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Zack Fox Begrudgingly Explains the "Square Up Challenge"

We talk to the writer, comedian, and rapper(?) about his creative process and his radio show 'Bruh.'

by Will Schube
Nov 2 2018, 4:45pm

Photo Credit: Jacqueline Verdugo / Red Bull Content Poo

Zack Fox doesn’t want to talk about the “Square Up Challenge.” It started as a joke dance, urging kids to throw hands on the dance floor, and eventually became a Kenny Beats-produced rap song. It’s a simple move, just move around and clench your fists on the downbeat. It’s funny, but it’s also about fighting. This is a balance that Fox weaves throughout his various creative entities, whether as a comic, a writer, a rapper, occasional Noisey contributor, podcast host, or playing a role in Flying Lotus’s horror movie Kuso.

At The Resident in downtown Los Angeles, Fox is getting ready to host a live taping of his Red Bull radio show, Bruh. It’s uniquely Foxian, serious and hilarious in equal measure, consistently off the rails but never lost. Fox has spent a career harnessing this sense of humor into a sharp stick in the eye, and as such, his entire artistic oeuvre is infused with a deft brilliance and cunning bitterness that reflects what Zack Fox is truly about: Expressing the anguish and grief of growing up poor as a Black American.

It may be hard to find this thread when he’s talking about wanting STDs or having an orgy with the pope, but Fox is one of those cry so hard you laugh comedians. There’s a darkness to all of his work, even something as seemingly harmless as the “Square Up.” The track is menacing and Fox’s voice is at the volume of a scream, but he’s talking about the Milly Rock and sparring at the disco. It’s complex but also the simplest thing in the world. Just like a good joke. Or a good rap song. Or a good podcast.

Fox hangs out with rappers because he finds their anguish most relatable. That doesn’t mean he’s a rapper, but it also doesn’t mean he’s not gonna release more songs. The only plan is to keep on making as many dope and hilarious things as possible. It’s funny, but shit does it hurt.

Noisey: You’re a renaissance man in the sense that you have your creative energies spread across multiple fields. Is that a practice of necessity or want?
Zack Fox: I have ADHD. I feel like I should just try anything, and in whatever I’m doing, hopefully I’m bringing something new to it. Even if I’m not doing it classically well, hopefully people will just see it as the Zack Fox way of doing things. I don’t see anything that I wouldn’t be down to try. I think I must lack a very essential part of the brain that tells you not to try new stuff. Most people have one career and they just do that, and I look at my comedian friends who are just really fucking good at comedy and don’t try anything else—that’s amazing to me. I’m just all over the place.

Do you think spreading yourself into so many artistic fields has inhibited your progress or development in any of them?
It hasn’t been a roadblock, but it can be negative when you’re lacking a focus. I’ve never been unable to finish a project, but as soon as I do something, it’s about what’s next.

Like, you just put out a rap single and now you’re about to go on a comedy tour.
Exactly! Once I do the comedy tour, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Hopefully I’ll be able to cycle these things through and synthesize them; something that’s a creative baby, like a cartoon—that’s what I ultimately want to do.

Well you got started in illustration, didn’t you?
Definitely. I went to school for it.

Does that still inform a lot of your artistic work outside of cartoons, too?
Yeah, well, I don’t know. I think I get a lot more informed now via rap and writing because I’m around so much music. That influences a lot of what I’m trying to get into, like, even tonight, Bruh was born out of me questioning why everyone’s interviewing rappers instead of talking to them about what the fuck they ate today. Like, ‘What’s your favorite Pop Tart?’ The show comes from that.

That’s a luxury, though, because if I asked you your thoughts on the Catholic Church or something, you’d be like, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’
We can talk about it though! Let’s sit here and talk about it. If they’re gonna keep pushing the rules back, why don’t you just get rid of the Catholic Church? Like, in 2018, the Pope is like, ‘Gay marriage is alright!’ How far are they gonna push it? Like, 2029 it’s just like orgies. ‘Yeah, I suck a little dick. Everybody should suck a little dick,’ as he’s wiping the corners of his mouth. Just get rid of the whole thing! Y’all ain’t sticking to the original lyrics of the Catholic Church song.

Does trying to control your ADHD in a positive, creative way ever get difficult? Mental illness is very unpredictable, I imagine it can be hard to harness.
Yeah, it gets to a point where it’s like, what’s more important: Making stuff and being able to be creative or my health and maybe dying? And it’s always art [laughs]. Somebody else might think a different way, but I feel like I’m in as much control of myself as I need to be. In a lot of ways I think that self-improvement and the way we build our culture around this ultimate, well-rounded human being is really destructive to the mental health conversation. Everyone is trying to tell you from day one, ‘Nigga walk right! Do cursive! Why? Because it looks good bitch!’ I don’t want to be well-rounded, my fear is always being a 50 year-old dude and being like, ‘Oh yeah, I almost made a rap song one time.’

The thing they teach you about depression and anxiety is that it’s OK not to be OK. And I think that’s very much the opposite of what we’re often told.
Exactly. Like, ‘Oh, why are you depressed?’ Well, why are you trying to be OK all the time? Nobody’s that important that they need to be OK all the time.

Nobody really matters.
If you’re sad just go into it. Have fun with that part of it.

Being a comedian, obviously so many stand-ups root their work in depression and mental illness. Do negative emotions inform a lot of the art you do?
Almost all of it.

Which is funny because you’re really famous right now for making a dance that went viral, but it’s also about punching people.
[Laughs] In the totality of my sphere, creativity is all from negative experiences and the trauma of being poor in the South, growing up around racism. A lot of people just see me as I am now, like, the mild mannered light-skinned dude from Atlanta, but I didn’t have any access to do anything that I wanted. I had to drop out of school because I was so poor—I shouldn’t have even gone to school in the first place. When I started doing stuff on the internet, it was just out of anger. I was so frustrated that it felt like the only funny outlet.

Does the memory of that still push you?
It’s more so not forgetting where you come from. Of course life is much better now. The mattress that I have on the floor is a lot better than the mattress I used to have on the floor. Life is much better but it’s never good enough. You have to remember that you came from shit.

I also feel like the way you address being a black man in America comes from a place of humor, but, like, it’s not funny at all. Do you struggle with the idea that people may not take you seriously?
I think being taken seriously is overrated.

Well, that you have a valid point of view that’s not diminished just because it’s often disguised as comedy.
Not really. At the end of the day, I’m at this point in my career where I can go in two directions. I can kind of fade backwards and go more into writing, just fade into the background. Or I can let people get to know me and see all the pain behind the constant jokes. I think that’s when people maybe start to empathize with you and realize, ‘Oh shit I’m laughing, but this is fucked up.’

Do you not feel that empathy yet?
I do from a lot of people but you have to understand that before very recently, I thought it was a very lowbrow, low vibrational thing to let people get to know you on the internet. We’re getting to a place where you have to do that, especially with the kind of following I’ve garnered. I have to open the membrane a little bit and be like, ‘I know it’s always jokes, but here’s what’s going on.’ That just helps everyone appreciate each other.

I was at Culture Clash in Atlanta and it became very clear that you can rap your ass off. Are you concerned that as Zack Fox the comedian, if you wanna rap more, it’ll be taken as some Weird Al Yankovic joke rap thing?
I’m just gonna take it wherever I wanna take it. I’m not tryna pivot to rapper or make these joke rap songs. I love Lil Dicky but I’m not that person. A lot of the shit that I think about that I’d want to turn into a song is funny, but I’m perfectly fine with creating an isolated world where maybe I do drop a fire R&B song. If it’s good people will accept it for what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke or not, but I’m definitely trying to avoid doing some Weird Al shit [ laughs]. Like, ‘What’s the next funny song guys?’

You go on tour and it’s just 400 white dads.
I already don’t like people asking me to perform “Square Up.” It’s fresh and I’m like, ‘No. Don’t ask me that.’

Is a lot of your audience younger white dudes though? Especially with comedy?
You’d be surprised. It’s actually kind of a mix. A lot of my audience is like Black women and gay dudes, which is great. That’s the energy I need. But then it’s populated by a lot of white nerdy dudes.

You co-founded Awful Records so you obviously have a background in music. You hang out with KEY! and Kenny Beats, people like that. What is it about the sensibilities or story-telling abilities of rappers that makes you maybe more attracted to them as opposed to other comedians?
KEY! is one of the funniest people I know. I don’t want to say something that’s been said so many times, but I don’t think that there will ever be a greater ability than being able to stand on a stage with a microphone. The foundation of being a certain thing, like, if you can stand on a stage with a microphone and make people laugh, you are a good comedian. All that other shit doesn’t matter. Internet, YouTube, Instagram, skits, and sketches, I’ll appreciate you, but can you stand on a stage and make people laugh? Being a rapper and being able to effectively transfer trauma into bangers, whether they be whatever, I don’t care where they lie on the spectrum. If you can do that well and proficiently, I think you’re Shakespearean level talent. Those are the only people that I really choose to hang out with because that’s what I’m most impressed by. I’m an Atlanta rap historian, I love everything.

That’s the basic thing a lot of people who don’t like rap miss. It all comes from a place of trauma. You hear Young Thug talking about whatever, but that all comes from a place of pain.
Even though his situation is better, it all comes from that place of remembering. If being rich informed being a rapper, then every rich, middle class, white person would have a mixtape. Being poor in Atlanta influenced Young Thug, because he’s rich and he’s still doing it. Father doesn’t make trauma porn rap music, but he had the same exact situation.

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Were you involved with the creative process of the new Father record?
Not so much. We did a lot of studio nights together where I’d sit and listen to him record, but I was very much hands off and sitting back. He had the opportunity to have JJ Villard do the artwork, and JJ Villard is one of my favorite artists, so I was behind the scenes on Awful Swim. I think that, 777, and Trouble’s record are my three favorites of the year.

What’s your favorite shoe right now?
Lately I’ve been back into slides. My go-to slide is a Fila. I rock Fila slides every day. It’s hard for people to take me seriously at meetings, but if you can’t accept me at my Fila slides, then you can’t have me at all. Slides with socks is my accepted LA uniform because people out here don’t like that. Cocaine white socks, too. Never been stepped in.

You used to do some work with Noisey. What’s one thing you’d say to them now?
I’m sorry.

What’s the overarching philosophy of Bruh?
Your mom’s porch on Sunday. Everybody’s over, no rules, no real questions, no real goal. Just getting to the bottom of shit with people I really respect. I’m not an interviewer, I hate interviewing people, but I just like it. I just like having the freedom to let these people be themselves. I like the fact that I get to live in a space where I can show you the Chuck Inglish that you don’t get to see. Like, this is the real Chuck Inglish, the Arby’s conspiracy theorist.

Do you have a porch?
Naw I was homeless in Atlanta but I have a rooftop now. But yeah, mom’s porch on Sunday. I just like getting black creative people in a place where they feel like they just grabbed a plate of food and now they just get to talk about whatever and create a safe space. I hate using that phrase. I don’t think there’s anybody I can’t talk to or wouldn’t want to talk to. Like, Elon Musk, come the fuck on down.

Describe “Square Up” in one sentence.
Put your hands up and get ready to get your ass beat.

Zack Fox is the ____ of rap choreography?
Paula Abdul.

Will Schube is not as funny as Zack Fox on Twitter.