Zaytoven Talks Debut Album 'Trap Holizay' & Career-Defining Hit Records

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Capitol Music Group
Zaytoven attends 'All-Star Weekend Kick-Off Party' at Capitol Records Tower on Feb. 15, 2018 in Los Angeles. 

A makeshift studio in the basement of his mother’s house is where Zaytoven, one of the lead architects and pioneers of Atlanta’s trap sound, was birthed. Aptly dubbed “Mama’s Basement,” what began as a dwelling place for up-and-coming rappers to flex their lyrical prowess, in the hopes of landing on Zaytoven’s coveted beats, quickly blossomed into a trap music hotbed that helped usher a new sound into the hip-hop world and helped launch the careers of Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti and OJ Da Juiceman

Unlike the computer-generated, gummy trap beats pervading the charts, Zaytoven, born Xavier Dotson, has a production style built around one simple instrument: the piano. “It gives a human feel to the music because a lot of beats can be downloaded and sound very robotic, technology-based,” he tells Billboard. “But when you’re making music with your hand and you’re touching the keyboard or the drum machine, it adds a warm human feel to it.”

The juxtaposition of soul and grit heard on the majority of Zaytoven’s instrumentals have helped the German-born producer become a mainstay in hip-hop for more than 20 years. After logging hours with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Gucci Mane, Future, Migos and Drake, Zaytoven isn’t looking to rest on his laurels. Following his first-ever label deal, Zaytoven is hitting refresh on his career with the release of his debut album Trap Holizay, out now via Motown Records.

On Trap Holizay, Zaytoven continues to do what he does best – feather his melodic church-like organs over thundering drums and hefty bass that glide with ease behind the voices of his right-hand men, Gucci Mane, Future, OJ da Juiceman, and a few fresh collaborators.

Just days before the release of Trap Holizay, Billboard caught up with the super producer to discuss why he’s releasing a debut album now and the biggest hits of his career.

How was preparing for your debut album different than when you create for someone else?

The process isn’t really different, my freedom is. Now that I’m doing my own album, I pick which artists I want for features whereas other times when I’m working on someone else’s album, they might pick out the beat they want to use for the album, who they want to feature on the album – this time, I call the shots.

Since this is your debut on Motown Records, did you approach it differently than you normally would?

Not really, I approached it like everything else I do; I work fast and I get to it like when I found out they were giving me the opportunity to do my album, I literally started calling everybody I used to work with and people who I haven’t had a chance to work with because this album gave me a chance to do something different. It was amazing how everything worked out and how fast everyone responded. As soon as I made the call, everybody stopped what they were doing to help me with the album.

After playing the background for so long, why are you now releasing your album?

Before, I don’t think no one wanted to sign me to them. [Laughs] Honestly, it was just the timing. I’ve been in the game for a long time but I want to be here a lot longer so I’ve kind of been pacing myself so what better time to drop my album than 10 years after you’ve been a major factor in the game. Now that I’m releasing the album, it feels like a rebirth to me, like I’m starting all over again.

No one wanted to sign you before? Why do you think that is, especially given your history in the game?

I don’t think the climate for signing producers was around back then because producers didn’t get as much attention back then; it wasn’t like a whole lot of producers were getting signed to do albums when I was coming up but I think now, the game wants that, the game wants to sign producers to create projects because they see how important producers are right now. I think that’s why the opportunity presented itself to me.

What would you say your formula is?

My formula is not thinking about what I’m doing, it’s about still having fun and making music. I don’t go into the studio with a thought pattern or certain goals in mind -- sometimes I’ll start with drums, other times I’ll start with the piano -- but it’s all done spontaneously so nothing is premeditated and nothing takes a long time. I just want to think freely and that’s how I’ve been approaching music ever since I started.

There’s no Zaytoven without a piano. When did you first learn to play?

I started off playing the piano in the church when I was five; My dad was a preacher and my mom was a choir director so that means I was in church four days out of the week. As a kid, I was trying to find something to do to keep myself occupied so that what’s got me to learn how to play the piano. I started off playing the drums but every boy in the church wanted to play the drums and if everybody wanted to play the drums, that means you may be able to play one song but after four other people play. Nobody was on the piano or the organ.

How does being a producer with a musical background give you an advantage?

For me, it means you don’t have to call someone up to help you produce the songs, whatever melody that you hear in your head or that you feel, you can actually play it yourself. Playing instruments like the piano or drums also gives a human feel to the music because a lot of beats can be downloaded and sound very robotic, technology-based but when you’re making music with your hand and you’re touching the keyboard, the drum machine, it adds a warm human feel to it.

With all these different layers to your production, how long does it take you to whip up a song?

Uh, probably 10 minutes. If you go online, you’ll see that every beat I make takes about five to 10 minutes.

But if you can easily make a beat in minutes, how do you stay creative?

I have to give a lot of credit to be still being a musician in church because it takes me time to learn the new choir songs that they have to sing on Sundays -- the praise and worship songs -- so it makes me go in and practice and learn different chords so when it’s time to make a new beat, it’s easy to find new melodies, easy to put together different sounds.

So you still play the piano in church?

Definitely still play in church.

How do you balance your church duties with your demanding schedule as a producer?

Well, I’m normally not on the road as much as you’d think; I’m a producer so all I do is go to the studio and make beats and I have a studio in my house. Being at the church on Sunday’s and Tuesday’s are not hard for me.

Every week?

Every week.

That’s dedication. Why is it so important to keep that part of yourself?

Church is the main thing for me, everything else is extra. I’ve been in the church since I was young so I feel incomplete when I’m not playing in church, that’s the reason why I’m successful so I definitely can’t cut that out. The reason why I’m successful, the reason why I’ve lasted this long in the game and the reason why I am who I am is because God has given me certain favor. I don’t feel like I’m more talented than anybody else, I don’t feel like I work more than anybody else because I meet so many people that may be better than me. When I hear people play the keyboard or make beats, I’m like, ‘Man, they’re way better than me.” But they haven’t made it to become a Zaytoven, a guy who’s known for making trap music so I always look at it like God has put me in this position.  

For Trap Holizay, were these pairings on the album intentional, or did they just happen because you have some elite names rapping alongside each other like Pusha, T.I., Yo Gotti, Rick Ross, like on “Go Get the Money” -- how’d that come about?

For most of the songs on the album, I went in with one artist like for “Go Get the Money,” it was me and Yo Gotti but if this is a Zaytoven album, I wanted to do something that made people say ‘Wow, he got these people all on the same song.’” Once I heard what Yo Gotti did with the track, I wanted to turn the track into a cypher – you know back in the day, you would have five, six rappers on a song just to see who went the hardest? I was looking at it like what like who else do I know that can rap really good so I added T.I., Rick Ross and then I wanted someone who I’m not known for really working with and that’s how Pusha T got on. Then I heard the song and felt like it felt too good to just be a cypher, I needed a hook on it. Rick Ross actually did a verse to it but it would’ve made the song too long and he liked his hook more than his verse so that’s how that happened.

You also have "What You Think" featuring Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih and OJ Da Juiceman.

Ever since me and Ty met each other, the connection was instant. For "What You Think," I sent Ty the beat and he did the verse and the hook; the verse and the hook was so dope but then the realized the beat isn't exactly what I want it to be. I changed the beat, made it uptempo and was like let me find somebody who I feel like can flow with Ty Dolla $ign on a singing level and Jeremih popped up in my head. I sent it to Jeremih and he laid his part down and sent it back really quick. Then, I needed the 'wow factor' to the song and the only thing I could do was get someone people know me for working with, so I got OJ and everybody freaked out. 

What other odd pairings are on the album?

I put Plies, Trey Songz, and Trouble on a song together; Young Scooter and Offset are on a song.

And of course, Gucci Mane is featured because it wouldn’t be a Zaytoven project without Gucci Mane. How have you managed to keep that brotherhood strong over the past couple years?

With me and Gucci, there will always be a certain brotherhood until the end of time.

How did you two initially cross paths?

He ended up coming to Mama’s Basement -- my mama’s house in the basement. When I was a student at Barber college, I had hey a studio in my mom’s basement and I used to record there all the time. Gucci found out about the basement through a mutual friend and came in like "Man, I want to get a beat for my little nephew." At that time, he wasn’t Gucci Mane “the rapper,” he was just trying to put his nephew on and then a working relationship grew from then. I saw him becoming a superstar from us recording songs in my basement every day, all day.

What was your first big placement to come out of Mama’s Basement?

Numbers-wise, it was “Papers” by Usher. I made the beat at Mama’s Basement but songs like “So Icy” and “Make the Trap Say Aye” are tremendously big songs from that place because it created the [Atlanta] sound and that song is the reason trap music sound like how it sounds today.

Of all the hits you crafted in your career, can you break down your five biggest?

“So Icy” – “So Icy” is always going to be one of my favorites because this is a song that blew my mind. I was just making beats for the fun of it. I went to the club and heard the song being played so I asked the DJ to stop playing the song and the whole club started rapping word for word. I was in the corner listening like people don’t even know I made this song – it was overwhelming.

That was my first big song from Mama’s Basement. I used to cut hair and Gucci called me like, ‘Ay man, Young Jeezy wanna do a song with you.’ So I left the barber shop and went straight to my mom’s house, made the beat in five minutes because we’re rushing to get to Jeezy’s studio session, came up with a hook and went down there. When Jeezy came into the studio, Gucci started bragging, saying, ‘Hey, this is Zaytoven. He’s the best producer in the world.” I was scared because I’m like Gucci, you’re overdoing it, don’t brag so much because I felt like you're bragging and hyping me up so much that when he hears the beat he might be like, ‘That beat ain’t all that.” And that’s exactly what happened. Jeezy did not want to do the song.

I felt offended because I didn’t know who Young Jeezy was at the time because I’m coming from the Bay Area so I’m like confused that he doesn’t like the song. Gucci told me to put on another beat but I’m like nah, we’re gonna do the beat we came down here with. Before you know it, the hook got laid and everybody in the whole studio had a pen and paper out trying to write a whole verse to get on the song. It went from being “wack” to becoming a hit.

“Make the Trap Say Aye”—What’s so special about “Make The Trap Say Aye” is this is probably was the 10th song we did that day; we started early in the morning and the first song we recorded was “Brick.” When you look at old Zaytoven footage and see me in the studio with Gucci, Rocko, Yo Gotti, OJ, all of this happened in one day. I remember doing “Brick” first that day -- me and Gucci -- and then we kept calling people over to record songs. “Make The Trap Say Aye” was the last song we did because OJ couldn’t get to the studio early but we needed energy on the track so we said let’s make OJ do the hook and Gucci put his verse on it. When I tell you I didn’t believe the song would go too far because when I heard it on the radio, they bleeped out a lot of the hook because of the content but it did so well that it became one of the biggest trap songs ever. That’s the reason trap music sounds the way it sounds now.

"Papers" – When I was in high school, the girls used to tell me I looked like Usher so to be doing a song with Usher was mind-blowing. I did the song with Sean Garrett, who wrote the song, and he said that it’s going to be Usher’s single. I’m like I ain’t never talk to Usher before or met him so you can’t tell me that’s going to be a smash. Usher recorded it and everything and I was shocked because I’ve never worked with anybody of that caliber. One day they called me like, ‘Ay, Zay, we’re gonna put the song out. Is there anything else you’d like to add to the beat?’ So I added my signature organs because they wouldn’t let me keep my tag on the beat, so people that know Zaytoven would know that I produced the beat. A couple of days later, the radios played it all day, back-to-back and it blew my mind like I just got an Usher single.

"Versace" – Now, I made the most money I ever made in my life with “Papers” – I think my first check was like $101,000, my folks couldn’t even believe. At this time, this is like 2010, I’m still in the barbershop cutting hair, still being the regular Zaytoven because I felt like after “Papers,” it wasn’t going to get any bigger than that. I felt like this music thing isn’t going to last forever so let me keep my regular job and routine so when all of this stuff passes away, I’m still disciplined to go to work. “Versace” was the song that forced me out the barbershop because the only time people would come to the barbershop is to take pictures with me or hand me their CD or ask to be signed to me. “Versace” was like making “So Icy,” to me; I had brand new artists with a brand new sound who were becoming like the hottest artists in the world.

I first heard of them when they had “Bando” bubbling but they didn’t have any major people rocking with them and when I saw them, I instantly knew that they’re going to be superstars. I invited them to my house, created some beats and gave it to them to go home and record to. That’s why if you listen to their early mixtapes, you’ll hear “Shout out to Zaytoven,” because I was one of the first major people to want to work with them. When Coach K called me and said, ‘Drake wants to get on ‘Versace’ and he wants to lay the verse down,’ I didn’t think it was actually going to happen. I asked the engineer to send it to me, even though he wasn’t supposed to, so I could hear Drake’s verse. I went to my car and turned it on and heard Drake say, ‘Shout out Zaytoven,’ and I’m like man, I feel like a new producer again, this is about to blow up.

"Too Much Sauce" – “Too Much Sauce” tapped me in with the generation all over again. I didn’t really know who Lil Uzi Vert was but my son, he was 10 years old at the time – he knew and was like, ‘Dad, you gotta listen to him.’ So, to my son, I’m not cool unless I’m working with the guys he listened to because Gucci and Future to him are almost old-school. I remember seeing Lil Uzi in Lenox Mall and asked to take a picture with him to show my son and Uzi said, ‘Zaytoven, I’m working on my project. Can you come to the studio tonight?’ I went to the studio, especially to impress my son like I’m cool, I’m working with Lil Uzi. We worked on songs for Uzi’s project and at the time, I was working with Future on Beast Mode so “Too Much Sauce” was one of the songs that still needed to be completed. DJ Esco put Uzi on the song and let him do the verses. I knew it would be a hit just from hearing the hook but when I heard the song with Uzi on it, it made me super proud because now I can throw it in my son’s face like, ‘I just did a song with Uzi. Who’s the man now?’