In honor of our 15-year anniversary, DJBooth will be publishing a series of "lost" interviews from 2006 through 2011, including Kanye West, J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Wiz Khalifa, LL Cool J, Killer Mike, Bun B and more.
On New Year's Day, 2010, DJBooth premiered Trunk Muzik, the fourth mixtape from Alabama rapper Yelawolf. Twice in 24 hours, the volume of downloads the project earned crashed our servers. Peak blog days.
One month later, Yelawolf and I sat down for a sprawling interview, in which we discussed the success of his tape, breaking through as a rock-influenced, heavily-tattooed white guy, his mother's awful dial-up internet, and the possibility of one day going on tour with Eminem.
As fate would have it, less than one year later, Yela inked a record deal with Interscope and Eminem's Shady Records, re-released his mixtape as a 12-track EP (Trunk Muzik 0-60), and started recording his major label debut, Radioactive. Unfortunately, despite being packed with big-name guest features, the album flopped, both commercially and critically. In the six-and-a-half years since its release, even Yelawolf has expressed disappointment with the quality and promotion of the project.
The 38-year-old, born Michael Wayne Atha, has since released two additional full-length albums (Love Story and 2017's Trial By Fire), but his flip-flopping defense of the Confederate flag and collaborations with rap-rock pioneer and staunch Trump supporter Kid Rock closed more doors than he could reopen.
Still, our conversation, which took place right before his career took flight, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of an aspiring artist who had achieved "internet success" but was still waiting for his big break.
Our interview, edited for content, clarity, and length, follows.
DJBooth: Paul Wall coined this phrase a few years back, but as of late, you got the internet goin’ nuts.
Yelawolf: [Laughs] Yeah, man! It’s crazy—for so many years, I’ve avoided the internet. And Alabama just ain’t big on computers still. [laughs] My mama’s still on dial-up. It’s irony, man; the fact that I have any buzz on the internet is irony. I’m excited.
How long did it take your mom to download your mixtape on dial-up?
About an hour! She couldn’t watch “Pop the Trunk” because it wouldn’t load up.
You need to get her a DSL line, man.
Yeah, I gotta hook her up when I get that big deal.
I read a handful of your interviews from the past few months, and every interviewer has asked you the same questions. How annoying is that?
I take it with a grain of salt. It’s bittersweet, man. I know there are certain questions that are unavoidable, and something always has something to do with being white, and what’s up with Eminem, you know… But it’s all good, man. The comparisons are fair; there’s only been one white successful artist. I’m not gonna say that—one, primarily, successful white artist. Paul Wall had great success, MC Serch had some success—
Bubba had some success in the game. But you know what it is: there’s just one huge pop star who set the standard.
You recently released a remix to "I Wish" with CyHi The Prynce and Pill. What do you wish for the most?
Shit, man, if you’d get my Chevy off the side of 20, ‘cause it broke down the other day…
I can call a tow truck for you.
Yeah, my baby’s fucked up. She blew up on the way to ATL the other day, and me and my homie were ducking under a bridge, hidin’ from f*cking cops, avoiding getting taken to jail… [laughs] It was drama, man. So there she sits, for five days.
Well, I’m glad you didn’t get in any trouble because then we would have had to cancel this interview.
For what it’s worth, rappers are getting’ bigger deals by goin’ to jail, so maybe I just need to go to jail.
You need to get your deal first.
I think they’ll cut a bigger check if I go to jail first. [laughs]
As a skateboarding, rock-influenced, heavily-tattooed white guy, is there any concern that the urban audience of today’s generation will or won’t be able to connect with you and your music?
Nah, no concern on my part. I give people more credit than that. People are smart. They just get dumbed down by, usually bad leaders, who don’t give ‘em the right advice. So I expect the best out of people, man—I don’t take people for granted. I believe that the music itself is gonna open up doors. When the people who’ve never seen [me] before find out what I look like, whether it’s a shock or whether it’s “Alright, cool,” it’s still music when you hit play.
Your Trunk Muzik mixtape, released exclusively on DJBooth, blew up last month. Has this whole process been overwhelming, or merely a long time coming?
It’s validating, it’s gratifying and it’s humbling at the same time. Of course, we set out when we made Trunk Muzik to do exactly what it’s doing, so we’re blessed in that manner. I certainly worked really hard to get where I’m at, but when it’s time for people to start hearing you, they’re gonna start hearing you. I mean, this definitely isn’t [my first] project to hit the ‘net. I had Stereo, which is a hip-hop tribute to classic rock, which we got five cigars in Ozone [Magazine] for. It just didn’t connect with people like Trunk Muzik is, and I think that’s ‘cause people were waitin’ for me to rap over some raw-ass beats. I’m thankful that people are being receptive.
The most oft-read comment about your music that I've seen is: “It just doesn’t sound like anything else out right now!”
Yeah, I’ve heard [that] a lot. It’s just got so much to do with my influences. I’ve gotta give it up to classic rock, all the classic rock I grew up listening to, like [Led] Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, 10,000 Maniacs, Lynyrd Skynyrd. And then early hip-hop: N.W.A, Souls of Mischief, Digable Planets, OutKast, Triple Six Mafia, these people who gave me the delivery. I never really forgot that, and I apply that to my music. And I think that’s why it connects with people in a different way: ‘cause I’m deriving directly from my inspirations. And then my life, my own life that I live every day.
In a previous interview, you said one of your goals is to have people hear your story through your music and understand where you're coming from. Is “Pop the Trunk” an accurate portrayal of your life in Alabama?
Yeah, semi. Only because I based that record off of stories I’ve been told or been part of, so it’s years of stories mashed into a three-minute record. Is that particular mood, in that particular place, representative fully of my life in Alabama? No. But does it represent a piece of my life in Alabama and a piece of the culture here? Yeah, absolutely.
Your mother made a cameo in the video. Was she excited about the start of her acting career?
She was upset she didn’t get to wear makeup, but I wouldn’t let her; it didn’t look hard enough. Her and Tim, her husband, both surprised me—they’re naturals. I was happy to have her, man. I’ll bring her back for another video someday, where she can be really pretty.
How does she feel about where you’re at right now in your career? Does she fully understand that you're on the proverbial brink?
Uh, no. No one does out here. No one close to me understands. I don’t think I even fully understand. I hope I don’t; I hope it’s bigger than I think it is. But I’m just remaining humble and keeping grounded, keeping my head down, I’m gonna stay working. And I really like keeping people around me who don’t know what’s going on, ‘cause they don’t really care. It helps the artist stay on ground level, it keeps my work where it should be. But she’s ecstatic for me. Everything’s extra-big for her. Just because I’m doin’ a show in Atlanta, it doesn’t matter where it’s at, she thinks Usher’s comin’ out or something. [laughs]
This morning, you tweeted, “Change defines what we will be remembered by.” What is the single biggest change that you’ve had to make in life?
I’ve had to let go of unnecessary baggage. You’ve gotta shake off things which are not gonna help you in your future, you know what I’m sayin’? Like, I can’t go as hard anymore with my drinking and my wilding out. Change always means, in some way, taking responsibility, so the biggest change that I’m making is just taking full responsibility.
Several years ago, you had a deal in place between Ghet-O-Vision Entertainment, with Kawan Prather, and Columbia, but after Rick Rubin was hired you were hung out to dry. Where do you think you'd be right now if that deal had not fallen through?
I dunno, on tour with the [Red Hot Chili] Peppers or something? Maybe I'm fuckin' on tour with Eminem. I don’t know; something big, man. I’ve never met Rick Rubin, so if the door’s still open to work with him, I would love to get in the lab with him and see what comes out. As of now, man, I’m dealin’ with what didn’t happen.
Everything happens for a reason.
Everything does happen for a reason, but I will say we have a choice. We have a God-given ability to choose.