“It takes an astronaut so long to get to space. That’s how long it takes for you to catch up on my music."
Future has mastered rap singsong that appeals to the strip clubs and the radio and he does so with Auto-Tune to measure and alter pitch—something that works on albums, but doesn’t during live performances. It’s a distinct style that other artists struggle to master, but Future finds it effortless.
The first time he ever heard a similar vocal effect was as a child, on Zapp & Roger’s “Computer Love,” the 1985 hit where Zapp frontman Roger Troutman used a talk box. A talk box works similarly to Auto-Tune, distorting the voice and altering the pitch. Future began using it as soon as he started writing music, although he doesn’t remember the first song he used it on. “When I did it, I used it for my voice because I liked the way it made it sound,” he says, humming afterwards. “I never used it to sing. I used it to rap because it makes it sound grittier, grimy as a whole. Now, everybody’s doing it. But Future’s not everybody.”
It’s true: rappers from Lil Durk to Meek Mill have taken to Auto-Tune since Future re-popularized it. But he’s not upset. For Future, everyone who tries to mimic his sounds are like “his children.” Where artists like Kanye West, who used the effect on 808s & Heartbreak, appreciate the plug-in's ability to convey pain and emotion, Future uses it on everything—love songs, street bangers, and songs like “Same Damn Time” where he’s just bragging about his ability to afford, and wear, multiple fashion labels similtaneously.
“The people who are taking my style are like kids to me,” Future says with a laugh, adding that it feels like he’s birthed babies and has a family of kids trying to be like him. “It comes to me so naturally. I can understand why someone would want to imitate or emulate the things that I do because it’s dope. If I wasn’t me, I would want to be me. I understand it.”
While that may sound arrogant to some, it’s also refreshing to hear an artist avoid condemning peers for being influenced by their style. Take for example, Ludacris, who dissed Big Sean and Drake for “biting his flow.” On his track "Bada Boom," he raps “Counterfeit rappers say I’m stealing their flows/But I can’t steal what you never made up, bitch/Y’all some duplicate rap cloning niggas.” And while they've put the beef behind them now, his lyrics were a response to Drake giving Big Sean credit for creating the punchline-heavy, hashtag style of rapping. So when Future says his imitators are like kids to him, is there much to dispute?
“When I [started using Auto-Tune], I used it for my voice because I liked the way it made it sound,” he says, humming afterwards. “I never used it to sing. I used it to rap because it makes it sound grittier, grimy as a whole. Now, everybody’s doing it. But Future’s not everybody.”
“I give him credit for being more of a street rapper while still using Auto-Tune,” says his cousin and producer Rico Wade. “He took it to the next level. He played with effects on his verses sometimes. That’s what separated him from being a rapper and being an entertainer. The Auto-Tune made him seem less dope boy, trapped-out, but he’s still rapping at a very high level.” Future was concerned with “dumbing down” his music for his fans after realizing that what succeeds on the radio, on the streets, and on the charts. “Instead of a hot line, I’m trying to give you a hot song and make sure you get something you can build with,” Future says, emphasizing that "dumbing down" music isn’t necessarily a negative term. “You’ve got to dumb it down for your audience so they can get it, can understand it and comprehend.” Wade agrees: “As a listener you don’t have to read in between the lines as much anymore. You have to hit the listener with a larger impact.”
Wade is founding member of the Dungeon Family. It was almost 20 years ago that Wade gathered a number of his friends—all of whom were artists, producers, and rappers—to form the Dungeon Family, the hip-hop, R&B, and soul collective that’s included Outkast and Goodie Mob over the years. It’s become a staple of Atlanta culture but Wade lost the "Dungeon" home due to financial issues; its white side shingles are now peeling, and the "Dungeon" is sealed and secured by a metal pull down door. But Future will never forget its legacy—he has DUNGEON tattooed across his right arm and FAMILY across his left, both in red and black Olde English text. It’s where he learned about the industry, fostered his talents, and watched his cousin run the collective for years.
While Wade and Future are blood relatives, they didn’t know each other growing up; the first time they met was at a funeral for an uncle when Future was 15. Wade knew Future could rap, and Future knew about Dungeon Family. Before that, Future had a short career as a battle rapper under the name Meathead of Da Connect, a group of second-generation Dungeon Family artists. But he quickly changed his name when he started working with Wade.
“Everybody had a nickname and that was my nickname from birth and it stuck with me because I was afraid to change it,” Future explains. “After a while, the name Future stuck and started growing with me because more people came into my life knowing me as Future. The old people already knew me as Meathead. It was like having new life. I felt it was good changing it around and started something new and different.” Immediately after meeting, Wade took Future around to the studio to meet members of the Dungeon Family. Wade says he was ready to put in work. “That's how he ended up writing the record for Ludacris, becoming part of a group that could make music, and getting a record deal,” Wade said. “It showed him that the music industry money is real.” Future began assisting his cousin with in-house production projects, including Ludacris' "Blueberry Yum Yum" (Red Light District), for which he earned a songwriting credit in 2004.
Regardless of how commercially successful Future’s rap career has become, his cred is real. He started on the streets. Growing up in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta’s Zone 6, Future never had it easy. In middle school, he became interested in music and rapping because he was intrigued by words when he started writing poems. Growing up, he listened to all kinds of music. From Barry White to Soulja Slim to Ice Cube to Too $hort to Marvin Gaye—even Limp Bizkit. Future listened to it all. His wide-range of musical influences as a kid have impacted his use of melodies in his current music, but the melodic tones that flow through his music disguise a lot of the pain and hardships Future faced.
“I give him credit for being more of a street rapper while still using auto-tune,” says his cousin and producer Rico Wade. “He took it to the next level. He played with effects on his verses sometimes. That’s what separated him from being a rapper and being an entertainer.
"With Future his validity is a lot more real [than some of his fans may think],” Wade says. What’s attracted fans to Future is a sense of authenticity without a suspect level of effort, even after dropping back-to-back love ballads. “His style is one of the biggest things that the kids love about him now and that’s that he can actually rap and he’s been through some pain, but he doesn’t look scarred.”
Future was shot before Wade met him—he guesses in eighth or ninth grade. “That’s still our family but that still makes you say, ‘Damn,’” Wade says, talking about how important it was for Future and him to find passions. “Future is a true spokesman for this younger generation. A lot of this younger generation, especially coming out of Atlanta, it doesn’t look as hard for them as it was for us.”
Through watching his cousin, Future became well-versed in the industry, which helped with his later record deal and his growth as an artist. “I took everything I learned from him and applied it to my everyday craft from being in the studio,” Future says. Working with Wade made things easier for Future, not that he necessarily opened every door for him, but rather that his cousin became an inspiration to the work ethic that Future boasts. “I knew he was a producer so I took the producer to see a different side from him. Just knowing how to feel records so I know how to make songs and write for people to keep around and go to the next level.” Future adopted Rico's mentality and now spends the majority of his days in the studio—working, recording, and writing.