EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Yelawolf opens up about his creative process, legendary posse cuts, and "Ghetto Cowboy."
In the pantheon of hip-hop, few artists stand out like the Ghetto Cowboy, Alabama's Yelawolf. Stylistically, Catfish Billy has worn his varied influences on his sleeve, drawing from country music, hip-hop, rock, and metal. His versatility is revealed through his songwriting; while one track might be an 808-driven banger, the next might be a slow-burning, haunting reflection. Fans likely remember the emergence of "Pop The Trunk," an intimidating slice of life that catapulted Yela into the game. Since then, he's released five studio albums, including the brand new Ghetto Cowboy.
Emerging from a self-imposed retreat from the spotlight, Yelawolf's 2019 campaign found him creatively reinvigorated. It's clear from the duality between his two latest albums that Yela is specific in his arrangement process. Songs must be arranged in a linear fashion, flowing effectively into the next. While one project may reveal darkness, another will peel back the curtain to reveal another unexpected layer. And let's not forget his prowess as an emcee; Yela has amassed a legendary repertoire of posse cuts, including "2.0 Boys," "1Train," and "Worldwide Choppers."
A few days prior to Ghetto Cowboy's release, I had the pleasure to speak with Yelawolf over the phone. Read our full conversation below.
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Hey, what’s up Yelawolf? Nice to meet you.
Yeah, it’s a pleasure man. Nice to meet you too.
Thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate that. I wanted to congratulate you on having a big year. Two albums.
Yeah, thank you.
How’s your day going so far?
Pretty good man. It’s a rainy day in Alabama. I’m out here for Halloween. My Pop-Pop passed suddenly a couple days ago, so I came out here for his service. I’m just sticking around for Halloween to hang out with my grandmother.
I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s all good, man. It was a good service.
For Ghetto Cowboy, is there any particular reason you gravitated towards a Halloween release?
It’s funny man. Halloween is my favorite holiday. Always has been. It’s actually my family’s favorite holiday for generations. My mom and my grandmother are both self-proclaimed white witches. So it’s kind of nostalgic in a way. I just thought it would be a rad day to put a record out. Being independent, and having the ability to shot-call that. It was like, “Well, pick a day.” I was done with the record, I had it in the pocket.
I wanted to give it enough time. I’ve been sitting on Ghetto Cowboy for a minute. I wanted to give time to get the word out that it was coming. So it seemed like a good time. Enough time to promote it and shit. Why not, you know?
For sure. I heard the album man. It’s dope, I really liked it. Something I’ve noticed in your music is the concept of duality. You strike me as an artist who will really tailor your music to the mood that you’re feeling at the time. Sometimes that can lead to two distinct styles. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll equate it to the Trunk Muzik sound or the Ghetto Cowboy sound. How do you decide on which sound you want to explore when you’re working on new music?
I mean, I’ve toyed with so many styles throughout my career. If it was before Trunk Muzik and you went back to my first underground mixtape Stereo, which was a classic rock tribute. When I first started, to me it was really hard to find a way to put capsulize to put all of these ideas and all of these styles into one lane. It seemed almost impossible.
When I did the Stereo tape, and I went on and did Arena Rap where I built this whole band and I produced this project with Malay. Malay who went on to produce Frank Ocean’s album and all of that stuff. We created this sound and built this band out of Atlanta. But it wasn’t translating. It wasn’t working in a sense. At least not for a certain amount of people who were trying to get me a situation. To get me out of the hood, bring me out of Alabama, make it work. No one got it.
L.A Reid came out to a show. Lil Wayne came to a show. Khaled came to a show, all at the same time. Sold out show with this band. L.A. Reid was like straight up, “I don’t get this. I don’t know what to do with this. It’s dope, but I can’t sell it.” KP, Kawan Prather was like “it doesn’t feel special to them because you got so much Rock & Roll going on in your hip-hop that it’s almost to be expected, because you are from Alabama. If you go back and do a straight rap tape, it’ll be more of a shock. People will be surprised by it.”
To his credit, he was right. When I went back and did Trunk Muzik, I was like, “Aight, I’ll go back and do a 808’s rap tape. Fuck it.” And Malay was like, “Alright well fuck you, I’m going to L.A!” [Laughs] Malay went off to L.A. and of course went on to produce Frank Ocean’s project, and then I went and did Trunk Muzik. When “Pop The Trunk” dropped and I saw that reaction, it was like I never existed. So it was like wow, this is all it took. So after Trunk Muzik, I’ve been sliding in these ideas that I’ve had before Trunk Muzik. And then it led all the way up to Love Story. So making organic music with infused Rock & Roll or country, or whatever these influences are, that’s always been a blessing and a curse.
When I go in to make a record, if I’m sitting there and I do a record like “Pop The Trunk,” I’m not going to put it right next to a song like “Have a Great Flight” or “Dealt With My Pain.” I feel like a project should be consistent in a way. That’s just how I am as a fan. I don’t like picking up an album that has 15 different producers, 15 completely different sounds. The artist can sound confused. I never wanted to seem confused to people. I wanted to seem like I knew what I was doing. I did this purposeful. This is meant to be this way. It really starts with the music, and 99% of the time, my project starts with the title. So when I did Trunk Muzik, I was like “Alright this is Trunk Muzik.Trunk Muzik 3 is gonna be this. Love Story is gonna be this, Ghetto Cowboy is gonna be this, Trial By Fire is gonna be this. I’m kind of writing a book but I start with the cover and then I just fill up the pages.
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Thanks for breaking that down. I actually wanted to revisit something you said that was interesting, how you called your Mother and Grandmother “self-proclaimed white witches.” Are you familiar with the southern-gothic subgenre at all?
Which southern gothic, like black metal or hip hop?
I would say however you interpret it.
Talking about like Ghostmane and shit?
Like “Pop The Trunk.” I was just wondering what your inspirations to make such a dark song and visuals. What was your inspiration behind that specifically?
Part of my character and part of my interest artistically is dark. It’s always been dark, and I do dark I really well. I’ve had way less success in music that I’ve tried to make more palatable. Or if I tried to hop on a song that was more friendly, it’s a little less acceptable by the fans. I guess the best way I can put it is, you don’t want to hear Metallica sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” You don’t want to hear a certain artist do certain things, as a fan. I wouldn’t, so I get it.
Hip-hop artists like Mobb Deep, The Gravediggaz, Ice T, Lynch Mob, Geto Boys, that type of feel is part of my upbringing. Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was The Case” or Bone Thugs, they always had this dark spiritual feel to it. I could relate to that too because of the heavy metal that I grew up on. Even when I was a kid I went through a whole time where I was listening to Sepultura and Deicide. I was around that. Partly because of skateboarding and partly because of the country-ass metalheads I was around.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t know too much about the metal scene. But I imagine there’s a lot of thematic darkness to come out of it, especially lyrically. I know enough about it to know that there’s definitely some darker themes in metal.
Well, you don’t set out and say “I’m gonna do a song called “Pop The Trunk” today and this is how the video is gonna be.” That shit just happens. Because all of those characters were real people. That was a real place. We shot it on a 5D with no lights, that whole video was shot for under five grand.
I love that video by the way. That video is one of my favorites.
Yeah me too, man. The magic man. When the magic is happening, it just does. You can’t really put your finger on it. Sometimes less is more.
I like what you said about drawing a parallel between all sorts of different types of hip-hop and that darkness. Bone Thugs from the midwest had their own thing going. They were talking about those ouija boards and stuff. Snoop Dogg, NWA, Dr. Dre, they had those dark bangers. With “Pop The Trunk” I find it so uniquely southern in its imagery. That’s what makes it kind of makes it feel like a southern-gothic track to me. These types of things your describing, they’re not happening in LA or New York. They’re very unique to your surrounding and it really helps build the world around you. I think that’s super dope.
Yeah that’s the era that I love. That’s what I love about Hip Hop. Unfortunately, that’s rare these days. Everybody around the globe sounds like their from Atlanta right now. You can’t really put your finger on it anymore. But you used to be able to listen to Wu-Tang, Outkast, or someone from Texas or Los Angeles. Someone from Memphis, like Three 6. You got to understand their pocket. They were pulling directly from their neighborhoods and the towns they were influenced by. That’s the way I like to make music, directly from specific inspirations around me. Where I’m from.
On that note, I wanted to ask you about something I find that you’re very strong at as a writer: your storytelling. Songs like “Pop The Trunk” or “Sabrina” come to mind. They’re very well thought out narratives. How do you approach writing a story-telling song? Do you lay out the whole arc beforehand?
When I’m writing music 99.9% of the time, I’ll start with a melody, or something with the drums or the piano. Something that’ll take me to a certain mood. I take that mood, I put myself in a place, and start building from there. Sometimes it will be directly to an actual situation, and sometimes it’ll morph into a story like an author would write. A lot of people were really convinced that [Sabrina] was a real thing, which I thought was super interesting. I guess I sold it that well.
Yeah, you did.
To me, it was just creating an atmosphere and setting up a song. Like the song I did with Lee Brice, just to juxtapose that whole situation. It’s really being creative and getting into the zone. When you’re in the studio, you have that moment and that time, right then right there. It really is like catching lightning in a bottle -- if you can grab it. You gotta take hold of it and make it work right there. Because that time, that moment, that vibe will never be, ever again. Never. It’s like catching waves man. Like “Opie Taylor.” “Opie Taylor” was a wave, it was a vibe, it was a good time in the studio, it was a moment. You just take advantage of it while it’s there.
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Definitely. I also wanted to congratulate you on joining the ranks of the married!
Obviously you listen to a lot of Classic Rock and Rock music beyond hip-hop, so you’re obviously familiar with the fact that love songs are a huge staple of other musical genres. But I find in hip-hop that it’s kind of uncommon to hear a traditional love song. Maybe Kendrick Lamar’s “Love” comes to mind to me right off the bat. But how do you balance these feelings of love that you have for your wife into your music, and still deliver it in a way that’s unique to your style?
Well, right after I did a mixtape called Black Fall with DJ Paul, that was after Radioactive. Radioactive hit a lot of bumps in the road with producers and writers, shit that just wasn’t making sense for me or for the fans. A lot of Radioactive I’m proud of, some of it I’m not. Just bluntly not stoked on it at all. About the process, about some of the people that were involved, some of the song choices. But I was fresh, and I was just coming into a new deal. Very trusting.
So after Radioactive, I wanted to displace. I went back to Tennessee, pretty much hopped off social media for over a year. Grew my beard out and just got weird. I got into my zone and tried to figure out “How do I repaint this picture?” So we did a mixtape with DJ Paul, Black Fall. I felt like I had to do something with some street, I need to go back with my homies and do something really core and raw. So I got that out of my system, and we started working on Trunk Muzik Returns. Then we fell upon “Tennessee Love” which was a song inspired by Fefe. “Tennessee Love” was the foundation for Love Story. When I fell into that sound and I fell into that vibe, I was like, “Man, this is the foundation for the album.”
I had the concept of “Love Story” already in the pocket, but I was still figuring out how I was gonna do it. Once I did “Tennessee Love,” it became the bar. We brought that song to the studio and we held every song against it. Sometimes your blatant honesty about love, passion for your partner, for your wife, whomever actually, sometimes that makes the best music. I mean, everybody inherently wants to love or be loved. Even the hardest muthafucker on the planet deserves and wants to be loved and to love somebody. That’s a universal thing. The trick is, for an artist like me, finding a balance to talk about it. It still has to have some type of edge to it. “Tennessee Love” was that record for me. On Radioactive, it was “Heart Break.” It was what didn’t work. It was about divorce. Bloodsucking women.
A lot of your music features intricate guitar arrangements. Finger-picked guitars. Obviously you have some great players in your circle. Do you play the guitar by any chance?
Yeah, I play guitar. I never felt comfortable enough to perform live. I do write a lot of melodies on guitar. As far as studio musicians go, I’ve been super fortunate to meet and work with some of the best out there. But “Have A Great Flight” is all my guitar work. Mike Hartnett, Frankie Fingers, Geoff Firebaugh of Hillbilly Casino, these people are incredible musicians. Studio recording is light years away from being able to play the guitar. You put somebody on a nice microphone in a nice studio and it’s a different world. I’ve been super fortunate, but you know Nashville is really abundant in great players. It’s why I moved there.
Most definitely. Something else I noticed looking back on your career, is that you’re on three legendary posse cuts. You’ve got “2.0 Boys,” a Shady Records anthem with Slaughterhouse and Em. You’ve got “1Train,” with the most stacked lineup ever. And you’ve got “Worldwide Choppers.” How did you become such a staple on these posse cuts? Can you tell me about the studio sessions?
For all three of those tracks I was emailed the track with no verses, no hook. “2.0,” Marshall hit me up like ‘I want you to end this track!’ I was like, alright! [Laughs] I didn’t hear anyone else’s verses, I didn’t know how they was coming. I just did what I did, I pulled up in the studio in Nashville after a show. Laid my verse. Sent it out. That was that. Didn’t hear the finished track till it hit radio.
“Worldwide Choppers,” same thing. I was in Tree Sound studios in Atlanta. Tech N9ne and I had become friends. He walked up to me personally and was like “you want to get on this ‘Worldwide Choppers’ with us?” I was like, nah man, not with you fools! Ya’ll are too nasty, too quick. He was like, “no you got it, you’ll kill it. Do you.” So he sent me the track, same thing. Nobody to bounce off off. I made the cut.
With “1Train,” the A$AP crew and I became really tight. When they first came up, we were doing shows together. Festivals overseas. We would run across each other on the road. The whole A$AP Mob used to come to my shows. They would jump in the mosh pit. They were just cool people, man. We really understood one another in some kind of way. We just did. A$AP hit me up to hop on “1Train” because they were fans of Trunk Muzik. They were fans of that style, and they respected me as an emcee. I think that was Rocky’s way of showing his appreciation to me. I hear a lot that I’m slept on, whatever it is. As a friend, as a homie, it was his way to give me the floor for a minute. Just to remind people I am an emcee. Fuck around and put me on a track with any one of these guys and I’m ready.
I do a lot as far as singing and rapping. Bar for bar, that’s what got me to Marshall. That’s what got me on a record with Busta Rhymes and Twista. That’s what got me on a record with Bone Thugs. On the “1Train.”
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And now here you are. A great career, with another album coming tomorrow.
Yeah man! With all that being said, with all the singing or all the bars I’ve dropped, whether it was crew tracks or mixtapes or freestyles, tons of freestyles, none of that has equated to fans walking through the door. Love Story is my highest selling record ever. I pride myself on my songwriting and my ability to put together albums. Emceeing is fun, rapping is fun, but that’s just playtime for me.
When it comes to making albums and records, that’s what translates to the listener, and to me. I don’t perform the “1Train” verse, I don’t perform “Bloody Sunday.” I don’t perform my “Worldwide Choppers” verse. I perform Love Story, my Trunk Muzik classics. Does that make sense?
Definitely. I think your attention to detail when constructing an album shows. To me, it’s one of your biggest strengths as a songwriter. I’m looking forward to diving into the album again.
It’s funny. I’ve always had an album in the pocket. I think people can get used to a consistent release from me now that I’m free from a major label. Every time you’ve heard an album from me in the past five years, believe that I’ve sat on it for a year and a half or more. Ghetto Cowboy was about eighty percent done before I did Trunk Muzik 3. We had all this music and everybody was like “this is dope but it’s not Trunk Muzik. So we went in and made Trunk Muzik 3. We went in with the 808 vibes and brought that Trunk Muzik sound. That’s how I did Ghetto Cowboy so quickly.