Zaytoven is a producer from the Bay who has churned out hits for Usher, Gucci Mane, Plies, Soulja Boy, Young Jeezy, OJ Da Juiceman, and a whole slew of other popular artists. Zay has his musical upbringings in the church in Memphis, where he fine-tuned his signature organ sound which now permeates all but the rarest of his hip-hop beats. Zay’s most popular jam to this date has to be the Papers record by Usher, and with a little luck he’s bound to land another whopper any day now. Or perhaps I oughtn’t say luck, but prayer. Zay still goes to church every week and performs alongside the choir. Amen to that!
Congrats on the BAYTL project, man.
Appreciate it, man.
I talked to V-Nasty a little while ago. She’s so nice, hardly the image people paint of her.
Oh yeah, she is. Yeah she is. I talked to her last night too.
You also did some records for Gucci and Future right? On Free Bricks.
Yes sir. I did the title track. I did a song called Lamborghini, a song called Go, a song called Flossin. I did about five on that. I haven’t looked at the credits.
Have you seen the cover art? The one with Gucci in the white suit.
Oh, yeah yeah.
I’ve never seen Gucci in a suit before.
In a white suit, yeah. Well, actually he was in a suit in the Mariah Carey video. Oh, man, that was big for Gucci.
What about you? You like dressing up?
You just roll in jeans.
Yeah, I like to be comfortable, man. I like to be in jeans and a T-shirt, or really sweats.
It seems hip-hop is going back to sweats.
What would you wear when you played in church back in the day? The robes and stuff?
Back in the day going to church I would wear a suit, pretty much a suit or a shirt and tie, but nowadays churches are more relaxed too. You can be comfortable. You don’t have to wear suits.
Do you still go to church?
Oh yeah, I play at two different churches. I’ve always been a church musician.
You feel that’s changed, like the way you play at the church or the stuff you play?
Ah, not really because my big influence has been church so I’m still playing and learning as I go. Making beats came from me playing in the churches, not the other way around.
Do you think, now I don’t know much about church music, but when you first started doing the hip-hop stuff were there sounds that you could hear, like, “Man, this guy could have played in church before.”
Yeah, most definitely.
With the organ. I don’t know if you really pay attention to the music I do, but that organ sound, that’s like my signature sound and it’s a church organ. That’s been my signature and I got that straight out of church.
And you still play that then, the organ?
Is that a pretty difficult instrument?
Not when you’ve been playing it since you were a youngster. I’m pretty sure if I tried to learn it now it’d be hard.
It’d be cool for people to go watch you play at the church.
Yeah, people do that all the time, because a lot of people don’t believe it. They show up and see me there.
I guess that’s kind of good for the church.
Are there any songs that you like to play while you’re there?
Well, being a church musician you have to learn a lot of songs, you have to learn choir songs and stuff like that. Really I just enjoy that. I enjoy learning new songs and new songs at the choir. It really challenges me and keeps me on my toes.
Which songs specifically?
As far as new songs, you wouldn’t really know them but let me see.
What’s the newest one?
There’s one called Help Me Lift Them Up, another one is called My Soul Of Jesus.
What about hymns and passages from the Bible, you have any favorites? Favorite scriptures?
Yeah. I’d say my favorite would be 2:38, it’s about being baptized and receiving the gift.
Why’s that your favorite?
It’s kind of controversial between churches, because they have different denominations. You’ve got Baptist, you’ve got Catholic, you know, different apostles, it separates- I don’t know if you’ve ever been to church or whatever, but a lot of people pray and get baptized and stuff like that and they do it in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which are titles in the scriptures. I was talking about 2:38, which clearly states you should pray and be baptized in Jesus’s name, which is stating really that Jesus is God, or they’re all one, rather than three different titles. That one really stuck with me.
Yeah, I was just curious. Because you grew up in Memphis in that kind of atmosphere but now you’re in Atlanta doing it, is there a big difference between the communities, or is it the same kind of atmosphere?
I actually moved all over all my life. My dad was in the Army so I moved all the time. I was born in Germany. We went to California, North Carolina, I was just moving all over the place, so I think most definitely I had a whole bunch of influences.
But is it the same kind of atmosphere?
Ah, well, California is different. Besides California the rest of the south is pretty much the same.
You mentioned your dad was in the Army, in Germany, what did he do? Was he a soldier?
No, he was a recruiter. He was an Army recruiter for 22 years.
Why in Germany?
That was just where he was stationed at when I was born. We moved all over. I was only in Germany for a matter of months.
Does he ever tell any crazy stories about his time doing that?
Nothing real crazy. He don’t got nothing real crazy.
I guess life as a recruiter is pretty tame.
Did he have any Army memorabilia laying around?
No, not really. No, he don’t.
You’re just shutting down all my questions?
Switching up, I talked to another artist about this recently. We were talking about trap music and timeless music. Do you think trap music is a subgenre of hip-hop music that can be timeless, like 5-10 years down the road?
Whatever it is, when it comes to hip-hop music and timeless music, it has to be passionate. I think Tupac’s music, which actually had passion in it, that’s kind of timeless. I think the trap music and that stuff is more of a phase or a fad right now. I wouldn’t say 5-10 years down the road that that would be relevant.
Do you ever feel like you succumb to that sound to make more money, when you could be making other stuff?
Yeah, most definitely. It’s ironic, I came from California when I first started doing music, and like I said, I was playing in church. So trap music, that was the last thing I thought about making, but I guess hooking up with Gucci Mane, when I started making beats and doing that south sound, it just became popular. I became popular doing that. I almost made a name for myself just with that. People come to me for that kind of music now.
But obviously you can do other stuff as well.
Yeah, I can do other stuff as well, like with Usher, people don’t usually get to see that side of me, because there’s so much of the rap music or the trap music that they really love to hear.
Yeah, that Usher song [Papers] still has rappers freestyling over it. But also, I really respected what you said about you and Gucci making complex music but in a simple way, so that even a five year old could sing back the lyrics. Is that something you had to practice to do, or did it come naturally?
I guess me being a musician, it took a lot of dumbing myself down to do that. I hear so much musically when I start making beats that I have to restrain myself from putting too much into the music. I force myself to simplify it to make it catchy for even a five year old, so they can listen to it and like it and say it back. It’s almost like nursery rhyme music. It’s complex but you’re making it simple, and I think that’s harder than rapping real fast.
I agree, so is that process somewhat second nature now?
Now it’s second nature, but definitely as an artist and a musician it’s something I had to practice and do over and over again just to get it, because it has to be authentic. It can’t be something that you’re trying to do. People can automatically feel and tell when you really don’t know how to do that. It takes you doing it over and over again. And then some people like Gucci Mane, that’s just their natural born ability. I don’t think he’s ever been a complex rap artist. When he first started rapping he always wanted to simplify something, make it simple so people can sing back the words.
Yeah, and I was going to ask you, like 5, 6, 7 years ago that whole wave went through Atlanta and the south, and it was similar. It was very simple music, simplified beats, like that song Lean Wit It Rock Wit It, with all the dances and stuff, but people dismissed that music. Nowadays though, the music coming out of the south, people embrace it more. What’s the difference?
I think it just took time. For me, music never was like that until- I remember being in the club and I heard White Tee for the first time, I was like, “Man, this is the worst song I’ve ever heard.” Because I came from an era of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Tupac and stuff, and then I heard that. It was almost like, “Who let them record? That’s terrible.” Even before that though, when you think back to Master P, Juvenile, when they started to do that real simple stuff, it just took longer for people to embrace it. But now that the south has made so many records off of doing that style you’ve got to respect it. You’ve got to embrace it almost. Your ear has been trained to like it.
You say ‘trained to like it’? Is that a good or a bad thing?
I have no idea. That’s what the radio plays. That’s what our culture is. You’re almost trained to like stuff. You don’t like it at first but then you hear it so much it’s almost like, “Well, I do kind of like that. It’s kind of catchy.” I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.
I know sometimes I listen to 2 Chainz and I’m like, “I really like this,” and at other times I’m like, “Why do I like this?”
Exactly, why? I’m the same way. Me, now that my ears are so trained to it, it’s almost all I like.
You just get immersed in it.
So you’re living in Atlanta year round now?
Yeah, in Atlanta.
Where do you hang out in Atlanta?
I be at the house a lot and then I have a barber shop, so between the house, the barber shop, and me doing music wherever I’m doing music. Actually I’m shooting a movie right now too, so I’ve been hanging out on the set a lot.
It’s a movie called Birds Of A Feather. It’s featuring everybody in Atlanta.
Oh yeah? What’s it about?
I’m the main actor, and the guy who’s directing it and wrote it, I think he wrote it more towards my way of making it into music, me being a producer and getting in the game. He used that and put a twist to it. That’s the part I’m playing. This is something I really want to get into. It’s a newfound thing for me.
Is it a serious movie or comedy?
It’s serious but there’s a little comedy in it. It’s going to be a short, maybe like 45 minutes.
You like a lot of hip-hop movies?
Do you still work in Zay Town, or have you moved on to bigger and better studios?
Well, what I call Zay Town, it’s just another spot, because I have a lot of customers. I have a lot of independent customers, guys who are on the come-up. It’s really a spot that I can send them to to get work done. I’ve got employees, so of course I go over there and show my face and do that every now and then. I think Zay Town is always going to be a spot that I keep.
Yeah, I thought it was just your basement.
It started in the basement of my house. Now that my status is a little higher I got a bigger house, so I don’t invite as many people through. I had to get another spot. I still have the basement. I have the basement for special people, like I was working with OJ Da Juiceman last night, guys I came up with or who I work close with, they’re always going to be welcome at the house. But for other guys I don’t know so well they’re going over to the other spot. But they’re both my places.
And are there any records from you we should be listening for?
Right now I just did the White Girl single for Gucci Mane and Yo Gotti. That should be playing on MTV in the next week or so. I work with so many people it’s hard to keep track of all the songs. I don’t think they even know what song is coming out next [laughs].
- By Peter Marrack