This summer on the Vans Warped Tour, I performed on the same stage as Eminem's new Alabama protégé, Yelawolf. Yelawolf (real name Michael Wayne Atha) has been making a name for himself recently with his dexterous flow, southern pride and heavy, dark beats. When I first met him at the Rock the Bells festival in Mountain View in 2010, he was polite and gave me props for the Die Antwoord shirt I was wearing. The Die Antwoord buzz has since slowed down but Yelawolf has only gotten bigger.
Yelawolf's path to success is an interesting and unique one; a half-Cherokee rapper from Gadsen, Alabama, he was once an Alaskan crab fisherman who later tried his hand (foot?) at becoming a pro-skateboarder. He then produced and self-released a series of mixtapes before catching the attention of Eminem, who signed him to his Shady Records imprint on Interscope. Some have said that the place in the market Yelawolf fills today is simply a rebranding of the early 2000's southern white rapper Bubba Sparxxx, but this doesn't matter to me. While Sparxxx relied heavily on Timbaland's beats and production to give his songs their pop appeal, Yelawolf's flow and tragic tales of Southern life have a Faulkneresque pathos that have given him his visceral and poetic edge, something that seemed always to be missing from Sparxxx.
On "Billy Crystal" (the track that got him signed when Eminem heard it), Yelawolf tells the story of a drug dealer shut off from society and haunted by his own demons. "LSD and Adderall and LCDs on the wall," he raps, "he's watchin every move, high-tech redneck." On "Love is Not Enough," Yelawolf tells the autobiographical story of the heartbreak that comes when an artist chooses to pursue his or her dreams at the cost of relationships. He laments his girlfriend leaving him for some "college graduate, punk ass, Abercrombie wearing" dude, but stays resolved in his choice to keep pursuing his career despite this heavy emotional setback.
I want to share with you some anecdotes from this summer that give an insight into the cultural niche that I see Yelawolf occupying. I've sometimes felt like an outsider in hip-hop; I was a prep school kid who went to college and got my start as a professional rapper in the punk clubs in Oxford. In my mind, this past summer would be a time when I would make a connection with an artist who shared my love for the cultural diversity of hip-hop. This alliance, I thought with much chutzpah, would forge a fusion that would forever change the world of rap music. After Yelawolf joined the tour in Ontario, I attempted to set my plan in motion. I reintroduced myself to him at one of the post-show barbeques and told him I worked with his colleague Rittz on a track for my new mixtape. He shook my hand, said nothing and walked off with the Canadian pop singer Fefe Dobson. It was somewhat awkward, to say the least.
At the Central Florida Fairgrounds in Orlando, my friend Brad Palkevich had brought his boat to drop off some t-shirts. While we were unloading the merchandise, Yelawolf asked us if there were alligators in the lake next to the venue. Brad said that there were, but that they were probably harmless. "Thanks," Yelawolf said, going to get his BB gun. He spent the rest of the night shooting at whatever was moving near the dock. I don't know if he hit anything but it was a hilarious image that will always stick in mind. What does Yelawolf do after rapping at the Warped Tour? Hunt alligators, obviously.
Finally, towards the end of the tour, a singer named Jonny Craig from the band Dance Gavin Dance had, it seemed, rubbed many people the wrong way. Earlier in the year he allegedly scammed a group of fans on Twitter on Facebook, claiming to be selling his old MacBook and then using the money for heroin. No one got their computer and all summer kids came to Warped with "Hey Jonny Where's My MacBook?!" shirts. At one of the shows, Craig had had enough and punched a fan in the face. Yelawolf responded by slapping Craig in front of everyone in an act of karmic retribution. Allegedly stealing money from your fans to buy heroin is not cool, and that's what the slap represented to us.
Did Yelawolf and I become close, personal friends this summer? No. Does this failure to connect make me a cultural tourist in hip-hop? Possibly, but would a post-punk laptop rap alliance with the hot new star of Southern hip-hop somehow have further legitimized me in hip-hop the community? Who knows. While Yelawolf did tell my rapping partner Weerd Science that he enjoyed watching us perform on Warped Tour, it ultimately doesn't matter... we are all cultural tourists in this game. Hip-hop originated in the Bronx in the 1970s, so the point could easily be made that anyone outside of the African-American / Latin-American originator circle in that borough of New York is a visitor.
At the end of the day, what makes Yelawolf awesome is his unique flow, energetic performance and strength as a storyteller. We both did our thing on the Skullcandy Stage of Van's Warped Tour this past summer, performing to different types of kids who love rap music for different reasons. Hip-hop is about keeping it real and I realized that you can't force certain crossovers. The Warped Tour brings many different types of people together and our cultural diversity is what makes us special. I still love Yelawolf's music, even though I never got a Christmas card from him.