(Photos by Itenji)
“To come back for a project with Usher is just incredible,” Zay shared with a smile taking over his face.
Tucked away across from the bustling happy hour crowd at the Arlo Hotel, Zaytoven approaches the far corner of an unoccupied couch. He straightens his hat, centers the “A,” focuses on his phone. The screen illuminates his face, the volume, as intense as the brightness, is loud enough to turn the heads of surrounding guests. Zay’s thumb glides over the screen scrolling through a dozen songs, absorbing a melody in a matter of seconds. Before his next breath he’s on to the next song.
Hot 97 spoke to Zaytoven on the eve of his NY movie premiere for Birds of a Feather 2, a week after his album, A, a collaborative 8 track project with Usher was released. Keep in mind, Zay’s celebrations are short lived as he’s always anticipating the next project.
It’s been a decade since the two of you last worked together. What was it like reconnecting with Usher on this project?
Amazing. I’m known as a trap producer and to be able do a project with a megastar like Usher is amazing for me. It gives me confidence on another level, even though trap right now is the most sought out style of music.
I brag about the song, “Papers.” Actually, it’s been the song I brag about the most; it’s one of my all time favorites. To come back for a project with Usher is just incredible, Zay shared with a smile taking over his face.
It seems as if you and Usher caught a vibe and let the creative process happen organically.
Honestly, I was nervous going in. I thought, “What am I going to do? What if what I do is not what he wants? Am I really going to satisfy what he’s looking for?” The first day was just Usher and I. We really tried to get to know each other considering it was the first time I had met Usher. We never even had a conversation. He was such a big star and I was just getting my feet wet. Even though I did “Papers” I was still on the grind trying to become who I am now.
We got in the studio the first day and talked, just vibing. Then I thought, “let’s just start everything from scratch.” We scrapped all the beats I had come with and started making music organically. It’s the same thing I do with Gucci Mane and Future. I sit down at the keyboard and start putting beats together. One leads to two and you look up and you got about 15 songs. We say, “why we keep recording? We got bangers already.”
What was the first cut off the album?
The first song that let me know we had something was “Peace Sign.” That’s one of my favorites right now. “Peace Sign” hit me in that funny place like, “whoa, wait a minute. We got something.” At first you kind of just working and you know this sounds good and that’s a dope idea, but when we did “Peace Sign” it was like, that’s it. After that we were just on a roll.
You challenge each other on “Say What You Want.” You strip the beat and rely solely on keys and Usher’s harmony gliding over them. What makes this song sound so special?
“Say What You Want” was one of the last songs we did. After recording, you can see what’s missing. What lane do we need to touch? This is Usher. He is the greatest R&B star in the world. You have to give him a “Say What You Want.” I remember initially we were thinking about not doing that. I thought people would be mad at me.
It’s like, “how’d you get Usher and not do a song like that?” Zay says emphatically pressing his hand on his chest. When he came up with the hook, everybody in the room knew it. Everything we did was on the spot. None of it was pre-rehearsed; we came in and I started playing the keys and making the beat. He would just come up with the words each time. We actually recorded at Westlake Studio (located in LA) in the same room Michael Jackson used to record.
Artists and producers are constantly evolving. How do you stay true to yourself as a producer, while capturing new trends in hip-hop?
One thing about me, no matter who I’m producing for, I keep my same regiment. I still produce the same way Usher and I did this project in 4-5 days.
When I work with Gucci or Future, we’re just knocking songs out, Zay snaps mimicking the pace at which they work. I’ve evolved because I’m working with a broader audience and it’s making my sound even bigger. I’m still getting to the keyboard and the drum machine beating them out in 10 minutes.
Are there any young producers in the game that you’ve taken under your wing?
There are so many I don’t want to name because I don’t want anyone to feel left out.
Without naming, how have you helped them?
A lot of them I bring to my home, just like how I do with rappers. I bring them into that environment and produce with them. I introduce them to people I work with and invite them to create.
How different is your creative process from theirs?
I still go about it the same way. I still use analog even though everything now is digital. They come in and say, “What is that? What you need all that for?” Technology made it where all you have to do is show up with a computer. You can make a beat without pressing any keys or buttons. I chose to continue to produce the way I do because that’s what created the Zaytoven sound. That’s what keeps me around.
The album isn’t even a week old and here you are promoting your film, Birds of a Feather 2. How is acting different than producing?
Believe it or not I’m usually uncomfortable. Aside from making beats, I’m kind of like, “uhhh, this ain’t really me. This ain’t what I do.” I just did a show with BET called, The Next Big Thing. I did a whole season. I’m a damn show host now, he laughs. This is not what I’m used to. The people tell me, “you did a great job,” and it gives me confidence, but I’m uncomfortable.
I’d imagine that as a producer you spend much of your career behind the boards. Do you prefer your notoriety from afar?
Yeah, it’s a safe distance. At times, during the movie, I was uncomfortable. I don’t know how to act. I’m doing it, but I don’t feel comfortable in it.
Well, the storyline is similar to your lifestyle.
Right, I’m playing myself so why not amp it up a little bit. I’m doing these things because from a producer’s standpoint, I want to create a blueprint for other producers. They might say, “I want to try a movie, I want to be on a show, I want to write a book.” I want to give other up and coming producers the confidence to do it.
Did you produce all the music for the film?
I did all the music. That’s another thing. When you do your own stuff, film and music, you can do what you want to do.
Right now I’m taking it all in as it comes. All these things that are happening are things I couldn’t have told you about 2 weeks ago. The Usher project, I couldn’t have told you about a month ago because it wasn’t a thing. It’s amazing being in the industry because I can get a call tomorrow, “Hey Zay we want you to do this.”
Actually, I’m doing an Axe body spray commercial tomorrow with Lil Yachty. These are things just coming about that I haven’t even thought about and that’s what keeps me excited.
Is there anyone in music that you would love to work with?
There’s a lot of people and I’m about to work with them now. I’d like to do some work with Rihanna, Beyonce, and Chris Brown. I think Usher helped open the door for that.
Listen to A below: