The Social Experiment, photos courtesy of The Social Experiment
Last Thursday night, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment's album Surf appeared as a free download on iTunes (reportedly the first Apple had allowed), its arrival sudden yet highly anticipated. Promises that the album was coming soon—before the end of the year, then “soon,” then “very soon”—had been floating around since Chance the Rapper announced it in an interview with Billboard last fall, and hip-hop fans were eager to find out what the project that most saw as the follow-up to Chance's acclaimed 2013 mixtape Acid Rap would sound like.
Surf sounds like a party. It's a different sonic world from any other hip-hop album released this year, and its cast of contributors is impressive, featuring local Chicago friends like NoNameGypsy, Saba, and Joey Purp as well as big names like Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Big Sean, and J. Cole. It's also—although he's the most well known name attached to it, and The Social Experiment is his touring band—not a Chance the Rapper album. It's a collaborative effort with other band members Peter Cottontale and Nate Fox, overseen by Donnie Trumpet, a.k.a. Nico Segal.
“What I wanted to accomplish on this project most was to convey to people that I’m a producer and not just a trumpet player in Chance’s band,” Segal told me last Friday morning, groggy from an all-nighter scanning Twitter and reading initial reviews. “This is supposed to be the beginning of something, the first of its kind for something new.”
Segal has been a familiar face in Chicago's music scene (although he has since moved to LA) for more than half a decade, originally as part of the band Kids These Days, which also included Vic Mensa and brought a then-little-known Chance the Rapper on tour with them in 2013. When the band announced its breakup later that year, Segal, who nonetheless was already touring as part of Frank Ocean's live band, was perhaps the hardest hit. The weekend after the announcement I was invited to join some of the members of the band on a trip north to a farm in Wisconsin, and I remember Segal saying, with tears in his eyes and to no one in particular, that he just wanted to play music with his friends. The Social Experiment was exactly the vessel he was looking for, and Surf began to come together last spring.
“We decided that we were going to do four songs for a project called Surf, and then we would all do little variations on The Social Experiment as if we were musically directing or curating,” Segal explained to me in March. “We were bringing together ideas that we started and bringing them to the collective and having everyone flesh them out together. It’s obviously more than four songs, but we still stayed true to it.”
Following the fanfare that's greeted the album, I called up Segal and the members of the Social Experiment to get their thoughts on how it finally came together and what the reaction has been like.
On Surprises on the Album
Nate Fox: The only thing was different a little bit was maybe the time that it came out. I think it was supposed to change at 11 or something, and it changed a little early. And somebody tagged me in a post and said something like “just downloaded Surf!” I was just like uh… and I was with Nico and he was like “What?!” So we got on the phone with everybody and were like “Yo! What’s up? What’s going on?” And they were just like yeah, once we put it up somebody searched it right away and downloaded it, and we just went with it. It wasn’t bad at all. It was actually pretty cool.
Peter Cottontale: I was actually surprised that I ended up on a track with Erykah Badu. Obviously I knew before the album came out, but that was a decision that Nico just made and I saw when it popped up in my inbox, so that was cool. It’s an honor to be singing on a song with Erykah Badu, like that’s insanely awesome to me. Also, there were some stem and title changes, like “Rememory” was originally called “Tell Me” and didn’t originally have Erykah on there, and there was a big drum break that was super raw and we all vibe out to and there was a trumpet solo, but that got changed to her verse at some point. That was really the biggest one.
Nico Segal: Yeah, one of the surprise moments was changing Erykah Badu’s part. There were all these things she recorded over the part that was a horn section, and I played new keys with her voice towards the very end, really late in the process when a lot of stuff was already done. It was kind of out of nowhere and really transformed that section. We kept certain elements of that original section, but it was really all about those chords that I changed right there. The art was kind of a surprise, to be honest. It wasn’t a last second thing, but I had a lot of art from a lot of people that I really liked. But it ended up being the younger brother of a friend of a friend who did it. So it just ended up being this 18-year-old kid who did the artwork, and it just was what it was. That happened much later than we needed to have art done [laughs].
On Guest Appearances and How They Came Together
Nate: Everything was very strategically picked. I think as we were making music for the album we realized all of the options were available. I think we kind went in there just trying to make good songs, and once we realized we that could reach out not just to our talented Chicago friends but also to our talented everywhere friends, the door just kind of blew off the hinges, and we started feeling out all sorts of absurd feature ideas and went as grandiose as we could possibly think—and then gradually pulled the reins back on it for who fit the song right in particular. Then we started sending them out to the people. Sometimes we got multiple verses, and some people weren’t on it, but at the end we knew we got the right people in the right places that we thought made the album the best it could be.
Peter: There are certainly a lot of collaborators on this one. It was cool because it was really just an organic experience where we would meet up with people and come into studios with ideas and end up just building something wholly new and exciting. It’s awesome that we were able to bring so many talented people together for what would be a free release. Like, Janelle Monae just came into the studio with all her people, and we just worked and found way to create something new.
Nico: The mixing process for this record was ridiculous. There was multiple different studios all around the world that we had worked and a couple different people who were working on it. Really it started coming together when I told Nate he’d be working on it more than anyone else and that we were going to take it to somebody together after we worked on it. We had a bunch of weeks in LA when no one was here, and we would just mix songs and work on songs and that’s when it started taking shape. Some people sent things, and then we’d have sessions with them in different places or multiple sessions. Like, we had a couple days locked in the studio at CRC with BJ The Chicago Kid that were crazy successful and important in finishing Surf. It was really a situation where we would just have whoever came to the studio that day really flex and do everything they were capable of and just store it and chop it up and use the parts we needed to use. And that was really hard. In the end, it’s like not everything has a place, and that’s a harder and more mature decision to make. And that’s one of the most important things I learned on this album.
On the Ripples They See Surf Having
Nate: I don’t think it’s going to be the one thing that breaks down all the barriers, but I believe it’s the first strong step in kind of eliminating all the differences between independent and label artists or label music and independent music. To see that it can be on a platform such as iTunes for free with all of those different people on it, I think it raises a lot of interesting topics. I’ve read a couple stories, and a lot of people have been commenting on that: it being free and what that means. I think it’s just about allowing listeners to create their own value rather than putting a price tag on it.
Peter: One side of me feels like it’s a big question mark and I don’t feel like thinking about it a lot because I’m excited to see what happens. I think that it’s going to be a positive thing. I think a lot of people are going to collaborate more—I hope they do anyway. Like more labels are going to reach out to artists they just think are good and let their artists work with independent artists and all that. I just hope the effects of Surf continue to be positive in every way. I’m just excited to see what happens.
Nico: The first free release on iTunes: Hopefully it encourages people not to do the same thing but to do maybe a similar idea with a gigantic music platform, bringing it back to being about the people and releasing music and having it be really be about the music and not just a list of names that are easy to find on the internet. What we did was different, and I think that’s why it worked.
On What They're Most Proud of with the Album
Nate: I think I’m most proud of the fact that it came out. It was a such a unique collaborative effort between so many people, and there were so many ways for it to go wrong or not happen at all. For everyone to play their part and make the sacrifice to make their part, that’s kind of what I’m most proud of here.
Peter: I’ve gotten better as a producer, a creator, and as an engineer with this process. In the studio with Chance, Nico, and the rest of the guys, I couldn’t tell you how much I learned from this experience. I can do other things than I could before because I was forced into a situation where I had to learn how to do these things. I went to other engineers and had to mix parts myself with Nate and picked their brains for how to do that. It was definitely a great learning experience.
Nico: Well, I never dreamt of having songs with either Busta Rhymes or Erykah Badu or a lot of the people who I just look up to and am a fan of, so that was a big moment for me. But really I think just making songs, making good songs that I think capture a moment; that’s what I’m doing music for. I’m not trying to just be the trumpet player. I made songs on this album—played the keys and wrote the changes and came up with melodies and hooks and stuff. Really it’s just songs, however it comes about. One of my favorite tracks from the record is “Questions” with Jamila Woods, and it feels like one of those rare times in my life I really feel like I made a song with someone.
On Creating a Historical Legacy
Peter: I try to only think of things from a creative or musical process, and I definitely feel like we’ve created music that is going to last a long time. I feel like musically there are some things in there—like “Miracle” is the best example. I feel like “Miracle” is going to last a very long time. I feel like 20 years from now, 30 years from now, “Miracle” is still going to be a relevant track just because of some of the musical things that are happening on it and like the atonality and some raw ass things that me and Nico didn’t even know we could create.
Nico: I think my friends and I put together a collection of songs that are timeless, that I think can be listened to in ten years or could have happened ten years earlier. Time is going to tell how people really feel about it because it’s not going to be that first listen that you really understand what’s going on or why this or why that or who this is or who that is. It’s going to take time for people to digest it, and we’ll see. To say the least it’s a moment in time. That’s all music can really be is history, cataloging a moment in time and a feeling and a movement and a collective of people. And it definitely does that. So I’m proud of that. It definitely made history to me. Time can only tell what’s going to happen in the future to make it succeed more than I could have ever dreamed. I feel like anything is possible.
Jake Krzeczowski is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.