Futuristic Conquered the Phoenix Hip-Hop Scene — Can He Take L.A. Next?

Zach "Futuristic" Beck
Zach "Futuristic" Beck
Photo by Jim Louvau

Tempe, Ariz., rapper Futuristic recently released a song with Seattle MC Sam Lachow before the two went on a two-month tour of the country. Titled “Watch Yo Mouth,” the verse by normally apolitical Futuristic has a couple of lines about race and language.

“All my white fans say the N-word/It’s OK to use, but not if it’s out of tune.”

For white fans of hip-hop, self-censorship is an uncomfortable issue when singing along to a beloved song. After all, black rappers frequently use the N-word, a term forbidden to their pale fans. But Futuristic puts it out there that he doesn’t want his white fans to awkwardly mumble his lyrics. In fact, he explicitly grants people permission to use the N-word at his shows.

Futuristic’s cavalier attitude toward language was on display at the final stop on his tour with Lachow. The show was at Los Globos in Silver Lake; Futuristic has called L.A. home for almost a year.

After Lachow’s opening performance, Futuristic’s DJ and hype man, Cody Dougherty, aka Code Break, a lanky guy with surfer hair, tattoo sleeves on both arms, two lip piercings on either side of his mouth, and a septum ring, steps to the stage behind the turntables. After a few minutes, the crowd is warm and Futuristic bursts on the stage, jumping up and down as a pack of fans move in close toward the rapper.

After the first song, Futuristic greets the crowd.

“White people, where you at?”

Cheers erupt.

“Spanish people, where you at?”

He gets an almost equally loud response.

See, Futuristic doesn’t see race in the audience.

“When I look out there, all I see is my niggas,” he says, dragging out the emphasis on the final two words.

“Can I get get a ‘nigga’ on three, because you my motherfucking niggas,” Futuristic shouts, and on three, the crowd erupts into a giant exaltation of the word. As the rapper launches into the next song, the mostly white and Latino crowd jubilantly sing along to the refrain “Fuck you mean, boy/Fuck you mean, nigga.”

Photo by Jim Louvau

The story of Futuristic is heartening in how it breathes life into the corpse of the American dream. He was born Zachary Lewis Beck on June 2, 1991, in Bloomington, Illinois, one of nine children born to the same father. Just 23 years later, he is testament to where talent, smarts, and grind can get you in the cutthroat world of independent hip-hop.

He moved to Tempe as a teen and by age 21, he was a professional rapper. Now, he’s Arizona’s brightest hip-hop star since Willy Northpole got signed by Ludacris in 2007. Beck is a star of the Internet, with a massive social-media following and dozens of music videos viewed more than 25 million times, not to mention another couple of million plays on various music-streaming platforms.

Last year, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream, and the move already is paying dividends. He’s turned down one major record deal, but another label is scouting him.

He had a more commercially successful 2014 than any other independent artist from Phoenix. Besides Kongos, whose single “Come With Me Now” went platinum last year, Futuristic is the region's most talked-about musician — and he’s achieved his success digitally and independently, eschewing such traditional lanes as radio play and record deals, instead relying on irrepressible talent, slickly produced music videos, a keenly managed social-media personality, and infectious charisma.

His persona is as goofy as it is confident. In one music video, he battles a nerdy version of himself. In another, he’s rescuing friends from a post-apocalyptic hellscape. There’s one where he plays a lowly bowling alley attendant who lusts for a girl who comes in with guys in letterman jackets. He’s got a magnetic on-camera aura and an equally energetic stage presence. He has all the tools needed to become famous. He’s Arizona’s next best shot at a superstar.

There were two main scenes in Phoenix hip-hop when Beck graduated from high school: the urban scene and the alternative scene. Futuristic dabbled in both and chose neither, opting instead to create his own path to fame and seeing more success than almost any rapper in Arizona history.

At age 6, Beck started rapping, no doubt inspired by his father, a drummer who made his living DJing special events. His parents split when he was young, and he moved to Arizona with his mom while a junior in high school, enrolling in Tempe’s McClintock High School.

By the time he was in his teens, he had started a hip-hop group with a high school friend, a rapper who went by the name E-Batt. His mom wanted him to continue his education so he enrolled at Mesa Community College. But his vision and desire to be a hip-hop artist never wavered, and he continued recording songs and working on his rhymes. He hooked up with a fellow McClintock grad, Jakob Owens, who was studying film at Arizona State University. Owens turned out to have a knack for shooting colorful, visually popping music videos. Pairing with Futuristic and his already impressive rhyming ability, the two collaborated on music videos starting in 2010, with “Who Dat.” Beck was just 19 years old, and it was both his and Owens’ first time shooting a music video.

The partnership has proved fruitful for both artists. When Beck decided to move to Los Angeles last year, Owens was his roommate. They now share a two-bedroom apartment in a nice part of North Hollywood. Count their collaborations before and after the move, and they’ve made more than 35 music videos in five years. Their careers have grown symbiotically. Owens shoots Futuristic’s music videos, and Futuristic lets Owens monetize the videos on his YouTube channel, TheBuffNerds. Flashy visuals are more important than ever in hip-hop, and Owens’ music videos certainly have helped Futuristic’s career. When you ask anyone involved in hip-hop around Phoenix about Futuristic, many say the first thing they noticed were the videos.

Jakob Owens Productions has a pretty good gig going. Run out of his bedroom — T-shirts bearing the company logo decorating the walls — Owens’ production outfit shoots and edits music videos for an ever-expanding circle of rappers and musicians, including Jesse McCartney and Aer. His videos, shot with hand-held cameras constantly in motion, tend to feature bright, flashy settings, and rapid edits.

Owens always wanted to make feature films. But after he shot “Who Dat,” the first video made with Futuristic, scads of local artists sought him to make their videos. He shoots videos for all sorts of artists now, and he’s even invested in a RED Epic camera (one of the most expensive and well-regarded professional digital cameras on the market).

Funny thing is, he doesn’t listen to much music, even though he makes his living in the industry.

“I don’t know if I’d be doing music videos if it wasn’t for Zach,” Owens says.

He is sitting on his bed, explaining the ins and outs of his business when Beck shouts in from the living room.

“Jake, we about to catch another wave, bro,” he says.

Owens snaps his head toward the door. Whatever the context, they’ve had this conversation before.

“What do you mean? Who posted it?”

“I don’t know, but all the Vine accounts on Twitter are posting it right now,” Beck says, walking into the room.

“Dude, I just had someone text me, who’s like an ill dancer out here, and he’s like, 'Bro, what is this?'”

“There’s like, 2,000, 3,000 re-tweets. There’s like five of them,” Beck says, showing Owens his phone. “This one did it, Vine Fights, WorldStar Vine.”

Owens says, “That’s all probably gonna translate over to the music video.”

“I’ve gained like 100 Twitter followers since we got home,” Beck says.

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They’re talking about a video Beck made about a single for his upcoming album, The Rise, released May 12. It’s clearly not the first time they’ve witnessed such an explosion on social media. About a month and half earlier, Beck and a YouTuber named BigDawsTV teamed up to make a video titled “Nerd Raps Fast in Compton,” wherein Futuristic approached teenagers there wearing glasses, high-rising shorts, and a super-lame, oversized T-shirt emblazoned with a giant wolf’s head and asked them to listen to him perform the first rap song he ever wrote. He proceeds to spit out “The Greatest,” an expert-level rap song in which bars cascade toward the listener at breakneck pace. Daws posted the video on his YouTube channel, and Beck and Owens (of course) made a separate music video. Between various platforms, the song has received more than 18 million listens in just two months.

“Hopefully, it translates to the music video,” Owens says.

“It should. Everybody knows it’s me,” Beck says. “Every single comment, it’s like, ‘That’s Futuristic, that’s Futuristic.’”

Beck always has maintained a savvy social-media presence, but he never has received a bump like anything he received after the “Nerd Raps” video. Within weeks, he says, he had doubled his fan base. Calls offering him new gigs poured in. Famous rappers (or at least social-media gurus in their employ) like Lil Wayne, Game, Young Money, and Waka Flocka Flame shared the video on Facebook. The smiles and impressed reactions of the Compton teenagers seemed to have won Futuristic a whole new set of fans.

There’s a line on his new album, “White fans in the stands/But I lose the streets/But it’s all good, man, life’s a beach/I write my piece then rest in peace.”

If Futuristic is losing the streets, perhaps he’s gaining them back one at a time via the “Nerd Raps Fast in Compton” video, armed with rhyming fire and nerd attire.

Futuristic Conquered the Phoenix Hip-Hop Scene — Can He Take L.A. Next?

For reasons both personal and professional, Beck has been very selective about the local rappers he chooses to work with. Some rappers have interpreted his reticence as a diss, but Futuristic has and still does work with a handful of locals.

One of the few Arizona artists Futuristic has collaborated with multiple times is Kyle Collins, who raps under the moniker Sincerely Collins. The music video for Sincerely Collins’ “Light Work,” off his February album, Destroyer, shows Collins getting violently kidnapped by men wearing ski masks. Between shots of verses performed by guests Ritzz and Jarren Benton, the men take Collins to a gritty warehouse, throw him onto his knees, and beat him with their fists. One of the blows knocks Collins to all fours, causing him to spit out blood. The final shot of the video comes from Collins’ perspective on the ground, looking up at his attackers. One of them stands in the foreground and slowly removes his mask. It’s Futuristic.

The cameo has meaning. Beck and Collins have known each other for years, as friends as well as collaborators. As Beck tells it, as his career began taking off, he helped Collins as much as he could, providing him with advice, connections, and opening slots at his concerts.

Then, early this year, came “Arizona vs. Everybody,” a track produced by former Phoenix radio DJ Bootleg Kev. The track is 11 minutes long and features local MCs J. Rob the Chief, Kaliq, Hannibal Leq, J. Montoya, Vee Tha Rula (recently signed by Kid Ink’s Alumni Music Group, an imprint of RCA), and Sincerely Collins. Kev conceived the project as a way to make a statement on behalf of young Arizona hip-hop artists and feature the best rising stars in the local hip-hop scene. Kev wanted to include Futuristic, who, by any objective metric, was the shining sun to the hip-hop scene’s red dwarfs. Futuristic initially agreed but later backed out. Kev and Futuristic go back (he had given Futuristic some radio love early in his career), and now he was disappointed.

“I just kind of wanted to put something out that... this is the new regime of AZ hip-hop,” says Bootleg Kev, now Sincerely Collins’ manager. “Originally, Futuristic was supposed to be on it. He reached out to me and said his manager didn’t think it was a good idea. I wasn’t mad, but I told him how I feel about it. I was like, ‘Come on, dude, really?’”

Beck says he declined because he didn’t think the track was a “good look” for him, saying some of the rappers slated didn’t have enough buzz to represent the state, and he had heard through the grapevine that others openly had expressed dislike of his music. The project went on without him, and Collins took the last verse. He made playful jabs at the rest of the rappers on the track, but saved the final blow for Futuristic. “Futuristic, you too big for this song/I didn’t want to do it, either” raps Collins, going on to call Beck his “little brother” and that he recently looked “panicked.”

Kev says it was all in good fun. Beck didn’t take it that way.

“Somebody texted me, ‘Whoa, did you hear Collins come at you?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” Beck says, brow furrowing. He was driving to Los Angeles from Arizona with his roommate and Owens. “We listened to it in the car... Jake actually was mad about it, and I was like, ‘It’s cool, brah. I’m gonna go to the studio tomorrow. I’m not trippin’.’ So I got home and wrote the verse and went to the studio the next day, and that was it.”

The result was “Sincerely...” As diss tracks go, it’s savage. Futuristic sounds wounded; it’s clear the track got to him. “Sincerely...” doesn’t have a hook, doesn’t have a chorus — it’s three minutes of Futuristic dressing down his friend, in verse. He’s indignant, given all the help he says he extended to Collins over the years. He lists the things he has done for Collins — he talked him up to Bootleg Kev, he helped him get a coveted slot on the Team Backpack cypher, claims responsibility for three-fourths of Collins’ social-media followers, says he offered him opening slots at his concerts (which Collins committed to and then tried to back out of).

“I wasn’t heated about it. I was honestly just shocked,” Beck says, shaking his head. “It’s like, brah, your entire shit is in large part to what I helped you do.”

So when Futuristic appeared a few months later beating Collins in his music video, most interpreted it as Collins’ acknowledging how Futuristic verbally ravaged him and that the friends had resolved their beef. And that’s true for Beck, to some extent.

“We’re straight,” he coolly says of him and Collins.

But the entire back-and-forth pricked Beck in other ways. He’s never felt the love locally from his peers, and he has stories about many local rappers who have sleighted him or not given him support. It even made the “Sincerely...” diss: “Why would I help some niggas that’s hated me all along?”

Beck began performing at certain “hood shows,” as he calls them. After getting cold stares and dealing with one guy climbing on the stage wanting to fight, he realized the urban lane wasn’t for him.

“I knew from the jump I didn’t want to be in that route,” Beck says. “I did do a couple shows with those guys, and it was just like a whole bunch of hood cats standing there looking at you, wanting to fight you, just all this stupid shit.”

Fresh-faced Beck steered himself out of that lane and, instead, aimed for a more college-oriented, white audience.

“When there were some bigger cats that drew a more suburban crowd — like, a white crowd — I always made sure I got on those shows,” he says. “So my bud just kind of grew from that.”

In 2011, he hooked up with producer Matt Hammerton, aka AKT Aktion, who had a marketing background. Hammerton would go on to help shape both the musical and business sides of Futuristic’s career, producing tracks on his first three albums, including what until very recently was the rapper’s biggest hit, “I Guess I’ll Smoke,” released in early 2014.

The two met at a concert, and the more Hammerton saw of Beck, the more he wanted to work with them.

“When Zach came along, I was on the verge of quitting,” Hammerton says. “I don’t know if I would have kept making music, to be honest. He kind of rejuvenated everything for me... I was in my early thirties, and this kid comes along, and he’s so excited, and he’s so driven.”

A specialist in search-engine optimization by day and hip-hop producer by night, Hammerton began crafting not just beats for Futuristic but a marketing plan as well. Right away, he says, the plan was to avoid getting caught up in drama from the local scene.

“We’re not gonna care about the local rap scene. It’s not like we don’t care about the people. we just don’t care what they think of us,” Hammerton says of the plan they hatched. “We’re going to get fans. You don’t want to get labeled as a local artist.”

And get fans they did, though they came at the expense of relationships with local rappers.

The move might have been a good thing for his career, says Tikey Patterson, aka Trap House. Patterson created the Black Family, a large conglomerate of Arizona hip-hop acts. The Black Family aims to unite the urban Phoenix hip-hop scene under the mantra “Hate is for the weak.”

Patterson said in a recent video released by the group: “I’m from a city where all you hear is hate, hate, hate. Well, we came up with 'hate is for the weak.'”

Arizona rappers can be cutthroat in their attempts to be king of the small hill of local hip-hop, he acknowledges. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to outright hostility toward a guy like Futuristic, who rose without ever seeming to care much about trying to win local respect.

“I don’t think there’s resentment,” Patterson says. “At the end of the day, I think there are more people rooting for him than there are against him. Anytime when you’re successful — where other people have been doing it significantly longer than you — you may find people who are frustrated with your success.”

Given the massive success of the singles from Futuristic’s brand-new album, The Rise, the rapper might be set up for his most successful release ever. And the LP he put out in 2014, Traveling Local, did well, too — it sold enough copies to make it onto the Top 10 iTunes album chart. Traveling Local was an expression of frustration, a catalog of his experience touring with Dizzy Wright and Hopsin, arriving at venues and finding out that his name wasn’t on the marquee — or even on the flyer. In other words, he was on tour with major players in hip-hop, but he was treated negligibly, like a local opener. The experience rubbed him the wrong way, and not even one year after the album release, he says he’s in a better place.

“My last album, I was actually mad depressed,” Beck says. “I felt really stagnant, like I wasn’t where I needed to be.”

The root cause, he says, was a compulsive urge to compare himself to others, agonizing over how other rappers seemed to get more successful than him in less time. He claims since to have kicked the habit.

“I stopped worrying about everybody else and just worried about myself,” he says. “I don’t really get stressed out anymore.”

All of Futuristic’s singles tend to fall on the chest-pounding bravado side of hip-hop. He boasts, puts down foes, and seduces women with regularity in his verses. It’d be easy to assume that’s all he brings to the table lyrically, but there’s more to his songs than that. Beck addresses his grandmother’s death, the pressure he feels as he supports his family and entourage with his music and seeing his high school friends start careers, get married, and have kids.

The Rise kicks off with “The Greatest,” the most important single of Futuristic’s career. It’s boastful and brash and full of punchlines, but the song veers unexpectedly toward the serious at the end, when the beat disappears and the tone becomes almost mournful, as Beck allows cracks to appear in his façade of bravado. The second song, “No Way,” is more of the same. The song starts out with a brash rejection of a major record deal offered to him. “They ask me to sell my soul/No way, no way/They ask how I’m living, though/I said I’m A-OK.” He continues, almost ecstatically, “I’m like a kid who ain’t got no hands/I don’t play no games.”

Again, the song takes a sharp left turn at the end. “They ask how I’m living, though/I say I’m A-OK, but I’m not OK.”

The rest of the album picks through Beck’s experiences, good and bad, during the past few years. “Not Enough” deals with alcohol abuse and a drunken hookup that takes a turn for the weird. “Music Saved My Life” is essentially a thank-you letter to fans for giving him the strength to not shoot himself during a battle with depression.

“I think anybody in the industry, once you get to certain spot, no matter how much you have, you keep wanting more and more,” Beck says. “I’ve been working for so long... My family issues are my family issues, and none of them is going anywhere. I discuss that a little bit.

“And in ‘Music Saved My Life,’ the last song on the album, it’s past tense. I’m telling you, it saved my life. It is a past thing; it’s not a current state of mind.”

This article originally appeared in Phoenix New Times.

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