Speaking to The Red Bulletin in an exclusive interview, the record producer, DJ and pianist from Atlanta, Georgia, explains how he has ascended to Godlike status in the hip-hop world without uttering a single swear word.
At Life Abundantly Church in America’s Deep South, Sunday service is underway. Among the 40-strong congregation this morning, like every Sunday, is Xavier Dotson, aka Zaytoven. As Pastor Kendrick Meredith gives his sermon, Zaytoven waits for his cue to sit back down at his Kronos keyboard to play. He stifles a yawn as the churchman quotes Corinthians. Today’s talk is about building your personal dream team. “I pray for this man Zay every single day, because he is in the midst of these wolves,” Pastor Meredith says, indicating to his organist. “I pray that he will do right.”
The pastor’s words could easily read as pointed commentary on Zaytoven’s seemingly double life. The 38-year-old inhabits two apparently contradictory personas: the non-smoking, teetotal, church-going family man is also a legendary producer of trap – a style of music that’s synonymous with drugs, violence and deprivation.
Zaytoven first discovered this rap subgenre back in 2000 when he moved to Atlanta; named after the American South slang for ‘drug house’, trap was born out of the area’s distinctive brand of hip hop. Since then, his production work has helped elevate trap into the mainstream, permeating the highest echelons of pop, influencing artists from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, and winning him a Grammy. Countless producers in studios everywhere from Atlanta to Latin America and Asia have tried to emulate the Zaytoven sound, and a collaboration with the man has proven to be a rite of passage for marquee acts such as Future Migos and Nicki Minaj. But Zaytoven is still the same humble church organist he’s always been. It’s just these days he wears a chain spelling out his name in loose script and diamonds.
The first song Xavier Dotson learnt to play on piano was the gospel standard I’m Available To You. He had only had about six weeks of formal music training when it was stopped by his pastor father Joe and choir director mother Lura, because they no longer bear to see him cry. He was just six years old, and his teacher was harsh: “She’d take a pencil and go ‘Pop! Pop!’ on my fingers,” he says as he uploads unreleased songs to his iPod in his basement studio in the south-east Atlanta suburb of Ellenwood. Everything else Zaytoven knows about playing keys, he learnt by ear and from church musicians he met when Joe, as part of the US Army, moved the family to the Mississippi towns of Grenada and Jackson.
As a teenager, Zaytoven bought drum machines with the money he’d earned from odd jobs and from playing the organ at a church led by former San Francisco 49ers linebacker turned pastor Willie Harper. He has played at Sunday service at the Life Abundantly Church in Conyers, Georgia for the past 12 years and recently bought matching chains for himself and his family that spell out a personal motto: “God Over Everything.” This upbringing might explain why, when singing ‘prophet’ Dianne Palmer told him six years ago, “Your sound is going to be great and travel over nations,” Zaytoven thought she meant the gospel he played. This was after his work with Usher on Papers – from the Grammy winning album Raymond vs Raymond – but before he produced Migos’ breakout hit Versace, which has garnered almost 29 million views on YouTube. “I wasn’t thinking the rap music sound,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, I play in church. I’m seen in church.’ I didn’t realise until six months ago that that was what she was telling me.”
It took Zaytoven a long time to realise the extent of his influence outside sacred spaces. Before becoming a full-time producer, some nights he’d only sleep for four hours between sessions at the studio he built in his parents’ basement and shifts as a barber at Stonecrest Mall in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia. He only stopped cutting hair after Versace took off in 2013. His breakout hit Icy, with rapper Gucci Mane, was dumb luck, he thought. So was Papers, even after the Grammy. As trap elements filtered into EDM and pop, he thought his time was up: “Can we not make the authentic music no more?”
Only after Versace, because of how many people would ask for photos and drop off mixtapes, did he consider producing full time. This was almost a decade after Icy hit the airwaves. That may be because Zaytoven never aspired to become a hip-hop producer. He just loved the music – when he finally got to hear it. “I was listening to rap music when I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap music,” he says. “I had to [be sneaky]. My parents didn’t listen to music with profanity in it. My early favourite had to be Dr Dre’s The Chronic. It was so rough and rugged. It was never about the words – it was how [producers] put the music together that got me addicted.”
When Zaytoven’s family resettled in Columbus, Georgia, he created a studio in their wood-panelled basement to further what was, at the time, merely a musical hobby. He hadn’t anticipated that, once word had spread, as many as 25 people would record there each night. Even at the height of his homemade studio’s popularity, he still kept a barber’s chair down there, offering haircuts on the side.
Things became serious when Zaytoven began recording with Gucci Mane, a former dope dealer who he encouraged to start rapping as a career. Their version of trap on the 2009 track Bricks was a punchy, wonky collision of Roland TR- 808 drums, canned organs, and Gucci’s visions of his supply dancing in his head (“Bricks! All-white bricks! Off-white bricks! Light tan bricks!”). They were each other’s biggest fans, to a fault. “Nicki [Minaj, whose 2014 track Want Some More he co-produced] was cool,” he says, “but I was so into what I was doing with Gucci that I’d be like, ‘Could you hurry up and finish the song?’” Starting at 8am, Gucci would record up to seven tracks on any given day. Miraculously, that still left time to shop for outfits and get their new song titles airbrushed onto them so the pair became walking billboards for tracks such as Trapstar. That title was prescient: while Gucci’s spells in and out of jail may have overshadowed his artistic merits early on, his music would influence and nurture rappers and producers including Waka Flocka Flame, Mike WiLL Made-It, Migos and Young Thug.
Last year, such reach translated to platinum awards for guest spots on Chris Brown’s Party and Rae Sremmurd’s Black Beatles,and for his own track Both, featuring Drake. And yet, as trap grew in status, both in Atlanta and beyond, Zaytoven doubted his and Gucci’s music was as impressive as their peers’. “[Young] Jeezy and Shawty Redd sounded theatrical,” he says. “When you listened to TI and [DJ] Toomp, there was this worldwide sound. With Gucci Mane and Zaytoven, it sounded like Zay making the beats in his basement, not knowing what he’s doing. Gucci Mane be saying stuff that you can’t make out, off beat. We had the most unattractive music. But it was so raw and real it resonated.”
After years of success, Zaytoven is still not one to brag. His current basement is is only a modest testament to his global reach. The gold award for Versace hangs in his studio, while the platinum plaque for Minaj’s Want Some More faces the pool table. But he might move all this memorabilia into his parents’ old home, which he wants to revamp into a studio for yet more aspiring producers. Like-minded artists have been attracted by his rep. Zaytoven had never heard of two-time Grammy-winning rapper Lecrae when he was approached to work on the album Let The Trap Say Amen. But Lecrae had heard of him. The gospel-inspired hip hop star remembered when Gucci and OJ da Juiceman’s formative trap anthem Make The Trap Say Aye, an early Zaytoven production recorded in 2007, took hold in Atlanta’s Eastside. “I recall being at the bus stop and just seeing people trapping there,” Lecrae says. “That song was a theme for a lot of the dope boys there.” Lecrae is further living proof that not all US Christians are staunch conservatives. Zaytoven’s production on Let The Trap Say Amen makes the values they extol all the more accessible. “Lecrae is a big time artist already,” Zaytoven says, “but the message he was trying to get across, to the demographics who need it, still has to have that sound. The people in my demographic, the ones who are robbing and killing, with the drugs and all, they want to hear the trap.”
It sounds incongruous when someone as devout as Zaytoven talks about ‘his’ demographic in such frank terms. But somehow he has never felt the need to compromise in serving these two seemingly opposing worlds. He has never missed a Sunday service, for example. His friends talk about playing Saturday night gigs in towns hundreds of miles away; when everyone else is drunk at 2am, they say, Zaytoven will be sober, getting into his car to floor-it back to Georgia, ready to accompany the choir. One time, recalls Pastor Meredith, Zaytoven had Snoop Dogg recording in his studio, but got up and left to attend to his church duties. “I’m the lead musician of the church, and I’ve been there years,” says Zaytoven of his role. “It’s always a place for me to go to, to get back balance and focus.” When the pastor mentions ‘Zay’ in his sermons, it is without judgement: the church is supportive of what Zaytoven creates outside its walls. One of his fellow pastors once held up a copy of Gucci’s Hard To Kill album at the pulpit – not to criticise it, but to promote it. “People have asked, ‘How do you let him go out and do secular music and come into church on Sunday morning and play?’” says Meredith. “I don’t see him doing anything more than making beats. Don’t you go to a secular job every day?” Even in the trap community of Atlanta, where he often mixed with dope dealers and felons, Zaytoven was able to find acceptance without changing who he was. Take his choice of creative base: his parents opened their doors to the rappers and producers Zaytoven brought to their basement, but refused to accept much of what usually came with it. So, in his studio, there was strictly no smoking, no drinking, no cursing and no weapons. If any of these rules were broken, it would just as often be one of his parents who would come down and rectify the situation as Zaytoven himself. But far from hindering his progress as a producer, Zaytoven’s insistence on keeping all the apparently contradictory aspects of his life in play seemed to make him stronger. “I think what he was doing,” says his father Joe, “playing in the church, working at the barber’s shop, coming here and making beats and just having people meet him here, [made us] all one big happy family.”
In fact, Gucci would brag to other artists that Zaytoven doesn’t smoke, drink or curse because that’s how he was raised. Both of them recognise how rare it is to meet someone who is that consistent, who is wholly himself no matter who he meets, who will show up when it counts. On Monday, Zaytoven and his father will head to the gym. Joe will come back to the house with him to tidy up his already-clean garage. When Zaytoven’s kids peek their heads through the upstairs banister, saying, “Daddy, I’m hungry,” as if straight out of some family sitcom, he will feed them. He will make five beats downstairs, as he did when his daughter was six months old, rocking her with one arm as he laid down the beat for Gucci’s 2009 track First Day Out with the other. Tomorrow, he might attend a studio recording of Nick Cannon’s MTV show Wild ’N Out in town. But, of course, there is also choir rehearsal.
“My dad is one of those guys you can always count on,” Zaytoven says. “When you see me in that small church, that is what is built into me: to be a consistent, dependable person. That’s what I want my character to be.” Other producers from modern trap’s development in Atlanta have come and gone, but Zaytoven is still at the centre of the sound he helped create. This year might be his highest-profile yet, when his face becomes as recognisable as his sound is relevant. Last year, Zaytoven’s label, Familiar Territory Records, entered into partnership with Motown and he released his debut album Trapholizay, which he celebrated with a solo tour. And this February, Birds Of A Feather 2, the sequel to the 2012 film loosely based on his life, premiered in the US. Coming up next is an EP with new signee Tiffany Bleu, which marks a return to R&B for the producer. This staying power is down to his innate talent, sure. But it also speaks to Zaytoven’s almost unique position at the forefront of two very different local communities, and his ability to bring the two closer together. “This music stuff was never a dream or something I was striving to be a part of,” he says. “I feel like God put me in this position maybe because of my character, or because I can influence people in a certain way.
“A lot of these guys, their mama might be in church, and they might have been there too when they were young, but they might have started living a different lifestyle. The church is the backbone of the community, so trap and church meet somewhere in the middle. A lot of these guys selling dope or doing whatever, they still got a heart. They still got a soul.”