In The Lab with Yelawolf

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Words by Eric Diep
Images by Steven Lau

We’re at an undisclosed location in SoHo with Yelawolf, and he really wants chicken wings right now. It’s early in the morning. Not exactly the typical time for people to eat a hot plate of wings and fries from Virgil’s, but you got to satisfy your cravings somehow. The conversation with everyone in the room shifts to all the dope BBQ spots around the city, including one in Brooklyn called Delaney. “Nobody does fried chicken like NYC,” Yela says, describing how the Big Apple has mastered cooking with a black iron skillet. For someone who was born and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, a town deeply rooted in Southern BBQ traditions and soul food, it’s quite the compliment.

Since signing to Shady Records in 2011, Catfish Billy has done little to conform to mainstream’s standards. The heavily tattooed rapper has stuck to his upbringing and influences of rock, hip-hop and country, releasing music that attracts all types of listeners whether you’re a fan of Eminem or Tim McGraw. After his breakout mixtape Trunk Muzik, he released a subpar debut album entitled Radioactive, where he has vocally expressed his frustrations about it, even when the title itself implied his dominance on radio. Never letting missteps bring him down, he put out a steady stream of free music—EPs with Ed Sheeran, Travis Barker and DJ Paul, as well as Trunk Muzik Returns—in hopes of regaining the spotlight. Nearly four years later, Yela focused on delivering music that’s true to his roots with Love Story.

To get a better feel for his second studio album, we caught up with the Shady Records signee just a few days before the release date. We discussed recording in the famed Blackbird Studios in Nashville, his writing process, learning from Eminem and more. We also touch on why he quit skateboarding to pursue a rap career, his plans for producing the entire next album, his love for Johnny Cash, and the upcoming lyric book that’s coming out with Love Story. “The entire album is handwritten in the lyric book we are putting out and Eminem handwrote his verse too for his feature,” Yela revealed. “The lyric book has all the handwritten lyrics to every song and a bunch of the making of photos. It’s pretty cool.”

We can’t wait. But for now, read up on how the Slumerican gets to work in the lab.

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On taking rap seriously

Yelawolf: It was a few times I remember rapping at a house party or in the car where there were a few friends of mine. I could tell on the look on their faces and how psyched they were. Maybe it was something that I needed to take serious. I made the decision on my own that it is something that I needed to do. It wasn’t anyone in particular. No one person said, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I could tell that I had a knack for it. It was coming natural to me just like anything else. If you play pool and you’re always winning at the bar. That type of thing—just self-awareness.

I put my music first, but skateboarding was a passion of mine. I’m still a huge fan of it. I was really trying to be a part of it, but I came up in a different era. And in the South where I was coming up, there was no one with cameras. I wasn’t getting footage. The only way you are gonna get on is with footage. So by the time I made it to Berkley, when I turned 19, I was just getting wrecked. Both of my ankles were severely sprained or broken. Twice. It got to where I would be walking down the street and roll my ankle because I had no control of my ankles anymore. I was over the scene. I was over the whole thing. I still love skateboarding, but I wasn’t a fan of the industry and I wasn’t the fan of the way [you were] being treated.

And also, I was starting to learn that these skateboarders were making no money. All these pro skaters that I looked up to were broke. I started wondering why, ‘You know?’ It’s like, ‘Man, I can’t give my life up to that. It’s not for me.’ It is absolutely for some people and some of my people are good friends and they make a good living out of it. They figured it out. I put that dream to rest.

Influences

A lot of classic rock around the house like Fleetwood Mac, 10,000 Maniacs and REO Speedwagon. I remember Ted Nugent. Country wise, a lot of Hank Williams, a lot of Hank Jr. Merle Haggard. Dolly Parton, a lot of Patsy Cline. New metal was Metallica. Megadeth. Judas Priest. On the hip-hop side, it started really with Beastie Boys and Run-DMC.

Then after that, when I moved to Nashville, it became a whirlwind of underground hip-hop. Da Bush Babees. Hieroglyphics. Digable Planets, and then came OutKast and Goodie Mob along with Southern rap. [Playa Fly’s] “Nappy Hair & Gold Teeth.” 8 Ball & MJG. Three 6 Mafia. UGK. All that shit was happening. I might be listening to Three 6 Mafia or Ice Cube by day and be sitting in a room with Randy Travis that night because my mom’s husband at the time was the road manager for Randy Travis. So I was always [with him] or at the Grand Ole Opry watching Hank Williams Jr. perform.

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On why he likes Johnny Cash

I’m the fan of the person, who he was, and how he operates and his style. Style king. Just the coolest. That’s why I love Johnny Cash. Obviously, I love his music but I’m not an encyclopedia on his songs. I just love who he is. I use his name in “Johnny Cash” as an adjective. That’s how I used Johnny Cash, to actually go cray. To get buck. To be Johnny Cash. That’s the idea, facing a dead crowd and having to open up for an act that their crowd sucks and everybody hates you. You just gotta get Johnny Cash on ‘em. [Laughs.]

Recording Love Story at Blackbird Studios

Malay—a buddy of mine, producer—he had been telling me about this studio for years. He’s like, ‘Man, Nashville has this studio called Blackbird and they got [all these things].’ The owner Jon McBride, which is Martina McBride’s husband, he invested like $40 million dollars into this facility and to analog, vintage gear. He also invested in a group of engineers that know their shit. If you go in there and you say you want a particular guitar sound, they’ll pull out a $10,000 vintage Gibson and plug into an amp that you can’t find. Mics that no one has and give you that sound you’re looking for. I just went there for the freedom of it. It was anything that you imagined. So it’s one of the best studios in the world.

I have a home studio, but it’s in storage right now. I had a crib in Nashville and gave it up for a while because I’m shopping for a house. I got a loft in east Nashville and I’ve put all my stuff in storage so it’s been sitting there for a while. I did Trunk Muzik Returns and Black Fall with DJ Paul at my home studio. We have the big Mac and the new Pro Tools rig and some really big monitors. We got an Avalon. We got a floating booth. Whisper room booth. Big Normans mic. We put some money into it. We put a $300,000 mic [into it]. [Laughs.] Probably all together a $50,000 setup—just something to do well with the right engineer. It is still limited. Even with that much money, it’s still like a stark difference between that and a Blackbird.

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On working with a smaller circle for the album

Usually, it was just Malay and WLPWR, but even they had to leave when I was cutting vocals. [Laughs.] I’m like, ‘Can I have a couple minutes to get through this?’ Only because I didn’t want somebody hitting the talk back like, ‘Could you do that again?,’ before I decide whether or not I needed to do something again. I know when I fuck up. I know when I have a bad take. I could hear it. It’s helpful to have that control. It usually ends up in a better song. That’s what you’re there for. You are there to make a good record, so whatever method you use to get that done. Whether it’s having a party or just you, the point is to get a good song. It’s not like there’s rules because some sessions are different. I have some sessions sometimes where there are a lot of people in there. But the difference was invite only. Nobody random in there.

For me, I’m pretty anal with what I want out of the song. I have to be able to say whether I like it or not before anyone decide if they like it or not. But I keep people in the studio that I respect their opinions, so it was very minimal the people that were allowed. This time, even cutting vocals, I would close the door just to have some space for myself to try and really zone into something. Just me and an engineer.

On his writing process

Music is the only thing that drives me to write sometimes. Actually, “Empty Bottles” I wrote without any music on a railroad track literally in Georgia. Just the melody came to me, the song, and the even the double-time breakdown at the end. And then I took that idea to Malay and he made it come to life. That’s the only song I think that I have ever written without any music that I’ve made it to an album. It’s happened ever once in a while. But they never really seem to work out. “Empty Bottles” is the only song without any music at all. No guitar. No nothing. Just that melody and that’s it. That was the only song that I ever wrote .Every other time, it happens with an instrument: guitar, piano, synth line, drums. Something happens that makes you want to write. I’m not sure what that is. That’ll remain a mystery of what the hell makes you want to write those words.

Sometimes I write on a notepad or iPhone. If I was a purist, I wouldn’t use an iPhone as far as writing. I was actually for a while on some ‘Man, fuck that. That’s wack. I’m not writing a record on my goddamn iPhone.’ But I’ve had moments where it’s like voice record an idea. Or driving down the street and I have this idea and I use the translator and I’ll speak my lyrics into the phone and it writes itself. So it’s pretty dope. I can actually—high-tech redneck—e-mail that shit to myself or if I write a song on my iPhone, I can e-mail [my manager] J. Dot and he can send it to copyright and I don’t even have to fucking pick up a pen. [Laughs.] And no one has to translate and I don’t have to write it legibly. I just get to send it from my phone. Sometimes, it works. But most of the time it is whatever I can grab: a napkin, a receipt. And write the song.

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On writing hooks and singing

I’ve always fucking written hooks. The difference is now I’ve come up with pulling the best of, you know? Making music is like putting shit through a strainer, to me. You gotta get better, that’s the goal. I’ve always been a hook writer, but with a great melody, it really opens up to a great hook. It can open you up to write something special. “Till It’s Gone” is the musical melody that makes that hook what it is. It carries you there. Once you have a great melody, then you combine that with a great vocal melody, it’s just about finding those words to make it a great hook, which is hard.

On working with WLPWR throughout his career

WLPWR is great. He is one of the best synth and drum programmers out there. The next phase is I’ll be producing, probably the entire next album. Just because I know what a producer is and honestly I’ve been a producer the whole time. I just didn’t know what I was doing. Will is phenomenal. He’s an amazing programmer and when we get together, we make some dope shit. It’s only going to happen when we are in the room together. Our sound when we are together doesn’t happen without him or me. I couldn’t do it without him and he couldn’t do it without me. It’s not going to happen. We produce together. The next project, too, I’m going in on that.

I love having people in the room that can just play. Musicians [can] make some cool shit. Bones [Owens], my guitar player, he’s got that gift. He’ll just play some shit. He played the “Devil In My Veins” on guitar and that was out of nowhere. He just sat there, fucking around. I’m just happy to have him. Robbie Turner, the man of steel player. Zach and Lindsey: Lindsey the cello player and Zach the string player. Rob Base. Jeff. WLPWR. Malay. A lot of moving pieces but they’re all very [important]. My engineer Leland Elliott, who makes it make sense. They’re all important pieces.

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Learning from Eminem

I learned trust. That’s been like [that] with anyone in the world. No matter how much of a star they are or how much notoriety, it’s difficult to hand your music to someone and say ‘Alright, what do you think? Or take it to the next level.’ It’s a trust that I have for him and he has for me that works. This album, if anything, definitely showed that relationship is sold. To send him “American You” and not that I had heard him work on something particularly like that, and have him send me what he sent me, he killed it. He really, really killed it. “Heartbreak,” the song he produced, and where he took “Best Friend.” It’s just that partnership.

You can learn a lot just by watching someone. There’s no particular phrase I can cut out. It’s just watch. Just pay attention. And for me, it’s just applying myself in my own way to things that I’ve seen him do without emulating without copying. Just watching. Marshall is his own thing first of all. He’s just his own deal. It’s not like it could be emulated any fucking way because it couldn’t. As a mentor, it’s just paying attention. He was a mentor before I knew him. A lot of people could say that—not just me. Shit, there’s probably thousands of people and artists in shit that can say that.

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Studio essentials

Monster Energy drinks all day. [Laughs.] That’s all I need to perform. I need nothing else. No food. No water. Just Monster Energy drinks. Love Story was made on Monster Energy drinks.

On what’s next

I’m going on tour for this album. That’s what I do. I put out an album and I fucking tour [Laughs.] I’ll be touring for the next forty fucking years until the next album comes out. I don’t know if even that is one of your questions. It’s not. I just made it one though: When’s the next album is coming out? I have no idea. What it’s called? I don’t know. But I’ll be touring until it happens.

Yelawolf’s new album Love Story is out now, stream it in full here.

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