We catch up with the trailblazing hip hop producer in his home city at Red Bull Music Culture Clash
Late last month, the Red Bull Music Culture Clash, the premiere indoor sound clash event that honors the clashes of Jamaican dancehall parties in the 50s to 70s, landed in Atlanta. Hosted by Angela Yee of the Breakfast Club, the event saw four crews go head-to-head in a packed-out warehouse in downtown Atlanta, with each crew competing to be named the best sound aficionados. They judged on presentation, track selection, MC tactics, and – most importantly – the volume of the crowd’s response.
The competitors included California’s Don’t Think crew, headed by DJ Mija and EDM producer Kenny Beats; Fireboy Sound, led by Miami-based rapper and producer Fuego, a major pioneer of Latin trap; and Frequent Flyers, captained by Jamaican-born and New York-based DJ Kranium, who ended up as the winners of the jam-packed night. Each had their own stage decorated to fit their personal style (one featured pyrotechnics, another was roped out like a boxing ring), with the night seeing special appearances from the likes of Lumidee and dancehall legend Movado, in addition to some crazy trash talking from each crew’s MC. Things were heated.
The final crew to make an appearance at the clash, who brought some of the night’s hardest beats and energy, was Zaytown Global, led by trailblazing producer Zaytoven. Real name Xavier Lamar Dotson, Zaytoven is a record producer, DJ, pianist, and Atlanta legend, having steered the sound of contemporary hip hop through his tight connections with the likes of with Gucci Mane, Future, and Migos. Topping it off, he’s currently working on a secret project with Jay-Z, and is responsible for scoring the new remake of Superfly, in which he also makes a small cameo appearance.
Here, the prodigious beatmaker sat down with Dazed to talk about his heavy sounds, his advocacy of grime, and how to have staying power in the music industry.
You’ve been crowned the ‘Godfather of Trap’. What are your thoughts on that?
Zaytoven: That’s amazing to me. I didn’t get into this knowing that’s what I would be. You know, I’m a church musician, and there was a lady in church that prophesied and told me that your sound is going to be big and great to so many people, so to get crowned ‘The Godfather of Trap’ is almost like the confirmation of what she said.
Your signature sound is your fusion of hip hop and piano – does that come from the church?
Zaytoven: Definitely. Like, when I first started making beats, they sounded too much like church, so the rappers were like, (laughing) ‘How am I meant to rap on that?’
How would you define your home, Atlanta?
Zaytoven: Atlanta is so slick, trendsetting. To me, most of the trends, all the lingo, all the flavour, comes from Atlanta. Even in its music scene, Atlanta is one of those places where you can have trap music, you can have crunk music, you can have snap music, you can have dance music, you can have artsy music like Outkast. Atlanta is everything, and that’s what I love so much about it here.
How do you feel about people biting the Atlanta music styles – particularly trap?
Zaytoven: It’s so amazing to me that the sound that I created, probably back with Gucci, is one of the most dominant sounds. I mean, it amazes me that there are people all over the world – all the way in Russia, for example – mimicking the music that I create. It just shows how powerful the music coming out of Atlanta is.
On that note, how does it feel to know that your music is played all over the world?
Zaytoven: If you do music, there’s no greater feeling than having an international hit – a song, like Migos’ “Versace” – that wherever in the world you play it, you get the same reaction.
“Most of the trends, all the lingo, all the flavour, comes from Atlanta” – Zaytoven
What do you think of other hip hop scenes around the world?
Zaytoven: I really like grime. I actually went out to the UK not too long ago and worked with Giggs, and I was working with a young kid called AJ Tracey, and I liked him a whole lot. I really rock with some of the grime musicians. I want to get into the Latin trap (scene) also, and be a part of a lot of these different music scenes around the world.
In an industry that’s so fast-paced and centered on the ‘new’, how do you keep the longevity?
Zaytoven: I always try to stay true to my sound, and I always continue to work with the new guys. A lot of times when I work with a new artist, they might bring something new out of me that I haven’t done before – but it’s still the Zaytoven sound. And I think that’s what’s kept me around for so long. Plus, by not switching my sound and songs like someone else, I feel like I have a distinctive sound that this game needs, and it wants.
What happens in a typical studio session with Future and Migos?
Zaytoven: With Future, the lights are gonna be low. Lately, there’s not gonna be a whole lot of people in there. And he’s gonna be like, ‘Zay, pull up some beats,’ and the first beat he hears, he’s gonna listen to it for five minutes and go right into recording. And it blows my mind every time. It gives me chills. The lyrics just come out! Sometimes, I probably didn’t like the beat that much, but after listening to him rap on it, I’m like, ‘Damn, I don’t know what this guy’s on.’ With Migos, it’s almost the same thing – there’s just more people around, and more energy.
If you had to choose, what are are your favourite three albums of all time?
Zaytoven: Let’s go with Cam’ron’s Purple Haze, the Beast Mode series by Future, because I can’t pick between the first or second album, and Travis Greene’s The Hill. That’s a gospel project. Those are three albums I can listen to any day, for however long.
And one last question: what’s one piece of advice you would give to upcoming music producers?
Zaytoven: I always tell producers to try and create a sound that is not going on nowadays, because a lot of people like to mimic what’s popular. Then find an artist who you believe in that has something going on. The way I got in the game is because I believed in Gucci so much. I spent all my time, energy, and talent doing whatever he needed me to do. And him blowing up, made me blow up.