Producer's Corner: Zaytoven
The Cali-born producer became one of the ATL's biggest go-to's in 2009. Get to know Gucci Mane's longtime producer, and get a scoop on how to make trap star anthems.
Both the west coast and the South are regions that are production-driven, as board masters like Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, DJ Toomp and Don Cannon have anchored the careers of notable emcees. Still, Xavier “Zaytoven” Dotson has found a way to make a name for himself in both areas. After an apprenticeship under San Francisco staple JT the Bigga Figga, (Daz Dillinger, The Game, Messy Marv), he moved to Atlanta. There, he would spark creative chemistry with a relatively unknown emcee named Gucci Mane, producing songs (“So Icey” featuring Young Jeezy, “I Might Be,” and many others) that helped him become one of the hottest names in Rap.
He has since lent his golden touch—“hard club music, but with nice, friendly melodies to them,” he explains—to the likes of OJ Da Juiceman, Twista and others, with Usher’s new single “Papers” serving as his latest, greatest placement. In an interview with HipHopDX, Zaytoven speaks on his flagship artist’s gradual progression, differences between the western and southern rap scenes, and why Gucci’s simplicity is mind-boggling.
HipHopDX: What kind of differences have you seen between the sounds in each area, and the work you have to formulate for each artist?
Zaytoven: As far as the artists, it’s pretty much the same thing. Everyone’s working toward the same goal in the music business. In Atlanta, the vibe is a lot more slick, shiny and easy to listen to. A lot of it in San Francisco and Bay Area is about lyrics, a real good flow, and being able to rap and put words together. In Atlanta, it’s more of a free thing. It’s about partying; you don’t have to rap real good, but if you can talk slick and put words together, you’ll do fine. I think that’s a difference.
DX: You’ve been working with Gucci Mane for a while. What kind of artistic progression have you seen in him, from the beginning through now?
Zaytoven: I can honestly say, the more we worked, the better he got. His lyrical content as far as ideas and creativity has gotten better and better. He’s a hard worker, he does song after song. Year after year, everything has gotten better. He wants to be the best at it.
DX: I look at someone like T.I., who gained prominence late, but people look back at efforts like Trap Muzik and I’m Serious and see he was a legend in the making. Do you think people will look back at Gucci’s material in the same way?
Zaytoven: Definitely. I think that’s how it’s been for a lot of artists right now. That’s how it was for me and Lil Wayne. I think the same thing will happen with Gucci [Mane]. The stuff we were doing a long time ago, I believed in that stuff, People are just now catching on, but they can look back and see he was the truth a long time ago.
DX: Is it ever awkward working with both Young Jeezy and Gucci, considering their rivalry?
Zaytoven: I worked with [Young] Jeezy and Gucci together when we did “So Icey.” I was working with Jeezy right after that. I listen to both of them, and I know both of their styles, so I know what kind of stuff to give them. I know the vibes they’re on already, so it’s almost the same thing. They just approach it differently when they rap. But I know the type of music they want and the type of music they need. So it’s not hard to transition from one to the other. … I remember before, Gucci used to look at Jeezy’s success as motivation. He’d be like, “Jeezy just went platinum, so this is what I need to do.” He gave him motivation to work harder.
DX: What is it like to see Gucci at the point he’s at now?
Zaytoven: That’s why I continued to work with him the way I did. I already heard how good he was with the music, and it also confirmed that I know what I’m talking about when I feel like someone’s got it or is the truth. Everybody didn’t feel that way [about him] a long time ago, but I felt that way from the jump. Made me feel real good, because it shows me that the work we’ve done has paid off, and that my ear didn’t fail me. This guy is as good as I thought he was.
DX: Was it special that Twista, as opposed to any other artists you’ve worked with, pursued your sound for his recent album?
Zaytoven: His manager reached out to me. They were working on the album, and getting a feature from Gucci and OJ [Da Juiceman]. I guess they wanted to go with the whole sound, because I did a lot of their stuff, so they probably reached out to me because they wanted that whole formula. I sent the track, Twista got on it and murdered it, and it was all good.
It was very special. Any of the guys that’s been in it, because I listened to all these guys come up in music. I used to buy every CD that came out, so all these guys actually coming to me is the best feeling in the world. You don’t ever think you’re going to end up working with these guys. It’s the best feeling in the world.
DX: You also did Usher’s new song, “Papers”...
Zaytoven: Sean Garrett is pretty good at keeping up with the new hot guys, so he reached out to me and I went to the studio with him. he picked out a few, and that’s really how “Papers” came about. He said that was something he wanted to use for Usher. He wrote the song on the spot, and he went from there. They gave me a call and said they wanted to use it as a single, so that was big news for me. I didn’t get to work with him in the studio, but after he laid his vocals, I went back and added to the beat to make it all the way how I wanted to make it.
DX: How does working with a seasoned vet like Usher compare to working with someone like Gucci or OJ?
Zaytoven: Working with Gucci and OJ, we were all nobodies working together to try to make it in the music business. So the same draw I get from these artists being big, I get from Usher. That’s a multi-million selling artist that I used to listen to when his first record came out, I end up doing a single for him…I can’t really explain what the feeling is, but it’s a great feeling. The feeling with doing an Usher single and one of my artists, Gucci Mane, being one of the hottest artists, I guess they compare about the same.
DX: What was it like working with Project Pat?
Zaytoven: Project Pat was crazy. He came to my studio, and it’s a trip that guys like that…as much as he’s a legend to me, and I used to look up to him and think he was one of the best in the game, that’s how some these guys sort of feel about me. They treat me the same way. Like, “Where I’m from, you’re a legend, you’re the man.” So having that mutual respect is always good.
DX: The south has a reputation for robust production, and big name producers: Cannon, Drumma Boy, Toomp. How difficult was, or is, it for you to build and establish your own sound in an area that’s so focused on the sonic aspect of music?
Zaytoven: I didn’t feel like it was that hard. I think that me coming from California gave me a different sound out here already. Atlanta keeps winning over and over again, because a lot of people come with different styles. They make Dance music, trap music, party music, swag music; it’s all coming out of Atlanta. I felt like the opportunities are greater in Atlanta, especially for someone coming with a different sound. So it really hasn’t been that hard, especially when I find an artist like Gucci Mane who’s willing to work really hard to make it, and won’t take “no” for an answer. When you get with a guy like that who can really get down and has star power, that helps make your sound. I give a lot of credit to Gucci Mane, because he helped his producer the same way that T.I. did for [DJ] Toomp, or Jeezy did for Shawty Redd. The easiest way out here is getting the next new guy and working with him to make your sound.
DX: Working with Gucci and OJ, what did you notice about them—specifically, Gucci—that made you realize they would be stars?
Zaytoven: That’s a trick question, because I can’t put my finger on what it is. It wasn’t that he could out-rap any of them. He just had a star quality, and the way he put his words together made me feel like this guy was the truth. So I put my time and energy into working with him, and he did the same with me. Trying to make it in the Rap game, going to open mics on a weekly basis.
DX: Some of Gucci’s naysayers say his lyrics are too simple. Do you think he’s smarter and more aware of himself than critics think?
Zaytoven: He’s very aware. That’s been our thing. It’s really hard to be simple. People think it’s easy, but it’s hard to be simple but be creative enough to make people respect you in rapping, and make your music so easy that a kid can sing it back to you. That’s the complicated part. The lyrical stuff is good and everything, but that’s not where music is at right now. Guys like 50 Cent have mastered the art of being simple, and saying a whole lot without saying a lot. I think that’s hard to do.