Putting Zaytown on the Map: Zaytoven on Producing Gucci, Migos, and the Sound of Atlantan Trap
We spoke with one of Atlanta's most elite producers about trap, Gucci, and Miley.
An important thing to know about Atlanta is nobody's actually from here. At any given point some 4/5 of the city's population is made up of transplants. And not just technical out-of-towners from suburbs like Stockbridge and Austell, I mean full-on out-of-staters and often non-Southerners to boot. For all the talk of Grady babies and being born in the zones, though, you don't run into that municipal nativist thing you get in places like New York or Boston where you can't ever become a "real Atlantan." Christ knows what a "real Atlantan" would even look like—maybe Donkey Man? Long story short: If you come to Atlanta and do something interesting, nobody here gives a shit where you're from. Nobody with anything going on, at least.
Case in point Zaytoven, who showed up in Atlanta fresh from the Bay Area hyphy scene in the early 2000s and was quickly conscripted by Gucci Mane, the city's chief musical deity, to help engineer the very sound of the Trap scene He reigneth over. Since answering that fateful call Zay's not only manned the console for Guwop's breakout hit "Icy" and a good half of his 8,000 mixtape tracks, but for any number of other Atlanta musical milestones, from the first song on the first mixtape Future's Freebandz label released to Migos' indefatigable "Versace." He was also one of the first Atlanta producers to put out his own mixtapes and albums, which has led to an entire new generation of trap producers like Mike Will Made-It and the 808 Mafia kids who form their own producer bands and consider themselves artistes on par with the rappers whose music they actually make.
Despite moving his operation from his parents' basement to a new basement out by the perimeter, Zaytoven is still considered one of the elder beatsmen of the trap world and as quintessential an Atlantan as the guy who came up with Coca Cola (another out-of-towner).
Zaytoven: So this is the basement down here. Everybody come through the basement. Legendary.
Noisey: Your friends come down through the basement.
We try to keep it true to the basement. Like, the true essence of working at the crib. You know, when the youngsters come up, they ain’t got no big old studio or nothin’. We kept it real with authentic music.
Moisey: DIY energy. Cool. Is that the booth?
That’s the booth! Yeah. That used to be my momma’s house. I used to have a basement at my momma’s house. Anybody that’s been on YouTube watching the different DVDs that came out with me and Gucci and all that, they seeing my mom’s basement and the backyard of my mom’s house. Once we started making a little bit more money, a little more popular, we moved out here. So, this is the new basement. This is where The Migos and all them stem from.
How did you meet Gucci? How did you get involved with that? You’re way out almost in the ‘burbs.
Well you know what? When I actually first moved to Atlanta, I was cutting hair. I was making beats and making music out in the Bay Area. But I came here to make, you know, I had to get my barber license, so I was cutting hair. So, I met him through a friend of mine that was at the same hair school that I was going to. So I had a studio at my mom’s house, so after school we’d go over to her house and do music. One day he brought Gucci Mane over. Now, Gucci Mane was Radric Davis at the time. He wasn’t a rapper or nothing like that. He was just one of the guys who came over. He brought his nephew over, trying to get his nephew to start rapping. So he’s writing the songs for him. I was the new guy from California making beats with a little studio. So that’s how we met, then it just turned and evolved into us working together everyday, he coming over at eight o’clock in the morning and being here all day everyday.
You did a Messy Marv album, didn’t you?
Messy Marv, yep.
Did you do a lot of work with those guys when you’re in San Francisco?
Yes sir. I always stay in touch with them, too. When I was a youngster, I might have been about 17 or 18 when I first started making beats. To me, in the Bay, these were the heroes. They used one of your beats, then you were doing something. So Messy Marv, San Quinn, B-Legit, E40—all those guys are where I started from. That’s what gave me the confidence to feel like, “OK, I can be a producer. I can make people beats, and they’re gonna like ‘em and rap on ‘em.”
Do you see any similarities between Hyphy and Atlanta? Or is a totally different thing?
It’s actually totally different, but I will say, when I first came here when I got my first hit, “So Icy” with Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, it was very Bay influenced because I was just moving from the Bay Area. So if you listen to the music, you’ll say, “that doesn’t sound like no producer that came out of Atlanta!” That’s because I was fresh from out of the Bay Area.
Did you adapt yours style here, or did you try to push what you’d come up with on trap music?
Trap music I will say kind of evolved on what I knew making beats coming from The Bay. But then, working with somebody like Gucci Mane from out here, it’s just us working together and finding a sound together. It turned into what it was.
Can you tell me about making “So Icy”? How was that?
Man, it was so crazy. I was cutting hair at the barber shop. Gucci Mane calls me, “hey man, Zay, Young Jeezy wanna do a song with us! We’re all going out to the studio!” I hadn’t made the beat or nothing. I didn’t know who Young Jeezy was at the time. But he was like, “Man, Jeezy the god.” So I ran home, met him at my momma’s house, made the beat in, like, five minutes, and then we went down to the studio to meet Young Jeezy. We had to sit and wait for a while, so we were waiting to get him on the song and then play it. I was almost nervous to play my beat, because Gucci Mane hyped me up so much, like, “Man, Zaytoven, he the best!” and I’m like I don’t know, I’m from The Bay, I don’t even know if they’ll like my beat. So when we play the beat, he wasn’t even feelin’ it for real. We did the hook. Nobody wasn’t really feelin’ it. Until after the dude Lil’ Wheel sung the hook, you know, “All these girls excited.” Once he heard that and the beat going together, then you started looking around the studio and everybody in the studio got a pen and paper trying to write to get on the song.
What about the fallout from that? Didn’t that cause a crazy—
I think it was Jeezy was a new guy, you know? He was poppin’. He was the new guy. And then Gucci Mane was an even newer guy. He was trying to make his name in the music. We both was trying to make our name. So when you got somebody that’s already getting the shine and everything, it looks like, “OK, this is his song. This is his thing.” When it’s really our thing. So Gucci was fighting for that. We were fighting for, you know, “That’s our song, that’s us. He’s just featured on the song.” Then it kind of got out of hand from there.
Was it as crazy as it seemed in the news? Or was it something that just kind of got blown up out of proportion?
Well, at first, it was just something that got blown up out of proportion. Then, you know, we’re dealing with guys that are in the streets doing music the way it do it. So it turns quickly into something else, and that’s really what it did.
As a producer, though, do you get worried about that kind of stuff?
Man, I couldn’t even enjoy “So Icy” at that time because I had Gucci Mane on me like, “Hey man, Zay, don’t sell my song to such and such.” Then I got Jeezy and then from Def Jam, like, “Hey man put this on tape. We’re trying to get the song to do this and that.” So this is my first time having a hit record, so I almost don’t know what to do. The one thing I really knew was, me and Gucci was like brothers. He would come to my house everyday, we were working everyday. I know for a fact that I’m rockin’ with Gucci Mane because this is our song, this is what we created together. That’s why it went the way it went.
Producers used to be so behind the scenes. I wouldn’t expect producers in general to be such a big deal now.
Yeah! It’s like, the producers, the DJs, everybody else is starting to get the light on them, now.
We’ve all become the stars! And we have to be able to adapt and be able to get in front of the camera and do what we’re supposed to do. If we wanna last in doing it.
What do you make of Miley Cyrus biting trap recently? Working with Mike Will and stuff?
I think that’s where music is going —the type of music that we make, all the producers around. I think that’s where music is going to. Those big stars wanna be a part of the type of music that we do. The urban music that’s so popular, I respect that. I really respect what they have going on.
What’s it like working with Gucci?
Oh, man. It’s just, with me and him? The chemistry is so magical that every time he comes over here, me and Gucci are the type of duo that can do ten songs in a day with no sweat. I’ll get on there, start making the beat, I’ll make the beat in ten minutes. Soon as I’m done, he’s ready to go in there with a mic and do the song in ten minutes. It’s like, let’s do another one. Let’s do another one. So, you know, I think we just work that well together.
It’s more collaborative than being a dictator.
Where did Migos come from?
Man, the way that I was turned onto The Migos was from a rapper by the name of Young LA. He had a big song called “Ain’t I.” He came over one day, he’s another guy I’ve been working with since he was young. He’d come over here everyday. He came over like, “Man, these dudes on the radio were rapping over your beat, going so crazy, talking about ‘bandos’ or something like that.” As soon as he came over and told me that, I respect his opinion a lot, so when he told me that, I instantly went to YouTube to look up the song. When I looked up the song, I see that they have a little video, this is maybe, like, 2000 views. But as soon as I seen them, and heard the song. It sounded like something me and Gucci did ten years ago. But it just caught me so much—that look and that sound. I said, “Where they at? How can I find them?” and I went for maybe, like, two weeks, not knowing how to get in touch with them or nothing like that. Then I went out to a show with OJ Da Juice Man, he had to do a show at Club Obsessions. I’m walking to the stage and Quavo stepped on my shoe on accident. You know, it’s dark in the club, you’re moving around trying to get past people. He stepped on my shoe and was like, “Oh, my bad.” I looked up at him like, “Bro! I was looking for you!” And then they were like, “Aw no! WE were looking for YOU!” so it had to be God that put that together. So just right then, we exchanged numbers. The next day, they came over, we recorded maybe three or four songs. I gave them about twenty beats. “Versace” came off almost the first time of us meeting.
Shit. That’s amazing. That wouldn’t be believable in a movie.
In a movie! So, you know. So that’s why I knew it was special. That was meant to be. I swear man, once I met Migos, I tried to show everybody. They were like, “That ain’t it.” Gucci was the only one I showed it to who was like, “Hey Zay, you gotta go find them.” That’s exactly what he said. “You gotta go find them.”
He’s got an eye for everybody.
Man, we got the same ear! Because I knew it wasn’t gonna be attractive for most people. But if I played it for y’all in here, and y’all never heard them before, y’all would say, “Eh. It’s alright.” I knew it was special, though. That’s back when every song Gucci did, I did the beat. I would do the whole mixtape, every mixtape.
The new guys, they got new sounds, they got new flavors. So I gotta go over there and be like, “Hey man, what they doing over there? Let that rub off on me. Let me see what y’all doin’.” So E40 is one of those guys that has me do my homework and try to step my game up. Because they’re the new hot thing going. You’ve got to. That’s why I’m like, “OK, we need to make some beats and work together.” That’s why we respect Gucci so much. Gucci will bring everybody together.
He’s like the mayor of this town.
People are like, “Man, I miss Gucci.”
He was the guy.
Like their friend who isn’t around right now.
Gucci is the only guy in Atlanta that put a whole lot of people on, from producers to camera guys, video guys. He giving everybody a shot. You gotta love Gucci, man.
I’ve heard he’s an amazing A&R guy.
Oh, amazing! He the number one. He’s the number one guy. I will say this, though. Me and Gucci worked so tight together that a lot of the guys that he really picked up was guys that I might work with them first. Like, with OJ, I was working with OJ first. Gucci was locked up. When he got out, he signed OJ. Even with The Migos, we have the same type of ear. We listen for the same type of thing.
What’s going on while Gucci’s away? Are you guys working on anything? Do you guys talk to him at all?
I talked to him two days ago. Matter fact, I just put out a video of a song. It’s me rapping featuring him, so. I did that just to keep things going.
When you hear from him, how’s he doing?
He’s always in good spirits, man. He’s always in good spirits, he’s always writing. There’s nothing serious to talk about. We’re telling jokes, laughing. Asking him what’s going on. It’s always good spirits with Gucci.
Does he keep up with the news in town?
Oh yeah. He might know what’s going on more than I do. He’s trying to find people from jail.
Do you guys work on stuff via phone? Stuff has come out since he has been locked up. How does that work?
Well, you know, he is a workaholic. He has so much music stored up, man. He’s like Tupac, man. He could put out an album every six months if he wanted to.
Wow. Is there anything in working with Gucci that you need to have him in the studio for? What’s his vibe like working in the studio with him? Is there anything he requires?
He’s like this. He’s always ready. If you’re working with him, if you’re an engineer or producer, a rapper that wanna rap a song with him? You gotta be ready to go right now. He can’t take no long time. That’s why I make the beats so fast, is because the attention span is not fast enough. It’s not long! He’s like, “You done? That’s it. Put it up. Let’s go. I’m ready to rap.” You can’t be a rapper in there trying to figure out your verse for too long. He’ll be like, “Alright, man. Come on up out of there.” An engineer, if you can’t move him fast enough, he’ll ask, “Hey man, the producer moving too slow. Can you do it?” So you gotta be on go with him.
Who else is coming up besides Migos right now?
Thug, PeeWee Longway, Young Fresh. There’s another guy, Johnny Cinco. I like him. I like Johnny Cinco. It’s just a lot, man. So many different flavors. So many you can choose from, and you’ll never know who the biggest one to come out. They all got a real major shot of being the next, you know, big thing.
What do you think’s gonna happen when Gucci gets out?
It’s 2016. Gucci is definitely still gonna be more of a boss man, as far as putting on other artists that he feels are the next thing. But guys like that, man? I don’t think they ever get old. When he comes out he’ll do the right music, he’ll drop a mixtape. I still feel like people aren’t gonna be able to keep up with him. Gucci is just one of those guys. When the time comes, you’ll still be like, “I can’t wait.” You listening to trap music, he’s the mayor. He’s the main guy when you talk about trap music, that’s who you wanna hear. Everybody else is understudies and doing their thing.
He’s just gonna be the king maker of Atlanta.
What was the defining Gucci Mane song?
You know what? I don’t think it’s ever been just one song. That’s like, for me, I don't think I have one song that defines me. Even though I had a number one with Usher, and all that. None of those songs really defined me. I think it’s the amount of music that we put out. So much street music, so many mixtapes, is what defines us. You know? It’s a body of work. It’s not a song where you can say, “OK, this really got Gucci turned on.” It’s just a body of music that really got us turned on. He’s consistent.
Maybe it’s just me reading it, but it seems like everybody’s really patient in trap. Maybe it’s a negotiation tactic, holding out until the best deal. But I kind of expected it to be like, “I need to get my shit out now. I need to get this on the radio.” A lot of people seem really comfortable being—
You know why that is? The way the game is now, if you got a classic CD, a mixtape, doing the trap right now? You’ll probably get ten, twenty thousand dollars a show. Just regional. So it’s like, I’m not in a hurry to take no deal or none of that. I just made a hundred thousand dollars this month! So that’ll make you content.
It’s like, you can operate at a level under Gucci and still be making –
A wonderful living.
That’s great. It’s like a genuine industry.
That’s exactly what it is. That’s the best thing about it. That’s why I continue to do this street music, is because it kept me in the game for ten years. So many people wanna come buy beats, you know, and be a part of that sound in trap music. It ain’t goin’ nowhere! So, that’s what keeps us going. Not the radio hits. That ain’t what’s keeping us going. It’s the other music. These mixtapes and stuff, that’s what keeps us popular.
We’re supposed to go to Peewee’s tonight. I’m curious what it’s gonna be like.
Peewee Longway? It’s the essence! You’re gonna get the real essence of the music. That’s why they go so hard, that’s why the music sounds so good! It comes from a different place. It comes from where they come from. So it’s gonna be rough, but it’s gonna be authentic. I remember when Peewee first came over here, man. This man’s gun was probably this long. I said, “You can’t come in here like that, man.” [Laughs] yeah, but you know. These are the guys that we work with. This is where that real authentic music comes from, so you’ve got to be able to stomach and be around these guys and be a part of that.
Last night we interviewed a Chinese girl and gay guy who said they love trap music. I said to them, “What is trap music? What does it mean?” and they said, “I don’t know. Doesn’t it mean when you get trapped in a house?”
No, a trap house is—when you say a “trap house” or just a “trap” in general, trap music is hustle music. Some people might sell drugs. When you say a “trap house,” you might have a house that you’re selling drugs out of. To me, my studio is my trap house. That’s where I trap out of, that’s where I hustle. That’s where I make my money. When people wanna come buy beats, or wanna record a song. I’m trappin’. I’m hustlin’ outta that. That’s my trap spot. It means “hustling.”
Do you think it’s lost on some people? Especially white listeners and stuff. Do you think they understand that this is actual real material being written about?
I think that’s what make them like it. It’s an edge even if you from the suburbs or whatever. You’ll probably never live that lifestyle, never see it, but coming from the artist, you can feel what they’re going through. You can feel what they’re doing, so that’s why it sounds so good to you. That’s what music is to me. It has to bring a certain emotion out of you even if you never get to where they’re talking about, even if you can’t feel or understand it. They did that for real, they’re really doing that, they really come from that.