Zaytoven Talks New Movie ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ Meeting Migos And Working With Drake, Gucci Mane And Chief Keef
Zaytoven's star has been on the rise for almost a decade, ever since the 2005 song "Icy" catapulted an ascendant Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy onto the national stage. Since then, Zay has been one of Gucci's closest collaborators, contributing production to just about every one of his releases while becoming a staple of the Atlanta trap music scene and working with artists such as Soulja Boy, OJ Da Juiceman, Plies, Nicki Minaj, Rocko, Future, and plenty more. This past June, Zay made his motion picture debut—his first acting gigs since a stint as an extra on Boy Meets World and an appearance in a Michael Jordan commercial when he was a kid—starring in Birds of a Feather, a movie loosely based on the producer's life and career in the music industry. But that's not all—Zay's leap into the mainstream consciousness has resulted in invitations to help produce projects with Drake, E-40 and Chief Keef, in addition to working on up to 60 percent of Gucci's next album, which is also in the works. And "Versace," his smash hit with up-and-coming Atlanta trio Migos, got the Drake remix treatment, which sent the song into the stratosphere and had hip-hop heads yelling the designer brand name all across the streets of Atlanta, New York, and L.A. since it hit the Internet. Zaytoven hopped on the phone with XXL last week to discuss his new movie, how he got together with Migos, and his work with Chief Keef, Drake, Gucci and a whole bunch more.—Dan Rys (@danrys)
XXL: Tell me a little bit about the movie. How'd the whole thing come about?
Zaytoven: It actually came about from me doing a mixtape project with Gucci Mane and Rocko, so in the midst of recording it, the guy who had written and directed Birds Of A Feather [Curtis "Al Nuke" Franklin] I had him come over and do filming for us while we were putting together the mixtape—we were gonna do a studio documentary to go along with the mixtape. After a while, we did the music and we didn't really put it out, so I thought, everybody can put out studio DVDs, I need to do a movie. And I'd use these two guys in the movie. So from there it just turned into doing a movie idea. And the guy who'd written and directed it, he'd done a movie before called 17,000 Block, and once I'd seen the movie I thought, "I ought to do a movie, and get everybody I know to be in the movie."
Have you always been interested in the movie business?
I was always interested in scoring movies, and if anybody know how Zaytoven get down, I like to start from the bottom and make it to the top. So I'll go get an artist who's unknown and try to blow him up before I go to a major artist and try to get with them. So that's what I feel with the movie—since I wanted to score a movie, why don't I make my own movie and score that? And maybe that will call attention to it and get me a score placement somewhere else. That was another reason why I wanted to make a movie, just so I could score it.
DId [Al Nuke] approach you and ask you to star in it?
I told him, I said we need to do a movie—I saw his movie, and he's such a great actor, that I said to him that we had to do a movie. But he was tellin' me, "Zay, everybody loves you in Atlanta, the movie gotta be about you." At first I wasn't trying to make it about me, I just knew how good he could act and I thought we needed to make a movie. I'd produce it and do whatever I needed to do, and I'd be in it, but I wasn't planning on starring in it. But he said, "The movie gotta be about you," so that's how that came about.
So he convinced you to star in it?
Yeah, I said if that's what you think we need to do, then let's do it.
Had you ever done any acting before that?
Believe it or not, when I was younger my mom always had me and my little brother doing modeling for—I don't know if you remember Mervyn's clothes—I used to be on the sitcom Boy Meets World...but I was just an extra, I didn't have no speaking part. The biggest thing I'd done was a "What If?" Michael Jordan commercial, he did a commercial called "What if?" you know, "what if there were no sports?" and I was in a commercial back then shooting a basketball. But that was like the biggest thing I'd ever done; I wasn't like a star or nothing, just a lot of extra work.
How old were you when you were doing that?
Man, I had to be 11, 12, 13, around that age.
Did you get to meet Michael?
Yeah, I met Michael, I met Charles Barkley, the day we did that. It was [crazy].
How autobiographical is the movie?
I'd give it about 60 percent. We add a lot of drama, we add a lot of things that happen in the music industry that didn't happen to me, but that happens to a lot of other people, so we added that. But it was about 60 percent true.
Tell me about making the movie. What were some of the challenges?
We probably shot the movie in maybe a month and a half, just shooting. It was more fun than anything. To get all the guys I do music with and say, hey I want you guys to have a part in this movie, and here are your lines, try to learn them right now—ain't nobody have scripts and have to go home and learn and practice and none of that, we just kinda had a guideline with us and said this is your part, this is mine, let's practice our lines and then just do it in maybe 45 minutes. So we just had a ball doing it. And I feel like that was what made it unique. It was just us really using our own personalities and using that as our main way of acting. As far as challenges, there wasn't really any challenges, everybody supported me to do it, anytime I called anyone they showed up, so it was really more fun than anything.
So you would just hit up Gucci or Shawty and they'd come through?
Yeah, and I hit 'em up same day, too, it wasn't like I'd hit them up two, three days before. It was more like, "Man, I'm at the mall, who would be good for this scene right here? Shawty Lo, let me call up Shawty Lo—'Hey man, we're shooting this scene, can you come through?'" And he'd be like, "I'll be there in an hour. Let's do it."
How was it acting alongside such an experienced actor such as Gucci Mane?
Gucci's almost as experienced as I am! [Laughs] He's done some acting roles before, but you know, we built our careers together, so acting with him was like nothing at all, because we naturally talk to each other and be around each other, so that was really easy and a real comfortable situation.
Did you happen to catch him in Spring Breakers?
Yeah, I seen him, yeah. That's just Gucci Mane; he's funny all the way around the board, he's hilarious.
What kind of reception did you have for the movie?
I've had nothing but good responses, there's not one negative thing [that's been said]. It's been a great experience; everyone's very supportive, they saying they watching it over and over again. It helped brand me and expand me in other ways, so it's been a great move for me. I'm gonna be the Tyler Perry of making independent films having to do with music. I'm starting my next one in two months. It's gonna be called Finesse and it's more of a comedy, 'cause in this music industry there's a lot of finesse and a lot of people doing under the table stuff to make money and a lot of that stuff going on in the music industry. So I wanted to make a movie pertaining to that, but make it a comedy. Because it's funny when you really think about what people do, and act like who they know and like they somebody that they ain't to make some money and get positions in this industry, and a lot of times it works. People can finesse their way to the top just off of acting like they something more than they are.
How'd you hook up with Migos?
The artist Yung L.A. came over to my house and we were recording one day, and he said, "Hey I was on my way over and I heard someone on the radio, some young dudes rapping on your beat, going so hard." So when he told me that I looked them up, and I saw that they had a video on YouTube for it, for "Bando." And I seen it—I must have seen Quevo, cause he's the one who did the hook and he rapped first—soon as I seen it, they were probably at 5,000 or 6,000 views or something, so it wasn't like they were blowing up or nothing. I think people had kinda heard the song, and it was getting some rotation in the mix show, but as soon as I seen the video and heard the music, I was like man I gotta find these guys right here. 'Cause they sounded special to me.
I didn't have no way of getting in touch with them, so I went to a club out here called Obsessions, and OJ Da Juiceman had a show out there, and they was there. I actually bumped into—I didn't know they was gonna be there—I actually bumped into Quevo accidentally, 'cause he stepped on my shoes. He looked up and said my bad, and I said, oh my fault, and we looked at each other again and he was like, "Oh, you Zaytoven, what's up!" and I was like, "Aw, you the guy I've been lookin' for!" So that's how it happened—we actually bumped into each other and we were looking for each other. I think that was just destiny. So after we exchanged numbers, I said come on over to the studio, and the next day we did a record from scratch, I gave them some beats, they took them to their studio, and they just took it from there.
So you gave them beats or they were working with you in the studio?
We was doing both. They first came over—for me, to break the ice with a new artist I'm working with is to make a beat right there in front of their face from scratch and let them record a song right there from scratch. That way it breaks the atmosphere and we get comfortable with each other. We recorded two songs like that and I gave them some beats. They recorded "Versace" off the beats I gave them. They had actually gone to the Versace store and I guess they were turnt up because they had bought a bunch of Versace clothes and stuff like that, so they came back and recorded it, and then they brought it over the next day like, "Zay you gotta hear these songs we did over the beats." When I heard it that's when I knew it was a perfect match. Man, we heard ["Versace"] and we were like, "Nah, we gotta leave it like it is," because it was a different feeling, you know when you finish shopping for the first time for Versace and you spent a lot of money, it's a different vibe. You come home and record about it, you not gonna get that energy again.
Were you involved in getting Drake on the remix?
I had nothing to do with getting Drake on the remix. It almost blew my mind—because I remember at the [Hot 97] Birthday Bash, which is where they met Drake, they performed and were taking pictures and exchanging numbers and all that. So Coach K had called me and said, "Drake wants some beats from you, and he wants to rap on 'Versace.'" He said, "I sent him the 'Versace' song and he said he was gonna send it back to you tomorrow, and then he wants some beats." And then he showed me the email, like "I ain't playin' man, this man said 'Could you please send me some Zaytoven beats,'" so just seeing that made me smile. And then, when I hear the record and he shout me out, it just really blew my mind, like I can't do nothing but respect and big up Drake for something like that, 'cause that means he paid attention to what I've done in the past, who I am, and what I've done in music. It was a blessing to get him on the song, because it was a big song already, but he just made the song go through the roof. It blew up so fast it's unbelievable.
You sent Drake beats for his new project?
Yes sir, he wanted me and Migos to do something for his project. It's too early to tell [if I'm gonna be on the record], but it's looking good now.
How'd you meet up with Chief Keef?
Well he and Gucci had gotten close, and Gucci kept saying, "Hey man, Chief Keef don't wanna rap on nobody's beats but yours." I had given him my number a while back, we had done a song with me, him and Yung Fresh a while back, but lately he calls me and he asks me to send him some beats, and it's like everything he puts out now is on music that I do for him. And he called me and he was like, "Hey man all I want to rap on right now is your music, I want you to do my whole album." So we got that type of relationship going right now, so we found the chemistry that works between me and him; I talked to him last night. The last three videos he put up and songs he'd done and released are songs that I did with him.
How do you think Chicago drill music fits with you and what you're building out of Atlanta?
It's almost the same thing to me. To me, they style almost coincides with our style. Chief Keef remind me of Gucci Mane; it's the same type of guy, the same type of style, the same thing, so it's almost just parallel with what Atlanta's doing, or at least as far as what I'm doing. That's why we have a chemistry.
Are you doing any work on Gucci's new album?
Yes sir, I'm set to do about 60 percent of his new album; we just finished talking about 30 minutes ago. All I can say right now is that we working; he's a workaholic and I'm the same way, so we just doing songs, just piling up records. And the music is amazingly mature than what people expect. We're taking a different approach, taking our time and really digging deep, you know what I mean, and taking our time with the music, so I think it's gonna be really good for our listeners and the people waiting on the music. It's still our same sound, the same sound me and Gucci have created, but it might be a sample—I've never used samples before—but we might go back and dig through the crates and find a sample or something that sounds to me like something older, like older music, and add it to what we do to give it a twist.
Atlanta's running the mainstream of hip-hop right now. What's your assessment of the Atlanta music scene right now?
Atlanta has everything you want. I'm an army kid, my dad was in the army so I've been moved around my whole life, but Atlanta is the one place where if you want all different types of flavors, you can get it all right here in Atlanta. I mean, Atlanta got trap music for you, they got swag music, got crunk music, got dance music, the guys coming up and being brought up in Atlanta got a lot of different flavors—we can give it to you any way you want. I think that's the reason why we're taking over the music industry, because we're coming at it from so many different angles, other places really can't keep up. The West Coast might have a certain sound or a certain style; Atlanta's not like that. Atlanta might come out with snap music, or crunk music, so we set the trend for everything else. We're always evolving. It's hard to keep up with Atlanta.
What other projects do you have coming up?
Right now I'm back in the studio with Sean Garrett—you know we had done "Papers" for Usher—we back working on Usher's album again. Then on top of the Drake, I just came from the Bay Area, so I'm working on E-40's new album, so I'm trying to get my West Coast thing on. Right now the doors have just been open, and a lot of people want to work with me, so I'm working with everybody who wants to work. This is a business, you gotta take advantage while people want you to work on it. I'm a family man, so I get a lot of good sleep, but I can't sleep long, and then straight back to the studio. I'm the type of person who can't stay still, so even the studio bores me sometimes, so I gotta go out to the club, meet people, move around a lot. I like to keep busy.