Photo by moonrichguy, courtesy of Zaytoven
Four songs into the most hotly anticipated album of the summer, Everybody Looking, Gucci Mane raps, matter-of-factly, "I'd rather rap a Zay track than a Dre track." To even casual fans of the Atlanta rapper, this statement should be self-evident: A producer like Dr. Dre may be a legend, but Zaytoven is himself the architect of a sound that changed rap forever. As Gucci's go-to producer since the very beginning—perhaps even the guy we have to thank for Gucci deciding to pursue rap at all—Zaytoven basically molded modern Atlanta trap in his image, spawning countless imitators.
"We built the trap music that it is today," Zay said, matter-of-factly, speaking over the phone on the eve of the album's release.
That sound, along with Gucci's name and influence, has only gotten more prominent and widespread in recent years, even as Gucci has spent several of those years serving a federal prison sentence. During that time, Zaytoven has continued to cement his own legacy, working in particular with Migos, for whom he produced the breakout hit "Versace," and Future, whose widely loved 2015 mixtape Beast Mode was entirely a Zaytoven collaboration.
So when Gucci was released to house arrest earlier this summer, the excitement around what he and Zaytoven would cook up was considerable. Zay explained that the sound of Everybody Looking became apparent after Gucci heard 2 Chainz's "MFn Right," a collaborative production between Zay and another of Gucci's other longtime producers, Mike WiLL Made-It.
Zaytoven and Mike WiLL—who himself has spent the last few years making Rae Sremmurd into stars and working with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé—have worked with many of the same artists, but it was their first time truly working side-by-side. The sound they came up with was worthy of such a meeting of titans. It's perhaps the most massive either has ever sounded, with drums that impact like meteors and synths that roll out like galactic armies, interspersed with the delicate, twinkling instrumentation that Zaytoven has made his signature. As always, it's just one part of what the wildly prolific Zaytoven has going on: Earlier this week, he released a mixtape, What Would the Game Be Without Me, highlighting recent work with Future, Migos, 21 Savage, and others.
"I was just warming people up to what I had going on since I’m such a big part of this Gucci Mane album," he explained. He pointed out that the songs on the tape are all just from the last month and hinting that there's a lot more where those songs came frod, adding, "The Future and Lil Uzi song is a song that didn’t make the Beast Mode '16 that me and Future are working on." Yes, Beast Mode '16, the sequel to Beast Mode, is coming soon. But first, Everybody Looking is about to blow your mind. Zaytoven was kind enough to share a few more insights about what it was like recording it.
Noisey: What was it like making the Gucci album? What was the process?
Zaytoven: It was a little different this time because we started working on it before he even got out of jail. There’s a certain sound that me and Mike WiLL did together. Do you know the song, 2 Chainz, “MFn Right”? Gucci was like “man, that sound, that’s powerful, I want that. I need that sound for my album.”
I’ve been working with Gucci, probably the first producer he ever was working with, and Mike WiLL came shortly after. So it was only right that he used his original producers and then that we worked together. Me and Mike WiLL have never really made an album together. We’ve been rocking for a long time, but we never sat down and made music together, so I think that’s something special about this album.
How did it work, actually collaborating?
We’d get in the studio, and all the beats we did, we made them right there on the spot, right there from scratch. It’s just us knocking out beats and saying “OK, we’re just holding these for Gucci, and when Gucci gets home, he’s got all the Zaytoven and Mike WiLL beats. Ain’t nobody else gonna have this. Ain’t nobody gonna have this sound or have these beats. This is strictly for Gucci.” While Gucci was in prison, he was writing records. So he already had the album pretty much done. All we had to do was pretty much match up the beats with the songs. We did a few, maybe two or three just right there live while Gucci was there that made the album, but for the most part it was mixing and matching, putting together which beat went with which song.
It’s been a few years since you and Gucci were last in a room together, working. What’s changed?
Not much. I mean, me and Gucci have been working with each other since the beginning, so we’ve got the same type of chemistry any time we link up. He’s been locked up a lot throughout his career, and I done sat and waited. So when he comes back home, we just pick up where we left off.
Gucci’s been pretty public about his sobriety and working out and getting healthy. Do you feel like he has a new attitude?
Well, he’s definitely excited and focused. He’s energetic now. He can definitely move around and jump around more than he did before. He’s just a newfound Gucci. He’s zoomed in on what he’s trying to do and what he’s got to do. That’s the change and that’s the difference, which is a good thing because I feel like he’s a bigger star now. He looks like a bigger star. He acts like one.
It did feel like he just kept getting more famous while he was away, and I think part of that was because of guys like you and Mike WiLL continuing to hold down that legacy, to bring in new artists and expand on the sound you guys had built. Did you feel a responsibility to keep his name alive while he was locked up? What was your role?
I always feel like that when Gucci’s gone. ‘Cause, when you listen to music now, I feel like from a production side, and from a rap side, we have the most mimicked style that’s going on right now. People are making so many beats that sound like Zaytoven beats, and so many artists are rapping like Gucci been rapping—stuff that we’ve been doing ten years ago. So yeah, I always feel like it’s my obligation to make sure this sound stays relevant, stays potent. I go work with the new guys, put new artists on and work with different artists and kind of implement that sound so it’ll stay fresh, but when Gucci gets out, it’ll be like “now this the real sound, this the real chemistry right here, this the real peanut butter and jelly.”
One of the other things that I would imagine helped over the last year is the tape you made with Future, Beast Mode, and then the success that he’s had. How did you see things change in the wake of that? Did you get a new audience?
I definitely feel like it broadened my horizons. People looked at me—people still look at me—as “this is Gucci Mane’s producer.” But the music that me and Future put together was so different than what me and Gucci do, it just made people look at the music like “hold on, Zaytoven is the real deal.” Just the instrumentation of the whole Beast Mode made people open up and respect me in a whole other way. With Gucci, I don’t use as many instruments. I don’t play the piano as much because that’s not really the style of music that me and Gucci have built. We built the trap music that it is today. But with Future it was almost like a work of art. I’m making real classical music with beats behind it, and Future is doing his thing on it. So that just opened up me to new people, it opened up me as a producer because now people come to me and say “man, I want that Beast Mode sound. I want some piano.” Now everybody wants me to play the piano on all the beats they get from me, when that never was the case.
It really made the Zaytoven-Beethoven parallel clear. It was like some sonatas or something.
Yeah. Future really opened that up for me because Future’s a diverse artist. When he said “Zaytoven, I want you to pick all the beats, it’s like, “OK, if I’m gonna pick all the beats, I’m finna show you what I want you to rap on. It’s gonna be this stuff.” So that helped me out a whole lot. That brightened me up, made me that much bigger.
Is that the way you come up with beats often, where a rapper comes to you and you think about what you want to hear them rap on?
Well see, now a lot of the artists respect my opinion. After Beast Mode, they respected me to the point where it was like, “well Zay, what you think I should rap on?” or “what you hear me rapping on?” Before it would be like “send me some beats, and I’ma rap on this beat.” Bow it’s almost like, “Zay, you tell me what to rap on, and that’s what I’m going to rap on.” Most artists value my opinion a lot, and I think that’s due to Beast Mode.
Do you have a classical background with piano?
I have a church background. I’ve been playing piano and keyboard and organ all my life in church. And I still do it to this day. I’m still a church musician. I’m still at church three days a week, I still play every Sunday morning at church. That’s my background. So when the door was really opened for me to release that and play over tracks and all that—like tomorrow, I’m opening up Gucci Mane’s show, his first big show at the Fox Theatre, playing the piano while he’s rapping. We’re doing that, like an a cappella, where he’s rapping and I’m playing the piano. That’s what people want from me now. That’s how I live up to the Zaytoven name. The Beethoven name it’s like now people are zoned in, like “OK, Zaytoven plays the piano.” And I’ve been doing that ever since I can remember, since I was young’un.
Gucci helped put Young Thug on, obviously, and in the meantime while he’s been away Thug has become one of the biggest rappers in the country. What was it like seeing Young Thug and Gucci come together on this album?
It was a beautiful thing, and I knew that’s how it was going to be. I remember being in the studio with Gucci, and Thug used to be there all the time. He might be in there rapping, he might sleep on the couch, but he was just around working trying to get his shot. So it’s a very proud moment to have them come back together after Thug went and blew up and became this big star. He still treats Gucci like big brother, like “whatever you need me to do, whatever you want me to do, I can’t wait to do it.”
What does it feel like to think back to ten years ago or so when you’re making “So Icy” and stuff compared to where you’re at now?
I never got in it knowing any of this would happen. I was doing it because I enjoyed making beats at the house, and Gucci was my favorite guy to come over and do songs with. We’d get up every morning at seven or eight o’clock and just record songs. When “So Icy” blew up I was like, “dang, we got us a song, we made us a hit.” I was excited about that, but I still never thought it would be to what it is right now. I feel like me and Gucci re-created the trap culture. There was trap music before with T.I. and Jeezy, but I think what me and Gucci created has been the trap music that has stuck with everybody and made everybody want to sound like it. But I never saw that. We were just recording songs every day, having fun.
What do you think is going to change in Atlanta now that Gucci’s back, as far as the musical culture?
It’s hard to say. I would think a lot of the guys that get a foot in the door or are on the come up with that style of music, they might get closed out. They might get drowned out because the big dog Gucci is home. I think that’s going to be the biggest difference. All the new up and coming guys that’s trying to walk in those footsteps they probably won’t get the light of day right now because Gucci is back.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.