Future's in-demand sound is the source of some of the best work to come out of Atlanta in years. Mike Will Made It, record label executives, and the man himself recall how it happened.

Written by Lauren Nostro (@LAURENcynthia)

It’s a Friday night in late November at NYC's Highline Ballroom and the lights start to dim after Funkmaster Flex’s DJ set. There’s a video of Atlanta rapper Future riding around in his hometown that's playing at center stage. Through the screams of fans, it’s Future narrating his struggle to fame, and soon enough the man himself bobs up to the stage to “Straight Up.”

He's decked in a black crewneck sweater with “Rich” penned across his chest in red, dripping-blood font. His dreadlocks are tucked tightly into his black beanie, his wallet chain smacks across his thigh every time he jumps around the stage, and a Sprite bottle filled halfway with what can only be promethazine-codeine cough syrup occupies his left hand. The introduction track embodies his successful year in music—“I’m fly like a plane/And I ain’t go never land,” he screams.

The crowd is energetic and Future plays into it, sparsely rapping over full song instead of traditionally instrumental backing tracks. But Future’s not on stage to showcase his talent; the crowd’s already aware of that. Instead, he’s basking in his own glory.

It’s unrealistic to expect a perfect live performance from the Epic artist, as most of his tracks rely heavily on Auto-Tune and vocal distortion. Between the hits that launched his career, “Tony Montana” and YC’s “Racks,” he pleases fans with new music from his Pluto 3D re-release. On “My,” each line’s ending syllable reaches a screeching height. He wasn’t able to hit those high notes live.

Still, he breezed through tracks like “Loveeeeeee Song,” his feature on Rihanna’s Unapologetic, and his No. 1 hit, “Turn On The Lights.” It became abundantly clear that Future wasn’t looking for a good review of the showcase. He was celebrating the most successful year of his life.

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Born Nayvadius Wilburn—last name now legally Cash—the 27-year-old has created a new lane for Atlanta rappers by over-using Auto-Tune on all of his songs and scoring a few massive hits in the last year, including the Mike WiLL Made It-produced “Turn on the Lights,” which hit No. 1 on the Urban Mainstream chart.

But with fame, comes hate. His crooning and lyrics like, “I wanna tell the world about you just so they can get jealous/And if you see her ‘fore I do tell her I wish that I met her” didn’t sit well with everyone. Hip-hop listeners love him or hate him. Take a quick look at Twitter on a day when he drops a song and you’ll see everything from fans anointing him Future Vandross to others ranting about how he can’t rap. But saying Future can’t rap misses the point—he’s found his own grasp on melodies that are as futuristic as his outer space lyrics and album theme boasts.

 

Saying Future can’t rap misses the point—he’s found his own grasp on melodies that are as futuristic as his outer space lyrics and album theme boasts.

 

His last few months have been a wild ride, in particular. It was a little over a year ago that his solo hit “Tony Montana” hit the radio. A remix with Drake released in October, and suddenly music fans and industry players alike wanted to know more about the rapper. In Atlanta, he had a following with radio hits like “Magic,” which dropped in January of this year—fellow ATL rapper T.I. even hopped on the track for his first post-prison verse.

Then Future dropped his debut album, Pluto, in April 2012. It landed at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 charts and 40,190 units were sold in the first week. A modest success. Because of that, Future went on to re-release the album last month with three new songs and two added remixes. Unlike other re-releases, Future completely re-worked the tracklist and sequencing to give the album a new feel. But how did he create enough buzz to re-release Pluto mere months after what was, in some ways, a disappointing effort, commercially?

 
“I describe my music as astronaut music,” Future says. “It’s timeless music.” His obsession with outer space is simple—it’s a way for him to separate themselves from everyone else. What’s bigger than outer space? How much further can you take yourself? Lil Wayne has referenced a kinship with the extraterrestrial. Outkast has, too. But Future incorporates the theme into nearly every track on his album. “It takes an astronaut so long to get to space. That’s how long it takes for you to catch up on my music,” he says. 

 

“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.

 
In his off time, Future's thinking about his next move but he says he rarely even takes time off. Wade thinks he got it from him. “Future’s work ethic is ridiculous,” Wade says. “I lived in the studio and I feel like he got that from me. Everyday I woke up and went into the studio. That’s where you hang out. You live in the studio.”

Hard work paid off and in a short time, Future released a number of mixtapes. From 2010 to early 2011, Future dropped 1000, Dirty Sprite, and True Story. Around this time, Future started working with producer Mike Will Made It, although artists in Atlanta had been trying to push the two creative forces together for years. Before Future dropped Dirty Sprite, the first project he worked on with Mike Will, there was a lull in music coming from Atlanta. “I felt like Atlanta—the whole South—was in a state of emergency,” Mike Will says. “T.I. was in jail, Gucci Mane was in jail, Young Jeezy was putting his own project together. He wasn’t coming out with any music. Lil Boosie had got locked up.” And then came Future. 

 

“I felt like Atlanta—the whole South—was in a state of emergency,” Mike Will says. “T.I. was in jail, Gucci Mane was in jail, Young Jeezy was putting his own project together. He wasn’t coming out with any music. Lil Boosie had got locked up.” And then came Future.

 

It was on True Story that the rapper struck gold with “Tony Montana.”  During that time, he partnered with rapper Gucci Mane on a collaborative mixtape, Free Bricks. A few months prior, he wrote the smash single “Racks” for rapper YC. With hit after hit in Atlanta, Future experienced, for the first time, what it was like to have the public eye on him as an artist. “With 'Racks' so many people thought it was my song,” Future explains. “I was getting more shine than [YC] and when they finally caught on to it, it was like nobody wanted to give me credit because they were like, 'You already got too much credit for the song.'" The sudden fame off someone else’s song left many doubting his next mixtape, Dirty Sprite. “When I dropped ‘Tony Montana,’ ‘Magic,’ and ‘Same Damn Time,’ and over and over, I’m just dropping mixtapes that were bigger than the last, my audience grew,” Future says. “Over a period of time, they understood the music.” When Drake hopped on “Tony Montana” for a guest verse, Future accepted but knew that working with other artists brought more legalities than anything. Now, he tries to stick to himself, and focuses on working with female artists because, he says, there are no egos. “How things can be more smooth for you is to work by yourself and working with the same producers, get some lawyers and everybody’s familiar with each other,” Future says. “Nobody new and you just get your money without any problems. 

His buzz lead to a meeting with Epic Records in 2011. “Right before L.A. Reid signed him, he already had four mixtapes on the street and was getting $7,500 dollars a show,” Wade says. But Benny Pough, executive vice president of Urban Music at Epic Records, says his family connections aren’t what got him his record deal through Epic. “When I came to Epic Records, we heard about his new young artist bubbling out of Atlanta which is L.A. Reid’s stock ground,” Pough explains. “I brought Future up and they instantly connected because Future comes from the Dungeon Family. At that point it was a no-brainer.” Hits started coming almost immediately, but Future succeeded most when he dropped his love ballad, “Turn On The Lights” where he sings about finding the perfect woman. The single was produced by Mike Will. “I knew Future was like an ill Andre 3000 type of nigga,” Mike Will says. “I was like, ‘Whenever you get the deal, that’s when we’re going to do all the big records.’ I knew he could be a person like B.o.B. that did urban and commercial records.” “Turn On The Lights” was just that.

Mike Will says the two had a plan—first, they had to succeed with the street music, then they were going to show just how big they could go. Right when he signed to Epic came “Turn On The Lights” and “Neva End,” which the two recorded, for the most part, on the same night. Mike Will says the sing-song tune came easy to Future but he didn’t want to tell him to sing it. “Man, basically you’re telling me to sing it. What are you trying to turn me into, an R&B singer?" Mike Will remembers Future saying. “I was like, ‘Bob Marley wasn’t an R&B singer. You know you’re not an R&B singer. You just got an ill tone.’" Future became Pough’s third artist to score a No. 1 hit single since his move to Epic.

 

“I knew Future was like an ill Andre 3000 type of nigga,” Mike Will says. “I was like, ‘Whenever you get the deal, that’s when we’re going to do all the big records.’

 

“It was very interesting to see a guy who was rapping and writing understand the business so well in terms of the customer and his fan base,” Pough says. “With 'Turn On The Lights' it was the grand slam because he already has three top 10 records and a top 10 album so the No. 1 was a home run,” Pough boasts. For Pough and Epic, the timing of Future’s hit single couldn’t have been better—it displayed his growth as an artist and his ability to find true commercial success. “It showed his trajectory from his start to where he will go,” Pough says excitedly. “It wasn’t the first day, come-in big chart top record or a one-hit wonder. It showed consistency in the radio marketplace. 'Turn On The Lights' hitting No. 1 showed where he is going as a real, complete artist.”

Future’s appreciation for his unique opportunity is part of his advantage. “Growing up in hip-hop, we all tried to crunch words into a rap to make us look smart and look hip-hop,” Wade says. “Hip-hop is about being smart.” He makes sure every work is important and is going to resonate with the customer. A self-proclaimed “studio rat,” Future is always in the studio. “At times, you think, ‘What would you rather be doing than music?” he says. “There’s nothing else that I want to do than music. That’s why I stay in the booth. I know there’s a million and one dudes that are rapping right now wishing they were in my shoes.” And his consistency in the studio and with his fan base is what impressed Epic Records from the start, and continues to excite them with every move he makes. 

 

At times, you think, ‘What would you rather be doing than music?” he says. “There’s nothing else that I want to do than music. That’s why I stay in the booth. I know there’s a million and one dudes that are rapping right now wishing they were in my shoes.”

 

While his hits keep coming, Future says he’s only just started. “You can’t think about the past without thinking about the future,” he says. “There are so many ways where I put myself around this business. Five years from now—I branded this shit where you can’t even move without thinking about me.” After the whirlwind year, Future is concerned with the future of his career. He’s just released Pluto 3D and next, a mixtape, F.B.G. (The Movie). His second album, Future Hendrix, is slated to drop sometime in 2013, too. He’s already working on it with Mike Will, who adds: “I felt like me and Future grew together.” And he has almost everyone in the industry lining up to work with him. “When you look at the superstars in the last 12 to 18 months and how they’ve sought him out, it shows that he’s not even near his peak,” Pough says. “He’s just hitting his stride right now.”

It’s true. He has a record on Rihanna’s Unapologetic, called “Loveeeeeee Song.”  It's the biggest crossover look of his career. Then there are the recently released visuals for his "Neva End" remix with Kelly Rowland. He’s now worked with Drake, he’s worked with Lil Wayne, and Diddy. Next up? He’s been in the studio with Kanye West for Future Hendrix and he’s working with Diplo, too.

“When you look at the artists he has worked with you can see the community embraces him as one of the next big superstars in music,” Pough says. "At this point, I think he should be embraced as being next.” The future, if you will.