The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction, an extension of our column in the magazine. For today we spoke to Zaytoven, the churchgoing Atlanta rap veteran who has shared marathon studio sessions with Gucci Mane for a decade. Most recently, his falling keys dropped over “Versace,” this summer’s chirping sleeper hit. Here, he talks about his devotion to low-profile artists and the difficulty of pushing his sound forward when everybody likes it just the way it is.
What was your upbringing like? I was a military brat. My dad was in the military so I was born in Germany. I moved around a lot, I was in church a lot. When you’re dad is a preacher and your mom is a choir director and you’re in church all the time, as a youngster you’ve got to find something to do. That’s where my musical background comes from. I started off playing the drums, but it was me and five other little boys in line to play the drums, so you’d get to play one song then you have to let him play. So I started moving to the piano cause there weren’t as many people interested in that. When my dad retired, he moved to Georgia, but I stayed in California. I was in San Francisco, that’s where I first went from being a musician to making beats and producing. I was 18, 19. It started going pretty good for me out there in California, so I stayed in SF while my parents moved to Georgia.
Who introduced you to producing? A guy by the name of JT the Bigga Figga, a Bay Area legend. He was the only guy who had a deal with Priority around the same time that Master P had his deal. He was known for finding and signing talent. I was doing the keyboard at a football game at the school I went to. We didn’t really have a band so I’d set my keyboard up and a guy set up his drums. We might play the songs that were coming on the radio, just jamming, to give the people some music. So he saw me there, introduced himself. The next day I went to his house. I’d never been in the studio before then. JT showed me how to work the drum machine and everything, then he’d just leave me there to play. I just stayed there after that, went every day to make beats. I took a lot of time perfecting things on my own.
What eventually pushed you toward Atlanta? I couldn’t afford to stay in San Francisco. I started wanting to buy my own equipment and my own studio. I started buying studio equipment, but I didn’t have anywhere to put it in San Francisco. All I knew was that my parents moved to Atlanta, they got a basement, at least I could have my own studio there. Once you got a studio that’s gonna attract attention, everybody wanna rap and wanna do music. I started shipping the equipment to my momma’s house and put it in the basement. They wanted me to come back anyway.
How did California influence your sound, which some might call a distinctly Atlanta sound? At first I was nothing but West Coast. I was listening to Dr. Dre, DJ Quik. That’s the only sound I was listening back for back then. I came to Georgia late ‘99, early 2000. My first big song after I moved was “Icy.” If anybody listens to the music on that, it sounds like it comes from the West Coast. Very uptempo and exciting, moving fast. It wasn’t the typical South-sounding music. I tried to add a little South to it though, cause when you’re coming from the West Coast to the South and they hear your beats, they don’t wanna rap on it cause it don’t sound like what’s going on. But Gucci Mane was so in love with the sound that I had, since it was so different.
How’d you come to be Gucci’s right hand man in those days? In Atlanta I went to barber school. That’s how I met everyone I know in Atlanta, by cutting hair. It was funny. I’m like the new guy that came into town that got a little studio. Gucci started coming over. He wasn’t trying to be a rapper, he was just writing music for his little cousin. His cousin’s artist name was Lil Buddy and the name of the song I made with him was called “Lil Buddy.” Lil Buddy was supposed to be famous! I don’t know what happened to him. But after Gucci came over a couple times I started seeing his charisma, the way he was putting songs together. I was like, Man, you oughta be rapping. Once Gucci started rapping, after a while we gelled so good together that it turned into every morning at 7 he’d called me soon as he woke up: “I’m gonna come over, we gonna do some music.” He’s a workaholic. I think that’s what’s kept him successful. And I feed off his energy. If he can write 10 songs a day, I can make 10 beats a day and we can record them. We’re still just feeding off each other, going until we can’t go no more.
Does it flatter you that so many young Atlanta rappers still love the sound you created years ago? I actually don’t like to hear that, cause it makes me feel old. Everybody in Atlanta right now, even from guys like Future and Scooter, they’ve been listening to me since back in ‘02 and ‘03 when me and Gucci first started. I’d never given them beats back then, but they’d find a way to get my beats. There’s songs that they did years ago on my beats, when I never knew them. You got guys like Migos coming, they really respect the sound that I use, they really respect my craft. They don’t wanna just work with somebody that sounds like me, they wanna come to the guy they were listening to years ago. With Migos, though, I also went looking for them. I knew that my sounds goes perfect with their delivery.
Migos are coming up in a very different industry than the one JT the Bigga Figga taught you about. What’s appealing, or challenging, about working with very young artists? When I listen to Lil B or I listen to Soulja Boy right now, cause I’m working with him, I sometimes can’t put my finger on why the kids like it, cause it sounds almost terrible. Like these guys are not trying to sound good, or what? But when you start looking at the views and how many people are talking about it and listening to it, its like, Okay, I gotta get in and pay attention to what’s going on. I’m working heavy with Chief Keef now. It’s hard to understand what they’re doing, but you got a generation of kids that love it. So I treat all these young artists as equals. I know that it’s something to what they’re doing, with or without me. I don’t try to be like I know it all or tell you how to do it, we’re both just using our creative juices. Working with new, street artists has kept me alive and relevant. A lot of producers will have a hot moment when they’re working with everybody, but in the next year or two, nobody really cares to work with them anymore. I try to avoid that by working with the new guys, who ever’s coming up new that you haven’t ever heard of. It seems like you won’t get old as fast if you do that. I’m 33, but I look young.
Are there beats you can call out as ones you’re particularly proud of? There’s actually never been something that I feel is really my best work or something I’m really that proud of. It’s music that’s thoughtless for me. I’m a musician, but I do the beats in five minutes and someone raps over it. I know to the fans this stuff is classic and they love it, but I didn’t really put forth a big effort in doing a lot of these. It’s made me who I am, but it’s also got me stuck to what I do. For the fans that really know me, they want that same type of sound that they already. People like Migos are still looking for that same thing that they heard from me for the last ten years. That keeps me almost right there.
Does that frustrate you? I got so much music that sounds completely different. But the young folks don’t really care about that. They’re like, Ok, that sounds cool, but we want the stuff that we know that we like. Sometimes it can be frustrating, like, Man, they won’t let me show what else I can do.
Why’d you make your movie, Birds of a Feather? At first Birds of a Feather was just me doing a street album with Gucci Mane and Rocko, trying to do a project in three days. While we were in the studio I had someone filming—I wanted to put the experience together with the music. I kept the footage from that and we built around it to come up with the movie. Really I was just wanting something else to do. Like I was saying that it can be frustrating sometimes to try and get away from my typical sound? That’s a reason I wanted to do the movie and score it. It’s not like someone else was gonna ask me to score they’re movie, so I did my own. Making the movie was probably the most fun I’ve had in years, getting with all these rappers and acting with them.
Are you planning other projects to keep things interesting? I’m doing a production manual book called from A to Zae that will come out in September. When I get a check that I don’t split money with anybody else, it’s because I did everything on my own. I got that way of doing things from the Bay Area. In California everything was so independent. Anytime you can get records on the charts without having any help, without anyone else’s hands in the pot, that’s major. I explain in the book how I went about doing that, for anyone that wants to do the same. People are making a lot of big records now, but they’re splitting the money up a lot of different ways.
What gear do you prefer working with? I’m more of an analog guy. I got four different keyboards, two different MPCs. I like the warmer sound and the way that you use the older gear. Nowadays you can use a laptop to make a beat—you probably got more stuff in that laptop than I’ve got in all four of my keyboards. I’ve transferred into using those programs too, but I still like my hardware gear better.
Have you remained a big churchgoer? I play at two different churches—one is called Jesus Christ for All Nations and the other one is called Life Abundantly. I’ve got a lot of pastor friends so when they don’t have a musician I’ll fill in. I’m married with two kids and a wife. They keep me real busy. I don’t really drink or smoke and I don’t ever party. But I’m out all the time. That’s another reason I got to where I’m at. People know me because rappers shout me out, and that comes from me hanging with these guys all the time almost as friends. That’s just as important as us making the music.
How does your church community feel about your relationship to guys like Gucci? Sometimes it can be a conflict for me. When Gucci Mane’s Hard to Kill album, which I executive produced, came out, one of the pastors I’ve played for stood up on the pulpit and promoted it. He was proud of me cause I’d done this whole album. But it made me feel funny, like, I don’t think he should be promoting that. But they’re very supportive and they understand what I do. The young people in the church look up to me and they’re listening to all the music I’m producing.
Are you still cutting hair? Yes. These days they’ll pay me $100 in the studio to give a haircut. I keep my own hair real simple. I’m a simple person.