Cherokee-descended rapper Yelawolf — aka Michael Wayne Atha — is a Good Ol' Boy, born and bred. And his Skynyrd-meets-Eminem mixtape Trunk Muzik 0-60 and upcoming Radioactive album reflect this, in cobra-venomous tracks like "Pop the Trunk" — a phrase you might hear when you've deeply offended the locals in his native Gadsden, Ala.
"And 'Let's go fishin'' is another cue that you're in serious trouble, but the hood version is 'Don't make me pop the trunk,'" says the tattooed tough guy who was raised around meth labs, deep-woods pot growers, and folks who shoot first and ask questions later. "It gets nasty out there," he admits. "But there's a really cool Southern hospitality, too, like, 'We love you. But don't fuck around.'"
But here's the weird irony. The epiphany that set Yelawolf on his decade-long metal/hip-hop quest occurred in the Bay Area. It all goes back to a deal he made with his stepdad in his late teens. The high school dropout was promised a car if he got his GED and enrolled in college, which he dutifully did. "So he got me this little '83 two-door Honda," says the artist, now a diehard Chevy man. "But as soon as he gave me that car, I dropped out of community college, sold every pair of shoes that I had, got $300 together, and drove to Cali with my skateboard. No license, no registration, and all-expired tags. And we made it — that's all that mattered."
Within weeks, however, the auto had been impounded, stranding a broke Yelawolf in Berkeley, where he adopted a squatter lifestyle. He crashed in abandoned frat houses, ate every day at Food Not Bombs, and skated the hours away at People's Park. And eventually, "there were nine of us, all living in this huge frat bedroom that we split up with sheets hanging from the ceiling," he recalls. "And of course, I ended up getting these little day-to-day jobs doing street promotions, just handing out products on the street — I found myself in all kinds of hustles. But one day I was just over the skate-rat life. I'd decided that I wanted to go do music instead. And that was the hardest decision I've ever made."
Yelawolf's bartender mom flew Junior home. But it was Christmas, nobody was around, and — depressed — he made another spur-of-the-moment decision. This time, it was a truly wild detour — to a grueling fishing-boat gig in Alaska, which left a mark on him, literally and metaphorically ... His chest and neck tattoos are emblematic of that time: "Glory over pain," "Riders of the Storm," and a huge eagle.
"Because there were eagles everywhere in Alaska, flying around our boat and picking fish out of our nets," he says. "But I was never really scared on the ocean, though — I used to stand at the back of the boat at night when nobody was out there and do all this crazy shit." He pauses. "Used to, anyway. I wanna live now!"
Raised on N.W.A. and Ice Cube, Yelawolf eventually found his own voice, and a record deal, first with Ghet-O-Vision and — for the guitar-heavy Radioactive — through Eminem's Shady Records. And if his music sounds Winter's Bone-real, he says, "That's because it is. I don't pull from any experiences that I don't know about. That's the point of hip-hop to me — authenticity."