The Alabama boy may be rough on the mic, but his tattoos say more about him than words could ever express.
by Steven J. Horowitz Photography by Zach Wolfe
Yelawolf doesn’t just tell stories in rhyme. Since the age of 19, the Southern rapper has gone under the needle around “50 to 60” times, creating a blanket of ink that covers his body from neck to toe, each with its own back-story. For an artist whose redneck raps have positioned him as the backcountry Eminem (fitting, since he’s signed to Shady Records), Yela is still hesitant to credit – literally and figuratively – the woman who put him on to tattoos.
“My first tattoo, I had the word ‘native’ that I drew graffiti style and then went to a tattoo artist in Anniston, Alabama. And it was real white boy and redneck. I got it right on my arm, on my shoulder. It’s like the worst place you could possibly get a tattoo,” laughs the Gadsden, Alabama native. “I had this girl carry me out there and pay for it. She hates me to this day, because I never paid her back. I could pay her back now, but it’s just the principle. I’m not going to. It would fuck up the story.”
For every work applied to his skin, he’s got a tale to tell. Yela takes the same approach with his introspective tracks, most notably on his upcoming major label debut, Radioactive (October 25th). The LP, which features production from Eminem, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Jim Jonsin, J Dot, KP, Diplo, The Audibles, Chuck Inglish, WillPower, Travis Barker and more, expands the 808 bounce of his breakout 2010 mixtape, Trunk Muzik, while pointing the pen inward.
“I just wanted to be more personal with Radioactive and reach further and make the records bigger. But it wasn’t hard. Honestly, I’d been sitting with that shit on my heart for years,” says Yela, née Michael Wayne Atha. “The challenge is just marrying the two. There are records to feed the fans that I have already and records to get me new fans that have never heard of me before.”
So far, singles have tightroped between catering to old fans and new. The Lil Jon-featuring “Hard White (Up in the Club),” a raucous ode to bad behavior (like swigging Jack in VIP), puts his punchy drawl over a Middle Eastern-tinged beat. Even Yela was apprehensive at first about making a record for mainstream tastes, but acquiesced once he heard the Hydrox-produced instrumental.
“My team was like, ‘We just need one more record,’ and I got pissed. Like, the fuck you mean I need one more record? I don’t like that industry bullshit,” recalls Yela. “So they played me the beat, and I was like, damn, this shit is fuckin’ jamming for real. Sometimes, you just gotta trust your team, like, they’re making the decision that is going to finish this record.”
The concession came on the heels of a recording hot streak. Posted up in Las Vegas with his team, Yela laid down the album over a two-week frame, incorporating both fresh ideas and ones from the vault into the LP. Speaking on his mouth-to-tape process, he explains, “I’ve never really put too much pressure on myself about recorded music. I’ve practiced for so many years writing, and obviously, picking up for myself. Over a course of time, you’ll weed shit out to be very specific. You know what you like immediately. It’s not hard. You don’t have to go through this. You already hit your head making records in the past. So the process of making albums, for me, is usually really fast.”