No one ever claimed that being major label recording artist was an easy job, but with the majority of Americans facing a dwindling job market and ballooning health care prices, it’s hard to feel pity for any emcee who bemoans a less-than-satisfactory label situation. Couple that with knucklehead news items like Birdman blowing seven figures on the Super Bowl and Drake and Chris Brown playing dodge ball with Ace of Spades bottles in a crowded club, and there’s little wonder why some purists are questioning its current direction.
But then there are other artists like Yelawolf, whose hustle and musical output even in the face of physical adervsity are a reminder that not every rapper . Now, two years since his acclaimed Trunk Muzik, it appears the Alabama emcee’s hit a career crossroads of sorts. Despite a strong industry buzz and a pair of radio-ready singles with “Hard White (Up In the Club)” and “Let’s Roll,” Yela’s 2011 debut Radioactive didn’t pull the kinds of numbers expected from Shady’s latest protege, prompting Interscope to dramatically decrease its promotional support. Then, in the first quarter of the new year, Catfish Billy was hit with a ruptured spleen, causing him to curtail his world tour and delaying the recording of his sophomore effort Love Story.
Apparently, what didn’t kill him made him stronger. Since then, Yelawolf has dropped two EPs – the M16 produced Heart of Dixie and the Ed Sheeran-collab The Slumdon Bridge – and he’s planning additional projects with Travis Barker and Big K.R.I.T. Add that to the recently announced Trunk Muzik Returns and his second LP Love Story, and it becomes apparent how deep Yela’s work ethic runs. Now, in an exclusive interview with DX, the Alabama emcee discusses his displeasure with the major label system, his love for Hank Williams III and how rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie impacted his latest music video.
On Life After A Ruptured Spleen, Recording Progress Of Love Story
HipHopDX: First off, it kinda shocked everybody when news broke of your ruptured spleen earlier this year. So just for starters, how’s the road to recovery been so far?
Yelawolf: Shit, it’s been chill. I went straight from being hurt and recovering and shit, and I hopped right on a plane to Australia, so it was kinda crazy coming back into the game so hard like that. It really affected my live show, as far as my own energy. In a good way, I had to learn how to control the crowd without being so physically animated, which was really good training for me.
Now that I’m back fully healed, you know, I’m kinda mixing it up [with my live show]. It forced me to relax on stage and in a way, it kinda trained me how to translate my music differently, some shit that I had never tried before. I had to be still a couple times, and it kinda gave me less fear about that. I used to have a fear of sitting still on stage and giving the crowd a moment to take in what I’m doing and talk or just chill. As far as my performance goes, it’s helped me out a lot, and I’m back 100% now, but it really was really tough. It was a fucked up injury, but I’m glad to be back working and shit.
DX: No doubt, and I know you’ve been recording Love Story during all of this process; did your injury affect the recording progress at all?
Yelawolf: After coming back and having to remake all my shows and shit, I had to push the making of Love Story back, only because I really wanted to take some time and do an album without any disruption whatsoever – not no interview, not no shows, not nothing. I’ma lock this fuckin’ compound, wherever it’s gonna be [recorded], down and I’m gonna be focused on making an album, just taking from how Trunk Muzik was made and how artists like the [Red Hot Chili] Peppers [make their albums]…I want to see how [isolating the recording process] would work for me, or how I hear Outkast just making records and people taking more than two years to make an album. I’m really tired of the microwave bullshit, like making a project, throwing it out there, and then four months down the road, being not all the way satisfied with the songs, like thinking, “Fuck man, if I had just more time and cut ten more songs, then I could have really etched this project down to ten really phenomenal records instead of just like, in my opinion, four timeless pieces out of 15 songs. I just kinda like wanted to put together something special.
But after my time got cut into the making of Love Story, I had so much creative shit that I just felt like I needed to get off [and] the M16 and DJ Frank White project came about because Frank asked me to do a feature, and he was like, “Well, I’ve got a M16 beat,” who’s the dude who did “I Do” for [Young] Jeezy, and he’s from Alabama, too, so the Heart of Dixie idea came about ’cause we’re all from Alabama. I had him shoot me some beats, and I got my recording equipment and I recorded Heart of Dixie while I was on the road on tour on the back of the bus. Combining that with the fact that I’m just tired of the industry bullshit, I’m tired of the system of major labels – it didn’t take me long at all. The system of record labels can be great, and it actually had benefited me in some ways really well. But sometimes, there’s a few pieces of the puzzle that don’t real click, and it could be someone’s ideas that they’re not agreeing upon one strategy and that particular disagreement could hold your work up for months on end – when two people that you haven’t really never even fuckin’ met or know are arguing about how your shit should be done.
That’s what you kinda deal with sometimes, so I’ve just been kinda like been focusing on shrinking my energy down into just a few people that have been around for my whole career and getting back to what matters, and that’s making music and putting the fuckin’ shit out. I only got here because of Trunk Muzik, really – “Pop the Trunk” and Trunk Muzik were the only why this all happened, and that was because of our freedom. I’m just getting back to that, so here comes Heart of Dixie, Psycho White EP with Travis Barker and I, Trunk Muzik Returns coming, Country Cousins, and then Love Story I’ll be making in 2013. My relationship with Shady [Records] is great, it’s still great. I’m just getting back to like, instead of passing the ball over to Interscope or whoever else is over there, I’m just fuckin’ on my own shit.
On Displeasure With Interscope Records, Respect For Hank Williams III
DX: Yeah, I’ve been hearing a lot about you having issues with how Interscope has been handling you and your album. What can you tell us about your current relationship with the label?
Yelawolf: I don’t fuckin’ know anybody up there, not no one. I’ve never fuckin’ walked up in the building. The couple of people that I do know are friends of mine and that’s it. Jimmy Iovine gave me a green light, and I thank him forever for green [lighting] me on over to [Shady], introducing me to Paul [Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager], Marshall – that’s a dream situation, man. But there’s people under him I believe that are confusing situations. They obviously can’t have their hands on everything – there’s a lot of fuckin’ artists under the wings of a big label like that, so when you become part of a label or a situation that fuckin’ massive, you have to just really be smart about how you handle your business and make that your team in on-point with everything single thing and you’re paying attention to every single detail. If you lose that, then sometimes you get caught up.
I just don’t want to fuckin’ do business, man, what the fuck. I’m a rapper, I’m an artist. I pay my manager to handle all that shit. I don’t even like talking like this, I feel like a nerd to even be bothered with the business of it. I know some artists – and especially rappers – are all about, ‘I wanna be a businessman, this is a business.’ Fuck all that; I want to be creative. I don’t want to worry with this shit. I want to fuckin’ make my music and tour and do what I do. Unfortunately, you have to pay attention to it, and that’s kinda like what I’ve been forced into this past couple years. All of that like, pent-up, “What the fuck is going on?!'” type of shit is gonna be coming out in my music and everything that I do. Even with the bad, it’s really fueling everything that I’m doing in a positive way because it’s only making me hungrier.
DX: Right, and it’s interesting because right now, you seem to be coming out the gate with a lot of one-one, producer and emcee projects – Heart of Dixie with M16, Psycho White with Travis Barker, Country Cousins with K.R.I.T. What does working with producer on a project offer you that the kind of standard style of, “lining up these dozen or so big name producers” not?
Yelawolf: Right, well, I’ve always been conceptual with my projects. Even if I do choose to work with a various amount of producers, the project itself has a groove and a feel. Radioactive has a feel; there’s a very specific vibe to the whole album. Even with the different energies and the different vibes of the records, because we all did it in one place altogether, it’s a [unified] vibe. Trunk Muzik‘s the same way, the way I did it with Will Power. It could be dangerous – if an artist does multiple records with multiple producers on one project, if they fly to LA and record a record and if they fly to fuckin’ Miami to do this and they fly over here to work with this producer and different engineers and blah blah blah, then your project seems to be like this fuckin’ hodgepodge, this fuckin’ jambalaya of fuckin’ flavors. That can work for some artists, but because I’m so culturally driven by what it is my story represents, I find for myself that I have to be specific about what I do and how I do projects. The easiest way for me to control my creative fuckin’ schizophrenia [is to work with one producer].
I can do any fuckin’ thing I want to do, I could sing a fuckin’ country song if I wanted to – I can’t just do that shit; I don’t want to fuck peoples’ heads up and fuck with my own head here. I just kinda control it by saying, “Aight, I’m sit down with Travis Barker and just [do] five songs with just him” – and that’s Psycho White, that’s that group, that’s that sound, that’s that vibe. I [could] sit down with Big K.R.I.T., he’s gonna produce the whole fuckin’ project – that’s Country Cousins, that’s what that shit is, that’s our group, that’s our shit. Same thing with M16 – M16, I want you to do the whole fuckin’ project; I don’t want beats from nobody [else], just you. Me, you, that’s it…same thing with Trunk Muzik, and on and on and on.
I don’t if you’re familiar with Hank [Williams] III, but I’ve always respected the way he’s approached doing him music. He’s all over the fuckin’ place, man. But when he sits down and does one particular project, it has its own life, and it makes sense. It doesn’t make him look like he’s lost his mind or fuckin’ he’s creatively out of control, but it makes him look more in control and more aware of what he likes and what he likes to do. Same thing with Rick Rubin – the Dixie Chicks, Jay-Z, the Peppers, Johnny Cash – you could go on and on and on, but they all have their fuckin’ space.
On Co-Directing “Gutter” Video, Rob Zombie’s Cinematic Influence
DX: Closing out, I wanted to turn to another piece of news that’s come up as of later: your short film/video for “Growin’ Up in the Gutter.” Between the serial killer plot and all the disturbing found footage at the beginning, it’s a pretty tough video to watch. How’d you come up with the concept for it?
Yelawolf: Shit man, I was sitting with a good friend of mine and she’s a super big horror movie buff – she asked me not to bring up her name, so I won’t – and for the past two years, I’ve been really back in to horror films, for one. When I first came up with the idea to do a video to “Gutter,” I was working with [co-director] Tyler Clinton, who is an amazing photographer, and I was like, “Man, we should apply your fuckin’ photography to film and see how that translates,” so we wrote the treatment and put it all together. The story is the creation of an American monster; you don’t understand what could be going on in a nice little American neighborhood. That’s what the concept of the record “Growin’ Up in the Gutter” [is] – you can’t define how hard you got it by what neighborhood you live or where you’re from. There could be the sweetest, softest fool coming out of the projects, there could hardest most insane fuckin’ maniac coming out of some pretty ass suburb. It’s kinda what goes on inside of your head, who your family is [that defines you].
The concept for the video, which I was really happy translated, was just the creation of those kinds of monsters who live in our world. I’m glad for the most part that it’s been received the way that we intended it to be, because I didn’t it to be like we’re just some sick fuckers who just talk about fuckin’ up a child’s mind, but more or less like being real about how this type of shit happens to people and why killers are created in the first place and what we see every fuckin’ day. You multiply that with some sick person who makes their child digest all this with no conscience for it with these fuckin’ video games and movies and all of what is accessible on YouTube and all that shit, if you don’t sensitize a child that’s what’s gonna happen; that’s why people get hacked up like on the daily. Fuckin’ weirdos following people home and hacking them up ’cause of that dumb shit.
DX: Absolutely. On top of that, though, there’s a real underlying influence of horror cinema throughout the video, but there’s definitely a unique visual style that sets it apart. Were there any specific directors or movies that you and the director had in mind when you were making the video?
Yelawolf: Well, I directed it with Tyler, literally like directing the cinematographer, everything about it. I was behind the camera, all of that. Where we pulled inspiration from [was] for me a lot of Rob Zombie…mid-80s, late-70s horror shit. I wish could’ve really gotten into more, we really didn’t have the time that we really wanted to do what we wanted to do, but there’s subtlety and [camera] movement. I think that one of the most important parts about the whole project – and in any horror film or any film period – was the music. Malay, [who did] the orchestra score at the end of the film, he fuckin’ killed that shit. Without that music, it wouldn’t have been what it is at all. I gotta give to Malay, he fuckin’ murdered it because the score at the end, with the lady singing the opera shit – that’s all real, that’s not like a sampled thing, that’s him watching the film and directing string players and fuckin’ girl singing to those images. That’s pretty epic.