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The Gospel According to Zaytoven: The church organist who changed hip-hop forever

Zaytoven may be the most important hip-hop producer of the past decade. He’s not the most prolific, nor does he have the most charted songs or awards. He doesn’t have the personal label of a Mike Will Made It (although he recently signed with Motown Records) or a house of producers like 808 Mafia, but he has shaped the culture more than any other contemporary producer.

Zaytoven, real name Xavier Dotson, first hopped onto the waves of hip-hop radio with “So Icy” in 2005. This was also the hip-hop world’s introduction to Gucci Mane, beginning a partnership that would shape the future of rap music.

The loopy synths, crashing drums, and big bass knocks are staples of Zay’s sound. Back in 2005, Atlanta was still entrenched in the crunk movement, with Dem Franchize Boyz and Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz dominating the radio and the club.

Zay, Gucci, and Jeezy offered a different sound, a harder sound, but one that listeners could still bop to in the club. “So Icy” was the turning point in Atlanta hip-hop from crunk to trap and Zaytoven was there at ground zero. It’s no wonder that Zaytoven has come to exemplify the last decade of ATL hip-hop.

Ironically, dude isn’t even from Atlanta.

Zaytoven was born in Germany to a military family. After moving around for most of his childhood, Zay settled in the Bay before moving to Atlanta at the turn of the century to pursue music.

Evidence of the Bay Area hip-hop sound is all over Zaytoven’s production, the “So Icy” beat sounds like it could fit right in alongside Mac Dre’s entire catalog. Zaytoven told Noisey about the Bay influence on his music, especially on “So Icy”:

“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.”

At first, even while all the artists were in the studio to record “So Icy,” no one was really feeling the beat, the synths were too weird, the drums didn’t hit like standard ATL snares.

But after Lil Wheel got on the hook, as Zay told Noisey, everyone was trying to get on the track, “Once [Jeezy] heard [the chorus] 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.”

While Jeezy and Gucci would have a well-publicized beef since that song and have never recorded together again, since “So Icy,” Zay and Gucci have formed one of the most dominant partnerships in hip-hop history.

The two artists have influenced each other’s sound, finding the perfect sonic zone for both of them to thrive. And while Gucci Mane is largely credited with starting the trap wave in the A, Zaytoven was right alongside him, providing him the backdrop flourish as an artist.

Zaytoven explained,

“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.”

That sound is plain for all to see on “Pillz,” although Gucci recently told Malcolm Gladwell (yes, Malcolm Gladwell interviewed Gucci Mane) that he was initially heated at Zaytoven for releasing the song because he had been too high while recording it and was ‘snitching on himself.’

Zaytoven’s sound is so unique, any rap listener can identify a Zaytoven production immediately.

The church organ-on-acid synths, the twinkling piano underneath, and impeccable drums kicks are unmistakable, like on OJ Da Juiceman and Gucci’s “Make Tha Trap Say Aye” or Gucci’s “Bricks.”

Zay met Gucci Mane through a co-worker at the barber shop where Zaytoven was cutting hair after first moving to Atlanta.

They met, instantly clicked, and started recording religiously. The producer told Noisey about his co-worker introducing him to Gucci,

“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.”

Zaytoven and Gucci Mane’s shared work ethic allowed their partnership to blossom. Earlier this year, Zay became the subject of producer debate when he told Sway that, “There is no record that you done heard me produce that I done spent over 10 minutes on.” Sway responded that some would find that blasphemous, which Zay agreed with, but he explained that that’s just the way he and Gucci worked,

“I got into working with Gucci Mane. The reason why is because he’s impatient. I’m impatient. We want to listen to this music in our car. I don’t wanna just do one song and ride around listening to that. I want to listen to five songs. We can’t do five songs if I spend an hour on the beat, you spend an hour writing it. Now we only got one song.”

Not all producers can do this. But Zaytoven’s upbringing gave him the musical skills to do whatever the hell he wants on the keys.

Zay’s mom is a church choir director and Zaytoven got his start in music through the church, playing the organ during songs of worship.

While Zaytoven usually keeps his synths pretty simple, he can truly spaz on the piano when called upon.

In an “Against the Clock” segment with FACT Magazine, Zaytoven makes a fire beat in under 5 minutes, freestyling on the keys at the end, displaying his wild musical skills.

The church organ background is clear to see on many Zaytoven productions, flipping those organs with trap drums and bass, not to mention the lyrical content that rappers like Gucci Mane and OJ da Juiceman are coming with, makes for intriguing listening.

During Gucci Mane’s NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ concert, Zaytoven ripped it on the piano.

More than a decade after “So Icy” Zaytoven is still doing his thing.

He contributed to Future’s triptych of genre-shaping mixtapes, producing all of Future’s Beast Mode project, bringing a whole new flow and sound out of Super Future.

Zaytoven produced “Famous” and “Nothin’ New” off 21 Savage’s Issa and “Money Mitch” and “Sideline Watching” off Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage mixtape.

He was one of the first producers to really fuck with the Migos and gave them their smash hit “Versace,” produced a bunch of shit on their initial mixtapes and two tracks off their album Culture.

Zay’s story on how he met Migos is wild. A friend whose opinion he trusts told Zaytoven about Migos and after doing some searching on YouTube, he immediately saw the vision. He told Noisey about being immediately drawn to Migos,

“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.”

And how a chance encounter with Quavo turned into “Versace,”

“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…I’m walking to the stage and Quavo stepped on my shoe on accident…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…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.”

On top of continuing to work with Atlanta’s most prominent artists on their projects, Zaytoven also releases a seemingly never-ending stream of mixtapes and throwaway beats of his own.

A couple weeks ago he dropped Where Would the Game Be Without Me 2, featuring artists like Yo Gotti, Quavo, Lil Uzi, and Young Scooter.

Then dropped the banger with the great Young Dolph, “Left Da Bank” last week.

Zaytoven has never switched up, never done something that doesn’t represent his sound and his ideals.

With over a decade in the game, Zay may just be the most influential hip-hop producer in recent memory and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.