“Never thought hip-hop would take it this far,”  rapped Christopher Wallace in 1994. 26-years-later, it’s gone even further than Biggie Smalls could’ve imagined. Trap music was once regarded with the same sort of disgust that purists have towards the current state of rap music. As a genre, it offered insight into the world of the South, but more specifically, Atlanta. Ironically, the forefather of the sound-- and the man who helped cement it as a regional sub-genre-- was actually a Bay Area native. 

Mapping Zaytoven’s musical influences would take you on a cross-country road trip across the United States of America. Born in Frankfurt, Germany to parents who were in the military, Zaytoven spent much of his formative years in different cities and states. It was the local heroes that played a huge role in his development as an artist, whether it was Sheldon Herrington, the head organist of the church that would teach him songs, or JT The Bigga Figga, who gave Zay his first placement. These influences, plus a sprinkle of No Limit, make up the formula to Zaytoven's success. Even if the muddiness and imperfections of Master P served as a template for the gritty sound of trap music, it’s artists like Dr. Dre who’ve laid the foundation to Zay’s sustenance in the rap game. 

zaytoven producer interview

Image via Artist, @shotsbyc3nturii

“Of course. Now, when you listen back to your music, you want to hear a certain quality and a certain perfection. When I make a beat now, it's like when I send this beat out, I know the artist gonna listen to it like, “Man, this is the work of art right here,” ‘cause I'm putting more time and effort into it. But that's not what really got me in the game. But that's what helps sustain me in the game. Projects like Beast Mode and stuff like that where I really took my time is what helps Zaytoven get to another level and be like, okay, he's great,” said Zaytoven during a Zoom Video call.

Even though every month is Black History Month, we spoke to Zaytoven to explore his influences and the artists, musicians, and producers that have shaped his artistry. 


HNHH:  I want you to take me back to when you were a child first getting into music. Who are the musicians and producers that influenced you? Because I know you come from a church background.

Zaytoven: Yeah. So from the beginning, man, there were always local heroes that inspired me. I remember in Grenada, Mississippi -- it was a real small place -- the head organist at the church, I'm watching him and I'm inspired. Like, you know, I wanna hang around him. I want to learn how to play ‘cause he's the guy. He's the one that's running the whole music. So, his name was Sheldon Herrington. He'll sit down and take time, and show me like, “Okay, this how you play this song, this and that,” you know what I mean? When I moved from Grenada, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and there was a guy by the name of Hugh Davis. The man can play every instrument you can think of. He runs a whole bunch of youth services and youth camps. And he used to take me with him everywhere he'd go. He would show me how to play songs. He'll take his time to come and show me how to play music, you know, certain ones. Another guy's name was Bernie Moore in Jackson, Mississippi. At the church I'm going to, he's the head musician. He's the one that gave me an opportunity to say, “You run this service you play this whole service by yourself. I'm gonna sit back and watch.” So, that was the guy I was influenced by early.

Talk to me about learning "I'm Available To You." To my understanding that's the first song you learned on piano. What does that song mean to you and what's the earliest memory you have of that song?

You know, back in the day, learning different choir songs, that's a big deal. You go to choir rehearsal, so this is something we're gonna learn to sing for Sunday. At the time, “Lord, I'm Available To You” was a big song. Was it the Mississippi Mass Choir that might've sung it? It is one of the mass choirs. This was a song that was popular. And Hugh Davis, from Jackson, Mississippi, he was the guy that sat down and showed me how to play it at my home piano. I remember just playing it over and over again until I just got every chord right. It's still one of my favorite songs to play. 

So, my earliest memory of that song is me playing it for the first time and my mom doing a solo. She's doing a solo at the church, but I'm helping with the background singing. I had the -- what's the haircut that goes up like that? Like a high-right low-left? [Laughs] I saw the footage about two years ago. They had it at the church. I was like, man, I can't believe it. I had on red suspenders, I had a striped shirt on. I remember everything about it.

One of the key aspects of trap music, as you mentioned in our last interview, is the imperfections that made it sound so authentic and gutter. Who are some producers, or even musicians, that showed you the beauty in those imperfections?

I think it started with some of the music I started listening to. Like, I’ve always been into church music. I've always been into gospel music because of my parents. My mom's a choir director. My dad's a preacher. So, all I'm listening to is gospel music. 

When I first heard rap, it was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. You know, “Dre Day” and all that. So, I've always looked at music being so big and so far away. I just love the music. It sounded so good, but it's something [that I felt] I would never be able to reach. You know, it's like that's just so far away. I'm just a fan of it. It wasn't until I started hearing, like, Master P. Like, “I'm Bout It” and all his music. It was like, okay, this doesn't seem like the same music as Dr. Dre and Tupac. It was different. It was more rough. You can tell it wasn't mixed the same. He’s not rapping as good on this stuff. His timing is kind of off. The beats are kind of just like -- they seem like they [So So Def] beats but if you really listen to it, it's like, “No, these joints hard.” And that kind of started changing my perception of how the music has to sound. It almost made me feel like I can make music that sounds like that, you know? 

Tell me what was going on in your life around the time you first heard Master P and No Limit.

Believe it or not, man, I'm still in the Bay. I'm in the Bay Area and nobody's listening to Master P like that where I'm from, you know? My roots are in Georgia. My grandma, my aunties -- all of my family stays in Columbus, Georgia. So I would come and visit. And here -- I mean, they be having pull ups at the park where there cars are just out in the park. The type of music they’re playing is all Master P, Pastor Troy, and stuff like that. And I'm just looking at the reaction. I'm feeling the music. I’m goin’ to lil’ spots, almost lil’ club spots and I’m like, “Hol’ on. This music is different.” 

"I'm in the Bay Area. So Tupac, Snoop Dogg, all the West Coast music is poppin’ and all the Bay Area rappers are poppin’. So, I got a kick out of coming to the South, taking music back up to the Bay and sayin’, 'Y'all ain't up on this. Y'all ain't never heard this Trick Daddy before.'"

I'm in the Bay Area. So Tupac, Snoop Dogg, all the West Coast music is poppin’ and all the Bay Area rappers are poppin’. So, I got a kick out of coming to the South, taking music back up to the Bay and sayin’, “Y'all ain't up on this. Y'all ain't never heard this Trick Daddy before.” I used to walk around school with my radio, you know what I mean? I used to walk around school with my radio now and I'm playing nothing but music they know nothing about in the Bay. It’s like, “Y'all don't know. This Trick Daddy. This Pastor Troy. This Master P.” And they’re like, “Man, if you don't get that music outta here. Like, that's the wackest music in the world.” And I think them saying that helped me get drawn that much closer to that music. Just because it was different. It's like, “Y'all ain't up on what I'm on.” And I feel like that's my type of music. It's underground music that everybody ain't really hip to, you know what I mean? It's not as popular as the music that everybody loves. But it has a certain edge to it because everybody's not really up on it like that. So, I was on Master P and them that much harder because where I was at, nobody was listening to that.

Just bouncing off your previous comments on local heroes from the South who introduced you to playing music at church. Who were the local heroes for you in the Bay Area when you were carrying around the boombox in the school halls?

Back then, it was San Quinn, JT the Bigga Figga, Mac Mall, B-Legit, Messy Marv. Some young guys I worked with called The Gamblers. You know, all the Bay Area guys that were around, they were like the legends. You get to work with them, it was like, okay, you’re doing something. And one of my first beats -- of course, my first beat came with JT The Bigga Figga because he was the one that put me in the studio first. But San Quinn was the star coming from where we were at. So, I remember him rapping on my beat for the first time and it was just like, “Oh, I feel like I made it.”

You mentioned The Chronic as an introductory project to hip-hop and then Master P helped shape what we know as trap music. What was it about Dre’s production style in the 90s and 2000s that resonated with you the most? Where do you think those influences informed how you approach production moving forward?

The Chronic was like my first time listening to rap music. I wasn't allowed to listen to that. My parents would go crazy if they knew that I was listening to in my headphones. But it's almost like a crackhead getting crack for the first time. Once I heard that, it was like -- man, you know what I mean? It was infectious. It was like, bro, I got to hear this all day long. I remember being in church and I had my Walkman. I’d sneak and put the headphones on because like, man, it was that dope to me. But I wasn't trying to be a producer at this time. I just started becoming a fan of rap music.

"'The Chronic' was like my first time listening to rap music. I wasn't allowed to listen to that. My parents would go crazy if they knew that I was listening to in my headphones. But it's almost like a crackhead getting crack for the first time."

It wasn't until around the Master P times where I started feeling like I could do this. Dre and them made it sound like, that's too hard to do. You know? I mean, they made it sound like it's so perfect. Like, it will take too much to do that. Tupac, All Eyez On Me, I'm just a fan because it's just great music but I'm not gonna be able to do that. Guys like Master P and Pastor Troy, they started coming out and started making me feel like I could do that. I start feeling like, I'm able to get in the game because I can make that type of music. This stuff is not as to the T as like, you know, Dr. Dre was. 

Do you feel like now at this point in your career, you're approaching closer to a level of a Dr. Dre than the muddy sound that inspired you to get into production?

Of course. Now, when you listen back to your music, you want to hear a certain quality and a certain perfection. When I make a beat now, it's like when I send this beat out, I know the artist gonna listen to it like, “Man, this is the work of art right here,” ‘cause I'm putting more time and effort into it. But that's not what really got me in the game. But that's what helps sustain me in the game. Projects like Beast Mode and stuff like that where I really took my time is what helps Zaytoven get to another level and be like, okay, he's great.

Who else do you think inspired you or at least planted the seed in your head to make sure you're innovating your own sound while also carrying the legacy of those who came before you?

I was a huge -- and I know a lot of people don't probably even get into these artists like that, but I was a huge DJ Quik and MC Eiht fan. I probably listen to their music more than I listen to anybody in the world. MC Eiht and DJ Quik. I think it's because of their production style. It was just so -- it was music-driven. It's like you can tell musicians is the one that's really making it. This ain't beat programming. These are guys playing the piano. People playing guitars and, you know, people using certain sounds that stuck with me for so long that I knew that's what I wanted my music to sound like. And if you go back and listen to my music, and go listen to MC Eiht “We Come Strapped,” go listen to DJ Quik Safe and Sound album and stuff like that, you'd be like, “that's Zaytoven music. That’s where Zaytoven music comes from.” I didn't really realize it until a year or two ago, when I was really like, man, I'm making the same music I used to listen to not even knowing when I'm doing it. I don't sit down and listen to DJ Quik and say I'm gonna make something like this. Or listen to MC Eiht and say I'm gonna make something like this. But subconsciously, I've been making that music and I've been listening to it for so long.

zaytoven interview

Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images

Can you describe to me where you were the first time you heard DJ Quik? 

This is probably one of the reasons why I'm one of his biggest fans. When I was younger, my mom used to try to get me into acting and doing, you know, modeling type stuff. She was taking me to different gigs. Sometimes I might be on a Cadillac commercial. I remember doing a Michael Jordan commercial when I was really young. If you get the chance, look it up. It's called “What If?” Like, what if there were no sports, and what if, you know -- it was a black and white commercial. I’m in that commercial shooting a basketball into a crate that's tied to a tree. But my mom got me into that stuff when I was younger. So, we end up getting a call to do a video. And it was DJ Quik’s “Safe and Sound” video. And that's the first time my mom was like, “Where in the world are we at?” Like, what is this? Because we’re in the streets, like, we’re in the hood. You know, there's a weed smokin’. It's a whole bunch of people there like, “Man, what in the world is this?” But I ended up playing [the role of] DJ Quik and his friends when they were younger. And I remember just hearing the music, you know, since they’re playing the music in the back. It's like, man, it's so dope. So, I got into him. I went and bought the CD. And it instantly became like really my favorite album man. Safe And Sound. And it was the music that really just drew me. You know what I mean, and I've been stuck on it ever since.

Where do you think the influence on the Bay Area from Compton comes from? If any.

I don't know. I don't know if anybody else from the Bay Area was as much of a Quik fan as I was. Matter of fact, I don't know anybody else around me or anybody I know that's as much of a Quik fan. I think what helped me become a fan is the musicianship more than anything. Maybe, me, coming up in church and being a musician and hearing certain chords and certain riffs they were doing on the keys and all that is what drew me to him so much. 

Is there a particular song that still sounds as fresh as it did when you first listened to it?

I'm an album type of guy, not a single type of guy. So, I like projects. Safe & Sound is always gonna be my favorite because it was the first one I heard him in. You know, that was the first one I bought, but then Rhythm-al-ism after that. I bought every DJ Quik album that came out, you know what I mean? Safe + Sound probably was my favorite, and “Dollaz + Sense” was like the song that made me be like, this is the hardest man in the world. He's the hardest. When he was dissing MC Eiht, I was like, man, he's super hard. That's probably my favorite. 

As both a fan of DJ Quik and MC Eiht, you could understand the conflict die-hard Gucci Mane fans and Jeezy fans have had over the years. How did you find yourself appreciating their music compared to each other? Especially, when there’s real beef happening behind the scenes. 

That's what made me like it so much. I don't know why I like it but it made me want to listen to their music that much more. DJ Quik dissing MC Eiht. Eiht’s dissing DJ Quik. I’m talkin’ ‘bout every album. And it's like they are both going so hard to me. It's like, this is my favorite. These are my favorite guys right here. 

And their music is really totally different. Like, the approach is totally different. Quik’s music is smooth, fluid and jazzy. And then he rapped like -- DJ Quik rap like a rapper. MC Eiht’s rapping like a guy that can't really rap but he’s from the streets, for real. It's like he raps like a killer, bro. Like, why y'all give him the mic? But you can tell he is just authentic. He just sounded so authentic. And then the music behind them, it's like you at a Blues Club almost. It's like you're just hearing piano and they’re just freestyling. And I'm like, but what kind of music is this? When he was talking so hard and reckless, it was like, man, this is my favorite music.

Is it the sport of rapping that drew you in even more?

I think the sport is what draws us closer to the music. I just finished playing basketball. I like to talk noise. Even if somebody's better than me, I still want to talk noise. I want to be aggressive. It's a competitive type of thing. And I feel like with music, it helped draw us closer because it's like, everybody feels like, “I'm better than you. I'm harder than you,” and that's what makes the music come out a certain way. That’s what makes us listen to it a certain way. I used to listen to you know, the rap freestyle battles and all that. That's the essence of hip hop music to me. 

"So, anytime Gucci had a problem with somebody, or wanted to say something to somebody, I'll pat him on the back, like, “go for it.” People wouldn't think that, but that's how I am because I'm a fan. I'm a fan of the sport."

So, anytime Gucci had a problem with somebody, or wanted to say something to somebody, I'll pat him on the back, like, “go for it.” People wouldn't think that, but that's how I am because I'm a fan. I'm a fan of the sport. It's a comparison type thing, like, "Nah, we harder than y'all. Y'all my sell more records but we comin’ off as, ‘Oh, no, we are harder than everybody in the game.’” And that's what made me love it, you know what I mean? 

But I love Jeezy. I remember going to listen to Jeezy and I'm like, “boy ain't nobody harder than this man right here. He's super hard.” But at the same time, we'll go against that. Ain't nobody harder than Gucci. And I feel like that's how it was back when MC Eiht and Quik was battling, and that's what made me love it.

zaytoven gucci mane jeezy interview

Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images

Did you ever tell Gucci that you’re a fan of Jeezy's music?

Hey, Gucci knows it. Gucci was a fan first. He was the one who told me, “Man, Jeezy so hard. He made me wanna do a song with him. He's the hardest.” And I'm like, okay, bet. Like, he put me on to Jeezy.

What is it to you about labels like No Limit and Death Row, the artists they produced and the music that was being released that sticks out to you the most?

For me, I think it's the individuality that makes them all so special. It's coming in and saying that I'm gonna do it my way, and it turns into the hottest wave in the world right now. Like, this is the hottest sound. This is the hottest label. And they’re doing it their own way. Music never sounded like this before them and that's what stands out to me. Master P, like, ain't no music sound like that before he came out. I heard “Bout It, Bout It” and I was like, “Bro, what kind of music is this?” Like, I never heard nothing like this. Even Cash Money coming after this, like, man, they onto something else. Ruthless Records, and even with Dr. Dre and Death Row, it's like man, music was never this before. So that's what makes them so special. And I mean, that's why I like them so much.

Where do you think all of your influences meet, between gospel acts like, The Winans, The Commission, and Travis Greene and artists like Dr. Dre and Master P?

It's always gonna be the music, man. What draws me to any artist, any songwriter is just the way they approach music and the way they do it. Like, all the people you name are totally different. Travis Greene doesn't sound like DJ Quik. You know, none of that stuff sounds like the same thing. But I guess that the presence of their music is so strong that it just touches me in a certain way. 

You know, I'm a guy that moved around my whole life. My dad was in the military so I moved from different city to city and different countries and different states. And I think that's been a part of my success. Just being a chameleon when it comes to all this stuff, you know what I mean? I blend in. I can blend in with the rappers that are real killers and robbers and all that, and I can blend in with the pastor that has a record out. You know, that's just a gift that God has given me to just be amongst all these different people. And these are the people that sowed into my life, as far as music-wise. And I think that's the reason I'm successful. Just being fans of all you different people. 

We just went through a few decades of hip-hop history but I wanted to get your thoughts on the future of the culture. Where do you think we go moving forward and what’s the key to sustenance?

Man, it's changing so much, and technology has come and changed the game so much, that I'm afraid to say it's gonna be a TikTok game before it's over. People are gonna be making music just to dance to on TikTok. Music, I don't feel it's gonna hold the value that it used to have. When it doesn't have the value, it means it's harder for people to sustain. It's hard for certain producers or a certain artist to stick around for a long time because now you’re just grabbing songs. “Oh, he got a hot song on TikTok somebody’s never heard.” “Oh, this other girl, she got something hot.” You know, it almost turned into a gimmick. A game.

"I wish music would go back to when people that are making music, have to know something about music. They got to know how to play an instrument. They got to know how to read certain music. They got to know something about music."

I wish music would go back to when people that are making music, have to know something about music. They got to know how to play an instrument. They got to know how to read certain music. They got to know something about music. But you know, I think technology has made it where it's so easy and simple for other people to make their own beat, record their own music, upload their own video. I feel like soon, it's gonna be like you'll go to TikTok to make your own beat, make your own song, upload a video. And if you go viral, then you are the hottest thing going now. I'm hoping they don't get like that. But that's what it's looking like right now.

Most people make two to three minute long songs. And as an artist, you are a creator. You don't create music to be listened to for one minute. You create music to be listened to as a completed body of art. Do you think that the attention span or these trends -- I hate to say it -- but do you think it could kill hip hop?

I hate to say it. [Laughs] I'm hoping it doesn't, man. I'm just hoping and praying that's not the case. But it's a possibility, man. Technology is moving faster than anything. Even guys like me, I'm gonna watch my kids, man. Nothing holds their attention that long no more. These phones like you just scrolling through the phone as fast as you can. You might find something you like for a little bit, but it's not gonna hold your attention for too long. 

So imagine an artist trying to last for years when it's so much of that technology just coming in and taking it. My son makes beats now, right? And I'm watching them, you know, stuff you learn on YouTube, where you don't even have to -- you know, I got keyboards and I got all types of stuff. He doesn't have to do what I do. You can drop and drag and place it in, like, “look now my beat sounds just as good as yours.” It's almost weeding people out. Like the real musicians and people that really take it serious a certain way, it kind of weeds people out. So, I think in a matter of years, music will probably be super watered down.

You mentioned your son’s making beats. Did you make sure that your kids understand the musicianship itself before using technology to start producing? 

Of course. I don't know if you ever watched my Instagram but I have my son playing the drums, my daughter playing the drums. My son’s playing the keyboard and stuff. So, they’ll know something about music. And they wanted to learn music before they even wanted to learn how to make beats. So that's a good thing. 

My son gets a kick out of playing the piano. He can go somewhere and sit in a room and play the piano and everybody wants to come around and watch him. So, that makes me feel good. I don't mind him learning the technical stuff, because he's gonna have to learn that as well, but still have a foundation with music. 

zaytoven interview
Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images

Before we end the conversation, I have a few more questions for you. Last time we spoke, you had high praise for Lil Keed. Who do you think is creating timeless music right now that will last beyond TikTok trends?

Guys I know out of Atlanta. I feel like guys like Lil Baby. Guys like Gunna. I can't really name a lot of them. But you know, even a Moneybagg Yo. I don't even wanna start naming artists ‘cause I'm starting to forget who all -- there's so many artists right now. Let me just name the Atlanta artists right now. I feel like Lil Baby and Gunna have a lifespan with music right now as far as young guys. I think it's the street element, of course. And then just their own approach to the music is what I think is gonna sustain them for a while.

"I feel like Lil Baby and Gunna have a lifespan with music right now as far as young guys. I think it's the street element, of course. And then just their own approach to the music is what I think is gonna sustain them for a while."

I'm thinking about the guys after them. I'm talking about maybe, five, six years from now. That I can't tell you. It doesn't seem like a guy can last like Lil Baby. Lil Baby done lasted some years already and done good. Or NBA YoungBoy. He done lasted a while. 

Well, I don't know. It seems like 5-10 years from now, it's gonna be like, “You got a hit? You got a TikTok song? Cool. We listen to it.” “You got an album? We don't really wanna hear your music like that.” And I hope it doesn't get like that. Let me be clear. I don't want it to get like that. I'm hoping you don't get like that. 

Since this is part of our Black History Month series with iconic producers, I wanted to dive into your connection to Detroit because you were signed to Motown Records at one point. The current sound of Detroit reminds me a lot of your production in many ways but it’s largely because of the piano. There’s a chilling feeling that I get from you which, in part, is attributed to diamonds and jewelry. In Detroit, it feels like it’s a representation of their winters. Where do you think Detroit influences you? And how do you think you influence Detroit?

Oh, well you talking about keys. I'm a musician at church and keys always are the instrument that sets the atmosphere at church. With just the piano, you can make somebody get up and start dancing or you can make somebody start crying, depending on what they're going through. I feel like when you say ice, and whether it's jewelry or if it's cold weather, I think playing the keys pierces people's hearts in a certain type of way. And I feel like that's where the connection is. That's what I'm doing with any artists I'm working with, any major label, you know, like you sayin’ Motown. That's the connection right there that makes people -- it softens people's hearts. Whether it's dirty trap music, whatever type of music or jumpin’ music. It’s those keys softens people's hearts and it allows the artist to either testify or bleed a certain way and make you listen to it. And that's how I always looked at it. That's why I started. That's why I wanted to be Zaytoven. That's why I start adding keys a lot of times in my beats because I know I can have something banging but this piano right here, it's gonna soften them a little bit where it's gonna make you feel a different type of way. And I think that's the connection.

Read last week's interview diving into sampling and crate-digging with Pete Rock here.