Purple Reign: Future Covers Mass Appeal Issue 57
“I wouldn’t want nobody to go through what I went through. 'Cause it was hard and you just might not make it. Nobody made it but me. I’m not sitting around like that shit was cool. I thank God every day.”
The galactic sound Future created now dominates hip hop and pop culture. Today, he’s a certified rock star, but Future Hendrix had to beat tall odds in the streets and the music industry to become the King of Atlanta.
Photos by Jonathan Mannion
Drive southeast out of Atlanta for about an hour and you’ll most likely hit Jasper County. Jasper is comprised of three tiny communities, each of which appear only decades removed from horse and carriage transportation: Hillsboro, Shady Dale, and Monticello. While the Jasper demo is historically 70 percent Caucasian, its largest city, the three-square-mile metropolis of Monticello, registers a full 50 percent of its 2,400 population as African-American. In 1915, four black relatives, including two married women, were accused of attacking the sheriff, dragged from their Monticello home by a 100-(white)man mob, shot, and lynched. Georgia ranks second in the USA for the state with the most lynchings, just behind Mississippi. The death toll peaked between 1899 and 1919, when The Peach State averaged one lynching per month.
Negro families in Monticello began to band for their economic and physical safety—Georgia law aside. From that resistance sprouted the Griggs family, who throughout the ’70s and ’80s bred a blood-deep drug circuit on the wings of Confederate country. The family history is full of matriarchs; Griggs men have a history of birthing sons who don’t carry on the Griggs name. One such son was Nate Jefferies, a rolling stone who spread his seed with graciousness and multiplicity. That seed carried much Griggs hustle. So much so that Nate’s first son, Nayvadius Wilburn, would not only continue his family’s trap legacy, he would also change the legacy of trap.
October 14, 2015. Buckhead Atlanta. Inside a St. Regis Hotel suite, legendary hip hop photographer Jonathan Mannion is wrapping up a merciless day of shooting. His subject, Nayvadius aka Atlanta Rap King Future, has spent the previous seven hours being economical with his words while sanctioning or shutting down every single creative idea, but Mannion may have found his money shot. Against the suite’s cream wall, the 6’2” rapper stands tall as the elected voice of the streets that lie 26 stories below and stretch out South, North and West.
Future’s 2015 run was unprecedented—the year’s two best mixtapes, followed by a big first week for his third studio album DS2—and powered by the slogan “Fuck Up Some Commas.” His only competition this year, born Aubrey Graham, was opportunistic enough to sail his OVO aircraft carrier onto the Freebandz leader’s wave and gift millennials their very own Watch The Throne in last Fall’s collaboration What A Time To Be Alive.
Today, Future’s crown takes the form of a plush olive green fedora bejeweled by a circle of dice pound studs. Below said crown are avoiding maroon eyes and distinguished cheekbones with a pronunciation that suggests Liberian roots. The vision is all rock star: vintage leather jacket—black, cracked and decorated with buttons, patches and pins; black tee, framing a picture of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s twist on Janet Jackson’s iconic boob-cupping image, topped by several chains of assorted shine and length. From fashion blogs to the booth, Future’s influence is inescapable. He’s paved the way for a crop of new rap talents that place more value on rockstar aesthetic and the sound of their poetry than the words that comprise it. Young Thug, Migos, Travis Scott: all the now because of Future. Hip hop’s current generation beats to the drum of Juicy J and Rick Ross’ ratchet opulence, but there’s only one Speaker of the Trap House: the 32-year-old whose road to the top featured all the obstacles, failures, and genocidal danger breathed by the very sub-genre he reigns over today.
With the finish line in full view, Mannion begins wringing his mulish target for all he has left. “That’s that King of Atlanta face,” Mannion shouts at Future, who responds by curling his upper lip into a snarl, punctuating a “welcome all challengers” stare. “But you believe it, though!” Mannion baits. And without enough time to flash a blink, Future responds, “Yes, I do,” and abandons the wall. Shoot over.
“I wouldn’t want nobody to go through what I went through. ‘Cause it was hard and you just might not make it. Nobody made it but me. I’m not sitting around like that shit was cool. I thank God every day.”
Before the A-town crowning, young Nayvadius was essentially a chip off his crime family’s tree, a teen simply doing what his kin had done for decades: hustle by any means necessary. Raised in East Atlanta’s Kirkwood section, he compensated for Nate’s absence by hugging street corners. The latch-free kid had other interests and talents like basketball and music, but none greater than trappin’.
Narcotics was the only lucrative game the future rapper knew. So he strategized within it. The goal was to get larger and then get out. His thoughts channeled Manolo, but he moved like Tony. In reality, he was just another trap nigga—another nigga trapped. “I had a vision for myself and I was putting in work for that vision, but it didn’t feel like I was going nowhere,” says Future, on a break between set looks, seated in a dressing room, nursing a tall styrofoam cup. “Like I’m hustling and thinking of a way out, but I’m not getting out because I’m doing what I’m doing every day. I would do anything to get that paper.”
“From time to time, we did a little hustling together,” says ATL graffiti artist Dr. Dax, an honorary member of the legendary Dungeon Family and Future’s former plug. “He was persistent, always coming back to re-up. He just wanted to make money any kind of way.”
While young Nayvadius spun a daily hamster wheel, prison was snatching his grandmother, aunts, and uncles by the household. Life on the streets was far from cool. At age 17, he took a bullet to the hand. Despite being a basketball standout at local powerhouse Columbia High School in Decatur, he dropped out. The walls were closing in.
“I wouldn’t want nobody to go through what I went through,” says Future. “’Cause it was hard and you just might not make it. Nobody made it but me. I’m not sitting around like that shit was cool. I thank God every day.”
Before wrapping up the shoot at the St. Regis, Future stopped by Atlanta’s Gallery 72 to check out the “Art of Organized Noize” exhibition, honoring the production team that birthed the Dungeon Family and caravanned Atlanta hip hop across the rest of America. It’s only right, since the pioneering trio’s loquacious mouthpiece, Rico Wade, is Future’s second cousin. Beyond just sharing blood, Wade saved young Nayvadius from that insatiable 6 x 8 prison cell or 6-foot-deep grave. Reminiscing with his big cousin, under an installation replica of the original Dungeon stairs, Future is humbler than he’ll be all day. Though a couple inches taller than Rico, at the moment, he just looks like the little cousin. He knows how much he owes to the man in front of him.
Rico met his younger cousin for the first time in 2000 when Organized Noize were at their peak. Having spent the late ’90s scoring legends like TLC and OutKast, Rico, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown were by that time sitting on a cushy production deal through Interscope. Wade’s father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 12 years old, brought a nephew to the Dungeon one day. He was nicknamed Meathead—apparently because he had a big head—and he had some pretty impressive rap skills. “I thought he was just somebody from Kirkwood that they was claiming who hustled for them,” Rico recalls.
Rico and Meathead met again at an uncle’s funeral. “I was like, ‘You my real cousin?’ He was like ‘Yeah, I told you!’” By this time, The Dungeon had upgraded from the Southwest Atlanta basement of Rico’s momma to a mansion in the affluent Cascade Heights section. “They used to tell me, ‘Your cousin really a basketball star,’” remembers Wade. “He just couldn’t get it right in school. He was really on the wrong path. The street shit don’t come from nowhere. He was just blessed to have had another interest.”
Recognizing his young cousin’s raw talent, Rico tucked Meathead under his wing. This would be Future’s introduction to 5-star restaurants and riding inside foreign vehicles. Never had he seen a Porsche or Range Rover owner who was both African-American and legit. The teenage father of one found an escape from his world in Rico’s.
“First time I went to The Dungeon, I just went in there and laid one verse and a hook,” says Future. “I was shy because there was so many people in the studio. And they was like ‘Oh that’s [Rico] cousin. He just tryna get the fame.’ They ain’t really want me there so I just didn’t come back around.”
Dr. Dax remembers the shade but with a different hue: “The younger guys would come to The Dungeon overzealous, wanting to record and we would be like ‘Nah, you got to be cool and fucking hang out for a while.’ Some guys were around 10 years before they were allowed to get on anything. It’s just a slow process and Future was no exception to that.”
After three months of bouncing from couch to corner while trying to feed his first son, Kobe, Meathead decided to leave Kirkwood for good. “I was like, forget what they thinking about, I’m gonna still come over. So I just stayed at [Rico’s] house for like a year. I never left. Even when Rico was out of town I was still there.”
The Dungeon became a university for the high school dropout. As a daily fly on the wall, he studied and learned song structure, songwriting, production, and star power without receiving much attention himself. He observed all the current and later greats who came through for that Organized orchestration—Snoop to Trey Songz to Ludacris. In fact, Luda’s hazey single “Blueberry Yum Yum,” off his 2004 album Red Light District, would become Nayvadius’ first writing credit.
Meathead would also earn mic time, appearing on records with Bubba Sparxx. He became part of Rico’s DF Second Generation group Da Connect, of which little cousin was clearly the standout. “He was ready,” says Rico. “I felt like he was gonna have to grow as far as what he talked about but that comes with age. He had that street shit down.”
But true to his name, Nayvadius’ tipping point would be on tomorrow’s horizon. On some Jedi shit, he’d soak up all the game his cousin fed him over the years and then get it poppin’ without Ben Kenobi. Meathead would discover Auto-Tune and transform into Future.
“It hurt me that he really blew up without me producing it,” Rico laments. “But it ain’t like I didn’t try. I told him, ‘Fuck, my beats just ain’t ghetto enough for you!’”
If you ask Future, everything happened like it was supposed to. “I never even thought about Rico producing my music,” he says to Rico at the gallery opening. “You were more of a father figure. Someone I just look up to. Someone you just wanna make proud. I don’t always wanna feel like I need you.”
In 2010, Future had landed on two tracks off of Rocko’s Wild Life mixtape. In an attempt to capitalize off his newfound local fame, he dropped his first few street releases, 1000, Kno Mercy, and Dirty Sprite. He realized that he had outgrown The Dungeon. Being underground wasn’t appealing anymore. “I don’t record in the basement no more,” says Future. “Because when I was in The Dungeon it felt like when I was making music at the bottom it never came out. So I like to record at the top now. So now I’ll record in Vegas or places with one level so I don’t have to go down.”
“I always knew he was a star. All I wanted to know was, could he stand it not happening as fast as he wanted? Could he stay confident and still believe?” –Rico Wade
Although the Mass Appeal cover shoot concluded in a suite at the Regis, it began where so many Atlanta stories begin—at Magic City. The world famous cabaret is a neon-lit escape for both the city’s Jeezys and Joe Schmos; where the buffalo wings and musical selections are as tasty as the soaring hamstrings and bouncing derrieres. The most popular night is on Monday, when Future’s DJ Esco breaks records and tells the A who’s got next. The Sony Tower at 550 Madison Ave, where Epic Records lives, may be the only building more important to Future’s career than Magic City.
The emptiness on a Tuesday at noon lowers the ambience and accentuates the establishment’s seediness. One constant remains: curvy and barely dressed brown women are on deck. “Damn, I have to be a stripper today?” asks a butt-naked ‘Paradise’ before joining Future in the dancer’s locker room for the first shot of the day. The vision of cherry chocolate curvature holds comedic court while looking for her bikini bottoms. “I thought I was gonna be a wholesome girl today.” Paradise flashes a devilish smile, pulls what appears to be an assortment of colorful strings over her nether regions, and sashays toward the awaiting camera crew, jiggling to Future’s “Stick Talk” as she mutters, “This nigga got all the hits.”
Those hits began pumping out before Future signed his 2011 deal with Epic, but once he inked, the smashes were immediate and relentless. A Future hit has a psychedelic power to it—verses are wave surfs, hooks use repetition to hypnotize, beats are futuristic indeed—“ahead of the curve” as Future puts it, meaning that they don’t become in vogue until a year after release.
First came the D-Boy calling card “Tony Montana,” then the “Magic” remix that featured the first verse from a fresh-out-of-prison T.I., the lexicon-imbuing “Same Damn Time,” and “Turn On The Lights,” the welcoming party for Future’s pen as a melodic force of nature. But the hit parade kicked off with the young scribe composing the repetitiously delicious “Racks,” a rocket for a local rapper named YC. “That just changed everything,” Future recalls. While the record, which listed him only as a featured artist, climbed to certified gold status, Future knew the hot iron was begging to be struck. “I was like, ‘How can I capitalize off this?’” he remembers. “I knew [YC] wasn’t gonna drop a mixtape because he was in the frenzy of having a No. 1 record. So I put ‘Racks’ on [my mixtape] Dirty Sprite.”
Once listeners heard the infectiousness of “Racks” in a stream of trippy consistency, it would be all about the kid from Kirkwood. “I had to give ‘em a whole body of music for them to understand,” he says. Future began feverishly churning out mixtapes, flooding the streets. It’s a practice that would both launch his career and elevate it to another level five years later. “Every girl I was dating had daughters ’round [age] 14, 15,” Rico reflects. “So I’m hearing my cousin’s voice in the other room [through their daughter’s speakers]. That felt better than anything.”
“I always knew he was a star,” adds Rico with evident pride. “All I wanted to know was could he stand it not happening as fast as he wanted? Could he stay confident and still believe?”
“I just stopped second-guessing, got with Metro Boomin and Southside and built my sound and catalogue. Basically, I just gave the fans what they wanted.”
By 2014, the star wattage of hip hop’s self-described astronaut had soared to new heights. Future was opening on Drake’s Would You Like A Tour?, writing songs for Rihanna and collaborating with Miley Cyrus. In 2013, he dated, impregnated, and then got engaged to Atlanta R&B kitten Ciara. Suddenly, he was one half of hip hop’s ‘it couple.’ “All they cared about was what red carpet we were on, the next dinner date, when we gonna get married,” says Future. Such distractions had an adverse effect on the former D-boy’s sophomore album.
Following a season of push-backs and a name change—from Future Hendrix to Honest—the album moved a paltry 53,000 in its first week. Instead of addictive street anthems, his singles had turned into Rhythm & Blues songs produced by Kanye West. Music videos in front of hood homes and rambunctious Georgia crowds were replaced with Hype Williams beachscapes and Venetian mansions. The result was like lovemaking on Novocaine—a lot of heavy breathing and no feeling. Via some harsh irony, Future’s fans simply didn’t believe the album title. “Future struggles with album releases,” says Rico. “Mixtapes are just him doing his own thing. But with albums, he sometimes wants to give people a variety.”
Like the A-towner’s debut, Honest failed to reach gold. Despite his raised profile in the fashion world, the rapper was on his way to losing his street slot. Future’s manager, Anthony Saleh, puts more blame on Epic than his artist: “The label went all in trying to get him to some pop star level with Honest and there were some steps that were skipped.”
Says Rico: “Doing all of that Miley Cyrus stuff [made Future] realize he’s not really that [type of artist] yet.”
Reality wouldn’t smack Future completely awake until August of 2014, when Ciara broke off their engagement three months after the birth of their son Zahir. Gossip blogs had a field day when she began dating 2014 Super Bowl MVP Russell Wilson. The disposable mirage that is pop life portrayed Future as some sort of washed-up ex. Social media trollers littered his Instagram’s comment section with football emojis. When fall 2014 hit, he was a punch line; his music career an afterthought.
“He’s a real emotional person, so however he feels that day is what he’s going to rap about,” says Propane, Future’s first manager and mixtape A&R. “But when you make all this trap nigga music and then start making love songs, your fans are now Rich Homie Quan’s fans cause he’s doing what you were doing. So [he had] to go back and be the Future that fans fell in love with instead of the in-love Future.”
“It really killed me,” says Future.“I’m about to go through this big break up [and people are] saying I can’t come back from this. I knew I had to reconnect with the fans after Honest.”
Newly single, Future escaped to Europe and imposed a ban on interviews or social media. When he came back to Atlanta, the turnt impresario hit the studio and returned to his trap roots. He corralled the producers who brought out his best street sonics—Metro Boomin, Southside, Zaytoven, and Sonny Digital—and flooded the World Wide Web for six straight months with unparalleled product—an electric mixtape trilogy: Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights. The latter mixtape’s title derives from the amount of days Future’s DJ Esco spent in a Dubai jail with the rapper’s hard drive on him. Faced with the prospect of losing all his new music forever, the ex-hustler refused to let his momentum die. He simply went harder and created Beast Mode. And once Esco was released, the Freebandz team doubled down.
“He’s the hardest working person that I ever met,” says Saleh. “When he’s not with his kids, all the man does is go to the studio and do shows.”
“If Future does less than three or four songs in a day, it’s a bad day for him,” adds Propane. “He’s just a natural.”
Inside Magic City, awaiting his next shot, Future appears annoyed. He’s got some ideas to work on, but Metro Boomin is currently on the road with Chance The Rapper. “What’s he doing on tour when we got work to do?!”
The 2015 Hendrix has found his sweet spot and refuses to let his foot off the gas. He’s clear on who he is and who his audience is—pretty much the same person. Thus, his music need only paint a self-portrait to connect. “[Rico] said, ‘Don’t try to give ’em what you think they want. Just give ’em you and let them accept that,” says Future. “So I just stopped second-guessing, got with Metro Boomin and Southside and built my sound and catalogue. Basically, I just gave the fans what they wanted.”
The balance in Future’s latest music is beautiful: Raw 808s under triumphant horns. Simplistic hooks that allow his complex vocal structures to take a breath. D-Boy essentials with rock star aspiration. Menace in melody. Listen to the “loud” lullaby that is “Blow A Bag.” Immerse yourself in the magical “March Madness,” arguably the finest song of Hendrix’ young career. Over a cascade of hallucinogenic keys, Future shames those who claim he’s all swag and no spit with a hypnotic riptide delivery while addressing the rampant black murders committed by cops.
“Song structure and arrangement: those are his gifts,” says Rico, who says he told his cousin: “You’re so dope, but you can’t be over-rapping people any more. They trying to run real rap out the game.”
Since Future first burst on the scene, a year or so after Drake’s initial splash, the two artists have had a constant, albeit temperamental relationship. In 2011, Drake jumped on Future’s early hit “Tony Montana.” Drake also based his hit “Started from the Bottom” on Future’s instructions to a sound engineer. Then in 2013, Drizzy reportedly kicked the cocky rapper off of his tour for criticizing his third studio album, Nothing Was The Same, in a Billboard interview. “We never had an issue like that,” says Future today. “Media took it somewhere else.” Now they’re two peas in a pod. In October, Future hit Avianne jewelers and bought his buddy a really big ring to match the one he wears. It’s inscribed with “OVO/Freebandz.”
It took Drake and Future six days and nights to record What A Time To Be Alive. The two manned separate floors in Tree Sound Studios, running up and down flights, comparing light bulbs until their LP with the mixtape vibe was complete. Today, the MJ and Pippen of the rap game are running a two-man fast break from the Internet to club couches. While the 6 God reigns over hip-pop’s penthouse, Hendrix is the undeniable overlord of its trap house, possessing virtues Drizzy covets: street authenticity with pop appeal. Drake understands one thing never changes with hip hop: its pulse beats in the street. Why else would Aubrey jet down to his homie’s home turf to record with his producers, Metro Boomin and Southside? The WATTBA sound is clearly more Freebandz than OVO. But both camps swear the creative output by both emcees was congruent. “This was as 50/50 down the middle as it could’ve been,” says Saleh. “Drake came through. ‘Jump Man’ and ‘Big Rings’ were like fourth quarter, one second left on the shot clock.”
Their collaboration is not only a surefire disrupter at this year’s GRAMMYs, it serves as evidence that Future is capable of creating a full body of ’hood music that reaches beyond the ’hood. The fact that he’s never reached gold with a studio album is not lost on him. He’s competitive enough to be thinking further: “I need a platinum album,” he says, while getting his dreads prepped for the shoot.
If the RIAA followed Billboard’s lead and began recognizing streams as well as sales, DS2 would already be golden. As Future transitions from an artist who moves mostly physical albums to one whose audience is predominantly digital, the album plaques that have eluded him so far should soon be in his future. Especially since Future has begun flooding laptops and smartphones with street scripture and complementary visuals. This is the same enterprising mind that knew which pills, piff or rocks would flip his dollars fastest in Kirkwood, applied to a new hustle. All these years later, Future is still one of the quickest to re-up and repeat.
Having persevered through systemic and professional traps, Future has arrived. Having rediscovered his truest and trillest self, his only New Year’s resolution is to keep serving rap fiends. But not like Tony, not even like Manolo. More like another trapper turned king: Shawn Carter. “This is just the beginning,” Future warns, as he prepares for his cover shot. “2015 is the year that it all started.”
And while the ATL King credits his days in the Dungeon for his consistency and work ethic, he admits that his fuel is a lack of security. “I know it can get ugly,” he says. “This [rap success] is just smoke and mirrors. It’s just a moment. You never want that feeling to go away, but it do,” he says, pausing to take a sip from his cup before expounding on his addiction to fame. “I never knew it would be like this. Even when I started going to my cousin Rico house, I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. You don’t understand it until you’re in it.”
Mass Appeal Issue 57 is available for purchase here.