Yelawolf is back in Nashville, Tennessee not long after performing a sold-out show with rapper-turned-country star Jelly Roll in Denver, Colorado. Wolf’s explosive set was a lesson in how all artists should command a stage—he was energetic, engaging, and a little bit enigmatic. Wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, a black beret, and a leather jacket, the Alabama-born artist doesn’t look like the average MC. The tattoos, leather cuts, and patches make him look more like a Hell’s Angel than a former Shady Records signee. But that’s partly what makes Yelawolf so intriguing. Not to mention his musical versatility is almost otherworldly.
Born Michael Wayne Atha in a small town in Alabama, Yelawolf jumped around as a kid but spent the bulk of his childhood in Antioch, Tennessee. He naturally gravitated toward the rebelliousness of skateboarding, punk rock, rock, and hip-hop, which inadvertently shaped Wolf’s future. His entire catalog is an amalgamation of those influences—from 2008’s Stereo: A Hip Hop Tribute to Classic Rock and 2015’s Love Story to 2019’s Trunk Muzik III and his more recent project with Shooter Jennings, 2022’s Sometimes Y. Translated live, it’s clear he was born for the stage.
“I’ve never had stage fright,” he tells High Times. “But I was definitely raised around a different type of live performance. I grew up going to underground hip-hop and punk rock shows in Atlanta. My first gangster rap show was Three 6 Mafia and Mystikal, and that was rowdy. I like rowdy. So when we first started doing shows in Atlanta, we had kids that would wear helmets to our shows; it was that crazy. We just kind of made it our thing, at least I did—head-banging, crowd surfing. Then I applied that energy to hip-hop because when I saw Method Man and Redman when I was a kid, I crowd surfed in the pit. Or Beastie Boys, you know.”
Armed with that same ethos, Michael Wayne Atha was transformed into Yelawolf in his late teens. His first show was at the 231 Club in Jackson, Alabama, although it was more of an appearance. He shared the stage with 10 other guys and only got to spit a few bars, but that’s where the journey began. For some, the mere thought of performing in front of a crowd is terrifying, but Yelawolf never struggled with that.
“I was kind of born with this fearlessness,” he says. “I got on stage when I was 5 years old and sang with my uncle. He held me up to the mic. And my mom raised me around artists. She was dating dudes who were on the road, so being on stage and around buses and artists was kind of normal. But ego supersedes talent. It’ll train you to get better if you just have the balls to go up there and be persistent. Falling down in front of people—I think that’s the key—like literally falling off stage or forgetting a verse or just plain getting booed.”
Getting booed isn’t something Yelawolf experiences these days. If anything, his audience is salivating for more by the time his set is over. But for him, it’s off to the next thing, the next city, the next show. Wolf’s punk rock ethos has remained intact since he was a young wolf pup, but the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle that so often comes along with a career in music can become cumbersome. Yelawolf has certainly weathered some storms, but he always seems to land on his feet. However, his experiences with drugs and alcohol have altered the way he moves. Although he has the utmost respect for the medicinal benefits cannabis can provide, he can no longer use it. It was only four years ago when he was involuntarily put on a 72-hour psychiatric hold in San Diego or, what he called, “5150’ed.”
“They sent me to a padded room and shit, for real,” he remembers. “It was like that Green Day video [‘Basket Case’]. They kept me in there for three days and then I had to go to rehab for a while. I love weed. I wish I could smoke it. I love the smell of it and I love the idea of it, but the therapist I was talking to said I was basically clinically allergic. They said I could smoke a bunch of different strains, but by the time I found one that may or may not fit me, I would be back in the same situation.”
Experiencing such a traumatic incident would scare anyone into sobriety—at least for a while. Yelawolf has periods where he doesn’t use anything, but then he’ll drink whiskey or other types of alcohol. But to him, that’s much more manageable.
“You just gotta know yourself,” he says. “You have to really fucking trust your gut. Shit does not affect everybody the same, and that’s a fact. Getting to know yourself…I wouldn’t suggest anybody leaning on medication for what could be a mental health or spiritual health issue that you just need to go figure some shit out by yourself. So that’s what I did. Drinking is something I can measure. I can measure my buzz. I can follow it, and I can take it as far as I want to or not. It’s safer for me than the alternative.”
Yelawolf is currently focused on releasing his next rap record, a double album and 180-degree pivot from the project he did with Shooter Jennings. A couple of factors contributed to his decision to jump back in.
“After the rock ‘n’ roll record with Shooter, it was so bittersweet to have such, what we considered, a really amazing project with critical acclaim and shit,” he says. “But it was also becoming like a paperweight for me. We had to remove something that was holding it down, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. It became one thing after another. We couldn’t do a show because Shooter isn’t available, or this guy’s doing this or that guy is doing that. I didn’t want to get another band because I already branded them.
“That kind of pushed me into doing another record. The other part was like a creative voice. I was itching for hip-hop badly again and frankly, I was inspired, like Kendrick Lamar is doing amazing work right now. I was also inspired by the wack shit. I’m not gonna say names, but I was inspired by the garbage that was coming out. And I was like, ‘Man, I want to put my foot back in the game.’ Then, of course, there were the people who said, ‘Oh, he quit rapping.’ I never said that.”
With his hunger for rap at a ravenous level again, Yelawolf hit up his longtime collaborator James Ryan Ho, better known as Grammy Award-winning producer Malay, and fellow producer WLPWR to get to work. But rather than doing one project, Wolf did one with each producer, hence the double LP.
“I went and did an album with WLPWR, and I went and did a record with Malay. They were different but vibe wise, they were just so good. We wanted to put them out as a double album instead of stretching it out and dangling the carrot so to speak. We came up with the title War Story because it’s opposite of Love Story.”
Yelawolf hasn’t set a release date yet, but the project will live under the Slumerican umbrella.
“The album I did with WLPWR is called Trunk Musik Forever and then the other album is called Michael Wayne that I did with Malay, but they’ll be under one package. Michael Wayne is the most honest I’ve ever been. Trunk Musik Forever has some really personal shit, but it’s not a downer. It’s got some really fun records.”
This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.