Superproducer Zaytoven’s gospel truth about trap music: It needs to be ‘spontaneous and unorthodox’
He’s a man of faith, plays the organ and the keytar — and creates huge hits with stars like Gucci Mane, Nicki Minaj and the Migos
It’s an unlikely one, but the combination of church music and trap music has been a flourishing formula for Xavier Dotson, known in music circles as Atlanta superproducer Zaytoven. Since the mid-2000s, he’s been the visionary behind tracks for artists such as Gucci Mane, Future and the Migos, and he is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of trap music.
Yet it’s hard not to hear the influence of his Christian upbringing on his sound. Zaytoven, the son of a pastor and choir director, moved to the South after being born in Germany and growing up in California’s Bay Area. And when he’s not working a studio soundboard, he’s been, for 11 years and counting, on a sanctuary organ as lead musician for two different churches. “Every time that man touch the piano, I hear church. I hear God. Worship,” says fellow producer Cassius Jay in the latest installment of Red Bull Music’s The Note documentary series. It follows Zaytoven’s journey from a home studio to the realm of musical genius, just as the man of faith is set to release his debut album, Trap Holizay, on May 25.
Before the release of the 17-minute short film, which he scored himself, The Undefeated spoke to Zaytoven about his relationship with Gucci Mane, the first time he met the Migos, LeBron James’ future and more.
Growing up, what did church mean to you?
Everything. Growing up in church, as far as my sound, that’s where all my music comes from. The riffs, how to stay on rhythm, how to improvise. It’s also where I learned how to decipher right from wrong, how to do things and how to treat people.
Do you have a favorite gospel song?
Of the many instruments you play, which was the hardest to master?
I really only play the drums, keyboard and organ. I’ve played a little bit of guitar, but I’ve never mastered it. I started on the drums as youngster, but the keyboard really just kind of kept my attention.
Early in 2017, you played a keytar at the Migos’ first show after the drop of Culture. How did you pick that up?
That was one of the first times I played the keytar. It’s the same thing as a keyboard, but me holding it around my shoulder. So I’m like, ‘I’m finna do this!’ We never practiced with it — none of that. I bought the keytar and had used it once before with Gucci Mane on Jimmy Kimmel. I felt this is something I could do with artists. It was a way I could perform and not just be in the background.
The new documentary touches on the studio where you got your start, “Mama’s Basement.” How did you come up with the name?
Because that’s exactly what it was [laughs]. It was my mom’s basement. That’s where we were recording all the music, where all the artists were coming. When you see the footage in the documentary, you’re gonna see how valuable that basement was. The music that’s popping right now — all that stems from that basement and what we were creating down there that long ago.
Who’s the biggest artist that came through that basement?
Nicki Minaj was there on a daily basis … just like Gucci. I don’t have the studio there anymore, but it’s definitely legendary.
What’s the one piece of studio equipment you couldn’t live without?
MPC [music production controller].
Who’s the voice on your “Zaytoven” drop — and how’d you come up with it?
That’s my daughter, Olivia. She’s 8 years old now, but she might have been 4 when I had her do that. I had a drop before that said ‘Zaytoven,’ and it was kind of electronic. I’d used it on my early records. The Gucci stuff, like the Hard to Kill album. But once new producers started coming in and using new tags, I was like, ‘Hold on … I wanna make a new one.’ That’s when I had my daughter go in, and it worked so perfectly.
There are often debates surrounding the origin of trap music. What are your thoughts on how it began?
I heard of trap music before I started doing it, with T.I.’s Trap Muzik and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die. I think the debate is about different styles of trap. If you listen to trap music today, it’s the sound I created with Gucci Mane. Not saying that we started it, but what we were doing was different than what T.I. and Jeezy were doing. Jeezy was doing trap music, and it sounded real theatrical. It was serious; it sounded like a movie almost. T.I.’s trap was just great-quality rap music, talking about trappin’. When me and Gucci were doing it, it was unpolished and edgy. A lot of that is because I really didn’t know what I was doing. The beats would have 808s that were too loud and overlapping, the keyboard might be too low, he might be off the beat or say something you can’t understand. That was the form of trap music that became popular and lasted so long because it was spontaneous and unorthodox. To me, that’s what trap music should be. When we’re talking about hustlin’ music, it shouldn’t be all the way well thought out. Everything we did was on the fly. The beats were made in 10 minutes, the song was made in 10 minutes.
Speaking of Gucci, at what point did you realize he was special?
Almost from the first time I met him, when he came down to my studio trying to write a song for his nephew. Some people got an ‘it’ factor. You feel like, ‘Man, that dude right there is a star.’ And he wasn’t even rapping at the time. It ended up working out — going from him writing a song for his lil’ nephew to him recording, to me and him recording every day, to we got a song on the radio, to we got mixtapes out. And now, it’s years down the road and the sound we created is still dominant.
How did you cross paths with the Migos?
I first saw Quavo rapping on the internet. It was just him in a room with the ceiling fan going. I don’t know why it caught my attention, but I was like, ‘Man, this guy right here is a star.’ Then a rapper by the name of Yung L.A., who used to come to my house all the time, said, ‘Zay, there’s these lil’ young dudes rapping on your beat, saying, ‘Bando’ … they going so crazy.’ I respected Yung L.A.’s opinion so much I immediately went to look up the song. They did a little video for “Bando,” and once I saw them I knew for a fact that they were finna blow up. I started calling around and asking different people who they were. It just so happened that I went to a show with OJ Da Juiceman, and Quavo steps on my foot — as he’s walking out of VIP, and I’m walking in. I’m looking for him, and [the Migos] were looking for me. I invited them over to the house. A couple weeks later, you got “Versace,” one of the biggest songs out that year.
What’s the best destination in the world your music has taken you?
I did a show in Paris last year, and it was the craziest. They were so geeked up I was there, I couldn’t even believe it. It was freezing cold outside and they were taking their shirts off, surfing through the crowd. I never thought somewhere that far out really knew about me and my music.
Any stamp you’d like to add to your passport?
I’m doing my first tour now, so wherever a show takes me, I’m willing to go and ready to go. But I do wanna go back to Germany. I was born there.
Do you have any memories of living in Germany, and how did you end up in Atlanta?
I was a baby. I don’t remember nothing. The reason I moved from there to California to Atlanta is my dad was in the military.
Which athlete do you think is your biggest fan?
Man, I wish I knew! So I could get his phone number and call him (laughs).
Who’s your favorite athlete right now?
I’d definitely have to say LeBron [James] is the best player in the game.
Where do you think LeBron will play next season?
I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been keeping up. I haven’t watched one game of football or basketball the whole year. I gotta get back locked in. I’m still a Golden State fan because I represent the Bay Area. But it’s hard to say. I’m not sure where LeBron will be next year.
Super Bowl LIII next year is in Atlanta. How lit will that weekend be?
The city is going to be on fire. I think that’s the best place to have it. Atlanta finna be so turnt up. It’s gonna be bananas.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.