You know a Zaytoven beat when you hear one — a melody anchored by distinct church piano keys and 808 kick drums, sprinkled with a few dramatic strings that float atop a bouncy beat, one that has become synonymous with trap music. Dating back to the ’00s, the beatsmith born Xavier Dotson has been mastering the sounds of trap music, racking up an impressive catalog that includes Gucci Mane’s 2005 hit “So Icy” to Migos’ 2013 breakout smash “Versace.”
Now, over a decade into his humbly low key yet unwavering career, Zaytoven continues to infiltrate the boom-bap blueprint rap was birthed from, opening doors for the next generation of artists to create innovative soundscapes employed by the likes of Future, Waka Flocka Flame and even, Fall Out Boy.
Billboard spoke with Zaytoven on a recent afternoon following Gucci Mane’s explosive homecoming show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre (July 22) to shed light on trap’s dark past, booming present, and forward-thinking future.
Gucci Mane’s show at the Fox Theatre last Friday brought out the entire city of Atlanta. How did it feel to be on stage and witness firsthand just how receptive people still are to the music you’ve been at the forefront of for over a decade?
It’s really dope. It felt good to be reunited with my bro Gucci. You know, I’m the guy that there’s been there from the beginning. I remember when he was doing shows at little open mic nights where it was maybe 20, 30 people. Before the show, we were talking about everything and were just like, “Man, we made history.” Coming from where we’ve been and us rocking with each other from the beginning to now and selling out the Fox Theatre was something I can’t really explain in words.
Back in 2005, when you and Gucci did “So Icy,” did you already have the vision that the music you were creating could birth a newfound voice for the city that would have influence globally?
Not at all. I was just more so doing it for fun, enjoying life and making music. I never thought it could be what it is right now. Never imagined that. It’s been a blessing that I can provide for my family just by doing music. I never thought this would ever be my occupation.
It’s also crazy how you’re from Oakland and now your name is synonymous with what the South sounds like.
That’s such a big responsibility. I don’t even know how it got to that. You know, I’m from the Bay Area and I’m proud of that but I really started doing my music for real, for real when I got to Atlanta. So this is where my sound was created — from guys like Gucci and OJ [da Juiceman]. It’s turned into the sound of the South almost so I’ve been rolling with it.
Everybody Looking has dropped. I heard it stemmed from 2 Chainz’s “MFN Right.”
That was such a brilliant idea when he told me that that was how he wanted to do it because it’s one thing to hear me and Gucci together, and it’s one thing to hear him and Mike Will together, which is cool. But when you put us together and collab and let us put the whole album together, you’re going to get something that’s never been done before. And with Gucci returning, looking how he looks, been gone for so long, he needed something that was a new wave and hasn’t really been done before. And yeah, that 2 Chainz song is what all started it. He listened to the track and was like, “Yeah, that’s the sound I need. That’s the sound of my album. That’s what I want my album to sound like.” So, of course, when he told us that, we jumped right on it and made it happen.
How was it working with Mike Will Made-It? It’s interesting to hear both of your sounds fused together.
Yeah, definitely. Mike and I are two totally different producers, I think. Our sound is totally different, our ears are different. So us coming together and collabing was really special. Like the way he does his drum patterns and even the equipment he uses are things I’ve never even touched before or even tried. Me, I think I have a certain sound. Especially with Gucci. It’s just a certain chemistry that people just know and love. So we just sort of put that all together like gumbo and that’s what makes it sound they way it does. It sounds futuristic but at the same time it’ll have a soul to it because of the keys and the organs and pianos I’m putting in.
In your own words, what statement does the album make about Gucci Mane?
I think it’s a statement that lets folks know that this is a guy that’s been praised for the last three years while he was gone. It’s his way of saying, ‘I am the guy that everyone’s been [talking] about. I am the person that put on a lot of people here in Atlanta.’ He’s coming straight out the gate, showing people that he hasn’t lost his skills. Matter of fact, he’s stepped up his skills. Gucci has his mind and hands on everything when it comes to the album from the cover to how it’s being promoted, marketing to the videos to the beats to the lyrics. He’s really just creative all the way around.
You just released a new mixtape, Where Would The Game Be Without Me. After being in the game for nearly a decade, what keeps you motivated to stay relevant?
The younger generation is really my motivation. I’ve been doing this since “So Icy” back in 2005. So when you still have the new guys checking for you and they still want work with you, that’s inspiring. It makes me want to step up to the plate and go hard, even when new producers come in and they hot and doing music that’s going hard. I’m competitive, so seeing that makes me be like, ‘Okay, I want to compete. I want to come in and go just as hard as they going if not harder.’ There’s new equipment, new sounds coming out. I’m always up for the challenge of doing more and doing different things. I love being inspired like a new producer all over again.
You’ve seen trap’s transition into mainstream culture. Do you think it’s overly saturated today?
I think it’s the biggest growing genre in music right now. Trap is being added to everything. It seems like every genre wants that bit of trap to what they’re doing. People want to use the slang. They want that edgy sound so I definitely feel like it’s growing day by day. For a guy like Gucci to come home — who is like the trap god — it just makes it that much better [for us]. I remember doing the Fall Out Boy album. They called me and were like, ‘Hey, we want to get you on the album.’ I’m like, ‘Fall Out Boy wants me? Y’all know the type of music I make?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the type of music and sound we want.’
Some critics had a less than welcoming response to that remix album. Do you think moves like that are actually beneficial for the culture?
Yeah, well you know, it’s going to be a lot of aspects that’s almost distasteful with what they try to do with rap music. For the most part, I feel like it’s only growing the genre of trap music. And us being like the forefathers of it, we embrace it because it means more placements, more checks and everything for us. More light is being shed on us.
Your discography these days boasts new talent, too. Ty Dolla $ign being one.
Me and Ty been working. We’ve been putting some things together. I got a new song that’s coming out on his next album but we’re also working on putting out a full project of music that will be something dope and new for the both of us.
Have you ever worked with an artist who can hop in the booth and work on the boards?
Not really. Most of the time it’s [them telling me], ‘Zaytoven, give me all the beats and I’m going to eat them up.’ Then we pick out the best songs and that’s the project. But with guys like Ty, who are so talented and can rap, sing, do production and likes a lot of different styles of music, they want to put a little more input in. I think it’s going to be good. It’s going to be special. We’ve really just focused on the record that we’re using for the album so when you finally hear it, you’ll know the direction we’re going in.
Yours and Future’s Beast Mode franchise is about to get a re-up for 2016, too.
That’s mind-blowing music, man. If you listen to the first Beast Mode, you’ll know what’s really going on. The second one is on steroids. You know, me and Future have so many records, even from when we were doing the first one. We’ve just done different records throughout that time. Each time we start doing different records, it would be a different wave. It doesn’t sound like the batch of records we did two months ago so we’re just picking the best records out of each wave we’ve tapped into and that’s what’s going to make Beast Mode 16. We’re sitting on at least 75 to 100 songs so I’m really, really, really excited about that.
Is there anything you feel like you haven’t gotten from the industry that you deserve?
I’m content with what I’ve got from the industry, even though sometimes it seems like I might not get the proper credit. Or sometimes I feel like I don’t get just due as far as creating the sound that we have right now, but it’s nothing to cry about. I still feel good about the position I’m in.