Donnie’s Song: The Inside Story Of How The Social Experiment’s ‘Surf’ Came To Life

For the past two years, writer Jake Krez lived in the house that would become the starting point for Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surfsharing the house with Social Experiment members Donnie Trumpet and Peter Cottontale. Many long days and nights were spent by the group crafting the project, which was released last week on iTunes. As the album neared completion, Krez sat down with Trumpet to talk about the group’s path to the final product. Here’s his up-close-and-personal look at how ‘Surf’ came to be.
CHAPTER 1

A House In Chicago, Winter 2013

It was the beginning of winter in 2013. The stark cold of Chicago in November sent Peter Cottontale and Nico Segal — known more famously as Donnie Trumpet, the creative lead on Surf — down from the attic of the house Peter and I rented just north of the Logan Square neighborhood of the city. Setting up shop just outside my bedroom door in the basement, the two began tinkering, laying out
the arrangements and initial imprint of what Surf, Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s just-released project, would become.

 

It was a different time for the Chicago music scene. Vic Mensa had yet to crawl onstage with Kanye West, and Acid Rap — the mixtape that put Social Experiment affiliate Chance The Rapper firmly in the national spotlight, thus setting the stage for Surf‘s hype — was only eight months old. At the time, the biggest thing happening was the breakup of Kids These Days, the seven-piece band that started it all. The group, which featured Segal on horns alongside Mensa and Social Experiment drummer Greg Landfair, cut ties shortly after Acid Rap released in the spring. It was a distinct moment in time for the Chicago scene at large; Kids These Days had blazed a trail right to the stages of Lollapalooza and The Conan O’Brien Show that Chance and Mensa would later build upon, respectively, as solo artists.

Segal was perhaps most affected by the breakup. It was while performing alongside Kids These Days at South by Southwest in 2011 that Chance was “discovered,” and Nico had been a big part of his growth, along with the growth of many other local young stars. I remember being invited to join some of the Kids These Days members the weekend after the breakup announcement on a trip north to a family farm in Wisconsin. Sitting around a fire that night, I remember watching Segal, ahead of going on tour with Frank Ocean, shed real tears about the group’s end. His music is his life — his trumpet rarely leaves his side. In that moment, it seemed his passion for assembling and marshaling a talented group of artists had gone forever.

“The end of the band was definitely hard. That group was all I had known since I was 14 years old,” Segal told me, sitting in the attic where Surf began. “What I realized is that I just love making music with my friends, and I’m fortunate enough that my friends are really, really good at what they do. So as much as the breakup hurt, I was lucky enough to be able to find something that I could really understand and enjoy musically.”

CHAPTER 2

Farewell, Donnie Trumpet

Donnie Trumpet Interview 2

If 2013 was marked by an ending, 2014 was a year of tremendous growth for the Whitney Young High School product. In January he threw a “Farewell, Donnie Trumpet” going-away party at a bar in the South Loop. It was a sort of caterpillar-to-butterfly moment, the first time he truly stepped out as Donnie Trumpet. He was taking a break from being centrally located in Chicago, the town in which he’d grown up. He’d relocate to Los Angeles the next day and spend the next year and a half touring, rehearsing, and creating, stopping by the house with Peter on holidays and in-between shows. Every time they had a week or two off, our basement and attic exploded with sound. Late-night sessions gave way to drunken backyard basketball games in the summer and movie nights in the winter. It was the beginning of something new, something Chance and friends coined The Social Experiment.

“It was about a year ago we were in your basement, basically your room, when we decided that we were going to do four songs for a project called Surf,” Segal told me recently. “Then we would all do little variations on The Social Experiment as if we were musically directing or curating. We were bringing together ideas that we started on our own and having everyone flesh them out together. It’s obviously more than four songs, but we still stayed true to [that collaborative spirit].”

In The Social Experiment, Segal seemed to find the perfect thing to fill the hole that Kids These Days’ breakup had created. Teaming up with good friends Chance and Cottontale, as well as newcomer Nate Fox, he found himself again in the group dynamic. Fresh off touring with Ocean and frustrated by the limited creativity a session musician on tour affords, Segal seemed to settle in perfectly within The Social Experiment. Around that fire in the wake of the Kids These Days’ breakup, I remember Segal saying to no one in particular, with tears in his eyes, that he just wanted to play music with his friends. The Social Experiment was exactly the vessel he was looking for.

As the time neared for The Social Experiment’s first full-length, the band turned to Nico to lead the project.

Segal has always been seemingly on the move. He can frequently be seen around town and beyond sporting a coffee in hand, a sleepy look on his face, and a wild, somewhat-kept frock of hair bouncing along with him. Days and nights became defined by studio sessions, rehearsals and performances. It may have seemed odd on the national level that Chance — who by this time had become one of hip hop’s burgeoning stars — would hand the reigns to someone barely known outside Chicago. After all, it was Chance’s success that helped define The Social Experiment’s goals for Surf, as well as land the many high-profile features (Erykah Badu, Big Sean, Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, and Janelle Monae are some of the bigger names) found on the album. But to those who had been watching closely, it made total sense.

The finished product follows a clear lineage that traces back to those 2013 sessions between Segal and Cottontale. Endless tinkering in our basement through the night made for some sleepless evenings, but it was readily evident that something special was being created. Studio sessions at Classick or Soundscape or LPeezy around the city would lead back to the nondescript basement off Elston Ave., where the studio work would be further explored and refined. With his fingerprint already all over the composition of the project, it was natural for Segal to be the Surf ringleader. Chance’s proper followup to Acid Rap will come, but for now it’s Nico’s turn in the limelight.

“This one is my creation,” Segal said. “What’s important about the songs you hear is not who’s singing, or who’s doing this part or that part, but moreso my direction. It’s just crazy curations of people who couldn’t have been possible before. Like, the reach with Chance and the whole Social Experiment, making songs with Skrillex and Wyclef and stuff has just led to us being able to do songs with other people.”

“Nico is a very deliberate, systematic and loving musician and friend, on both fronts those adjectives describe him as a person and musician,” said Chance. “He really only wants to make music with his friends, and he wants his friends to prosper. He focuses on making sure his people are good, and I try to be more like him when I’m around him.”

CHAPTER 4

Changing the Game

Completely independently, Segal, Chance and company have strived to change the game, musically and beyond. In an era when hip hop is more about the individual than ever, the project has been lauded for its communal spirit, for the way that all the features — from both big names and small — converge to sound like what Surf really was: a group of friends coming together to make something meaningful. Beyond, the release of Surf for free on iTunes — the first time that’s happened in the service’s history — could be a watershed moment for the music industry and streaming services. On both those fronts, it seems Surf has realized The Social Experiment’s desire to innovate.

But Segal has a personal goal, too.

“What I really wanted to do is convey that I’m a producer and not just a trumpet player in Chance’s band,” Segal said following the album’s release, 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. It being out is almost sad in a way, because it means I can’t work on these songs forever. This was our first cohesive thought.”

Photos By Rene Marban

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