Zaytoven needs no introduction. In addition to being one of the godfathers of what they call “trap music,” real name Xavier Dotson has consistently released bangers for well over two decades. From Migos and Drake’s “Versace” to Gucci Mane’s “Icy” Travis Scott’s “3500” to Nicki Minaj’s “Want Some More” to “Preach” by Young Dolph — it’s almost as if a Zaytoven beat is a guaranteed hit.
While people may be quick to assume the well-respected producer hails from Atlanta, he actually got his start in the Bay Area. His musicality stems from his upbringing in the church, where he immediately drew a liking to the piano and organ. But, it wasn’t until JT the Bigga Figga invited him to the studio that he fell in love with the art in cooking up a beat from scratch, a notion that has seemingly become second nature to him today.
While the accolades are much appreciated — earning his first Grammy nomination for Usher’s “Papers” in 2011 — Zay’s pure love and passion for music is unmatched. Beyond his ear for sound and musicality, it’s actually the surplus of new talent in the new generation that keeps him inspired. In fact, it’s his own son that introduced him to artists such as Lil Pump and NLE Choppa, thereby blessing the new generation of artists with a taste of what his production can offer.
Fast forward to 2019, Zay has linked up with the legend himself, Boosie Badazz, and not only with a few records, but an entire project. Bad Azz Zay boasts 13 tracks of pure bars, slappers, and of course, street anthems. The name derives from the fact that Boosie kept saying the combined names while recording.
REVOLT TV caught up with Zaytoven during one of his frequent visits to Los Angeles to discuss what inspires him, his first beat, how he linked with Boosie, his Zay Area foundation, and so much more.
You’ve been in the game for so long. What inspires you to make music today?
New artists always inspire me. New music coming out, new producers. I’m just still inspired to make music. Just watching what’s going on, hearing the new things. The computers get new sounds, the drum machines come with new sounds. All this stuff inspires me to keep creating.
Can you bring us back to when you made your first beat?
My first beat I made was when I was in San Francisco, California. I was at JT the Bigga Figga’s studio, he was showing me how to put the keyboard with the drum machine and make it all work together. What year was that? That might have been ‘98. I remember making that first beat, then putting it on a cassette tape, taking it home, and listening to it.
You mentioned the drums and all that changing. What is your set-up like today?
I’m still almost old school. Even though my set-up is digital, it’s mixed with analog. I still use the MPC drum machine, that’s what I started on. They just got a newer version now that’s digital. I still use the chord keyboards and the MOTIF keyboards, only thing is now I mix them in with the BST and plug-ins that come with the software and everything.
Are producers finally getting enough credit?
I really still don’t think so. Producers still are responsible for a lot of the records nowadays, ‘cause the sound is what draws people. The sound is what makes the song a hit. Sometimes, we still don’t get the full credit we deserve.
Talk about linking with Boosie for a whole project. That’s two legends!
Boosie, this is a long-time coming. I done worked with a lot of artists and people know me for working with a certain artist. People know me for working with Gucci [Mane], Migos, Future, all those guys. I’m like, “Man, who’s another guy I can do a project with that’s a big dawg, that I’ve never worked with?” Boosie was definitely one of the guys. We’ve both been trying to get in touch with each other to work.
So, that was the first time y’all collabed?
Yeah, we never worked before. That’s why it makes it so special because we’ve never worked before. It don’t make sense to do just a song. Let’s do a project.
Bring us back to the studio session for ‘Dangerous Job.’
That was one of the songs of many that we were creating. We were just sitting there making songs, every song we did was from scratch. I created the beat from scratch, he created the song from scratch. ‘Dangerous Job’ ended up being one of the first — well the first song we leaked out because of what was going on. A$AP Rocky had just got locked up, NBA Youngboy had just got locked up, Kodak Black had just got locked up, then the Nipsey thing happened. It was a time where Boosie felt like, ‘Damn, this is what’s going on with hip hop. This what’s going on with rappers right now.” He felt like, “OK, this is the time to talk about how dangerous the job is of being a rapper’ — but we did the song before all that happened. We leaked the song once we seen everything happen.
At what point, when you guys were cooking, did you decide to do a whole project?
We knew as soon as we talked on the phone. First time we talked on the phone, he’s like, ‘Zay, let’s lock in for a week.’ We both had the same thing in mind.
What’s the best memory of recording the album?
I mean, we did it in such a short time. I guess the initial part. When we first started, I had posted something on IG when I was playing the piano, and he just started rapping and free-styling. That’s the first thing we did. Before we even made one song, we started doing that. That just warmed us up, got us familiar with each other. Definitely a memorable time for us starting to record.
What is like cooking a whole project with someone versus just a song?
I feel like that’s one of my strong points. Ever since I came in the game, that’s what I was doing. I was creating projects. Like when I was with Gucci, I was doing Gucci’s whole project when he came out. When I came up with OJ da Juiceman, I’d do his whole project. His whole mixtape. With me, my music is definitely soulful. It’s heartfelt. I have different aspects of my music. Some of it is club-sounding music, some of it is street anthems. Some of it might be emotional-sounding music, you can’t get all of Zaytoven in one track or one song. It’s a vibe when you get a project with Zaytoven. That’s why I love doing bodies of work. When you think about Beast Mode with Future, if you think about Let The Trap Say Amen with Lecrae, if you think about A with Usher, think about GloToven with Chief Keef, it’s just a body of work that’s a vibe. That’s my greatest point of view when it comes to music.
I saw your Instagram post. Can you define real rap?
When I said that, I was trying to talk about bringing back storytelling — more so rapping with a meaning. A lot of times, there’s a lot of rap going on, a lot of music going on, but it’s maybe gimmicky songs. Songs for the radio or for the club to get you in a good mood. But, real rap is what I grew up on. Listening to rappers telling stories, and having meaning and passion behind what they’re saying.
Let’s talk about the project with Usher. What’s your best memory from recording that one?
The best memory for me with that one is the fact that he wanted to do a project with me. The reason I say that is because when I did the song ‘Papers’ with him in 2010 (the song went No. 1), I didn’t talk to him. I didn’t talk to him on the phone, he took my tag off the beat. He was so high up and I was just on the come-up that we weren’t in the same space. So, to get in the studio and it’s, ‘Hey man, I want to do a whole project with you and put your name on it,’ that’s a great experience for me.
Talk about the Zay Area Foundation (scholarship fund) you’re starting in the A.
Zay Area. Like you say Bay Area, that’s why I call it Zay Area. It’s a foundation for really up-and-coming… for the team. Everybody right now wants to be in the music, they want to be in entertainment. They want to rap, they want to sing, they want to deejay, they want to be an actor. So, I feel it’s my duty to kind of provide leadership and an example for the up-and-coming kids who want to be in the music industry. We help try to provide instruments, studio equipment, classes about how they should conduct themselves — even trying to get into this music business. I do something called ‘Zaytoven Producer Camp’ where they come and learn how to make music, how to make beats, things of that nature. We’re just focusing on the youth.
Why is it important for you to give back?
Because that’s what somebody gave to me. I remember being in church and somebody teaching me how to play certain chords on the organ. I remember, when I was in the Bay Area, my guy showing me how to work the drum machine to make beats. That’s a gift that was given to me, so I have to. It’s my duty to give back to the next generation.
What does Atlanta mean to you?
Atlanta is my sound. Atlanta is my home now. Atlanta is where I done built my legacy. When it comes to Zaytoven, Atlanta almost means everything. I’m from the Bay Area, that’s where I came up, that’s where I spent my years. That’s where I learned my game and all that. But, my name is founded in Atlanta. Atlanta mean everything to Zaytoven. That’s where I raised my family at, that’s where my home is, that’s where my dog is. That’s where I done made my name.
‘Versace,’ ‘3500,’ ‘ICY GRL,’ ‘Icy,’ ‘Real Sisters.’ If you could bring back one song in 2019, what would it be?
“Make tha Trap Say Aye” [by OJ da Juiceman]. To me, that’s what created what we call “trap music.” It created that sound back then, and it just lasted so long. That was the blueprint sound.
I remember last time, you said your son was bumping Lil Pump. Who’s he bumping now?
NLE Choppa is his guy now. I went to the studio with NLE Choppa and I didn’t know who he was. I’m telling my son, ‘Aye I’ma be back, I’m finna go to the studio. I gotta work with some little guy named NLE Choppa.’ He said, ‘WHAT?!’ So, I had to take him with me. I took him with me and what’s so crazy is now, NLE Choppa will FaceTime my son out of nowhere.
Talk about being a judge on BET’s ‘Next Big Thing.’
Man, that made me feel so good just to see myself on TV every week. That’s something for me as a producer, that I never envisioned or ever thought I’d be doing. It’s amazing to be in that position like, ‘Damn, that’s something I did.’ Something that added to the Zaytoven brand. That was big for me.
You have cameras on you all the time. But, was that hard to get used to at all?
Not really. I guess being interviewed all the time, shooting videos, it kind of warmed me up for it. When I did it, it was just natural.
What are some goals for yourself at this point in your career?
I want to create a school like a Zaytoven School. I want to have a building where it says, ‘This is Zatoven’s Studio. Zaytoven’s Live Production Room. This is Zaytoven’s School’ where not only can you come in and record, be an artist, or follow out your dreams, but you can also come in here and learn. Be a student of the game and learn the steps that Zaytoven took to make it successful.