Zaytoven on 'Beast Mode 2' and the Future of the Atlanta Sound
We talked to the one and only Zaytoven about his tireless work ethic and what's next.
Photo via Red Bull
Zaytoven is the chief architect of Atlanta’s modern trap sound, but for one night, he was dethroned as the king of this domain. While a bunch of young adults hopped up on Red Bull measured by a decibal reader is perhaps not the best indicator of cultural tendencies, at last weekend’s enthralling Culture Clash event—that Red Bull flew me out to attend—in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, Zaytoven was usurped by Kranium, the New York dancehall artist carving a path for his Jamaican-indebted songs wherever the speakers blast loudest.
The event itself was a fun peek at the intersection of America’s current stylistic tics, but the show was less an indicator of current trends than the various lenses through which iterations of hip-hop are now remixed. A look at the crew’s special guests keyed into all the relevant themes that emerged: Zaytoven brought out Paul Wall and OJ Da Juiceman—artists that made me throw my sugar free lime flavored liquid cocaine into the air like a frisbee across a quad—while Fuego brought out—Mr. I No Fucking Baby himself—Pio, Fatboy SSE, and more. Kenny Beats and Mija laced his zoned out swamp rap beats with surprisingly-adept rapper Zack Fox and certainly awesome rapper Key!. Rico Nasty popped in for some verses, too. Compared to the youthful exuberance populating these sets, Zay’s vets stood out as if from a different genre entirely; it seems as if OJ Da Juiceman has been a veteran rapper for the entirety of my 25 years on this planet and Paul Wall was certainly the dude that made me want grillz as a 12 year old.
Granted, this vacuumed subsect of music’s current direction is no grand indicator, but it’s certainly something Zaytoven has begun noticing, and a key reason why he’s begun shifting his attention as much towards the youth as to the older heads that helped lift him to the top of rap production’s heap in the first place.
Before the event, we met up with Zaytoven at a chic new Atlanta hotel above one of its most famous, extremely... interesting strip clubs, where we discussed the future of Atlanta music and the history of Atlanta’s singular trap sound. Both play a key role in his singular style, but neither dominate. Zaytoven is a hybrid, an innovator who excels when pushing his work chameleonically into the orbits of his collaborators.
All conversations about Zaytoven—with collaborators, fans, anyone, really—eventually reveal two things: He’s nothing like the artists he works with, and he still plays keyboards in church on Sundays. Both are little nuggets that speak to Zay’s career, namely that he’s stayed a humble Atlanta-based actual human while many of his collaborators have accelerated to stadium statuses so large as to turn their humanity into caricatures we’re able to ascribe to fit our narratives. This certainly has much to do with our collective elevation of rappers over producers, but as the defining stylist of Atlanta’s most pervasive sound, it was a bit surprising that Zay showed up to our interview with nothing more than a small crew and an understated chain bursting with beautiful little diamonds; OK, the white Bentley parked out front was pretty nice, but it’d also be in the church parking lot two days later.
When we talked about the event itself, Zaytoven was just excited that his city was being spotlit for a wide audience to experience. For one night, the street invasions of dancehall, future rap, and hybrid-R&B descended upon Atlanta to prove that there’s no longer a dominant formula that leads to success in rap’s southern capital. Zaytoven didn’t emerge unscathed—although he did lose in a debatable sudden-death noise-off to Kranium—but his was a performance for and by legends of Atlanta past. Present, and future. His Trapholizay LP from earlier this year features verses from Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, 21 Savage, and 66.6% (repeating) of Migos. Future, OJ, Plies, and Gucci have verses, too. Zaytoven’s not afraid of the next generation, which is what still makes him the most relevant producer pushing beats in ATL’s actively expanding landscape. He’s for the kids, and he’s for the older generation, too. Zaytoven is for rap music, and it seems like he always will be; as long as you’re not asking for beats on a Sunday.
Noisey: Was there any sort of pressure to follow up a classic Future tape like Beast Mode? How did that conversation between the two of you begin?
Zaytoven: Me and Future have been doing music ever since Beast Mode. We thought about putting out Beast Mode 2 back in 2016 and calling Beast Mode 16, but the climate wasn’t right. I put out my album called Trapholizay out this year. It has the song “Mo Reela” on it that features Future. That just sounded like that Beast Mode sound. And the streets was just eating it up. So that’s when we decided it was time to put out Beast Mode 2. We didn’t know whether or not we wanted to call it Beast Mode 2 because Beast Mode was such a classic, but I was like, ‘Man, let’s just call it Beast Mode 2 because it’s the same type of music.’ And really, it’s for the streets. It’s a mixtape for the streets.
Were you actively trying to follow the path of Beast Mode when you began working on the new one?
Yes, exactly. It’s a template. That’s exactly what I was doing. It still has to have those hungry, passionate street melodies. We’re not tryna make no hit record off of here. We’re not tryna make no radio sound. We’re strictly tryna touch the heart of the street.
But you do expand your production style on the record. “Hate the Real Me” has some classic ATL horns on there.
Well of course you gotta add some new flavor. It’s years later!
Do you like Beast Mode 2 more than Beast Mode ?
I will say this. Ever since it came out I haven’t stopped listening to it. I’ve been listening to the CD over and over again, 1,000 times. At this point I do like it more.
I think you’re Future’s best producer because of the emotion you draw out of him. What is it about your music that makes him comfortable expressing himself in that very broken, open, and honest way?
My sound is soul-driven. A lot of music nowadays, especially Future music, is for the club and totally energetic. It’s uptempo and upbeat. My music is real soulful and has a different heartbeat to it. It definitely brings out another side of Future. It lets him talk and sing a different way. Man, Beast Mode’s been my favorite project I’ve ever done.
Have you ever wanted to experiment with the poppier side of Future or are you happy sticking to the soul shit?
My name has lasted so long because of what I do and what I bring to the game. I just love bringing that shit at the time it’s needed. I ain’t never really wanna go to the pop side.
What y’all are doing is like a new Blues music.
Yeah, exactly! It’s the blues.
Does a lot of that come from growing up playing in church?
That’s exactly where it comes from. I’m able to tap into a side of Future that nobody else can because of the music I grew up with, because of where I came from.
Is that what the LaCrae record is all about too?
Same thing. He’s a Christian artist. I’m a church musician. We both Christian. It made all the sense in the world.
Do you think that church-musician style infuses every beat you produce?
No matter who I work with. Even when I started doing trap music in the beginning, back when I was working with Gucci. Even though someone might be talking about robbing, killing, or being on drugs, it’s still a certain soul that’s coming out of the music that makes it sound a particular way.
Is that what’s made your career last as long as it has?
I gotta say that. Nowadays a lot of people are doing music to get a song on the radio or get a song poppin’ in the club. I never made songs for the radio, I never made songs for the club. I just produced music that I felt the streets would love and the artists could bleed a different way through. But somehow, these are still the songs that end up being on the radio or in the club.
One of the reasons rappers like working with you, I think, is because of how well you fit into other artists’ sounds. When you’re at home making beats, are you thinking about catering certain songs to certain rappers? What’s your collaborative process like on a day-by-day basis?
A lot of times I just go in with an open mind and start creating. By the time I’m finished with a track I’ll feel like, ‘Oooooh Future would kill this,’ or, ‘Oh, this is Migos all day long.’ What’s so crazy is, I can think that, and when I send them the tracks, the song I thought was supposed to be for Migos, Future takes it. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
You let them pick?
You gotta let the artist be the artist. If something touches them in a certain way, ay man, do what you need to do.
I imagine Trapholizay is different, though, where you’re leading the charge more aggressively.
Yeah, now I’m leading the charge. For Trapholizay it’s more like, ‘This is the track I want Gotti and T.I. and Rick Ross on.’ And they don’t got no choice about that. They ask which song they’re gonna be on and I tell ‘em what we gon’ do. That was just a different situation.
How do you draw the line between working on your own stuff and working for other people?
It’s just based on when the project comes about. I don’t really try to make rules to what I do.
Have you started working on the follow-up to Trapholizay?
Yes sir. It’s already in motion.
What do you think is different about it from the first one?
It’s gonna be a lot more youthful. People gon’ be like, ‘Damn, Zay went and got him? Zay’s working with him?’ I wanna do that.
You view yourself as a mentor?
Do you feel any pressure as a godfather of trap music to keep moving the sound forward? Or are you happier continuing in the space you’ve already established and that you’ve become successful with?
I don’t feel pressure from anybody else. I feel pressure from myself to constantly want to do better than what I did before. I always put pressure on myself. I’ve got to come harder, I’ve got to do this, do that; I’ve got to reinvent.
Everyone knows your sound. How do you grow while retaining that sound?
I’ve got to give credit to the different artists I work with. When I work with Future, it sounds different than when I work with Gucci. Even with these new artists...When I work with Lil Uzi Vert it’s gonna bring something different outta me. It’s gonna sound like Zaytoven, but it’s gonna have a twist to it. That’s why I stay in-tune with the youth because they bring things outta me I didn’t know I had.
That’s refreshing to hear because some hip-hop legends a generation or two older than you are pretty firm in their resistance to new iterations of rap music.
Yeah, yeah. They can’t move! But it’s a young man’s game
What have some of these younger artists taught you?
They taught me some stuff about song structure. I remember doing a song with Uzi, and the beat I did, they just took the beat and sped it all the way up. They chopped certain halves of the parts they wanted to use and just moved ‘em around. I never would have thought to do it like that. They making new rules. They doin’ new things.
It’s a whole new language.
It’s something totally different. I enjoy that because it opens me up.
Were you mostly self-taught as a beatmaker?
The guy that taught me how to initially make beats was a guy named JT the Bigga Figga. He took me in the studio and showed me how to work equipment. Once he showed me that I started buying my own equipment and just learning, making beats on my own.
You’ve been deep in the Atlanta scene for such a long time. What’s the most noticeable way the scene has changed and progressed?
It just has new flavor. What Atlanta music has done for me has always been about new lingo and new cadences. I’m listening to the new young guys and they’re sayin’ some of the same things but the way they’re sayin’ ‘em are totally different.
Do you follow what’s going on in different rap scenes across the country, like what’s happening in LA or the DMV? Or do you stick to the south?
I been mostly wrapping my head around the south. When I start working with these other artists that’s when I’ll really start to get in-tune with what they’re about.
Who’s one artist you wanna work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
I always say Rihanna. I always thought Rihanna would be super dope. I think she’d fit my sound so well. We could really make something.
Especially on that last record, Anti .
Yeah, yeah. I think the sounds are fairly similar. I think that’d be a good collab.
What are you most looking forward to about bringing your team to the Culture Clash event?
This is my first time ever going to a Culture Clash, so to be one of the guys that’s battling in it is super excited. I’m super confident in the team I have and I’m confident about bringing the trophy home.
What can fans look out for?
I wanna show that I have relationships in Atlanta and I’m one of the guys that runs the sound in Atlanta. This is my chance—
This is your city.
Yeah, it’s mine.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.