Yelawolf on Success at 30, Twitter, and Work on His New Album, Love Story

Chatting on the phone with Alabama rapper Yelawolf -- born Michael Wayne Atha -- is like catching up with an old friend. After our 45-minute conversation, it felt like we were. His welcoming personality and charismatic storytelling ability break down the often rigid barrier between a performer and an interviewer. At least when you're not boring him with series of all-too-predictable questions.

"I don't know now how many times I've had to explain my stage name," says Yelawolf. "Or the number of tattoos I have."

Steering clear of the mundane and repetitive topics, we spoke about the insanity that is Twitter; his upcoming album, Love Story; and musical success at 30.

Tonight, Yelawolf is performing at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale in support of debut studio album Radioactive. But before gaining notoriety, the rapper certainly had to pay his dues on the road as an opening act. Needless to say, it wasn't always a relaxing experience.

"Opening for a group [like Wu-Tang] is always hairy. Especially in hip-hop," he explains. "The crowds are tough and are really quick to boo or throw stuff."

Yelawolf recalls the time he opened for Raekwon in New York City. Earlier in the day, he told a record executive -- who will remain nameless -- to pretty much kick rocks after he requested an in office performance. Instead, he invited the executive to a show to see him perform. At the time, Yelawolf was touring with a full band that included a banjo player, fiddler, and steel drums, and when he came out to introduce himself, things went awry.

"I stepped out onstage and was like, 'What's up? I'm Yelawolf. And this is my first time in Alabama...'" his voice trails off, and he breaks out into laughter. "I'm in New York City, and I called the place Alabama. Immediately things were being thrown; they were booing me off the stage. This is all before my first song. I had to fight real hard that night. 

"Everybody has their time," says Yelawolf. "Thank God I wasn't in front of a camera at 18."

Nowadays, musical tastes are often swayed by a trend or a gimmick. Younger generations are more likely going to be impressed by an 18-year-old rapper wearing flashy clothing instead of someone genuinely working hard at their craft. Unfortunately, it's just the nature of the beast, but it's also fleeting.

"Sure, a lot of these 17- or 18-year-old kids are doing great. I see their talent. But you have to wonder what are they going to doing in two or three years," says Yelawolf. "I'm happy for them, but I feel bad for them. You just don't really know where they're going to go."

Yelawolf isn't about trends or gimmicks. He takes pride in the circle of people he surrounds himself with and whom he chooses to work with. They're timeless. And that's what Yelawolf is working toward: sustainability.

"Honestly, you really can't see true success until you're 30," he says. "You start understanding yourself at around 27. It starts to all make sense. So I really appreciate where I'm at. Musically, mentally, artistically. I'm comfortable with myself."

It's no secret that social media has reshaped our society. Some argue that it's been a good thing; others want nothing to do with the Twitter world. It's changed the way we interact with one another, and it's also given us an accessibility to celebrities, musicians, performers, etc., that never existed. After you send out a tweet about eating breakfast, you can spark up -- or attempt to -- a conversation with Lady Gaga or Rihanna. However, when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, Yelawolf strays from using them. After taking things too personally and constantly checking his phone, he felt it was time to shut it down. And 11 months later, it has had zero effect on his career. The fans are still there and coming out to shows.

"Sure, it's a great promotional tool. But the insane accessibility we have to artists is too much," he says. "You did not really want to know Jim Morrison. Or Jimi Hendrix. What if you didn't like them? Would you still like their music if you knew what was going on in their head 24/7. Hell, even Dr. Dre or Eminem."

Despite his disinterest in Twitter, Yelawolf recognizes the important of the internet to his music career. Without the internet, fans all over the world wouldn't have the same type of access to his music without a record label. For that, he's grateful. And because of the large scale of accessibility, it's provided Yelawolf with such a diverse melting pot of fans who have latched on to his sound and style.

Although Radioactive came out only in November, Yelawolf is already going back in the studio to record his sophomore album, Love Story. To some, this may seem soon, since he's still touring on the first record. But he says that he feels inspired to create something fresh and that he knows it's time for a new album. However, with this next record, he's not going to follow any formula or rules.

"Probably going back to the roots on this one...," he says. "I guess you could say I care a lot less. Radioactive had a purpose. It was my spin on radio records. The album was built for testing those waters. So, with Love Story, creatively speaking, there is no guidelines. Just straight passion."

Yelawolf has certainly seen great success over the past year, and it's only continuing to rise, but he remains humble. It's about the music for him, not necessarily about the fame. His sound is constantly evolving, and he looks forward to experimenting with different projects. And he's thankful that his fans are so forgiving of his urge to constantly try new things. Although they might not be into one record, they're still showing support for the next thing he puts out. Whether it be a punk record with the Transplants -- he hinted that might actually come to fruition -- or something with Willie Nelson, Yelawolf refuses to hold himself back.

"The other night, some girl had the words Wolf Pack tattooed across her chest. And on her shirt was a photo of my face with the words White Trash. Like, what the fuck have I created? It's insane. But it's such a blessing," he says. "I see fans with tattoos either about me or for me or even literally of my face. And it makes me feel like I've made a timeless connection with people. And it's only growing."

Yelawolf. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. For tickets and info, click here.

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Betsey Denberg