Growing up poor, white and in love with hip-hop in Gadsden, Alabama would have been hard enough for Yelawolf, aka Michael Wayne Atha, if that was the only where of it. For young Atha, the child of an undereducated, 16-year-old single mother clawing her way out of the rural ditch she was born into, there were no less than 15 separate wheres before he dropped out of high school, including stops in Tennessee, Louisiana and sometime later, Georgia. By the time he discovered rap by way of a Beastie Boys tape one of his mother’s boyfriends, a roadie for Aerosmith, dropped off, he was already well-acquainted with Southern rock, shooting guns and noodling (catching catﬁsh with your bare hands). On record, Yelawolf’s voice is elastic and his raps well-enunciated, but not to the point that you don’t know you’re listening to a white boy from Alabama. He makes sure of that. It’s as obvious as the faces tattooed on his right arm, of Michael Landon and John Wayne, his namesakes and two of his mother’s favorite actors. It’s something he holds high, like the bold block letters “R-E-D” tattooed on his neck.
At the moment, Yelawolf is at the nexus of the universe of New York’s First Street and First Avenue in a dark burgundy Alabama football jersey personalized to read “Catﬁsh Billy,” his self-appointed nickname, hanging low over black skinny jeans and a pair of neon green Nike Air Max running sneakers. He’s waiting to be interviewed on East Village Radio’s “Baller’s Eve” show and scraping across curbs on a borrowed skateboard. Save for his gaudy, biographical tattoo work, he looks like a teenager hoping for someone among the nightly parade of unsupervised high school children, early evening drunkards, hand-holding couples, homeless bums, a few trannies and some indifferent neighborhood residents to offer him a cup full of beer. He’s already been on the show more times than anyone can remember.
The ﬁrst Yelawolf song to ever play on “Baller’s Eve” was “Kickin,” the debut single from his 2008 record deal with Columbia. DJ Dirrty, who co-hosts the program known as “The only radio show coming outta NYC reppin’ the Dirty South” alongside fellow Georgia natives Minsky Walker and Kat Daddy Slim, sought it out on the internet after a chance encounter with producer Jim Jonsin at notorious Lower East Side dive bar, Max Fish. Dirrty approached Jonsin cold, recognizing his face from the Ozone magazines he used to distribute around New York City as a street teamer. This kid is next, Jonsin said. He’d been working on Yelawolf’s album at the time, and along with Travis Barker and Diplo, has already completed production for Yelawolf’s Interscope debut, scheduled for next March. Yelawolf’s ﬁrst guest appearance on “Baller’s Eve” occurred not long after this ﬁrst airplay, and the show is now a New York home away from home.
After that initial appearance, Yelawolf and Dirrty broke bread at Lil Frankie’s, the Italian restaurant next door where Dirrty also happened to bartend. Between bites of the marinara came a revelation. “You used to skate East Lake. That’s where I know you from!” Yelawolf said to Dirrty, recognizing the DJ from the Marietta skate spot of their youth. As it turns out, the two had sort of known each other for years, though at the time of their ﬁrst encounter, Dirrty, then just a high school kid named Jordan Merz, couldn’t have cared less. They shared a passion for rap music and skateboarding, the sort of things that have fortﬁed teenage identity since their respective inventions, things that should have made the two fast friends, but since adolescence plays out in dog years, the span of grades between them might as well have been generations. To Merz, little Atha was a non-entity. That is, of course, until Atha, now Yelawolf, reminded him of their history.