On a tip from a friend, Atha took a bus to Seattle for the lure of a $20,000 job on an Alaskan ﬁshing boat. He arrived to a long list of applicants already ahead of him, couch-surfed and hustled money to split hotel rooms with other “street kids,” and made it onto a boat after a week. On the ship, he worked 20-hour days, seven days a week, on waters so cold the mist of waves breaking against the side of the ship would freeze in mid-air, blasting the crew’s faces with powdery ice crystals. He completed the season but got swindled by the ship’s captain who had created a system in which he could keep most of his crew’s pay without any legal recourse. “I went out there to make 20 G’s. I came home with 1500 dollars. And that was the beginning of Yelawolf.”
He returned to Alabama and worked as a day laborer to support his new rap pursuits and found quick success, earning a spot on Missy Elliott’s 2005 reality show talent search, Missy Elliott’s Road to Stardom. It didn’t turn out well. He was the third contestant out of 13 eliminated after requesting “ﬂy beats” instead of the one Elliott had handmade with Dallas Austin during the same episode. His candor most assuredly secured his trip home. Beneath Missy’s track-suited wings, however, would have been an odd place for Yelawolf, as someone who was trying to carve out a path as a stringy-haired country boy who only put his skateboard down to pick up a ﬁshing rod. His departure was for the best, as most reality show departures are, and it brought him a bit of the humility he leans on now.
Earlier this year, when Big Boi asked Yelawolf to join him on the Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son Of Chico Dusty standout “You Ain’t No DJ,” the understudy was overwhelmed. “I always wanted to be part of the Dungeon Family,” he says, before repeating himself for emphasis. “I thought they ﬁ t. Once I found out Bubba Sparxxx was fucking with them, I really wanted to be a part of it. I was like, God, okay, they’re not afraid of the white boy!” Originally slated for an early ’09 release, the album’s street date was pushed back enough times for Yelawolf’s meteor to show up in Big’s stratosphere. When he arrived at the studio, Yelawolf was told Big needed a rock chorus—for a completely different song. By chance, Yelawolf heard “You Ain’t No DJ”’s cosmic minimalism, Andre 3000’s lone production credit on the album, and begged Big Boi for an ear. He’d return only after tracking a schizophrenic 64-bar verse, whipping his voice across the track’s pings like child ﬂying a ribbon though a hail storm. Big cut the fat, graciously accepting 24, but Yelawolf’s inclusion was more than him bestowing the much-coveted OG cosign. “He took the initiative to be like, Fuck man, I’m ﬁnna buss on it,” Big Boi says. “It’s deadly MCing going on, I’m talking bout like ninja assassins and it’s like, Now who want some? The South wins again.”