Even for casual fans of Southern rap, there's no mistaking a Zaytoven beat.
The producer born Xavier Lamar Dotson is one of the central architects of trap, the hard-nosed strain of hip-hop popularized in recent years by T.I., Jeezy and Gucci Mane. True to his Ludwig van-inspired name, the Atlanta beatsmith has crafted a vibrant signature sound based on laptop symphonies of flute, organ, clavinet and snake charmer synth sounds, performed with baroque flourishes.
For the majority of his career, though, Dotson has been a hired hand, contributing a handful of songs to mixtapes or albums without getting a say in the final product. That's about to change.
"I just, for the first time, got a record deal," says Dotson, who signed with Capitol/Motown to put out his debut album. "Really, this is my first time being an artist, so I gotta do what artists do—I gotta put out an album and then go on the road."
Up to this point, Zaytoven has put his talents to work sparking the careers of other artists. He was instrumental in the rise of Gucci, Future, Migos and dozens of other established Southern stars, and he's still breaking new talent today, having kicked off 2018 by working with up-and-comers like Lil Pump, Moneybagg Yo and Blac Youngsta. His Technicolor sound is unique, especially compared to the chilling tone favored by most other producers within the genre. He works fast, too—he once claimed he never spends more than 10 minutes on a beat.
Amid a sea of imitators, he often risks oversaturation and stagnation. But that seems to be more of a product of the sheer number of requests he fields than a lack of versatility.
"A lot of times the beats that I make sound alike because artists want those type of beats," he says. "It's not because that's all I can do or that's what I want to put out there. Artists will come to me wanting the same thing I did for the Migos or Future and everybody else. That does show how much that sounds means to everyone, though."
Now, he's heading out on the road, to bring that sound straight to the people on his first headlining solo tour. He's got hundreds of DJ sets under his belt, but the upcoming dates will involve a little more instrumental spontaneity.
"I'm bringing my drum machine and my little keyboard so I can play them if I get the spark to do something like that onstage," he says. "I kind of rely on the crowd to tell me whether I'm gonna play them or not. I think each show will have its own little thing to it. I might make a beat from scratch onstage then have somebody out the audience come freestyle. It depends on how I feel in the moment and how the audience reacts."
As for the upcoming Trap Holizay, his debut album, the release date has yet to be announced. But the producer is excited about finally having increased control on a project. And this time, the artists are working for him.
"It's the people that I would want to hear on songs together, on the type of beats that I would want to hear them on," he says of the undisclosed guest list. "A lot of times, when I'm producing on somebody else's album, it's a beat they chose, a song they wrote, an idea they had. On my album, it's totally based around what I felt."
Gucci Mane feat. Young Jeezy and Boo, "Icy" (2005)
"This is where it all started," Zaytoven says. After getting his start in the Bay Area producing for the likes of JT the Bigga Figga and Andre Nickatina, Zaytoven moved to Atlanta and began the most fruitful partnership of his career with a then-unknown Gucci Mane. Regarding Gucci's debut commercial single, "'Icy' was light, melodic, and it felt more like Bay Area music to me," Dotson says. "Looking back, that was our first big hit, but we never went back to that sound."
OJ da Juiceman feat. Gucci Mane, "Make the Trap Say Aye" (2008)
"The more Gucci and I worked every day, I realized we had to make stuff for the street—hard, gutter trap music," Dotson says. One of the defining regional hits born from that new formula was this drug-selling anthem by OJ, a charismatic ad-lib master who was then signed to Gucci's label.
Usher, "Papers" (2009)
To date, nothing has surprised Zaytoven more in his career than getting a collaboration request from Usher, who tapped him to produce the lead single from his album Raymond v. Raymond. When the R&B star's team reached out, Dotson remembers thinking, "Ooh, I got some cold music for this." After sending them a few beats, the response, was "'Yeah, this is nice but can you send us some beats that Gucci would rap on?'" The final product, "Papers," splits the difference between his typical trap sound and more melodic R&B.
Migos, "Versace" (2013)
Throughout his career, Zay's remained hot by keeping his ear to the ground for new talent. One of his earliest discoveries was Migos. "They just had a star quality," he says. "One day I met them, the next day I had them over at my house, and within the next few days, 'Versace' was made."
Future, Beast Mode (2015)
"I was surprised that I ended up with a full project with Future," Zay says of the nine-song mixtape he produced entirely on his own. "Future never did a whole tape with one producer before that, and matter of fact, he hasn't done that since." Beast Mode was instrumental in Future's career renaissance, and according to the producer, it elevated both him and Zaytoven to "a whole 'nother level."
SEE IT: Zaytoven plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with DJ Maxx Bass and DJ BNick, on Sunday, April 29. 8:30 pm. $15 advance, $18 day of show. 21+. Get tickets here.