Interview: Zaytoven speaks on his long history as church organist, the remarkable making of "Beast Mode," and how he's managed to remain a devoted family man while serving the streets with combustible trap beats for the past 15 years.
Most mornings, Zaytoven rises to take his son Xavier, 10, and daughter Olivia, 7, to school. He drops them off at 7:30 and returns to his house, looking for something to do. So he descends to the studio in his basement and starts making beats.
Some days he’ll make two beats. Some days he’ll make five. Some days he’ll make ten. “It depends on how I’m feeling,” he explains. He wears a colorful light down jacket and a single chain and he sits in the engineer’s chair in the HNHH studio. In a few hours, he’s scheduled to speak on a Red Bull Music Academy panel alongside Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital. “The way music is now is you need quantity more than quality now. You gotta have a lot of work, you gotta keep work coming, or you’ll get left behind.”
Zaytoven’s daily routine is not so different now than it was when he started working with Gucci Mane in the early aughts. Gucci would call him early in the morning and drive over to his studio, then situated in his parents’ basement. Gucci possessed a ruthlessly efficient work ethic, and if he wrote ten songs in a day, Zaytoven would have to make ten beats.
Born Xavier Dotson, Zaytoven attended barber college when he moved from San Francisco to Atlanta after graduating from high school in 1999. Cutting hair was his primary form of networking. That’s how he met Gucci Mane. At the time he had two other burgeoning hustles: making beats and playing keys in church.
That Zaytoven plays keys in church shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has listened to his music in depth. His sonic hallmark -- bouncy trap drums infused with slinky piano -- is so immediately identifiable because, despite the prevalence of cheap mimicry in hip hop production, few can replicate it. Also a giveaway is his producer name, which he acquired early on from a friend impressed by his piano chops. “Damn. You sound like Beethoven,” the friend remarked. “They should call you Zaytoven!”
Zaytoven learned to play the keys as a youngblood watching older organists play in church. “I’d go home and work my keyboard and try to learn the stuff that they showed me,” he explains. “I’d practice it over and over again, then I’d start playing for groups that go out and sing. I constantly had to learn songs, so that’s what start making me better.”
Zaytoven is currently the resident organist at Life Abundantly Christian Church in Conyers, GA. He pays his 10% tithe and commutes to the church three days a week for rehearsals, bible study, & Sunday services. He has hopes to take his church band on tour one day, perhaps when his kids are older. Until then, he is happy to play for the congregation and make beats in the studio, for they are two sides of the same coin.
“When you’re in church, a musician’s job is to set an atmosphere,” he says. “When I’m playing the keys, when I’m making the beats, it’s like I’m trying to create a mood or create some soul or add a feeling to it, when people hear it they like ‘Oh, I feel something about this beat.’ It’s not just a drum. It sound like people put their heart and soul into the beat.
“When I play the keys, I’m playing ‘em almost like I’m at church. It’s no structure to it. I’m just freestyling. I’m playing by ear. What I learned in this music is there’s no rules to it or there’s no way that it has to go. So I might play and hit a wrong note and leave it in there. If we’re talking about street music or trap music, everything can’t be perfect and all mixed and all put well together -- it takes the edge off the music. So I might hit something wrong. That’s what I think helped make me and Gucci Mane so popular in the early days, ‘cause he might rap faster than the beat, he might say something you don’t even know what he’s talking about. Or he stumbles over a word. But it just shows that, we creating music that’s spontaneous.”
Like his more depraved spiritual compadre Hunter S. Thompson, Zaytoven believes great art can only be created under strenuous conditions. “I think my best beats or beats that people really choose the most are beats that I’m almost in a rush to hurry up and finish,” he says. “The beat I make where I was changing my little girl, and had to get ready and run to the store, people be knocking my door down for that beat. So that’s why I make my beats so fast. If it takes me longer than ten minutes to make the beat than it probably is not winning.”
Indeed, Zaytoven & Gucci Mane were so productive that Zaytoven claims he owns a hard drive of material “from before we even got popping.” This reserve has sustained a bevy of fresh releases during Gucci Mane’s 39-month stint in prison (e.g. Gucci Mane’s recent Mama’s Basement mixtape). Zaytoven still produces enough beats that he frequently sends them out to multiple artists, a practice that Chief Keef recently decried as unethical. “That nigga Zaytoven had to be drunk," said Keef.
Multiple rappers have used the same Zaytoven beat on numerous occasions. The most notable example is when Migos made “Versace” using the same beat Soulja Boy had rapped over in “Oh My God Part 2” two years later. The difference is, Migos signed a producer agreement and paid Zaytoven for the rights to the beat. Soulja Boy did not. “I’m sending beats to create opportunity,” Zaytoven explains.
By sending out his beats to multiple rappers, Zaytoven ensures a steady output of music. This practice is tempered by his desire to produce every song on a given project, thus creating a unified sound. In his younger days, he would produce every song on tapes by Gucci Mane and OJ da Juiceman. In 2015, he provided exclusive production for an astounding ten mixtapes. The first of these 2015 mixtapes was Future’s Beast Mode.
Zaytoven produced several songs on Future’s early tapes but had fallen out of contact with him since he moved to Los Angeles. “I hadn’t heard from him for three years,” Zaytoven said. “He was like, ‘Zay, can you come to the studio?’”
Future played Zaytoven songs he had already recorded over his beats and told him he wanted make a full mixtape together. Zaytoven gave him more beats and went home and crafted more beats specifically for Future. Together they made approximately 50 songs total and narrowed it down to nine by gauging the reaction of people who sat in on the recording sessions. Zaytoven estimates they started working on the tape ten days before it dropped.
In regards to the long-awaited Beast Mode 2... according to Zaytoven, Future has been recording over his beats on a regular basis ever since Beast Mode dropped 18 months ago. “Ever since then, we’ve recorded numerous times again,” he says. “Every time we go in the studio, we’re gonna do five, ten songs together. But we got, I know, at least 100 songs.”
Zaytoven has spent plenty of time with Gucci Mane since Gucci was freed last month. Gucci is his most long-standing collaborator. They were born a month apart. They are both 36 years old now. Their chemistry appeared intact in a video posted to Instagram in which Zaytoven plays piano as Gucci serenades his girl, who is sitting on the piano.
In sum. Respect is the thing that Zaytoven craves. His longevity in the game has earned him universal respect. But he wants respect for the music he's making NOW, which might explain why he's managed to maintain such longevity in the first place.
“Everybody always show us respect like, ‘Man, you and Gucci was all we used to listen to. I used to listen to you when I was in middle school,'" he says. "That’s every producer that talks to me. There’s no producer I know right now that doesn’t say, ‘Man, I grew up listening to you.’ I want the respect for what I’m doing now. Not just for what I’ve done before. That’s what keeps me competitive. I don’t wanna talk about what I did ten years ago. Let’s talk about what I’m doing right now."
"From the streets, they look at me a different way just for me being true to who I am. They respect that. I think that’s what a connection is. It’s not that I have my foot in the streets at all. I’m a family man, I got kids, I’m a church guy, and I put that on my social media and people know that. But at the same time, they respect that the streets respect that about me. It’s like the same guy that making this music, the soundtrack of what I been listening to all these years, is this type of person. He’s not the guy that’s on all these drugs or selling weed or doing this or that. It’s the guy right there that playing organ in the church." - Zaytoven