Zaytoven Explains Producing Young Jeezy's "Trap Or Die 2," Lessons Learned From JT The Bigga Figga And DJ Quik
Exclusive: Gucci Mane's longtime hit-maker explains the charisma that led him to helping brand the Brick Squad sound, as well as the hustle he learned from J.T., and the musicology he saw in Quik.
You know trap music when you hear it but often times legitimate producers get lost in the sea of everyone trying to make it and in Atlanta, the process of finding that next new hot producer is as difficult as ever.
Just ask Zaytoven, the California native turned Atlanta beat master hasn’t just been made famous by working with some of the South’s most notable artists, they’ve been made famous by working with him.
With hundreds and hundreds of beats recorded with the likes of Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, Pastor Troy, Twista, Yo Gotti and even Usher, Zaytoven knows what makes a hot record. The church pianist who’s transformed into a trap boss, 'Zay talks about his role as a producer and how West Coast artists like JT The Bigga Figga and DJ Quik have made him the Beethoven of the South. HipHopDX recently caught up with Zaytoven to talk about his career and what characteristics make a hot track.
HipHopDX: What originally drove you to the Atlanta area to produce for artists like Gucci and Jeezy?
Zaytoven: It’s most definitely a swagger and charisma with a guy like Gucci Mane. It wasn’t the Rap that impressed me, it was just the way he came across, the way he delivered his rhymes and the whole charisma behind what he was sayin’ and the way he was sayin’ it was the way he attracted me to that rap style and even today I am still attracted to that even more so than just lyrics in a song.
DX: You’ve got some work Thug Motivation 103 and I know you have some insight on how the project came about. Obviously this one was much anticipated with Jeezy being outta the loop for a while. The 102 album came out a while ago, but from your perspective what was it like for you and him to get back in the studio?
Zaytoven: Well me, I only work with Jeezy just coming back, you know coming back into the Rap career. He was kind of out for a while and now he’s coming back and the song I did for him was "Trap Or Die 2" . You know, one of his biggest street songs was "Trap Or Die."
DX: Yeah most definitely.
Zaytoven: And you know his whole plan in music was getting back to the roots but still, not going backwards but still maturing as an artist but still giving that same street feel that the fans are looking for. I think he kind of shied away from it and I think he wants to get back to it.
DX: You’ve been in around the Atlanta Hip Hop scene for a while. Where do you think it is now compared to maybe when you got there?
Zaytoven: I want to say it has gotten very creative but yet robotic which is good and bad in a certain sense. For me, to my ear, it has digressed to the youth, the people under 20 and this is exactly what they’re looking for and their ears are tuned in different so I guess it’s a little bit of both and me being a producer, I’m trying to keep up with both. I like my roots to the music. I like remembering how it sounded growing up and the quality of it and I understand the creativity of it now. So I guess in the best of both worlds, I’m standing in the mix. It’s just pros and cons to it I guess.
DX: You’ve produced some of the more notable tracks on some of the artists that you’ve worked with so when you’re in the studio and you’ve finished off a song, how do you know that that cut is going to be a banger?
Zaytoven: You can’t describe it. It’s all about a feeling. It’s an “it” factor. For me, it’s the same way I seen in an artist. I can’t really put my finger on really what it is that makes them great but I know that that’s it right there so when you get that feeling, when you’re hearing that track back, it just makes you. You know, you shake on the inside and that’s it right there.
DX: This may be producer versus emcee but is it the rhyming or the musical rhythm that makes a song hot or a little of both?
Zaytoven: Well me, it goes both ways. More so it’s 50/50 but telling you a lot of us producers making a lot of beats. I think some of the hardest, the best beats I’ve ever made has not even been a big song. I mean you can have a real nice track but if the right words don’t be said on it then you just have another song. Even the other way around, if you’ve got a real powerful song and something with the right lyrics and it don’t really fit it like a glove, you’re back at square one again so it’s all about a chemistry. It’s a mix of the vocals and that beat coming together so I’d say 50/50.
DX: Going back to your time in the Bay area, what were some of the turning points, young in your career that made you the producer you are today?
Zaytoven: It’s really just the grind factor man. The guy who I was studying up on was JT The Bigga Figga. This guy was just the world’s all time greatest hustler and grinder. He just hustled and stayed at it all the time and to me, he wasn’t the best at what he did, he wasn’t the best rapper, he wasn’t the best producer or none of that but he was doing all that and making it work and making things happen. So it’s really, that that kind of got me where I’m at in the game. All that hustlin and grinding helps you get better and your craft and before you know it you’ve got a hit record coming out of the sky. I think all it takes is one good record where people start paying attention and then it’s easier for the rest of the record to come and that’s what that hustling and grinding is all about.
DX: Musically you got your start in the '90s playing church music on the piano. How much influence did that have on how you go about making a beat and choosing the different sounds that you want on a track?
Zaytoven: Well that still is a big part of my beat-making now because one thing about playing in church and being a live musician is constantly learning new songs, learning new chords, you’ve got to learn new melodies so it keep you sharp with the music. So it makes it so much easier for me so when I sit down at the drum machine and the keyboard, I’ve got so many melodies going through my head and so many chords so the music and it definitely help me out when I go in a do some producing.
DX: You’ve always been big with seeking out the new talent in the region and you’ve had some big collaborations yourself like Gucci/Jeezy, so people might ask, “Why is he going after the no names?” Why do you go after different and younger talent?
Zaytoven: I don’t know or I don’t know if everyone else knows but those guys were small guys when I was working with them so if it wasn’t for me working with the guys that was hungry at the beginning of their career, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. So I’m constantly chasing to find the next new artist or somebody that is hot that can possibly make it and they keep me in the loop. Like there’s a guy in Atlanta that’s hot right now named Future. Me working with him keeps me relevant in the streets and keeping me relevant with the new/younger kids cause the younger kids, Gucci and Jeezy, that’s old to them. They’re not going to listen to Zaytoven unless he working with the new and upcoming guys. That’s all they know, they don’t know the other stuff so you’ve got to do that to stay relevant so you’ve got to keep working with the new talent that’s on the rise.
DX: DJ Quik has always been someone you’ve looked up to. Why has he been such an inspiration to you and who are some of the others that have helped shape your sound as a producer?
Zaytoven: The reason why DJ Quik was so influential to me was cause when I first started producing I was out in California and he was one of the top producers out and he just had a musical sound to his production. I can’t really tell you how but you can tell that when he was in there, he was playing those musical instruments live and it just had a funky groove to it and it just had a musician thing to it so I always admired that about DJ Quik. So back in the day, when I started making beats, if I could make a beat that sound like DJ Quik then I was happy. That’s how I really got started and then when I moved to Atlanta, guys like Shawty Redd, Drumma Boy, Nitti Beats, those type of guys influenced me too cause I’m coming from the West Coast and they from the south and they music sound totally different. So these guys was kind of the blueprint to say, “Okay, this is the type of music they like down here.” So in order for me to make it down here, I gotta have the music that sound like that.
DX: What are artists/A&Rs/producers looking out for today when it comes to sound?
Zaytoven: Uh, it’s really just originality and their own sound. The only way I can tell for a producer to make it in the game is finding these new rappers, these up-and-coming guys cause that’s how you develop a sound, that’s how they develop a sound. Me, I develop a sound working with a guy like Gucci day in and day out so our chemistry together has developed a sound. It’s developed the Zaytoven sound. You know it’s hard to just be out here and give your beats to A&Rs and travel out here 'cause it’s a million people making beats and there’s a million people trying to rap too. So it’s always been my advice to the younger guys to find younger guys who you feel has talent or that sounds good with your music and the beats that you do and y'all come together and try to make it cause once that artist get big, the producer get big and vice versa. Once you get big, the other artists will be looking for that sound and they’ll be like, “Okay, I want that sound that he got.” So that’s how it goes cause once Gucci got big, everybody came to me for that same sound.
DX: What has been your favorite producing collaboration so far?
Zaytoven: Uh my favorite has to be the Usher. I remember when I was younger, back in school they used to call me Usher cause I used to look like him. To work with him and get a number one record with him is like the best thing that’s going so that had to be the best collaboration.
DX: What was that moment like when you we’re notified that he was working with you or when you finally rapped up making the song?
Zaytoven: Well believe it or not I was blown away the whole time. I was working with Sean Garrett and Sean Garrett called me and was like, “Yeah I want to get some tracks from you, I want to work with you.” At the time Sean Garrett called me I really didn’t know who he was. That’s how green I was to the game and how much I really paid attention 'cause I didn’t really pay attention to really anything except what I was doing in the basement of my house. So when he called me and said he wanted to work with me, I went down there and got with him on some tracks. Then he end up getting in a track or two with Usher. He kept telling me like, “Man the song I got for Usher was like the beat I did with your track.” And during that, I’m just blowing it off cause the music business is full of everybody saying everything with no action. So it really didn’t hit me till the track came on the radio. So even with everyone telling me, “Yo you got Usher’s first single.” I was like, “Okay, cool, that’s all good.” It didn’t hit me though until Sean text me and be like, “Ah boy we on the radio, we done it!” And when I heard them play it back like 10 times straight, “I be like, ah boy I can’t believe it.” [Laughs] I can’t believe it that be the first single. I didn’t want to even believe it and that was a great feeling. It was the same feeling I had when I had my first big song, which was “So Icy” with Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane. It’s like that first thing all over again.