The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Q&A | TheZeffsterr

TheZeffsterr is one of four bands featured in Headliners, the newest concert video series by The Daily Iowan.
Emily Nyberg
The Zeffsterr performs during The Daily Iowan Headliners in The Daily Iowan newsroom in the Adler Journalism building on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Four groups will be featured in the series’ second season. (Emily Nyberg/The Daily Iowan)

TheZeffsterr is the stage name of Iowa City based rapper and University of Iowa fourth-year student Zeff Walker-El. He grew up in Chicago and founded his label Critical Money Incorporated in 2018.

He is one of four groups of musicians who performed for The Daily Iowan’s video concert series Headliners, with a recorded and edited version to bring Iowa City’s music scene beyond the community. This episode of Headliners will be live on May 3.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Iowan: When and why did you first start making music?

 Walker-El: That’s a journey. Do we have hours?  I started doing music a little over 10 years ago, just recording on a Mac computer that my mom had invested in for me. It was an investment because, in retrospect, she’s reaping those benefits now. But I also have a history of music in my family; both my uncles were in the music industry. They kind of gave up their dream due to different reasons, personal reasons, and I always saw that and was like that seems like something that I’d love to do.

Early on — not going to lie — I wasn’t the biggest music fan; I was into Power Rangers and wrestling. Like, I wanted to be a WWE superstar. But my mom had thrown a back-to-school party — she was known for throwing events in Chicago — and she had this young artist and his dad perform. Once I saw them perform, I was like, this dude’s maybe like a year or two older than me; how can I get this type of love? How can I do that? His name was Little E. He gave me his uncle’s USB mic. And he taught me how to use GarageBand on the Mac.

At first, I was just using the Mac for video editing with iMovie. But he gave me that mic, and the rest was history. I recently saw him at the fifth-year anniversary of my company, and it was just like a full circle moment because he was just like, “Bro, I’m so f**king proud of you because what I showed you, you ran with it, and you did not give up.” There are many times that I want it to give up. There are many times that people did not support me, but I did not allow that to take me off my goal. So that’s where I started.

What are some of your career highlights thus far?

In 2018, on my 21st birthday, I launched my company as a corporation, and it’s called Critical Money Inc. From there, it was, like, it was up. I was like, I have to do this now; I now have put my name as a co-president of my own company on paper, and it’s under the government — I have it tattooed, on all my merchandise — yeah, I literally am branded Critical Money. So, I’m just taking the time to learn that. The rule of thumb in business is that you’re not going to make anything happen with your business until it’s five years old. That’s half of a decade. If you actually put the time in and grind and network, you will reap those fruits.

So right now, where I am in my career — it’s been over five years since — I’m overjoyed. I get a lot of love here in Iowa. Moving to Iowa was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I moved here originally for a school. I have a career outside of this and I’m chasing the goal.

In 2023, I won Hip Hop Artist of the Year from the second annual Iowa Music Awards. In 2022, I was fan-nominated Hip-Hop Artist of the Year, but I didn’t win the award. I did win the album of the year for my album “222 Read in-Between the Lines” and, on Feb. 22 — Caitlin Clark day — I relaunched my album as a deluxe Anniversary Edition two years later with about 10 new tracks to the album just to give my fans and supporters a reason to listen to my album and hear all this music. The love and confidence that Iowa has given me — I can conquer the world with this type of energy. I mentioned Caitlin Clark because it’s the same thing: she can conquer the world because Iowa will stand behind you and, if you’re striving towards something greater, no one wants to stop growth. Everyone wants to grow. So, Iowa wants to grow with me. And I love that. I am growing with Iowa.

Who are your musical inspirations?

I came up in the era of Chief Keef blowing up. Seeing Chief Keef blow up, G Herbo, Lil Durk — it’s so crazy to see Lil Durk open for Drake in Ohio with J Cole. Just seeing Lil Durk up there I’m like, this dude grew up right up the street from me. I remember when he was wearing white t-shirts in his music videos with a bunch of dudes behind him and guns and stuff like that. He’s not that anymore. He doesn’t push that energy anymore. He just recently dropped a song about how he doesn’t want to do that anymore; that’s not how you’re going to survive. That’s not how I am going to get to where I want to be in my career by continuously pushing negativity. Other inspirations were Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Jay-Z, the list goes on.

How would you describe your own sound?

My most recent album defines the sound. It describes where I was evolving. I have some lyrics in the beginning of my song, “24” — it’s about Kobe Bryant — I said in the song: “To let you know, it didn’t happen overnight. / That’s what you’re going to think when you see me, posted on these private flights. / I gave the game my life, kept my soul in exchange / so I can stand in the light. I promise it’s very bright / every day it’s a fight.”

This is me shedding who I was and letting you know that everything you’re going to see from this point forward. So now where I am, I’m not even in that space anymore. I had my heart broken, I broke a heart, I’m almost about to graduate again; there are a lot of things that I’ll talk about in my future music. I was hip hop artist of the year. I’ve got motion now. This is all confidence this is all work. That’s just kind of where I am in my space right now.

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Avi Lapchick
Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor
Avi Lapchick is an arts editor at The Daily Iowan. A fourth-year student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, she previously held the positions of staff photojournalist, summer arts editor, and assistant arts editor at the DI. She is happiest when she is writing or painting.
Emily Nyberg
Emily Nyberg, Visual Editor
Emily Nyberg is a second-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic arts. Prior to her role as a Visual Editor, Emily was a Photojournalist, and a News Reporter covering higher education.