Mario Talley, who raps under the name Da Great Yola, looks like a straight-up D-boy. He's short and scrawny, with baby dreadlocks seemingly bursting out of his head, and a mouth full of gold teeth. He wears a plain white T-shirt, jeans that slump down to his ass and a pair of raggedy bedtime slippers. Most importantly, he has "Ain't Gon Let Up," one of the biggest underground records in Atlanta this year.
On "Ain't Gon Let Up," producer Kenwin "DJ Win" Gates mixes heavy bass, percussive handclaps and light steel-pan rhythms. Yola responds with a striver's anthem, yelling on the chorus, "No, I ain't gon' let up/No, I ain't gon' shut up/No, I ain't gon' give up/And ain't gon' never let them haters get to me."
"Haters hating on you, folks picking on you ... People feel it, because they go through it just like I went through it," says the 21-year-old Yola as he and his manager shuttle down I-20 in a black SUV. He doesn't like being called a rookie, and brazenly asserts he's being rapping since 15.
"I've been doing this, making gangsta hits or street hits, or whatever you want to call them," he says. "But when 'Ain't Gon Let Up' came out, the whole world feels me now," he says.
Atlantic signed Yola to a recording deal last summer, but many people (including this writer) mistakenly reported that he signed with T.I.'s imprint Grand Hustle, which is also affiliated with Atlantic. Yola explains that Atlantic tried to shepherd him under Grand Hustle for marketing purposes. Unfortunately, talks broke down between the two camps. Two weeks ago, T.I. told MTVNews.com, "Me and Yola couldn't find appropriate ways to work together, so we had to agree to disagree on a lot of things."
"I never even met T.I.," Yola says dismissively. Barring further calamity, that won't keep Yola's debut album, Gutta World, from dropping on Atlantic next year. It features guests such as Eightball & MJG, David Banner, Lloyd and Bobby Valentino.
"I come from Martin Luther King, I-285 and Allen Temple. That's, like, Gutta World to me," Yola says. "You've got a lot of people doing a lot of stuff trying to get out of that kind of environment. So the reason I call it Gutta World is that I was once doing all of that stuff, you feel me? I was in my own little world."