Zaytoven is one of the key producers responsible for crafting Atlanta’s dominant rap sound. From ‘Bricks’ to ‘Versace’, his style has changed the game, and his relationship with Gucci Mane is the stuff of legend. Claire Lobenfeld talks to the beatmaker about his new mixtape, working with Gucci and more.
Zaytoven has been in Gucci Mane’s corner for almost 15 years. An Oakland transplant living in Atlanta, Zay (born Xaiver Dotson) was a barber when he first met Gucci and started collaborating with him in 2004. Since, Zay has become not just one of Atlanta’s go-to producers, but a mainstay of the South in general, working with artists like Soulja Boy, Future, Juicy J and many more.
Even though Zay is an in-demand producer whose day-to-day is tethered to the studio – when he’s not hanging out with his wife and children – his partnership with Gucci has never faltered. When he speaks about the legendary rapper, it’s with the comfort and familiarity of more than a friend – it’s like he is able to read Gucci’s mind. And that’s precisely how Gucci’s new album Everybody Looking was made, through phone calls and understanding. Zaytoven implicitly knows how to craft a beat to his and Gucci’s liking, essentially via feelings.
Throughout the course of his career, Zaytoven has seen a remarkable change in the visibility of the producer. People like him, Metro Boomin, Mike Will and DJ Esco have become more than just the person behind the drop and their significant contribution to the music is now being celebrated. This isn’t exactly new – producers like DJ Premier, Puff Daddy and The Hitmen, Dr. Dre and Devante Swing from Jodeci and Swing Mob as well as his protégés Missy Elliott and Timbaland, to name a few, have been treated like rock stars, so to speak, in their own right. But there is something inspiring about the startup nature of Zaytoven’s work that makes his recent celebrity all the more exciting.
In the coming months, Zaytoven’s star is set to rise even further. His recently released tape Where Would The Game Be Without Me reads like a who’s who of contemporary rap, boasting appearances from Migos, Future, Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, Metro Boomin and others. Also, alongside Mike Will, he produced almost the entirety of Gucci Mane’s eagerly awaited Everybody Looking, which will take Zay on the road with the ATL superstar.
FACT spoke to Zaytoven about what it’s like to make an album over the phone with someone who is in prison, gospel music and how Gucci kept up with pop culture during his time away.
“The producer means just as much as the artist now”
How do you feel about putting out your tape and the Gucci album coming out just a few days apart from each other?
I really feel good about it. I was really trying to figure out a way to capitalize on the hype that’s going on. So many of these records have dropped of mine in the last week and a half, I was like, let me put this out and put it in people’s faces and let them know I’m very much relevant and working real hard right now. Just in case there were people who didn’t know.
How did the tracklist for the compilation come together? Were people releasing tracks on your schedule?
The way I keep up with music of mine that drops is by looking on Twitter because people keep @-ing me: OK, Future just dropped a song, Gucci just dropped two songs, Juicy J just dropped a song I did. I was like, let me put out a tape of songs that have come out int he last two weeks and make that a project. But I have so many more songs.
Was part of the reason why you did this so that the audience could be more aware of who is producing all of these tracks they’re hearing?
Yeah, but you have to do so much work and be seen so many times with somebody to really be recognized. People have been hearing my name since ‘04, but you never really knew who Zaytoven is or really cared until now. Now, people really care about who [the producer] is.
Do you think people are becoming more aware who producers are now than they were before?
Definitely. The producers mean as much as the artist [to the listener] as the artist now. People are buying music based off the producer now. “Oh Zaytoven did this? Metro Boomin did this? I’ll buy the album, I’ll listen to it.” The producer means just as much as the artist now.
Tell me a little bit about working on the Gucci album — that’s been your guy for a really long time.
I was the first guy that worked with Gucci Mane. We came up together. Working on this project, I’ve been waiting for this for so long. He was gone for so long, but he really wanted me and Mike Will to really run the whole project. Me and Mike Will started getting together before Gucci was out. We’d talk to him on the phone, he’d let us know the direction of what he wanted to do and we were on top of it before he got out. As soon as he got out, we had 75% of the music done for him to record on. The rest we did when he got home. He wanted to do some stop spontaneously, but we had most of it done before he got out.
So a lot of the collaborating process was done over the phone?
Yeah, but I know Gucci. He’s been locked up his whole career, pretty much. He’ll get out, go back in, get out, go back in. But he’ll call me and I know what he’s thinking — I know what he wants, I know the vibe without him telling me.
Does he have a way of keeping up with new music while he’s gone? Do you send him things? Do you play him tracks over the phone?
I don’t know if he’s got a radio in there or what, but he knows what’s going on outside of me keeping him up on what’s going on. One of the reasons he wanted to use me and Mike Will together was the song me and Mike Will did for 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne. He was like, “That’s so hard, I want that sound, I want that to be almost the base of the album.” He knew what was going on. But I didn’t play it for him. He told me he liked it!
So you had to go to his house to record the album, but how do you usually work?
Future and Migos, those are personal people with me. I pull up to the studio with them all the time. We do email because they travel a lot to do shows, but even then, after emailing beats, when they get back to the city, we go to the studio. With those guys, I’m hands. People like Juicy J and Ty Dolla $ign, it’s email.
Gucci’s been locked up his whole career, pretty much. But he’ll call me and I know what he’s thinking
Tell me what a day in the life of Zaytoven is like.
I’m really a home and family guy, naturally. I enjoy washing my own cars and cleaning my garage out, taking the kids to school or taking them out. Me and the wife hang out a lot. For most of my career, I was doing all the music out of my home: Gucci and Future and all those rap guys, they would come to my house and do music with a lot of kids running around. Of course, I’m a church musician so I have to go to rehearsal and on Sundays I’m at church pretty much all day.
Do you play the organ at church? How long have you been doing that for? Your whole life?
The organ, piano, keyboard. It’s how I got started doing music, playing at church. That’s what got me interested in music. My dad’s a preacher and my mom’s a choir director, so naturally, I was at church so many times during the week when I was a kid. I was looking for something to do to keep me occupied so I started playing the drums, but every other little boy in the church wanted to play the drums. [When] you got six people you have to take turns with, you want to do something else.
When you’re washing the cars and cleaning the garbage, what music are you listening to?
I’m listening to gospel music when I’m doing all that, that’s what helps me clean up. I just enjoy listening to that music when I’m doing things. A lot of times it’ll be old Southern gospel music.
So what did you think about The Life Of Pablo? Kanye called that his gospel album.
I didn’t really listen to Kanye’s album. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but I do so much music and work with so many artists, up-and-coming artists, so when I do listen to rap, it’s something I’m working. I’m really never listening to other projects I didn’t produce. But I like the new guys, the 21 Savages and Lil Uzi Verts and Lil Yachtys — those guys I listen to and get excited because it’s something brand new that I’ve never heard before, a different energy, and that’s what really inspires me. Of course I’m inspired by people like Kanye because they’re real innovative and big musical people, but I care more about brand new voices.
Aside from working with guys like Lil Yachty, would you want to work with gospel artists?
I’ve made gospel records for people around the way, people I know at church, nothing big. Certain pastors and certain people in the choir that write songs, I’ve been doing that with them, but nothing on a big scale with gospel. But I would love to.
So if Mary Mary reached out to work with you, that would be a “yes” on sight?
That would be perfect!
Well, that’s out in the universe now and maybe they will come to you. But before then, what do you expect for yourself and for Gucci Mane next?
Just touring. I’m the opening act on the Gucci Mane and Friends tour and when Gucci comes out, I’m doing the piano. He’s rapping while I’m playing the piano when we do ‘First Day Out’, so I’m just hoping that goes over well.