The Clog interviews Cal student and aspiring music producer Jeff Zheng

Jeff Zheng/Courtesy

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Jeff Zheng is a second-year student here at Cal majoring in computer science, but what separates Zheng from the rest is that he’s also an aspiring music producer and DJ. Zheng produces electronic dance music from his small Unit 1 dorm room — all while trying to handle a heavy load of coursework. Zheng is originally from southern Florida and began producing music soon after he arrived at Cal in fall 2012. Zheng produces music with his partner, best friend and fellow Cal student Nikka-Sher Piterman. Together, they form the music production duo known as First Class. So what is the life of a student DJ really like? We at the Clog decided to find out.

The Daily Californian: First off, how did you and your partner, Nikka, meet — and how did you two decide to start producing music together?

Jeff Zheng: I met Nikka through a mutual friend here at Cal. We initially did not intend on working on music together. I hadn’t even started producing music when I met him. But after I produced my first track, he was impressed and persuaded me to take music more seriously than just a hobby.

DC: Can you describe your music style?

JZ: I started off listening to electronic music during the “revival” era of EDM, when artists like Alesso and Porter Robinson became popular, so my music is heavily influenced by their usage of bright and loud synthesizers. When I sit down to create songs, I focus on the melody first, then the bass line, while other musicians tend to do vice versa.

DC: Explain to us the process of sitting down and creating a song. It must be difficult with the limited resources you have in a small dorm room.

JZ: Well, I never know when I’ll start producing a song. It often occurs when I’m just walking around campus and some catchy melody pops into my head. I try to rush as quickly as possible to a table and jot down the melody on my laptop. If that’s not possible, I’ll sometimes record a really, really embarrassing audio file on my iPhone of me singing the melody. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done. After that, it involves a lot of experimenting with sounds with a synthesizer and a lot of trial and error. There are probably dozens of (different) variations … of the songs that I have produced. Having a quiet room definitely helps. I lived in the mini-suites in Unit 1 these past two semesters, and it tends to be pretty quiet around there. And now that I’m moving into an apartment, I’ll have more room to put a new keyboard and microphone to help with the creative process.

DC: Tell us about your past experience in music and/or music production.

JZ: I used to the play the piano — up until junior year in high school — but I never enjoyed it. It was always frustrating to me to have to play the music of other composers, especially those that have been dead for over a century now. However, I think to gain that fundamental understanding of music for the type of music that I produce now — it was necessary that I had all of that intense training in classical piano music.

DC: Do you think your major of computer science ties, in any way, to your passion for music?

JZ: Computer science, in many ways, is a lot like making music. The way you compose a melody is similar to the way you code a program. Both involve a lot of asymmetrical thinking at times.

DC: Since you’re clearly very passionate about music, have you considered being a music major?

JZ: I would choose to be a music major in a heartbeat if Cal offered courses in audio production. I’m not as interested in the performance of live instruments as I am with producing, and I don’t think I could go through another music theory class again. I’m definitely considering a minor in music, though.

DC: How often do you study? How do you keep up with your music while trying to maintain a decent GPA?

JZ: I try to keep a balance between school and producing, but often times, I lose track of time when I get locked in on a track. I guess, like most Berkeley students, I study when midterms and finals come up, and I try my best to put music in the backseat (then).

DC: How has being a student at Cal inspired you and influenced your music?

JZ: Well, quite honestly, the wide availability of … incense in Berkeley is pretty great. It’s nice to light up some … incense and relax before you produce a song. But on a more serious note — not that incense (isn’t) serious business — all the friends here I’ve made over these past two semesters at Cal have really inspired me. This might sound really corny, but I’ve made so many friends at Cal who are so passionate about what they do. I have a good friend who is an English major here at Cal, and … I asked her why she was doing it, what was she going do later on. And she told me that she just loves it. She loves to read, and she loves to write, and she’s passionate about literature, and why waste your time on something you don’t love when you could be pursuing something you really enjoy? So hearing things like that always pushes me further in making music. Knowing that there are so many people who are so passionate and in love with what they are doing with their lives here at Cal really inspires me to keep doing it. Some people may think it’s a waste of time, but there are so many people at Cal who understand where I am coming from. It’s not a waste of time if you love what you are doing.

DC: How has being in the Bay Area influenced your music?

JZ: Well, I’m originally from south Florida. Coming to Berkeley was really cool because the EDM scene in the Bay Area is booming. Back at home, I only had a couple of friends I could talk to about EDM shows coming up or whatever, but here at Cal, there is a serious population of EDM lovers. Every time I mention a DJ’s name in a conversation with a group of people, there’s always a couple of them who know what I’m talking about, and it’s awesome! Also, there are always EDM festivals or DJ’s coming through Oakland or San Francisco or just around the Bay Area in general, and I always have friends who are down to go with me! So basically, just knowing that I have all these people around me who are interested in the type of music I make — who know it even better than I do sometimes — and who can give me constructive criticism and honest opinions about my music is really helpful.

DC: What are your aspirations for the future?

JZ: I never thought my music would actually be good enough to be published by a label, but surprisingly enough, I was contacted by a Greek record label two months ago. However, their terms were extremely restrictive, and they didn’t have much to offer me in the way of promotion. But even those tiny successes have given me confidence that I have the potential to make music a career for myself. I recently decided to start up a music label with Nikka and another one of my close friends Jared Jones, aka Protejay  —you should check out his music, called California Records. It’s still in the early stages, but we have big plans ahead of us. As for school and Cal, I still plan to graduate after these next three years and get my degree in computer science. I think it will help me with my music, and even though music is what I’m most passionate about, getting that degree will help me be skilled in other areas.

If you’re interested in checking out some of Zheng’s music, click here.

If you’re interested in checking out the music Zheng and Piterman have produced together, click here.

Contact Gabrielle Nguyen at [email protected]