Fire Starter: Yelawolf
Gadsden, Alabama, isn’t exactly a hip-hop hotbed, but the small town, just east of Birmingham, might have the ambassador to put it on the map. Yelawolf (born Michael Wayne Atha) has been building quite the buzz with features on Slim Thug’s “I Run” and Juelz Santana’s “Mixin’ My Medicine,” but he’s been grinding for a minute and making a bigger name for himself thanks to his mixtapes, most recently Trunk Music.
Yela was raised in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee by his single mother and was influenced by her musical interests.
“I just picked up a lot of classic-rock, melodic influence from my mom, music that she listened to, like 10,000 Maniacs, Led Zeppelin, REO Speedwagon and Yes,” he said. “She was actually dating a dude who was on tour with Aerosmith during the ‘Walk This Way’ tour who brought me back some of my Adidas T-shirts and [a tape of] ‘Paul Revere.’ Beastie Boys, that was my first taste of hip-hop.”
Yela eventually decided to pursue a career in hip-hop, but he still loved classic rock. “I equally love both, classic rock and hip-hop. I love all music, really, and I really use classic rock a lot,” he said. “I’m heavily influenced by that melodically in my music. I can’t really separate the two.”
Yela said he was also influenced by the grit and grime of the neighborhoods he lived in. For every Lynyrd Skynyrd album, there was a Three 6 Mafia, Skinny Pimp, Outkast or UGK record too. “Where I’m from is like ‘Hustle & Flow’ versus ’8 Mile.’ It’s that really grimy, box-Chevy, dope-boy, working-class music.”
Before breaking through in music, Yela decided to pursue skateboarding. He moved to Berkeley, California, but he eventually found himself at food drives with homeless people. Amid a slew of skating-related injuries, Wolf decided to focus his efforts on rap. He took to the mixtapes.
Ball of Flames, his tribute to “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” was the first to come out. Talladega is only 20 minutes from his house. Then he dropped his underground gem, Stereo, with DJ Ideal. The mixtape was a hip-hop tribute to classic rock, and it received five cigars in Ozone magazine (the equivalent of Source‘s five mics). He followed that up with the EP Arena Rap, which featured a full band, including a fiddle and banjo player. Finally, at the top of the year, came Trunk Music, which showed people he could really rap.
“I felt like people were waiting for me to rap, and I was hungry to do it again,” said Yelawolf, who also said he was taking his time with his debut LP. “We had just been experimenting with the band sound. I just was hungry to rap over 808s and high-hats and really just do some double-time drive records. It was just a passion.”
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