As one of hip-hop’s foremost producers, Xavier Lamar Dotson––better known as Zaytoven––is recognized for his innovative collaborations with Southern artists like Gucci Mane, Migos and Future. Additionally, his sound has powered tracks from artists including Drake, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Rick Ross and Lil Yatchy.
For 2018, this ultra-productive, Grammy-winning, Atlanta-based producer has a dizzying set of projects in the offing. In this exclusive interview, the affable Zaytoven—who often speaks of himself in the third person—lays out the methods and philosophies that he has employed to consistently stay at the top of his game within the ever-shifting panoramas of modern music.
Music Connection: You have so many projects happening at once: a label deal, your own forthcoming release, mixtapes, work with 21 Savage on the Issa album and Future ft. Lil Uzi Vert with “Too Much Sauce,” plus a new movie that you’re producing and acting in. Clearly, you have mastered the art of time management.
Zaytoven: I like being busy. When I don’t have a lot going on I feel like I’m not moving, like I’m stagnant. I like chaos––I’ve got to do this over here, I’ve got a movie over there, I have producer camp I’ve got to run, I’ve got an album on the way. All of these things going on at the same time make me feel like I’m working hard. That’s how it’s been in my career.
MC: We’ve been reading your book From A-Zay: The Indie Guide to Music Production. You reference this verse from Proverbs 17:24: “An intelligent person aims at wise action, but a fool starts off in many directions.” How does this philosophy guide you?
Zaytoven: The focus is the thing. With the book I wanted to help people when it comes to working hard and being consistent, no matter what your dream is, whether you want to be an actor, or a rapper or a producer. I still wanted to make a book focused on becoming a well-rounded good person. I feel that’s one of the reasons I’ve been successful. That’s why there is a lot of scripture in there.
I wanted to give it from that standpoint; not that I’m a workaholic and that’s why I made it. I wanted to use the other values. You can work as hard as anyone else, and have as much talent as anyone else, and it still doesn’t mean you’re going to make it and be successful and blow up. It’s got to be God’s plan. That’s why I formatted the book the way that I did.
MC: You come from a stable family background and you are married with two children. How does being a family man fit into the Zaytoven dynamic?
Zaytoven: Oh man, I feel like that’s the number one thing you’ve got to do.
MC: You’ve dropped a new track with Young Dolph called “Left Da Bank.” What was the purpose of this release at this time? Is it a sonic prelude to your forthcoming full-length?
Zaytoven: “Left Da Bank” is one of the records I wanted to put out for the streets and for the core audience that’s into the Zaytoven sound and the type of artist that I’m known for working with. That’s a present to let people know I’m working. It’s a warm-up so people know what to expect. I’m going to hit them with all kinds of combinations they’ve never heard me do. I had to give them this so they know I’m still going to put the Zaytoven on it, but we’ve got a lot of surprises.
MC: We note that many producers have a short shelf-life; that is, they are known for creating signature sounds within a short span of time. You’ve been crafting tracks since 2004, yet you never sound dated. Is this because of the depth of your musical background?
Zaytoven: Being a musician has kept me rounded in different areas. When I need to find another source of inspiration, music does that. I still play organ at church every Sunday. I listen to a lot of gospel music and I have to learn chords and different songs with breakdowns. So that inspires me in different ways. A lot of other producers don’t even know how to play instruments. They don’t use hardware; they use computer programs, so it’s robotic. They can’t add different feels. Being a musician has helped me stay relevant and to stay current. That gives me an extra edge a lot of producers don’t have.
MC: You work with a number of emerging artists. While we would imagine that you mentor them, do they also keep you in touch with what’s coming up?
Zaytoven: These newer guys I work with, like Little Yatchy and Lil Pump––these guys keep me young. They’re talking with a new flavor in a different way. They show me a lot of love and respect. MC: We watched the Tiny Desk Concert that you did with Gucci Mane on NPR.org. It was a revelation, him rapping and you providing very complex, sophisticated piano backing.
Zaytoven: Every time I watch that I want to turn that into a tour. We did a full concert, me and Gucci, for Red Bull, me playing piano and him rapping. We did maybe 12 songs. This is a show that somebody would want to come and see. I want to play all of my hits on the piano, and narrate the different records, from Migos, to Usher to Nicki Minaj, and give them an acoustic, brokedown feel where you can hear the reason that I came up with the songs and the inspiration for the tracks. Look out for the Zaytoven Piano Tour!
MC: As you mentioned, you play a couple of church services a week. What instruments are you using?
Zaytoven: I play the Hammond B-3 for the most part of the service, and then at the end I might hop on the keyboard or piano to give it a different feel.
MC: How did you master the Hammond B-3?
Zaytoven: Being in church. My dad’s a preacher and my mom is a choir director, so I was in church three or four times a week. When you’re a kid, you’re in church all of the time, so you’ve got to find something to do. So I went from playing the drums to playing the piano, and once you start learning to play the organ that’s all you want to do. I remember staying up night after night practicing, and when somebody would teach me something just playing it over and over again, and when it was time to go to church I could play what I’d learned.
MC: You first developed your career in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then, when your parents moved to Atlanta, you joined them. How were the music scenes different? Did you have to adjust your sound?
Zaytoven: That definitely was the case. In the Bay Area, it was the “Hyphy Movement,” and something called “Mob Music.” The west coast is a little more musical and I would actually play bass lines and chords. When I got to the south it was all about hard hitting 808’s (Roland TR-808 drum machine). It doesn’t matter what you do to the beats as long as the 808’s were hitting real hard. So I had to switch it up. I was used to playing bass lines, but in the south the 808’s do the bass. So I had to restructure my way of doing it.
MC: What about the overall vibe? “Hyphy” (short for “hyperactive”) is a faster rhythm right?
Zaytoven: Yes. So in Atlanta they wanted the tempos to be slower. The west coast is uptempo, like 93-100 BPM’s (beats per minute.) In the south it’s 70-80 BPM’s. [The move from west to south] was for the best. It helped me create and cultivate the sound that I have now.
MC: Cutting hair was how you made money when you were coming up. How did this trade help your master plan as a producer?
Zaytoven: My greatest examples are my mom and dad. My dad was in the army, so he worked all of his life; my mom is a nurse. That’s how they made their money and were able to support the family. I looked at the same thing. I knew how to cut hair, and I knew how to play music. That’s how I would make my money. So I would be cutting hair and playing church services and weddings and funerals, and if this is how I earn money for the rest of my life, I will hustle and do this and be satisfied. I can buy a house and support my family. That’s how I looked at it: being stable. I looked at it as, “I’ve got to get up and go to work. If I’ve got to cut hair and be in the shop all day I’ve got to get up and do that.” I never thought about being a major producer and making the money that I make now.
MC: In your book you stress the necessity of taking action and not making excuses. Can you elaborate on that?
Zaytoven: I hear more of that than anything. “All I need is one Zaytoven beat.’” That’s not how it goes. I’m about action and taking the hard or the long way. I never got into this trying to advance myself faster than I needed to go, or take certain situations to try to get on top. If you watch Zaytoven’s career, I’ve been slow rolling for the past 10 to 12 years, just gradually getting bigger and better. Zaytoven never came out of nowhere and just blew up. That’s not my story. My story is working hard on a consistent basis and moving up a notch gradually as the years go by. I was looking at longevity. I want to be here for a long time. I don’t want all of the money at once so I can spend it and be broke and forgotten. I want you to keep hearing about Zaytoven. “Man, is that the same Zaytoven we heard about back in 2004? The same guy who is still one of the hottest producers out there?”
MC: You are well known for working incredibly fast and putting out a huge amount of recorded work. Is this still the way you record and produce?
Zaytoven: Yes. It comes from back in the day when Gucci and me were trying to figure out how to make our mark in the game. So he’d come over at 10 o’clock in the morning and rather than try to work on one song to listen in the car later that day, we’d try to make five songs to figure out which was the best and come out with different flavors and styles.
At the time, Gucci wasn’t as popular. Even when we made “So Icy” we’d try to drown out the other artists. That’s why Gucci started dropping so many mixtapes. Zaytoven was the producer of every beat on every mixtape, on every song. Same with OJ Da Juice man, it was the fact that we were trying to make the mark. If we feel we weren’t as good as them, we’d put out more music. That came from working fast. If we made 100 songs we’d have a hit somewhere in there. I’m still like that now––every record that’s been a big record, I never spent more than 10 minutes making the beat.
MC: Tell us about some of your gear.
Zaytoven: I learned on the Akai MPC and I don’t think I’m ever moving from it. I think it’s because I learned on the MPC 3000 and I got accustomed and I got used to making beats on it. And it worked. I never thought about changing it. Fruity Loops and all of these different programs came out and people used them to make beats, but I have a sound and a formula already. I stuck with it.
MC: You created a virtual instrument plug-in called “Funky Fingers.” What is its purpose?
Zaytoven: I consider it more of a gift to the producers who look up to me. There are a lot of producers who mimic my sound and the way I play piano or the way that I play the organ, or the drums. Every producer in the game was already finding a way to use my stuff, so I said, “Let me put out a plug-in where they can officially have the sound.” That was the whole thing.
MC: You are still an advocate of analog sounds?
Zaytoven: I love analog. That’s what the MPC is for me, the Korg Kronos 6 10 Key Music Workstation. I love the Roland Phantom Module, the Yamaha Motif, the Virus T12 Desktop synthesizer. If you come to my house where I make beats it’s all analog. I do use the digital stuff. MPC has made a version that works both ways––analog and digital, which is perfect for me. But analog sounds are what separates me from everyone else.
MC: Do you enjoy tracking vocals?
Zaytoven: I do when it’s somebody I enjoy recording. A lot of times the artists take forever and they record and want to be extra perfect. I’d rather have another engineer do that. When I’m recording Gucci Mane or Future at the house I enjoy that. We’re moving through songs. I will make a beat and record the vocals and they will almost freestyle the song, so there’s not a lot of hard work to do.
MC: Do you have a studio at home, or do you use other facilities in Atlanta?
Zaytoven: I have another studio downtown. When I make beats for the most part I make them at my home studio. The home studio is meant for special people that I work closely with. I’ve got the other studio for people I don’t really know. The house is where Gucci and I came up with all of our hits.
MC: You won a Grammy in 2011 for your work as a co-writer and producer on the song “Papers” by Usher from his Raymond vs. Raymond project. The Grammy nominations have just been announced, and hip-hop is the predominant genre in the top awards. What are your thoughts on this evolution?
Zaytoven: I think it will be the biggest genre. The guys who created this music are super heroes. Rappers now are like basketball and football players used to be. Kids want to be rappers now. They look cool; they carry themselves with a certain type of swagger. Now the basketball and football players want to be rappers. It’s such a strong force of music. It intrigues people.
MC: You now have your own label through Motown/Capitol, called Familiar Territory.
Zaytoven: Yes, sir. It’s a new chapter. I’m excited. I get to deal with Capitol and Motown. This is where Zaytoven becomes a new artist and a new producer all over again.
Zaytoven: Throughout your career you have excelled in A&R. Will your label provide an opportunity to go deeper into that world?
Zaytoven: That’s exactly what I will be doing. All of the guys I found before: Gucci Mane, OJ da Juiceman, Migos, Bankroll Freddie, these are my real artists. I never had to wait and sign these guys. The new batch of guys I’m running into, I have my new situation and I can’t wait to apply my A&R ears.
MC: You’ve made films: Finesse The Movie and Birds of a Feather, and now you’re completing Birds of a Feather 2. You write songs, produce and also act in the films. How does this enhance your position as a producer?
Zaytoven: I’m a producer that’s been around for a long time. Sometimes you’re not as hot as you were. You might have been super hot in 2013, but a new producer came in. I use the movies to draw attention to myself and to brand myself in a different way. Let me do something else, use my relationships. I’ve never been an actor or the guy who wants to be on the big screen, but these are the things I have to do to continue to make Zaytoven relevant and popping. When I started doing it and had such a great response, I knew this was something that I had to do.
MC: Most producers are invisible. The films, which are fictionalized but autobiographical, cast you center stage.
Zaytoven: It made me famous! People have been hearing “Zaytoven on the track” for 10 years, but they didn’t know what I looked like. This is a chance to show my style. I feel like I’m a pretty handsome young guy. This is a chance to make the world know who Zaytoven is.
MC: Do you make these plans in advance?
Zaytoven: No, sir. I really just go with the flow. That’s what keeps me excited, not knowing what tomorrow holds. I can plan I want to have a great 2018, to put my album out, and put my artist’s album out, but something might come up. That’s the way God works. I have to be ready.
Contact Joanne Hunter, Capitol Music Group, Joanne.Hunter@umusic.com.
Source: Cover Stories, Latest, Magazine / December 27, 2017 By Dan Kimpel https://www.musicconnection.com/zaytoven/