As members of the Social Experiment, Nico Segal and Nate Fox are known for their work backing Chance the Rapper, but their long-running collaboration is as unlikely as it prolific. Segal is a Chicago trumpet player steeped in a jazz background who loved ‘90s hip-hop, previously performed as Donnie Trumpet, and was in a buzzing high school band called Kids These Days. Fox, on the other hand, is a Cleveland-raised musician who made beats for fun and got into the Chance the Rapper fold after randomly meeting him at SXSW in 2012. He would later frequently drive to Chicago from his construction job in Pittsburgh to help produce 2013’s Acid Rap. They’ve both gone down a ridiculously improbable road to becoming Grammy-winning producers who have worked with Kanye West, DRAM, DJ Khaled, Local Natives, tUnE-yArDs, and many more.
Their latest project Intellexual, which put out its self-titled debut album last Friday, is even more of a outside-the-box surprise. The 12-track LP takes more cues from Paul Simon, Labi Siffre, and Joni Mitchell than it does any rapper they’ve worked with. But while there are acoustic guitars and live takes, there are a wealth of collaborators and fascinating sonic surprises throughout. No folk-inspired LP has ever featured footwork veteran DJ Spinn providing drums or a Bossa Nova-inflected interlude featuring Esperanza Spalding called “Boca.” Before its release, Segal sat down with Noisey from his new West Side house that he bought with his roommate Francis and the Lights. There, he nursed a blunt and phoned up Fox, who is currently in Atlanta working on Chance the Rapper’s upcoming debut studio album.
“Intellexual definitely feels like a collective thought that we selectively shared with other musicians,” explains Fox. “It's a band in the sense that me and Nico are the members but it's more a collective in the sense that there's this overarching energy that everybody kind of tapped into.”
The band started work in 2016 while they were working on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book as an outlet for Fox and Segal to pursue the music they grew up with, like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Paul Simon, who they would later collaborate with on his single “Stranger,” which cleverly interpolated Simon’s “The Werewolf” and “The Clock.” That experience cemented their deep fascination with how these songwriters work. “I think just really tapping into those types of sounds was the big muse for this album like, ‘Damn, I want to try and write up a Paul Simon song,’" says Segal.
It’s easy to compare Intellexual to Surf, the 2015 album credited to Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, but while they share a wonderfully collaborative vibe Segal and Fox’s latest is more musically and thematically focused. Where the Surf were loose and collagistic, Segal and Fox served as de facto conductors. “Here we're actually writing songs and performing them but we're also curating it and bringing people who matched our vibe and understand what we're going for,” says Segal.
One of the many collaborators on the effort is Segal’s former Kids These Days bandmate Liam Kazar, who provides vocals on opener “Popstar.” At Fox and Segal’s studio in Van Nuys, CA, the pair handed him a lyric sheet and knocked out the verse in one take. Later, when Kazar thought they were done recording, the duo captured him noodling on guitar, which would eventually end up as the climactic section of closer “Over The Hill.”
That's one of my favorite moments on the album. He was just improvising after he thought the song was over. It's just a guitar take but it was real,” says Segal.
That improvisational magic of capturing a candid moment in the studio became an ethos for Intellexual. “There's somehow more of them mystique and a feeling behind that era of those ‘70s songwriters we love” Fox says.“We wanted to deconstruct that and tap into the energy of people, an actual human being, recording something and performing it.”
The result is seamless, even when the musical ideas initially seem all over the place. Another Kids These Days alum, Vic Mensa, provides an effortless verse on “Shotty,” which shouts out Prince over a sultry horn line from Segal. Knox Fortune appears on the upbeat “Roxstar,’ which combines gospel harmonies over 808s. While on paper, the whole thing sounds like it might be an overwhelming mish-mash of influences, each listen brings more clarity to the whole effort.
Considering Segal’s last recorded effort was the almost entirely-instrumental jazz project from the Juju Exchange, an album as left-field as Intellexual shouldn’t be a huge shock.
“It's just part of our natural growth as musicians and as creative people to like want to venture into the unknown, to want to see what happens when we're actually wearing trying all these new things,” he explains. “The idea of Intellexual has really just been Nate and I trusting each other and relying on each other to get to that next place musically and creatively.”