Futuristic Talks About The Internet, His Future, and Growing Up with Black and White Parents

In June 2014, Futuristic’s single “I Guess I’ll Smoke” cracked 1 million views on YouTube.

It was his first song to reach that milestone, buoyed by strong guest verses from Dizzy Wright and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Layzie Bone. At the time, he was elated, wondering what he’d have to do to top that.

Now, the rapper estimates he has more than 70 videos that have eclipsed that mark. His most popular song, “The Greatest,” has been streamed more than 33 million times on YouTube alone. “I Guess I’ll Smoke” now has more than 10 million views.

It’s been that sort of stretch for Futuristic, a.k.a. Zach Beck, one of rapid growth that has seen him explode from a Tempe, Arizona, struggle-rapper to a bonafide LA-based internet phenom. In the past two years, he has released four albums, moved to Los Angeles, toured the country, started a clothing line, helped open a studio, hosted rapping contests, hooked up with sponsors, and more. He’s certainly kept busy.

His newest project is As Seen on the Internet, something that is both a concept album and a marketing plan made into music. See, Beck’s big break came through a YouTube video starring the rapper and Arizona-based YouTuber BigDawsTV called “Nerd Raps In Compton.” It was a cross-promotional prank featuring Futuristic dressed in nerdy attire going up to teenagers in Compton and asking if he could rap for them, the humorous contrast coming from his dorky appearance and his obvious dexterity on the mic. The video received tens of millions of views on YouTube and Facebook within weeks, but it wasn’t just 15 minutes of fame. The rest of Beck’s music grew in popularity as well — the gimmick had actually gained him legions of new fans. Inspired by that success he got pairing with a popular YouTuber, he thought: Why not make an entire album like this?

“I was making the music because I thought it was going to pop off so much because of who was involved,” Beck says during an interview at Spokes on Southern in Tempe. As he talks, the waitress brings his Schilling Hard Cider and a shot of Fireball. Beck thanks her, emitting his trademark “Sheeeesh!” before pouring the whiskey into the cider. It’s the first of two such concoctions he’ll imbibe during the interview. He continues, “It’s not like I was pouring my soul out on the record. It was like, ‘Let’s make a fun song that this Viner can do. Let’s make a fun song that they can be in. Let’s make a fun song for this person.”

The marketing plan involved shooting a music video with each influencer.

“My thing was, if I get all these people on the music videos and we do pranks and stuff, we can post it on their channel, I post it on mine, we cross-promote like we did ‘The Greatest,’ every song can be that big,” he explains.
It worked, to a degree. Some of the songs on the album have popped as intended. “Do It” features YouTuber Lexy Panterra, whose main product is professionally shot, high-definition YouTube videos of her twerking. Her channel has more than 1.3 million subscribers. The song features a direct shout-out to Panterra (“I got a white girl and she move it like Lexy / If twerking was a sport she would probably win an ESPY”) and features her in a skit in the middle of the song. The music video has amassed more than 2 million views in just over two months.

“Literally every song on [As Seen on the Internet] was formed around who I knew,” Beck says. “The song ‘Do It,’ I literally made that because I was like, ‘Lexy can twerk to this.’”

The rest of the album features songs about existing on the internet — the opening track is “Mindcraft,” a pun on the massively popular online sandbox construction game Minecraft. Then there’s “Scrollin’ (feat. Hopsin)” about navigating through social-media feeds; “Biggest Fan,” which is about stalking a girl on Instagram; “Nudes (feat. Devvon Terrell)” is pretty self-explanatory; and “Hashtag,” which is basically a song told through Twitter hashtags. “Okay, what the fuck’s a pound sign?” the 25-year-old Beck raps on that last one. There are lyrics filled with coy references to internet culture, flame wars, and relationships in the era of Instragram. “I don’t want to ‘like’ your pics too fast / let me wait an hour then I’ll come back” he says in “Biggest Fan,” tongue firmly in cheek. He takes shots at do-nothing internet trolls during the opening track, rapping “Welcome to the internet, where everybody only comment leaving disrespect / where everybody got a hobby but don’t get a check … Where everybody get knowledge but never been correct.”

It’s easy to look at Futuristic’s career and see it as the result of corny gimmicks. It’s a word that he doesn’t shy away from, but he doesn’t see his marketing plan as detracting from his art at all. When asked if financial success is the only thing that matters to him, he immediately replies “Yeah,” looking incredulous that the question was even asked. Getting critical acclaim doesn’t really matter to him so long as he’s selling out 600-person shows in cities he’s never heard of, which happened frequently on his most recent tour. It’s not that he doesn’t want to emulate Drake, beloved by both fans and music writers. He just sees himself as more a Tech N9ne — an independent artist who stayed off the radar and shocked the world when Forbes announced he made $8 million in 2014 alone. In one of Futuristic’s early songs, “I’m A Problem (feat. KYLE & Sam King),” fellow rapper KYLE drops a line that seems pretty indicative of Futuristic’s view, delivered with a “zero fucks given” smirk: “Me and Futuristic, fuck your art, show me statistics, dawg.”

But it’s not like Futuristic doesn’t try to get deep or personal in his music. His 2014 album, Traveling Local, featured “I Guess I’ll Smoke,” which was about feeling disrespected as a touring rapper paying dues. His next album, 2015’s The Rise, which included “The Greatest,” the song that really helped get him to where he is today, featured a number of songs addressing depression, ambivalence, and strenuous family problems.

As Seen on the Internet is a Futuristic album, and The Rise is me, it’s Zach,” Beck says of the difference between the two. “[The Rise] is more personal. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have shit when I was making that. I’m pouring out my heart and soul; I’m struggling. I was happy the whole time I did As Seen on the Internet.

He feels the tension between making more personal art and crowd-pleasers. He even released a song about it earlier this year, called “What Do You Expect.” It’s startlingly self-aware. “They say they want something real they can ride to / Honestly, I’m tired of being lied to / Cause all that real shit I provide you / Don’t get half the love as all the dumb shit that I do.”

He seems at peace with it now, though. When asked if he felt like he wasn’t being taken seriously enough, he says that the fans that are coming to his shows know his work well enough to appreciate both sides of his personality.

“[On] As Seen on the Internet, they missed it,” Beck says. “They missed the serious stuff even at shows. The songs they would request ... all the deep stuff, they wanted to hear it.

“It’s cool to know that even if the real stuff doesn’t get 20 million views, that’s what keeps somebody around and that’s what makes them connect with you and be a fan of you. I know I can do both, so I’m gonna keep doing both.”

As Seen on the Internet isn’t entirely devoid of personal songs. “See Me Mad” is almost entirely about looking back on the struggles coming up as a rapper and his experiences growing up as a racially mixed kid with a racist white side of the family. On “Anti-Social,” amid boasts and braggadocio, he alludes to his upbringing, saying “A mixed kid but my pigment is strictly nigga / when they see me they don’t think that our mamas is prolly friends.” Like Barack Obama, Beck doesn’t have the choice to identify as white. The rest of the world makes that decision for him.

Unsurprisingly, race has played a deep role in shaping Beck into who he is today. When his white mother married his black father, some of his mom’s family refused to attend the wedding. Beck’s grandmother baby-sat him when he was a kid, and for the first few years of his life refused to tell her friends he was her grandchild, only that she was just baby-sitting.

“I was always mistreated by the white side of my family,” Beck says. “We had a nice house and my white cousins lived across the street in a shitty apartment. And I would see my grandparents go over there. I’d be playing basketball in the driveway and I would see them drive over there, go over to their house, and drive off and leave. Never come see me.”

When he was 6 or 7, his grandmother whispered to him, “There’s black people and there’s niggers. … Black people are people like you. You’re black, but you’re just like me.”

Besides that, he never heard anyone use the N-word until elementary school in Illinois, when a white kid used it as a slur toward him. He snapped and beat the kid up, getting expelled in the process. From kindergarten through seventh grade, he was one of the only black kids in his school. Then, he moved to a different part of the state for middle school, finding himself surrounded by black and brown faces. All of a sudden, he didn’t fit it again, this time for the opposite reason. “I was already fighting people for being called [the N-word], and then I went to this new school and every other word out of their mouths was nigga this, nigga that, ‘Waddup, my nigga?’ I had never even heard that. I had never had anyone say that in a nice way to me like that. … The only time I’d ever heard it was out of hatred. So it was a whole ’nother ball game. It was weird. I had to change my tendencies, change the way I dressed, the way I acted to not get picked on.”
All these details are scattered through Beck’s massive catalog of recorded output, yet the things he remains best known for are punchlines and gimmicks. Even on one of his more serious songs, “Man on a Mission,” there are somewhat inappropriate punchlines — “flow rare like a fat Asian,” “Knew what was wrong and right / But not everybody do the right thing like Spike.” But the experience with As Seen on the Internet has taught Beck that maybe he doesn’t need gimmicks to sell records anymore. Like he says in one of his songs, he’s not quite famous yet, but he’s definitely past faking it until making it.

“I think now it’s time to get away from the internet for me,” he says. “I have my own fan base that’s big enough that I can just make music. If it’s good, it’ll go ham. There doesn’t have to be a person attached to it or anything else. It just has to be good, so now I’m just making music that’s not so self-centered that more people can relate to.”

As the interview ends, Beck downs his second glass of whiskey/cider. It’s been an hour and a half, and as he walks out, there’s a van waiting to take him to the studio where he plans on recording a few songs. He’s already written 20 songs, he says, since As Seen on the Internet dropped. As he tries to continue to grow his career, he’s got a few new sounds he wants to experiment with.

Later that night, he tweets “In the studio,” followed by a devil-horned emoji. Three words and a purple smiley face. It gets 40 retweets and 269 likes.

Futuristic is scheduled to play Livewire in Scottsdale on Friday, November 11.