Hip-hop moves at the lightning-fast pace of the Internet these days, and Futuristic, a Tempe rapper on the verge of making it big, knows that better than anyone.
In the past two years, the 23-year-old Bloomington, Illinois, native has written dozens of songs, released two albums, recorded enough tracks to fill another, shot at least a half-dozen music videos, two of which have more than one million views on Youtube, and was featured in RAW Cyphers and on the Sway in the Morning radio show.
Leaning back in a chair at a sports bar in Tempe, Futuristic, aka Zach Beck, doesn't seem to have any plans on stopping soon.
"If I go two weeks and don't put anything out or don't do something, I feel stagnant," Beck says.
Everything about Futuristic moves fast. The rapper's got a smooth-as-butter flow and a high-horsepower delivery, revving up from Devin the Dude to Tech N9ne speeds at will. In the five years since he's been performing, he's already shifted from playing with a live band to just performing with a DJ and is about to make the shift back to a live band again. He dropped his latest album, Traveling Local, in early June. It was mid-July when the rapper talked with New Times; he said he had already recorded 20 songs since then.
"The album was done probably 90 days before it came out," he says. "So by the time it came out I was like, 'This is old to me.' So now I'm just making new shit."
Beck grew up in Bloomington, Illinois. When he was in fifth grade, his parents split, and a few years later he moved with his mom to Danville, Illinois, which he calls a "ratchet-ass town." His mom got her nursing degree there and then moved the family to Tempe when Beck was entering high school.
By Beck's account, his parents' separation made him grow up quickly. His mom worked two jobs trying to make enough money to keep their house, leaving Beck to take care of his little brother. In Danville, Beck started developing a sense of how to make money, and soon made enough cash gambling with his friends to lend his mother money for bills.
"I was big at collecting stuff," he says. "I never played with toys, but I always collected them."
A store in Mesa called New World Culture would sell him Air Force and Air Jordan shoes for cheap, and he would flip them to classmates. He even hustled kids out of Pokemon cards -- he collected an entire set through purchases and trades with friends that his mom eventually sold for roughly $15,000, of which he got $1000.
He would also do odd jobs for his dad, a drummer and DJ, who inspired him to value hard work and believe that anything he created had value.
"He was like, 'You have to put a value on yourself,'" Beck says. "[Now,] that's my only income. I have to sell it."
It was a lesson he would maintain as a musician. He doesn't give away his music for free (though it's all available for streaming online, from which he says he makes significant amounts of money a month). He started rapping young, performing with his brothers in a talent show in first grade. By fifth grade he was burning CDs with his songs and selling them to anyone who would buy. He refined his business sense over the years, and two years ago, he quit a job at Capriotti's Sandwich Shop and started rapping full time. Futuristic's new album, Traveling Local, is as cocky and ambitious as it is current -- the album describes his experience opening for Dizzy Wright on a tour in late 2013. It's also personal -- he goes into problems with his long-term girlfriend and frustration at not quite having realized his dream.
"I was going on tour with all of these guys like Dizzy Wright and Hopsin, and doing all this shit, and sometimes I would show up to a venue and my name wouldn't be on the flyer, or my name's not on the marquee -- getting treated kind of like a local [opener] would be treated," Beck says. "But yet, like, I'm doing hella shit, and you guys are treating me like I'm a nobody, like I'm a local. So that's where we came up with Traveling Local. So the whole theme of the album was really like, based on my life in a nutshell over the last year."
Where most independent artists wear the term "local" with pride, for Futuristic it almost seems like a diss. He doesn't want to be just local. He has his sights aimed much higher than that. His first breaks didn't come from building a local audience by scratch, but rather by getting press on national hip-hop blogs. Goodmusicallday.com featured the Jake Owens-directed video for Futuristic's song "Fuck You Mean" in 2012, and he's been all over the website ever since. The national exposure allowed him to build audiences outside his home state, culminating with a performance with Mickey Avalon in Boise, Idaho, where Futuristic says 700 people watched him open, and only a couple hundred stayed for the main act. That was the moment it dawned on him that he might become successful.
"That's when I was like, 'Oh shit. They were here to see us,'" Beck says.
However, his success has earned him his fair share of critics. He says that since the album dropped, he's received a lot of negativity in the form of diss tracks and shade. He realizes that some of the source might stem from his attitude towards being a "local" rapper.
"Bro, people here hate me," Beck says. "I still get hated on, I would say, probably more than any other artist out here."
"I think because I'm different from everyone else. And because, like I said . . . I don't like to be put in that ['local'] category with other people. Every rapper has an ego. I don't like to be called 'local.' I don't like to be put in that category. . . I want to have my own shit; I want to throw a show and have 800 people come for me. But like, other people would be like, 'Oh, we have this local show, there's like 50 acts,' -- that's not fun. No one wants to do that. Fuck that. . . . They see me taking off and doing shit with rappers that they look up to, and rappers they know, and being on Sway in the Morning and being on this and being on that.
"I get the most sideways hate all the time, people who hit me up to do shit with me, and then I'll hear someone else, 'Man, I was just with him. He was talking so much shit about you.' . . . I'm not going to say names, but that happens so often.
"And then diss tracks. I've had eight diss tracks about me since my album came out a month ago. I could never diss someone that I've never met . . . and I never address it. I've never came at anybody, I've never said shit about anybody, I've never talked down about anybody, I've just kind of done my own thing . . . But me personally, I just don't get how you could diss someone that you've never met, never worked with. . . . It's definitely a weird thing. But the hate is real these days."
For now, fellow Arizona producer AKT Aktion provides the beats to most of his songs, but Futuristic's collaborators are mostly national -- "I Guess I'll Smoke," his biggest hit from Traveling Local, features Funk Volume rapper Dizzy Wright and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's Layzie Bone. He's opened for Snoop Dogg, Shawn Kingston, Machine Gun Kelly, Yelawolf, Tech N9ne, Hopsin, Dizzy Wright, Danny Brown and more. At one point during the interview, Chamillionaire texted him. And, like so many Phoenix artists who taste the sweet nectar of success, he won't be a Tempe rapper for long -- he's moving to Los Angeles by the end of the year.
"I didn't want to. I like it here. I like to be here," Beck says.
The reason for the move is pragmatic.
"My roommate [Owens, a fellow McClintock High School grad who has shot music videos for Futuristic and many others], is gonna be meeting all these people, kicking it with all these people. I know a lot of people in L.A. too. It's just networking," he says of the move.
So catch Futuristic in the Valley while you can. The next time he plays in town, it might be a homecoming rather than a local show. And that's probably just how Futuristic wants it.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Futuristic's mom sold his Pokemon cards for $5000. The total, according to the rapper, was actually $15,000.
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