If Mud Mouth is Yelawolf’s final adieu to hip-hop, that’s one hell of an exit strategy. What’s next? The coveted artist-entrepreneur is ready to embrace a new chapter in his life with open arms and an open mic. Even if it’s temporary, Yelawolf hasn’t abandoned his rhapsodic post because he’s outlived his love for the game. His life is powered by adrenaline, the thrill of trying new things, and after a 15-year run in hip-hop, Yelawolf admits that he’s never felt “fully welcomed within this genre.”
Naturally, Yelawolf has always been labeled an outsider. He’s never had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo or living by a conventional means. Whether you’re speaking to Michael, the beer-swilling street punk who had dreams of being a professional skateboarder, or Catfish Billy, Yelawolf’s unruly alter ego, there’s a shared interest amongst both parties to go against the grain, defying the odds of what’s deemed socially acceptable.
To understand Gadsden’s celebrated rapstar is to identify with his Southern dialect and self-described “redneck-ism.” Yelawolf represents a forgotten demographic that’s hardened by emotional trauma. Michael is symbolic of a generation that idolizes fearlessness. Mud Mouth, his sixth studio album, is the culmination of years’ worth of repressed feelings encapsulated in one uniform project. And Catfish Billy? Well, that’s Michael’s escape from reality, this funkafied “white boy” from Alabama’s storied backwoods.
After a 40-minute conversation with the beloved emcee, it’s evident that Mud Mouth is irrefutably a passion project for Yelawolf. The range of subject matter covered over 14 layered tracks details the life and death – spiritually speaking – of a troubled mind who’s often misunderstood.
Despite the surfeit of scrutiny received and public crucifixion of Michael Wayne Atha (M.W.A) as a result of being placed in a psych ward (2016), he returned to society seemingly unscathed and sober-minded, on the surface. But deep down, a part of Yelawolf died during these last few years of discovery and self-reflection, or as he admits, “I had to swallow all that whole and it just broke me man, it broke me in half…”
Though he’s easily regarded as one of the most outspoken MC’s of the last decade, the Slumerican frontman flirts with the idea of calling it quits (for now at least).
Read our full conversation below, lightly edited for context and clarity.
Let’s start with drugs. What’s your drug of choice? How does that make you feel?
My drug of choice has always been alcohol. To me, it’s not always the safest because it can get emotional at times. It certainly has brought me trouble at times. It brought me a lot of amazing sessions and a lot of good vibes, so I’ll say that first and foremost. My drug history is long, long, long: I started smoking weed and shit when I was like 11 and 12-years-old. By the time I was 13, man I was already heavy into freon, acid and fucking mushrooms. 16, 17-years-old, I had already smoked sherm and I was just gone. I really didn’t have a focus in my younger years. It wasn’t until I was 19 and 20-years-old where I decided that I was going to pursue music as an artist and put my focus there. Other than that I was rambling, running the streets, skateboarding, graffiti writing and raising hell. I had a really young rockstar lifestyle before that was even a term. Just traveling the country illegally with no license, no registration, literally going coast to coast, just fucking shit up. I grew up in a household where smoking weed – and there was cocaine around, I never got into cocaine – but drug use was… kind of lighthearted around my household. My mom has been smoking weed and growing weed since before I was born, and she still does. She still grows and harvest, and she’s still a big advocate for weed, even now, it’s grown into medical purposes for her. But alcohol, that’s generational: beer drinking, whiskey drinking, I mean I literally have photos of me at three, four-years-old chugging beer or photos of me standing next to a fucking pot plant because mom wanted to get a photo of me next to her plant. It was just a part of the lifestyle of where I grew up. It wasn’t demonized so much. I played with a lot of drugs. My acid trips and mushroom trips, those happened early, early on. Some trips left me stuck there for months at a time, real scary shit.
You’re pretty invested in accentuating an alternative lifestyle through your music. What exactly it Trailer Park Hollywood?
Trailer Park Hollywood is the really well-cut grass, nice pink flamingo, it’s like tailored trash. That’s always kind of been the way I make music and shit, that the juxtaposition of making something really trashy fly. I may call it low fashion, I throw that shit around a lot. I make a lot of clothes and shit, I got a real thing for clothes, fashion and style. Low fashion, Trailer Park Hollywood, it’s just bougie country shit really. It’s the Alexander McQueen scarf with the Luke Casey boots and shit, whatever you wanna do with it.
Talk to me about the origin of Catfish Billy. How did this persona come into existence?
I was living in this trailer park in Huntsville, Alabama and I was traveling back and forth to ATL to do music. I was doing music at the time with a producer named Skatezilla. We did this one song called “Kickin.” We knew we had something that was special there and during that time, I also did a record with an artist called Witchdoctor, from Dungeon Family. While I was doing this song with Witchdoctor, I had mentioned, “Now you limpin’ off like Catfish Billy, with a lil’ head like an unerect willy,” (laughs). I said that Catfish Billy line just tryna plan with the idea of some overtly funny, Southern, redneck-ism you know, because I kind of was seeing the juxtaposition as a unique and powerful way to introduce myself as an artist. It was a wide-open space. No one’s ever hit on these particular subjects in hip-hop, at least not in a prolific way, with my respect for being emcee and the way I was approaching things. Witchdoctor and Skate were just dying laughing and they started calling me Catfish Billy. And I knew that Catfish Billy thing was a way for me to be completely exaggerated, like I could talk about anything trashy, trailer park, fucking white boy country weird shit through this character, through this idea. It was a way for me to pitch my voice to over pronounce my r’s, it gave me an excuse to literally talk about things that were literally happening around me in Alabama. The Impala on bricks in the trailer park with the dog under the porch, weed eaters (string trimmer) and oil stains, how can I bring all of this imagery into hip-hop – and that was my way in.
With Mud Mouth, it seems like you’re trying to find the balance between your flows. How do hallucinogens affect your expression as an artist – do you lean more towards melody or lyricism?
Acid brings out every part of your being. Either LSD or mushrooms – my manager’s the real expert – I’ve dabbled with it most of my young life and then a lot of my adult life. Where it takes you, you just kind of explore all parts of your personal being. It can be scary, it can be angry, it can be loving, it can be beautiful, it can be fast, it can be slow. You can go through all these stages. It’s really just about tapping into that third eye and exploring and seeing the world in a different way. I will say this, with the album, I don’t wanna encapsulate it to just that. We’d tried to give it the color palette musically of that feeling because everybody in the room who I’ve made this record with has done acid and has done mushrooms and we understand the feeling. We just tried to capture all the feelings of that. I did die spiritually, so it’s about my life and death and how my trips have opened me up to even realize that happened to me.
This album sounds like the culmination of years’ worth of repressed feelings drowned in whiskey. How did you manage to align so many emotions on the same spectrum?
Going into this project, I had been through so much in these last two years. I think that an artist who over explains the project can sometimes ruin the magic of it. And if you weren’t asking a legit question it wouldn’t lead to me saying this, but I appreciate your intelligence. So the question is good and I’ll tell you straight up, I knew coming into this project that after Mud Mouth, I recorded a rock and roll album literally at the height of the protest in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound with Shooter Jennings called Sometimes Y and I knew that this rock and roll project was going to be a real graduation for me. Not just as an artist, but just to introduce myself to an entirely new genre, so I wanted this project to hit on as many sides of myself as possible because I wanted to tip my hat to hip-hop. I wanted to introduce people to the melodies and singing voice that’s about to come forreal. It was important to me to hit on as many emotions and as many feelings as I could and things that I’ve been through throughout my career on this project. Which is why we decided to drop all those records in April because those records in April were some sort of portfolio of styles that led down to Mile Zero. Mile Zero being my roots of what I started writing to, lo-fi break beats, that’s how I started. So when I did that project with Muggs, I felt that was a perfect last kind of take, intro to this studio album. The last couple of years man, I would say in the last three years… I really did die in a sense. I went through the gnarliest shit in the world, being sent to a psych ward and having to do that in the public eye, having to survive that and overcome that, to being basically crucified in public, accused of things that were so fucked up and so far from the truth. I had to swallow all that whole and it just broke me man, it broke me in half and I never really… I never really felt like I was fully welcomed within this genre. I always felt like what I do and all I talk about can never be placed, and that started with Love Story. When I had the Grammy board tell me Love Story wasn’t even considered a hip-hop album, I knew that I was forever lost in my own lane. My shit is so far left that I was literally told this isn’t a hip-hop album. I don’t even know what hip-hop is anymore man. I just continued to do exactly what I felt was hip-hop using the tools that I make it with and Mud Mouth was the best way for me to be completely vulnerable and open and to give my absolute best last hip-hop project possible, at least for a while. I’m done with it for a while homie, straight up.
Let’s expand on this. During the listening session for Mud Mouth you alluded to a desire for more, the thrill of being challenged again — “Hip-hop is really easy for me.” With that in mind, have you outlived your love for rap?
Man, outlived my love for it? I don’t think that’s a possibility because every time I hear a dope beat it drives me to want to write. It can be something on the radio, it could’ve been a Lil Durk record or a fucking Future record, there’s so much good music out there it’s just so beyond me. Not beyond my capability of rapping over, but beyond my lane. I’ll never fit this scope of what’s current right now. I just wanted to say everything that I felt like I needed and wanted to say with the palette of music that I consider rad and good hip-hop. Jim Jonsin and I, we’re cut from the same cloth: he’s from a trailer park in North Florida. Lowkey dude, he’s been doing what I’ve been doing forever, riding Harley’s, blending rock and roll. The “Let’s Go” hit he had with Lil Jon, that was Black Sabbath, that was a Black Sabbath remix. I knew that he was the perfect producer. First of all, he’s insanely talented and he’s got if not the hardest 808 outside of DJ Paul, ever. I just knew he would know how to give me the palette, so that’s what I did man.
What’s bittersweet about this next chapter of your life?
What’s bittersweet is that you go and make something that you feel is great and not knowing if it’s going to latch on or how long it will take to latch on. I feel like inherently, without being egotistical, I’ve always been slightly ahead of the curve. I saw the country hip-hop wave years ago, I was doing it, and now it’s a huge wave. And people actually hit me up like, “Yo, you should do some country rap shit,” and it’s like yo, what the fuck!? Are you blind? Me? I already did that, it’s a trial by fire. I’m like Jay Z, “You want my old shit, listen to my old album.” It’s like that. What’s bittersweet is knowing in my heart and listening to Mud Mouth, I feel like I’ve done something special. I hope that it translates. It may take a long time for it to translate but I hope it happens sooner than later. That’s the bittersweet side of releasing this project, knowing that I’m about to be out man. And when people hear this next project, the fans that have been following me will be like what in the fuck – and then all the people who never heard of Yelawolf before that’s gonna get introduced to me through this rock album, I’m excited – that’s the sweet part – I’m excited for them to go back and dig on Mud Mouth and Love Story and dig back on the catalog. Those are the two sides I guess.
What role has trauma played in your overall growth as an artist?
Man, unfortunately trauma has probably been 90% of the driving force behind my creativity when it comes to hip-hop music. Early on when I was discovering my passion for hip-hop, I was listening to dark heavy metal and gnarly classic rock and shit and then came along N.W.A., then came along Three 6 Mafia, then came along the gangsta shit that gave me the same energy. It was like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube was so fucking anti that it gave me the same feeling Metallica was giving me, or Black Sabbath was giving me, or Waylon Jennings, his fucking outlaw attitude. I fucked with this attitude, this is this fearlessness that I need to survive. My first real gangsta rap show was Three 6 Mafia and Mystikal at the Atrium in 1997 and there was no white boy in sight. I went to that motherfucker alone and got in the pit, fully threw myself in it: drove from Gadsden up to the Atrium and my boy couldn’t get in but I’m like fuck that, I’m getting in, and I found my way into that motherfucker. I fell in love with that energy because I understand it. Obviously, Bone Thugs with their twisting and their chopping of melody had a heavy influence on my life, and then of course there was skateboarding. My life as a skateboarder was filling me with underground hip-hop, I knew about shit that nobody knew about. Nobody in fucking Southside Alabama was listening to Poor Righteous Teachers homie, I was (chuckles). I was fully in it, fully dove into it, every part of it. I just fell in love with it man and it took a long time to figure it out, what my place was and what my voice was going to be.
Songs like “Dog House” are strangely revealing. You revisit personal bouts of resentment with a stone-cold delivery. Is that normal for you?
“Dog House” is special man. Sometimes the pocket and melody will create this subject for me. I didn’t have an idea on what the song was going to be about. I just knew that “Walking around”.. (reenacts guitar sound) “…pacing back and forth I go…what’s on my mind,” those were the first lines and the story started building and it’s like aight, I know what this finna be about. And when I got to the part where I started writing the hook, it just glued. I knew that this was gonna be a story of how damaging a relationship can be, how hard it is to survive a relationship and how common it is for all of us to be in the dog house. All of my boys can relate to that shit. If you haven’t been through that you ain’t been in no relationship, you haven’t really dealt with shit, ya balls ain’t drop, as my manager would say. But it’s just something that we all can relate to, and I’ve had records talk about my personal relationship but I’ve never had a record that says hey man, don’t we all feel like this? That was kind of the subject of it, but as far as the pocket goes and the delivery, that’s the genius of Jim Jonsin, Mike Hartnett, Peter Keys and our years of experience combined of knowing where the music should set. Sometimes you just nail it man. Some records aren’t masterminded, they just fall into place.
As a professional recording artist, it’s clear that you’ve never cared for attention or have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Since you’ve crossed over into the spirits industry as an entrepreneur, how has your relationship to fame changed?
It’s hard to say, it’s hard to judge, from my point of view it has been pretty consistent. Pretty much everywhere I fucking go I’m almost guaranteed – it doesn’t matter where the fuck I’m at, I might run into someone who knows who I am. My manager told me we gotta get away, and I’m like man you’re right, we gotta get out of here. We went off to Gatlinburg, climbed a mountain five miles up, five miles down, top of the mountain, there’s a dude with a backpack on, “Yelawolf!?” I swear to God, true story. And we both look at each other like no fucking way this is happening. We literally tried to get that far away. My wife and my brother, they tell me sometimes I forget who I am, but I never want to feel famous. If I could change or exchange one thing in my life, I love the music and the success of being able to take care of my family, buy things that I’m passionate about – which isn’t really crazy, I’m in the same truck I’ve been in since 2013. I don’t really flex, I have different ways of enjoying the fruits of the labor, so to speak. If I could exchange one thing for another, fuck fame. People become famous over the stupidest shit ever. It’s not cool to be in a fame club if you’re famous and the dude next to me is famous for opening up fucking toys for Toys “R” Us, he’s got a YouTube page that ten million people follow everyday. It’s a very gray place. I like the appreciation for the music, the style, the fashion, all of the creative side that I put into it, I enjoy appreciation for that. I was having dinner the other night and a dude walks up, “Hey man, can I get a photo,” I stand up and give ‘em a photo. When he walked away, I saw a lady stop him and go, “Hey, is he famous?,” and I overheard, “Yeah, that’s Yelawolf, he blah blah blah,” and she goes, “Can I get a photo?” but it’s like for what bitch? You don’t even know who I am. You want a photo of me because I’m quote on quote famous, what does it matter to you? If you’re an actual fan of the music, then be a fan of the music. What if everybody knew who actually Jim Morrison was? What if he was in the internet age and was an absolute maniac asshole, but no one knows. So it’s like this where I’m at with it, love me for the music, love me for what I create, not for who I am.
When you think about the dichotomy between life and death, with bringing your vision of a transcendent experience to the big screen, how do you plan to convey that same emotion on film?
We sat together, both the directors, myself and my manager, and I told them I wanted to shoot a movie for the album. For about 4-6 months we created this pitch, along with stills and visual references, and we chose Mexico to shoot this because first of all, Mexico is a spiritually moving place, especially in Mexico City. You got pyramids an hour away from downtown Mexico City that are 1,000 years old. The fact that they celebrate the day of the dead, they’re just a very spiritually driven people and a spiritually driven culture. Not religious, but spirituals. We knew that we could go there and not only get the visuals we were looking for but get the group of people that we needed that would understand the importance of the purpose of this movie. We went out to Mexico City and gathered the group of the absolute best people that we could find and a magic just started to happen man. This is no joke, this is a real featured film project: full-on stunts, all practical effects too, there’s very minimal CG (Computer Graphics). We were really stern about having practical effects, that’s in-camera, on-set effects. That’s because we really needed this to be real as the music was. My manager, who I’ve known since I was 12-years-old, this dude’s basically a young shaman, he’s so well-versed in Ayahuasca trips, he’s done his own pilgrimage to the pyramids of Giza, he understands the vibe and feeling so he was real integral in making sure the DP and crew understood how it should feel. Every song and every piece of the journey has a specific color palette to each record, a specific setting, and we’re super proud of it man. I can’t wait for people to see it. I think it’s gonna be really well-received and people will be proud of how in-depth it is and just overall fucking ill, it’s just dope. There’s a lot of dope shit that goes down in the movie.
I’m excited to learn more about Yelawolf the director, but if this is a goodbye (for now) to hip-hop, Mud Mouth is one hell of a statement to make on your way out.
I’m leaving it open-ended man. I know this could be it for a while but I would never say it’s the last. I’m putting it to rest for a while and I’m focused on this next part of my life and career, but you and I both know I’ll always love hip-hop.