Central to Atlanta’s white-hot rap scene is producer Zaytoven, who brings a West Coast flavour to trap.
Located more or less in the middle of nowhere in the South-Eastern USA, and containing just under half a million inhabitants, the city of Atlanta, Georgia punches above its weight. Not only was it the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr; it is now the “hip-hop capital of the world”, having spawned current stars such as Future, Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, Young Thug and Migos — and, before that, the likes of Andree 3000, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Jeezy, Ludacris, OJ da Juiceman, OutKast, B.o.B., 2 Chainz, The-Dream, CeeLo Green, Lil Jon, and many others. In short, Atlanta’s impact on the international music scene is totally disproportionate to the size of its population.
The main innovation of the Atlanta hip-hop scene, and in fact of Southern hip-hop as a whole (also incorporating cities like New Orleans, Houston, Memphis and Miami), is trap. This is music stripped to its bare bones, dominated by heavy 808s and double- or triple-time hi-hats, with a fairly light-sounding snare, sparse but cinematic use of synths and other instruments, and overall very little mid-range content. Hand in hand with this goes the distinctive Atlanta vocal sound: simultaneous rapping and singing, aided and abetted by obvious use of Auto-Tune.
Tracing the exact roots of Atlanta rap and trap would require an article of its own, but in a nutshell, the genre was in the first instance pioneered by producers Lil John, Mannie Fresh and DJ Paul, and was then further developed by the likes of Fatboi, Drumma Boy, Shawty Redd, D. Rich and Zaytoven. The latter’s sound has gone on to become particularly influential both in the Atlanta rap scene, and in the music world at large. Many of the trappings of trap, and of Zaytoven’s approach in particular, have been seeping into R&B/pop and other music genres as well, for example giving rise to Latin trap.
It’s an outcome that has surprised and delighted the man himself. “I am definitely amazed by what Atlanta has done! The beat and the music mean a lot, and then the rappers, like Future and Migos, also started singing melodies. They are singing from a rap standpoint, not as singers, so they’re not doing harmonies and so on, but the melodies they come up with are so catchy that the listeners can sing along with them, and they almost like it more than R&B. The Atlanta sound has become the more popular sound. It’s edgy, and creative, and that’s what attracts people to it.”
Zaytoven acknowledges the debt owed by the Atlanta music scene to artists like T-Pain and Kanye West in using Auto-Tune and getting rappers to sing, but adds, “T-Pain was definitely one of the guys who started it, but he came from a singer’s standpoint. So, as I said, because people like Future and Quavo are it approaching from a rapper’s standpoint, they are going to feel things differently and will sing them differently. That is the game right now, and why I think R&B is not quite as popular anymore. The music and melodies that producers add to the game, and the things like melodies from Future and other rap artists is what we need for today’s trap music.” It’s quite a claim to state that trap is superseding the dominant pop genre of this century, modern R&B, but what’s been happening in the charts the last few years bears this out.
Tracing how Zaytoven ended up in his position as one of the prime beat- and taste-makers of the 21st Century is slightly more straightforward than tracing the genesis of the trap genre, and starts with the fact that he has his roots in church music. In contrast to many of his current beat-making colleagues, Zaytoven actually plays his material rather than clicking notes on a grid. While doing so he spends remarkably little time on developing his sounds, or sitting in front of a screen. Spontaneity and improvisation play a major role in Zaytoven’s universe and he proudly asserts that he spends on average 10 minutes on each beat, and tends to dismiss beats that take him more than 15, because he’s most likely not “not feeling it”.
Zaytoven was born Xavier Lamar Dotson in Germany, in 1980, and started playing drums at a church in Grenada, Mississippi, when he was eight years old. His father was a preacher and his mother a choir director, so the church and music connections were there from the start. Because his father was in the US army the family travelled around a lot, and when Dotson was still very young, they moved from Germany to the South-Eastern US.
“The problem with playing drums was that every boy in the church wanted to do this, so I might get to play only one song during an entire service. I got tired of waiting for my time to play the drums, so I switched to the keyboards, and also picked up a guitar. There was a guy called Sheldon Harrison who taught me, and later Hugh Davis. They showed me stuff here and there so I could follow behind them on the organ. Then I’d go home and practise what they taught me, all night long. That’s how I learned how to play keyboards.”
The next step in the young Dotson’s musical development occurred when he was about 15. By this stage his family had moved to San Francisco, where he ran into a well-known rapper and producer called JT the Bigga Figga. “He had a studio with drum machines and keyboards and stuff like that, and he showed me how to use them and program stuff. So I’d make a beat, and put it on a cassette tape, and went home and listened to it, and it was like ‘Cool! I made a beat!’ I was doing that for fun, and then my little brother and my cousin wanted to rap on my beats, and then also the guys from my school, and that turned into somebody giving me $50 for a beat, and then $100 and then $200, and so on.”
It was during those years in San Francisco that Dotson was nicknamed Zaytoven — after Beethoven, naturally — by someone impressed with his keyboard chops. After finishing high school, in 2000, he moved to Atlanta, because his family had already moved there and he had problems making ends meet in San Francisco. In Atlanta he set up a studio in his parents’ basement, attended barber school and worked as a barber. The latter provided an unexpected bonus because he met several of the rappers he was to work with, one of them being Gucci Mane. Despite the fact that Zaytoven’s beats still sounded very West Coast, he quickly immersed himself in the nascent Atlanta hip-hop scene.
“I loved West Coast rap music, and I also loved down-South rap music. But when I was on the West Coast, I had to make West-Coast sounding beats, so that’s what I was good at. After I arrived in Atlanta, I was trying to make Atlanta-style beats, but I could not create the sound that people were accustomed to here. My main influences in Atlanta were the rappers I had to please. They wanted things that were more simple and 808-driven, whereas my stuff was too melody-driven. I think what shaped my sound was that I was not able to make genuine down-South beats with my West Coast influences.”
As a result, Zaytoven ended up creating a hybrid, giving his work a distinctive sound of its own. “The 808 and the kick are very important in the Atlanta sound, as is low bass. You want to make sure that the speakers in the trunk of a car are rattling! We don’t only need to leave space in the mid-range for the rappers to do their melodies, they also want to sit on the beat in a certain way, using cadences. If there’s a lot of mid in the track, you cover up the rapper. For me, the rapper’s contribution is the last instrument that goes on the track, and they supply the mid-range.”
The signature sound that Zaytoven arrived at combines the kick-heavy but otherwise very sparse arrangements of trap with his West Coast-influenced melodic and atmospheric piano parts. Augmented by some other sounds, these produce a spacious and melancholy arrangement and feel. Most of his beats are between 135 and 150 bpm, but played in half time, which gives a laid-back sound, and again, leaves lots of space for the rappers.
Zaytoven’s first contribution to an official release, on JT the Bigga Figga’s album Something Crucial in 1999, was naturally entirely West Coast in sound. After arriving in Atlanta, he broke through with Gucci Mane’s ‘Icy’ featuring Young Jeezy (2005), which Zaytoven says was still very West Coast, because it was more uptempo, with more mid-range and more musical content. This was followed by Gucci Mane’s seminal ‘Bricks’ (2009), and the same year saw the release of ‘Make Tha Trap Say Aye’ by OJ Da Juiceman featuring Gucci Mane, by which time Zaytoven had more or less established his signature trap sound. In 2010 Zaytoven created the beat for Usher’s ‘Papers’ which won him a Grammy Award. Other well-known Zaytoven tracks include ‘Versace’ by Migos (2013) and Future’s ‘Oooh’ (2015), and of late, the producer has started releasing tracks under his own name, for example ‘East Atlanta Day’ featuring Gucci Mane and 21 Savage.
While Zaytoven’s sound has changed over the 20 years he’s been active, his process, and the gear he uses, have remained remarkably constant. He’s got a studio in his home in Atlanta, where he for the most part avoids the trappings, so to speak, of modern software-based gear and working methods. “My keyboards are the Korg Kronos, Yamaha Motif, Roland Fantom G6 and Access Virus TI, plus I have the Akai MPCX. I also have a Pro Tools C24 console, an Apogee Symphony interface, Focal and Yamaha monitors, a Neumann U87 for when I record a rapper, and the Mac that looks like a trash can.
“I’m still more of an analogue guy. I feel that using hardware gives me more of a human, soulful, warm sound and feel. A lot of guys are clicking in their notes and beats and end up sounding so robotic and digital that it doesn’t have that warm, human touch anymore. I also think me actually playing keyboards adds to a warm feel in my beats. When I create beats I run all my keyboards through the MPC, and use MPC software to record things. I don’t spend much time finding a sound, because I am impatient, and the moment I find a preset that works well with the beat, I use it. My drum sounds in the MPC also are to a large degree still the kit sounds that were given to me by JT the Bigga Figga back in 1999 when I got my first drum machine, the MPC 2000XL!”
In fact, not only does Zaytoven have a predilection for using presets and a set of drum sounds he’s been using for nearly 20 years, but his sound palette is dictated by his choice of four hardware keyboards, which, he says, are the foundation of every non-drum sound he makes. “My Kronos is my signature and go-to keyboard. When I first started making beats I had the Korg Trinity and an MPC, and I then had the Triton, and the Trident, and then the M3, and now there’s the Kronos. In essence they all are the same keyboards, just different versions to which they added newer sounds. I also got the Yamaha Motif when I first started making beats, because I wanted to add some different sounds than I got from the Trinity, and you could not buy plug-ins back in the day. Certain sounds from the Motif are on my first big songs, which is why I need to keep it.
“Roland used to have the Fantom X, but then they came out with the G, and I also keep it because it has a lot of sounds that I like. The sounds that I used on the Gucci Mane track ‘Pillz’ back in the day (2006) are from the Fantom, and they are signature sounds for me. I got the Virus TI strictly for the arpeggiator. I was trying to add some different flavours to my beats and the Virus arpeggios added a new twist. I initially had the Virus 1, and now the Virus 2, and it’s part of my sound.
“I will always keep these keyboards, because if at any time someone wants a real signature Zaytoven sound, or if I feel like making something I did years ago, I have the keyboards right there and can pull up those sounds. So any time Roland or Yamaha or Korg come out with a new version of these keyboards, I buy it. Once again, I don’t really tweak the sounds. I like to keep it real and not add stuff to it. I also don’t use any samples, other than the drum samples, and the only soft synth I use is Spectrasonics Omnisphere, just for different sounds with a more digital nature. I might use a piano sound from that, and trigger that from whatever keyboard I play.”
Zaytoven is aware that his approach stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by many of today’s beat-makers, who are always on the lookout for new sounds, and constantly listening over their shoulders for the latest fashionable sounds used by others. “What I try to teach to anybody who is coming up as a producer is that there are so many plug-ins and so many soft synths now that you can get lost. There are just too many sounds, and if you use too many of them, you can never create your own signature sound. But with Zaytoven, when you hear a flute, or you hear a violin, or a certain piano you know it is Zaytoven because these are my go-to sounds.”
Once Zaytoven’s beat is in good shape — which, as he says, usually takes less than 15 minutes — his next step is to load what he has recorded in his MPC as audio into Pro Tools. “By the time I put the beat in Pro Tools it’s pretty much done. I start editing right there and then in Pro Tools, while I’m still into the beat. It’s all one process. I may cut and paste parts and rearrange the beats, and turn stuff up and down, and I might add a few plug-ins, but not many. I don’t do any sonic shaping. I like to keep it real, and don’t do too much to the sounds.
“If I’ve recorded vocals, I may put some effects on them in Pro Tools, and that may be the final release. For example with the early Gucci records, like ‘I’m A Dog’ (2009), they went straight from my basement to the radio or the mixtape or the album. I mixed that stuff myself, even though I’m not a mixer. But I guess people liked the way it sounded, which was rough and edgy. So I might put an EQ or a compressor on a vocal, but I don’t know how to use them too much, and I’m sure somebody else can do that stuff better than me. The same with mastering. But nowadays, if a beat I’ve done does get mixed by someone else, they often work from my two-track. When I gave Migos the beat for ‘Versace’ (2013), they never came back and asked for the files of the individual tracks.”
Zaytoven’s minimalist mix and mastering approach, like his beat-making process, once again comes from a philosophy that stresses feel and spontaneity and rough edges over perfectionism. “If you start overthinking things and editing too much you really can take the feeling away from your beats. That’s why I make them as fast as I do. I often work with the rappers in the room, and watch them perform, and they don’t write any music any more. They just go in and almost freestyle the entire song, because it’s all about feeling and groove. So that’s how I try to treat the music and the beats as well. I don’t over-edit, I don’t try to make it perfect, I just focus on creating that feeling.
“Often when I make a beat, I can visualise what an artist will do over it, or how they are supposed to sound over it, and I definitely include that in my process. Music is about feeling, and I think that is why Atlanta has been on top for so long, because what we do is improvised and has a lot of feeling, and we don’t go in for a lot of fixing things or editing.”
While Zaytoven untiringly and eloquently sings the praises of the Atlanta rap scene, there are hints that he actually would like to diversify his activities a little further. He’s branching out into releasing singles and solo albums under his own name, he’s DJ’ing and working with other beat-makers such as Metro Boomin, Atlanta’s brightest young kid on the trap block. Zaytoven also starred in and wrote music for a 2012 movie called Birds Of A Feather, which was loosely based on his life, and Birds Of A Feather 2 is slated for a release early this year, as is his first big-label solo album, Trap Holizay.
“Albums like Sorority and Where Would The Game Be Without Me 2 are like mixtapes. They contain songs that I have done with a lot of different artists, and rather than me holding onto these songs, I prefer to put them out to the public as compilations. But Trap Holizay will be out on Capitol-Motown, and has nothing but big names on it: 21 Savage, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, Migos, Travis Scott, Future, Quavo, Kodak Black, 2-Chain, Rick Ross, Jeremih, Trouble, and so on. I also worked with other beat-makers on it, like DJ Mustard, Mike Will Made It, Metro Boomin, and so on. It’s being mixed right now.
“My new movie Birds Of A Feather 2 should be coming out in February. I scored the entire movie, using the same approach as when I make beats. I added the music after the movie was finished. I looked at scenes and tried to get a feeling or emotion out of them, and then just made the music to go with it. It’s the same process, but it does give me a little bit more space to be more adventurous. There definitely will be a soundtrack album.
“I also do a lot of DJ’ing, and sometimes I might make a beat live, just to excite the crowd. On stage I have the MPC Live, a smaller version of the MPCX. It takes me three minutes to create a beat, and I then might have some guys come on stage to do freestyle rap to the beat, just to get everybody involved. Nothing is pre-rehearsed. It is all about doing it on the spot. Making beats live is something that I am trying to create. It’s essential to be able to play to be able to do this, though on stage I quantise what I am doing. In the studio it depends on the kind of riff I’m playing. A lot of the time I leave it unquantised.”
According to Zaytoven, it’s all about branding his name and getting it out. “Nowadays you have to. These are the things I have to do to expand my name, so people look at Zaytoven not just as the guy who makes beats, but also as an artist, even though I don’t rap. And yes, the name is cool because of the Beethoven-Zaytoven rhyme, but even though I play the piano, I’m not really into classical music. So I’m not going to add any more classical elements to what I am doing. I also don’t do any sample stuff from the past. Like I said, my music is about feeling, and I just always try to create new stuff!”
Zaytoven’s quick working methods have a down side, which is that there are literally thousands of beats sitting on his hard drives. “I get up in the morning and can make 10 beats, which I then send to different artists who I think would be best suited to rap over them. Or I have someone in the studio and create a beat in front of them, and while I have the energy, I may create another five with the sound and feel that they are looking for. When I send out 10 beats, only four may be used, and that means that the other six may be forgotten. That is just the way the game goes. It means that I make and send out another 10, and see which people take which beats.
“Many of my beats don’t get used, because they maybe did not get to the right person, or maybe they were not that good. Sometimes people come back later on to use them. And I send out old beats sometimes. My beat for ‘Versace’ was in fact two years old. But because I end up with many beats, I have to organise them. I often do that by month. Or I make 40 beat folders. Then I go in and label them, like I might mark something as R&B beats and something else like trap beats, and another like more pop-sounding, or club, or radio beats. I also title every beat. My title often sparks the rapper and there are quite a few occasions in which the final name of a song was the name I gave to the beat.”