Michael Wayne " Yelawolf" Atha, 31, is sitting on a couch in the lobby of a boutique New York hotel talking about race. As a white rapper from tiny Gadsden, Ala. (population 36,000), with the word "RED" tattooed across his neck, it's a subject that follows him everywhere he goes.
"I don't hate the term 'white rapper,'" Yelawolf says while being interviewed on camera by yet another hip-hop blogger -- one of hundreds who have been tracking his rise during the past four years from Southern rap anomaly to Shady Records signee, a swarm that only intensified in the run-up to the Nov. 21 release of his Ghet-O-Vision/Shady/Interscope debut, "Radioactive." "It's fully relevant and will always be... It's important to hold to the culture as it is, no matter how abrasive that [term] might sound or it might be. Race is still real and you got to recognize it."
"Radioactive" debuts this week at No. 6 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 on sales of 41,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The recent rise of the white rapper hasn't gone unnoticed, with outlets as varied as XXL, Grantland and the New York Times all covering the subject. What gets less play, however, is how the racial and cultural divide cuts the other way as well. "The race thing has probably been the biggest setback," says Ghet-O-Vision founder/CEO Kawan "KP" Prather, who's known for his work with Atlanta production collective Dungeon Family ( TLC, Usher, OutKast, Goodie Mob) and who first signed Yelawolf in 2007 as executive VP of urban music at Columbia. Prather took Yelawolf with him when he left the label later that year. "If Yelawolf were a black MC doing exactly the same things he's doing right now, there wouldn't be the questions of, 'Can it work?'"
Building on the buzz of a string of mixtapes (including 2008's "Stereo" and 2010's "Trunk Muzik") and an electric live show (he was named best hip-hop live act by Atlanta newsweekly Creative Loafing in 2008) that included a supporting run on Wiz Khalifa's Deal or No Deal tour (his first outing booked by the Agency Group), Yelawolf landed a deal with Interscope in the summer of 2010. "After that [tour], things just started happening," Yelawolf says. "The big difference is walking into a meeting with Jimmy Iovine at his house as opposed to an office, and getting congratulations for all we've done, and they're just saying, bluntly, 'We just want to be involved. We want to be a docking station for you to come and refuel and go back out and do what you do.' That's exactly what they said, 'fuel station.' It feels right-important."
Following the Interscope deal, Yelawolf returned to the road as part of Khalifa's Waken Baken tour. A commercial version of "Trunk Muzik," titled "Trunk Muzik 0-60," arrived in late Nov. 2010 on Ghet-O-Vision/Interscope. The project peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart.
"We've always been attracted to artists who've created a little bit of a movement on their own," says Paul Rosenberg, manager of Eminem and co-founder of Shady Records. According to Rosenberg, the label was already interested in Yelawolf before the Interscope deal, but decided to wait until he became an official Interscope artist before adding him to the Shady roster. "We sort of sat back and said, 'If Interscope is going to sign him, that's going to be a great situation... Maybe we can come onboard and help make his record and get him down with what we're doing at Shady.'"
The deal with Shady was announced in January, and Yelawolf's affiliation with Eminem immediately made him one of the rap world's most-watched prospects. He landed on back-to-back covers of XXL and joined the Vans Warped tour in a Lipton Brisk-branded bus (courtesy of Shady's deal with the beverage company). He performed in the BET Awards' Sprite Cypher (with Eminem, Joe Budden and others), and recently appeared on the cover of Vibe with Eminem. But the Shady deal also raised the spectre that Yelawolf would never escape the long, white shadow of his new boss.
"For me, the Eminem comparison is because of race," Rosenberg says. "But musically, I don't think they're that similar. Anybody who's a real fan of hip-hop and really knows Eminem's music, once they hear Yelawolf, they're going to be like, 'This guy is his own guy.'"
"Radioactive" certainly doesn't sound like an Eminem album. Recorded primarily at Future Music Recording Studios in Las Vegas and at Tree Sound Studios just outside of Atlanta and largely handled by Yelawolf's team of in-house producers, the 15-track set is a grounding project, intent on establishing Yelawolf's identity as authentic and of a particular place, time and scene. The album's first three songs-"Get Away," second single "Let's Roll" and lead single "Hard White (Up in the Club)"-feature a flurry of appearances by veterans- Mystikal, Kid Rock and Lil Jon, respectively-and their implicit co-signs. On "Throw It Up" Yelawolf raps alongside Eminem and former Three 6 Mafia member Gangsta Boo, a pairing that could only feel at home on a Yelawolf album.
"We look at this project as having a long life," Rosenberg says. "All the groundwork that Yelawolf and Ghet-O-Vision have laid prior to this release and the affiliation with Shady should prove to set a great foundation. So while there's not a runaway radio hit yet, we think that Yelawolf has a shot with some of the tracks on this album."
Yelawolf has also remained on the road. He spent the fall touring the United States on the Hard White tour and most of November, including street week, on a European swing.
But the album and tour are only two pieces of the puzzle. A lifelong skateboarder, Yelawolf has a long-standing relationship with professional skater/MTV personality Rob Dyrdek ("Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory"), and he teases a possible play in that space. ("I'm making some juice moves in skateboarding," he says.) In addition to his business with Lipton Brisk, he's endorsed by Famous Stars & Straps, the apparel company backed by Blink-182's Travis Barker (who's also managed by Rosenberg's Goliath Management).
"We all want longevity," Yelawolf says. "I have a ten-year goal, so I could be like David Grohl or something. I want to be like [Eminem], [ Jay-Z], Anthony Kiedis, Kid Rock. They're getting older and they're great, touring the world, making a good living. That's the goal I'm trying to achieve."