Compare Yelawolf to Eminem and you could miss the point. Sure, both are white rappers with chips on their shoulders and working-class backgrounds, but it's Yelawolf's power with the pen and his tenacity on the microphone that should be drawing the comparisons.
Yelawolf, the 31-year-old Alabamian born Michael Wayne Atha, can rap circles around many of his peers, all while confidently projecting a poor-boy-from-the-sticks swagger. Eminem took notice after a producer showed him Yela's video for "Pop the Trunk," a standout from last year's "Trunk Muzik" mixtape. It was enough to land Yelawolf a deal with Eminem's Shady Records this year ("Radioactive," his Shady debut, drops Nov. 21). Yelawolf brings his Hard White tour to Baltimore Soundstage Wednesday, but before that, he spoke from the road about his single with Lil Jon, his sense of humor and why he quit smoking weed.
"Radioactive" was recorded in Las Vegas. What kind of mindset did Vegas put you in?
I didn't want to go to Vegas, man. Our homie Pooh Bear sold me on the idea. When I went there, a homie of mine, Marley Marl, has a compound-style spot in Vegas with gates and huge walls. It's in its own world. When I got there, I fell in love. … We didn't go party or anything like that. It put a total focus on the album. It was the perfect studio. We set out to make great music and we spent two weeks out there, and we got a lot of great work done. It wasn't Vegas the way people think about it. We were out in the 'burbs; just to get away.
Your single with Lil Jon, "Hard White," is a banger. (Watch the video below. Some lyrics may not be SFW.) You're known as a lyrical dude and Jon is known as a partystarter. Were you ever worried about the combination or were you more drawn to it because people might not expect it?
When I did "Hard White," I went back to Vegas to do a show and while we were there, I went to the studio. At that point, I knew we were "done" with the album, so we went to the studio and I was anticipating that talk, like, "Hey man, we need that one." So I got frustrated with the idea of having a club record, and that's why those lyrics came out the way they did. I hate being in the clubs. If I go there, I'm gonna make it something. I'm gonna have fun.
But the video is not the club I'm talking about. I don't go to clubs and throw money and pop bottles. That's not my thing, no disrespect. And also, because I've always refrained from saying up in the club, I just put a flip on it. I laid that song down there and three days later in ATL, my boy K.P. was like, "Come check out the mix." When I went to listen to the record, he had put Lil Jon on the record. Lil Jon is the homie. Who better to ad-lib a track like that? It added the perfect paradox because he's the king of that zone. I felt like we brought the old Jon back, the ad-lib Jon.
Your sense of humor shines through on record sometimes. Not too many rappers would write "Daddy's Lambo"; they'd lie and say it was their car. Who or what shaped your sense of humor?
My family is funny as s--t. My grandmother, grandfather, my mom - we've always been driven by laughter. It's what held us together. Thanksgivings, any kind of family get-together, we usually end up in tears. I think at the core, it's that. My Uncle Buddy would always push me to be funny, to lighten up. Throughout all the drama that was going on, there was always comedy. Laughter is super healing. I grew up watching stand-up comedy. I'd watch "[Eddie Murphy] Raw" when I was younger. Richard Pryor. I like hardcore comedy.
I remember reading about you opening up for Wiz Khalifa and how you had to win fans over through your performance. Are you attacking the stage the same way or is it different now that your profile has risen more?
I’ve always went to the stage with the intent to destroy. I’ve always wanted to annihilate. I like having a chip on my shoulder. It’s always hard to break-out, doing it the way I did it. Adding on the way I look and the way I act in stage, opening up for Wiz Khalifa [was like] night and day. No pun. I don’t even smoke weed. I scream and jump around, act crazy. He’s chill. It was a hard sell some nights. Some nights it was great; it might as well have been my show.
Now that I’m headlining, theres moments where I just exhale like, "Yeahhhh, man." It feels good to have come to this point, to be appreciated in this way. I can't lie — there's less ferocity because I don’t feel like my back's against the wall so much. The shows are getting funner to me. It’s a lot less nerve-racking. I’ve opened up for Wu-Tang [Clan], Raekwon, Tech N9ne, the Roots, Lil Wayne with Travis Barker. I’ve done a lot of opening acts for big situations. I've got my weight up.
You have a history with drugs, especially hard ones when you were younger. How tempting does it get to fall back into that scene?
I went so hard, man, when I was younger that I'm really afraid of it, enough to keep me away from it. I have real anxiety issues and that's what's kept me away from it. Honestly, I tried to start smoking weed again a few years ago, and the same thing started happening to me. I would get anxiety. The only thing I can do is just drink, that's the last thing I got into. I don't drink during the day; I wait until after the shows. I handle my business. Sometimes I'll go ham but I'm not really tempted. People can do whatever they want in front of me.
You're on tour through November in the States and overseas. What's after that? Any talks of a Shady Records tour?
I don't think Marshall [Mathers] is going to be touring. [laughs] A possible Yelawolf/Slaughterhouse tour? That's always possible.
If you go
Yelawolf performs Wednesday at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place. Doors open at 6 p.m. DJ Craze, Rittz and D.I. also perform. $17.50. Call 443-629-3039 or go to baltimoresoundstage.com.