feel they are.” That’s why he does not have much sympathy for politicians. “But as an American, my contribution to society and social awareness is telling my story, through my company, my clothing, the bikes we ride, the cars we build… It is all a reflection of our upbringing and we celebrate our lifestyle through art. I am definitely proud of American culture and art is my way to express this.”
“My contribution to society is telling my story.”
It is his deliberate analysis of American values and ideas and his way to portray of American characters and ways of life that make his music not only an artistic masterpiece but an interesting cross section of the USA today. “Slumerican is definitely patriotism, but we are champions of the underdog, we represent an underprivileged and overlooked community. Things we did not have as kids or problems that we faced became our superpower. As an adult now I am just trying to spread the idea that you don’t have to rock a certain tide to be an entrepreneur.”
“Things we did not have as kids or problems that we faced became our superpower.”
But not only his upbringing, but also his later career was a story not less moving and alternating. Yelawolf started out as an independent artist and produced several underground mix tapes. He got the ball rolling in 2009 when he released his still famous breakthrough mixtape Trunk Muzik. Following that, he signed a major record deal with Interscope Records, but soon signed to Shady Records and got under the wing of “rap god” Eminem, where he wrote the album Radioactive. In the years after that, Yelawolf proved his point with various albums that document his artistic development: the mixtape Trunk Muzik Returns (2012) and his significant album Love Story (2015), Trial by Fire (2017), Trunk Muzik III (2019). After five albums released under Shady Records, the legendary Ghetto Cowboy album in 2019 was the first to be produced by his own independent label Slumerican.
“My freshman album Radioactive with Shady was the most pivotal point of my career where I decided that I could not let go of the reins to my style. I was very demanding on what I needed to make. When I first signed a label, more Interscope than anything else, they wanted to polish my music, put me into the studio with certain producers and writers”, describes Yelawolf his early label contacts. “After the success of Trunk Muzik, they were chasing a hit record, a single.” But that, it becomes clear, was not at all what Yelawolf imagined for himself. “I am not a single type of artist. I am more interested in the song itself than the single.” After some failed attempts with the label to find singles that would match their expectations, Yelawolf decided to create his own fortune and turned to write Love Story, a major album success that many see as his real breakthrough in hip hop. “My core fans were not ready to digest big songs, they wanted me to maintain what I did. It has been an up and down battle. But we got our respect with Love Story, they realized I knew what I was doing, what needed to be done in my career. I had a lot more to offer. I am bigger than a cypher. Bigger than a strip club single. This is not the mood for Yelawolf!”, he makes clear.
Other than for most artists of today, the artform of the album still plays an important role in his artistical concept. “I grew up on the album, and I literally grew up to my mother’s house parties where they just threw on an album. And listening to an album front to back, that was the vibe for the whole party. The only time you changed the music was when you flipped sides. You rarely skipped songs. You did not buy an album if you did not like the album. I had a good talent for what a good album felt like and I don’t thing an album is something an artist should forget”, Yelawolf says. “But who am I to judge? This is just what I appreciate and the way I present music. I have never been a single-driven, but an album-driven artist. Listen to the fans and the people you trust. Even the biggest CEOs in the world cannot tell you what’s a hit. And if they, do they put many dollars behind it to prove their point, it’s not like it just became a hit, there is a big machine behind the songs. I am more concerned with the fans and fortunate enough to have a fan base. I want to keep them stilled, and win new fans.”
But for Yelawolf, it is not about producing hits and generate success in numbers. “The art of storytelling is something I appreciate. The freedom of hip hop is that it is very literal. Whereas rock ´n roll is free to interpretation you can’t argue with the specific stories being told by hip hop. So while Mile Zero was an exercise of lyricism, zero storytelling, just about having fun with wordplay, rhyme schemes, cadences, flipping, turning weird corners, Mud Mouth, on the other hand, is storytelling.” While critics accuse today´s mainstream hip hop of being about money, girls and cars only, Yelawolf has been appreciated for his high-level lyricism that makes his rap close to a modern form of poetry. “When I am writing visually, I am just painting the picture in my head with rhymes. I can see the video as I am writing it. The music video is important for me.” And with his music videos, Yelawolf is not easy to be satisfied. “I hate the video of Daddy’s Lambo. I love the song, but I hate the video. But the label put so much money into it, they had to put it out. I thought it was a terrible representation of where I was at. We went from Pop the Trunk to that. It was off. We should have shot it where I thought it should have been in Alabama and made it gangsta-looking, not like Hollywood”, criticizes Yelawolf. “I have become more and more strict with videos and I do very specific visuals.”
“When I am writing visually, I am just painting the picture in my head with rhymes.”
His predilection for visual interpretation and the perfection he likes to put into it can also be seen in the collaborative album Blacksheep he did with Caskey. “I am not a big fan of Daytona, but Been a Problem is definitely my favourite. For Blacksheep I just sat back, got in where I fit in and let Caskey take reins creatively. They did a great job over all. I am really proud of the project with Caskey”, says Wolf.
But those who might think that after all this, Yelawolf´s creativity might start to dry out, have not got the point yet. Yelawolf has already announced to drop a new album in 2022 that will be called Sometimes Why. But now it is going to be different than anything he did before: It is going to be a rock album. “There will be a few songs on the album that really mean a lot to me.” He tells me that he went to the Sunset Studios on Sunset Boulevard together with Shooter Jennings, the very same studio where Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Prince recorded their world-changing songs. One can hear the pride in his voice when he explains that they recorded Sometimes Why in the exact same room with the exact same equipment where Prince recorded Purple Rain. “The album is going to be all analog, no rapping at all, straight rock ´n roll. For as long as I have been playing with rock ‘n roll melodies, even back to my mixtape Stereo, I have been laying seeds along my career to lead to this album. And that’s why Mile Zero was the last project before Mud Mouth, because that is how I started, the style I started writing to. Mud Mouth summed up my career in hip hop and my love and passion for it. That’s why so much came out in April. I truly have love and passion for hip hop. Now I wanted to set this standard and let people know all the styles I have felt over the years – because now I am about to switch the program completely.”
“For as long as I have been playing with rock ‘n roll melodies, I have been laying seeds along my career to lead to this album.”
At least, he announces, he will always keep performing hip hop. “My fans are gonna be shocked, in a good way. Some of them will say fuck that, we are ready to pop the trunk, but I don´t really care about that.” He laughs heartily. “It is for the fans who have been waiting on it, and for undiscovered fans out there. Maybe I can make some real rock ‘n roll fans to hip hop fans and some real hip hop fans to rock ‘n roll fans. The record is for me and for the fucking long-haired headbangers in the front row, the kids in the mosh pit, it’s gonna be fun!”
But for those who want to stick with the rapper in Yelawolf, he does not have too bad news either. “I never say never. I have put enough work out over the years and in April to make a statement. At least I am satisfied with the music that I have made. it Is just time for me to spread my wings. But I would not say that I never write hip hop again, that’s just silly. Who knows what’s down the line?”
“Call me and ask me to do tiktok? Fuck off!”
But as far as promoting goes, Yelawolf does not sound so enthusiastic. “The business side of the music has really lost its way. Call me and ask me to do tiktok? Fuck off. I have been on social media for ten years, and you want me to do another social media thing? What is it next? It just never stops!”, fumes Yelawolf, and his driving becomes faster. “I just let the music do what it is supposed to do. It may be my pride, but I feel like if I overpromote stuff, I don’t feel good about it. I appreciate the organic fanbase that I have built. If your billboards are bigger than your bars, you are doing it wrong.”
“If your billboards are bigger than your bars, you are doing it wrong.”
Now this is where the true rap genius Yelawolf comes through. A rap genius who is about to re-orientate and spread his wings – but who will always remain the Slumerican entrepreneur who juggles with words like a magician and portrays his American people like a true story-teller. And who is in no way inclined to give up his “mud mouth”. Now less than ever before.
By Katharina Moser