After more than a decade in the game, Zaytoven is still going strong. And perhaps 2016 was one of his best years yet. His run was boosted by Gucci Mane’s release from prison in May and the Trap King reportedly hit the studio the day he was freed. Since then, Guwop has dropped two post-prison albums with Zaytoven right by his side. Perhaps the “Waybach” line “I’d rather rap a Zay track than a Dre track” epitomizes the megaproducer’s status in the game right now. Besides making headlines with Gucci Mane all year, Zaytoven has continued his reign with Future and has even jumped on the wave of the new generation.
HipHopDX sat down with Zaytoven when he was visiting Los Angeles earlier this month — the day before he linked with Jay Z in the studio — to talk about his prolific run this year.
The man born Xavier Dotson confidently shares that seeing his best friend released from prison was the highlight of his year as they are working on a third project since Guwop’s freedom.
“He came home looking like a star, ready to put out music and do music,” Zaytoven says. “I’ve just been excited ever since I found out he was coming home. As you can see, we done put out a whole lot of music in the three, four months that he’s been out. Then he’s coming out with another project in December, so we working, we working, we working.”
Gucci Mane had his highest-charting album with Everybody Looking landing at #2 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. Then, he, Zaytoven and Mike WiLL Made-It shared Woptober as a free gift to the fans and that project still charted as streams have become the go-to way to listen to music for many.
“We don’t want to just keep working and storing up all this music,” Zaytoven says of the rollout for Woptober. “Let’s get the fans something. Get ‘em something so they can keep supporting and be happy for what we’re doing.”
But, Guwop shared that the best of 2016 is yet to come as he says The Return of East Atlanta Santa will be a contender for album of the year. Zaytoven can’t help but agree they are going to end the year “with a bang!”
“I most definitely believe that,” he says. “Just judging by the songs that we have done already that I know that’s going on the project, I’m just excited for people to hear them. I know what it is. And it’s definitely going to be one of the hardest albums to come out this year.”
As Zaytoven works with other artists, he’s continued to challenge himself, but he knows his pocket with Gucci Mane is unbeatable.
“I think me as a producer, I’m always trying to evolve and come up with new sounds and reinventing how I produce,” he says. “But for the most part, I think that me and him has such a good chemistry and what we done built that I try not to stray too far from our core sound. He might work with other producers, so he’s going to get other feels and different sounds from them. But when it’s Gucci Mane and Zaytoven, it’s a sound that people want to hear, so I just try to perfect the sound that me and him has created together and maybe just throw a little extra flavor in there.”
He once had great success branching out with Usher’s “Papers,” a single from the pop star’s 2010 album Raymond V Raymond that earned Zaytoven a Grammy. Since then, he hasn’t really ventured outside of his signature sound, which he doesn’t have a problem with.
“I think the industry halfway keeps me from doing that type of music,” he explains. “I guess I’m so popular doing the Hip Hop or street music or trap music that even when an artist like Usher or somebody come and want to get production from me, it’s like aye, get me the same music you’re giving to Migos or Future or Gucci Mane. So it keeps me, people come to me for that sound, so it’s almost like I got to continue to give the people what they want. If that’s what y’all want, that’s what I specialize in, so let me give you that.”
Zaytoven continues to perfect his craft with Future, who has not had as commercially successful a year as 2015 when he dropped Dirty Sprite 2 and What a Time to Be Alive with Drake. His lone album of 2016, EVOL, which dropped in February, made a splash topping the 200 chart, but then fizzled out. Zaytoven was not featured on that album, but continued his grind with Future Hendrix elsewhere.
“Future’s done so much music and he’s just like the hottest guy in the world, so sometimes, some of the stuff can get swept under the rug ‘cause he’s got so much music,” he says. “Other than that, man, Future is a guy that helped me reinvent myself. Now you can really hear, when you hear Zaytoven tracks, you hear a lot of pianos and a lot of instrumentation, it’s because Future’s a broad artist where it allows me to produce in a different way and do tracks that has more melodies and more chord changes in it. Future’s the truth.”
The two made a splash with “Used To This” featuring another Drizzy collaboration. Zaytoven describes knowing in the studio with Future that the song would be a hit.
“As soon as he recorded it, we just knew like ok, this is a record, this is a big song,” he recalls. “This is a song that you get somebody like Drake to be on. I think when we recorded that song, we might have recorded 10 songs that day. I think that was the first one, but we were both in agreeance to like ok, this is a special song. Let’s put this to the side, let’s keep recording, but we know we got something special right here. Then, you know, him and Drake is close. He made the call. He hit me like, ‘Zay, boy you can’t let nobody know, but I got Drake on the song.'”
Zay expresses excitement about how it charted on iTunes right away, but says the real success comes from hearing the song in the streets.
“What made me feel even that much better is I left here, I was going to the gas station and I heard a car drive by playing it,” he explains. “That’s the best to me, always the best feeling in the world. They got it turnt all the way up.”
He refers to “Waybach” as a cut that gave him a similar feeling.
“Of course when I hear that in the car or somebody playing that, I’m smiling ear to ear,” he says.
And he notes that “Too Much Sauce,” a cut featuring Lil Uzi Vert from Future and DJ Esco’s Esco Terrestrial mixtape was especially influential this year.
“’Too Much Sauce’ has to be one of the songs that I’m very proud of right now,” he says. “Because when you listen to the music, it just sounds like something else. When it comes on the radio, nothing else sounds nothing like it. I remember when me and Future had did the song, and now that it’s a hot song, we just did the video, I’m very proud of that. I just love when people, you got the new guy, Lil Uzi Vert on there, it’s just something new, something fresh for me. You’ve never heard Zaytoven, any beats on the radio or songs that I produced before, you’ve never heard ‘em that sound like this.”
He credits Lil Uzi and the other upcoming rappers, including Lil Yachty and 21 Savage, as keeping him on his toes and maintaining his relevance to the game.
“They just bring that new fresh energy and for a guy like me that’s been in the game over 10 years, they just rejuvenate me,” he says. “When I work with guys like that, they just give me a whole new mindset about producing. They give me another flavor, another style. They just make me want to reinvent all over again. To keep up with what they got going on. So I’m excited to be working with those guys and I feel like they’re all stars. They’ve got the real gift to make it in the music industry and be, I’m watching these guys. I’m going to the concert, seeing these folks, they’re going crazy over here…. So much energy. They’re rockstars! They’re jumping into the crowd, the crowd chasing them through the show.”
Reflecting on his career, Zaytoven says when he got tired of music, he stepped back and made the 2012 film Birds of a Feather, a sort of autobiography detailing a young producer’s rise in the game and featuring plenty of guest appearances from Gucci Mane, Shorty Lo and more.
Four years removed from the underground classic, Zaytoven is preparing to start filming a Birds of a Feather sequel. Except this time, it’s not that he needs a fresh breath of inspiration. It’s that he has so much inspiration, he needs another outlet to create.
“The time that I felt like maybe I’m not enjoying it as much or something like that, that’s when I did the movie,” he says. “That’s when I try to find other ways to channel my energy or me being creative. Once I did that, once I did the movie, it got me excited about music all over again. Any time you start seeing me do things like that, doing movies or books or even me doing, I got a thing called Producer Camp, it’s me just, of course it’s me trying to expand myself and brand myself, but it’s like that’s when the times I kinda feel like, ‘Ok, maybe I need to kinda take a break from the music for a little while and get reinspired and get rejuvenated on coming back to the music. But right now, we’ll be shooting the movie, but I’m still really, really inspired to do music right now. So I’m not doing the movie this time to reinspire me to do music ‘cause the music just got me juiced up on doing it by itself.”