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Artist of the Week: Yelawolf

Alabama rapper's debut mines his Southern heritage - the good and the bad - for material

December 30, 2010 2:15 PM ET

WHO: "Rapper, Skateboarder, Drinker" is how rowdy, uber-tattooed Alabaman Michael Wayne Atha describes himself – although he records under the name Yelawolf as a tribute to his part-Cherokee ancestry.

WHAT: On his bleakly soulful debut album Trunk Musik 0-60, Yelawolf spits intricately hyperactive verses about the dirty South that raised him, a harrowing other-America littered with shut-down factories, exploding meth labs and pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals that blast Beanie Siegel instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Hip-hop for me has always been hardcore and edgy," Atha says. "The artists that influenced me never gave a fuck about what they talked about. And when you’re dealing with something fucked up like crystal meth you’re gonna need a music that’s edgy enough to match the subject."

SMALL TOWN, USA: Atha was born in tiny Gadsden, Alabama to a 15-year-old single mother and they moved frequently throughout his childhood, including stops in Nashville, Baton Rouge and Atlanta. "You learn how to be an individual quick after 15 schools, man," he says. "After the first five or six you realize you’re always gonna be the new kid." Yet Gadsden has always been home. "It’s a hustler’s town, where people are just working check to check, surviving," says Atha. "If you were to come visit me I might take you to a trailer park but right in front of the trailer will be a big-ass Chevy on 30-inch chrome, bumping UGK. People there relate to hip-hop because of the struggle it represents. It’s really just blues music. Anyone who struggles can relate."

RAP’N’ROLL: Atha first heard hip-hop when his mother’s boyfriend – who toured with Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and others – gave him albums by Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys. "The first time I heard 'Paul Revere' I lost my mind!" he remembers. "But the thing is nobody told me it was hip-hop. I thought it was rock & roll. I was living in Alabama in the woods. I had a mullet, I was wearing a Swatch and listening to Guns 'n Roses. I didn’t know what it was but I knew I loved it – that 808 sound. It changed the way I heard music. So I was playing the Beastie Boys while my mom was playing Journey, Fleetwood Mac and 10,000 Maniacs."

MAMA’S BOY: While living in Tennessee for junior high, Atha and others were bussed into the worst neighborhoods of Nashville in an attempt to integrate the school system. There he was introduced to the highs of hip-hop culture ("dance battles in the bathroom and rapping in the lunch room") and the lows of urban blight ("crackpipes and needles in the playgrounds, fifth-graders getting caught with dope on 'em"). And it was there that the "skateboarder with the Randy Travis tour sweatshirt" wrote his first rhymes and made the mistake of going into the principal’s office to xerox them. "That toupee-wearing motherfucker hated me," Atha remembers. "He used to give me paddlings every week for something. He picked up my paper and read my rap – it was full of profanity 'cause I was trying to imitate Ice Cube and NWA – and suspended me. But when my mama came to pick me up she cussed him out six ways to Sunday! And loud. Like 'you can’t tell him he can't say what he wants to say! Look at what he's surrounded by!' Mom had my back! She straight snapped on him on some rap shit! That was it for me, man. My mom made it cool, right there, to be a rebel."

SO MUCH, SO SOON: After years of grinding on the mixtape circuit – and an aborted deal with Columbia Records in 2007 – Yelawolf is finally breaking into the big time with nationwide tours with fellow up-and-comer Wiz Khalifa (Atha prides himself on bringing "rock energy" – including a live band and moshpits – to hip-hop crowds) and collaborations with childhood heroes like Big Boi, UGK’s Bun B and Raekwon. "That was such an honor," he says. "When I was 15 I stole my dad’s Infiniti Q45 and drove around playing …Cuban Linx with my shirt off!” Still, a tough life has made Atha – who claims to have been "27 for five years now" – a skeptic. "It's kinda scary man, everything is so good. Am I gonna die soon or something?" Then he laughs. "Fuck that, I’m not gonna die. I’ve got 10 years of great music to make. I’ll still be 27 then – and killing it!"

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