By: Robert Kyte
Photos by: Mikko Castaño
Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment tap into the deep, historical roots of both jazz and hip-hop in their 2015 debut studio album, Surf. The Chicago-based quintet is comprised of trumpeteer Nico Segal (Donnie Trumpet), rapper/vocalist Chancellor Bennett (who you probably know as Chance the Rapper), producer/engineer Nate Fox, producer/keyboardist Peter Wilkins (known as Peter Cottontale), and percussionist Greg “Stix” Landfair, Jr. Together they are the Social Experiment, and their first project, Surf, is shaped by the visions of artists across jazz and hip-hop spectrums, transcending and blending musical genres to create a truly unique sound. In their own words, the group “find[s] pure joy in music-making…and side-step[s] some of the industry expectations that so often stifle that joy.”
Music, especially jazz and hip-hop, comes from the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of those who create it—people who are well aware of their own backgrounds and histories. The struggle, oppression, longing, and desire central to blues, masterfully fused with the joy and energy of ragtime, gave life to the community in which jazz developed. Yet it was that same expression of struggle and desire, layered with a modern, more synthesized energy, that led to the formation of the hip-hop community we know today. Both jazz and hip-hop share indisputable key elements: improvisation, virtuosity, repetition, and the mastery of sound. As deeper perspectives, however, the two genres arise from a mutual yearning to create unique, unprecedented, and inimitable modes of sound expression that breathe life into the music itself.
Hip-hop and jazz go hand-in-hand. They mesh together so well that, with the increased use of sampling, it’s often difficult to distinguish new sounds from old—and, at its core, that’s what jazz is about. Jazz and hip-hop both spring from improvisation, virtuosity, and collaboration. Within the last decade in particular, hip-hop has regularly blended jazz from all eras into its own sounds. For example, Kanye West’s 2013 track “Blood on the Leaves” heavily samples Nina Simone’s 1965 cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), is frequently compared to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, released 50 years prior. While the “traditional” jazz of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane may age, artists like West, Lamar, and J. Cole continue to breathe new life into jazz from inside the hip-hop community.
Surf, however, epitomizes the union of jazz and hip-hop. Though many anticipated Surf to be the follow-up to Chance the Rapper’s 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, “Surf is Nico’s Project,” Chance told The FADER. “He was working on it when we decided to be the Social Experiment, so we decided that his project should be first.” The album opens with “Miracle,” featuring a chorus of Segal’s lengthy, Third Stream-era trumpet tones layered under soothing gospel voices, effortlessly melding into a few quick bars from Chance over Cottontale’s piano. The following track, “Slip Slide,” bursts open with an old New Orleans march-style trumpet tune courtesy of Segal, fully introducing the fusion of the old school jazz and hip-hop elements of Surf with verses from Busta Rhymes and B.o.B before the third track, titled “Warm Enough,” returns to the more cerebral elements of free jazz.
It is in the eighth track, “Just Wait,” where Nico Segal fades out and Donnie Trumpet reveals himself. Segal solos with the combined power of hip-hop rhythms and jazz complexities, melodically moving and driving until fading into another brief vocal effort from other members of the Social Experiment. As a solo track, “Just Wait” showcases Segal as a genuine virtuoso. As a part of Surf, it solidifies Segal as a jazz artist and fusionist willing to take risks and engage new sounds.
The album’s 13th and 14th tracks, titled “Something Came to Me” and “Rememory,” respectively, highlight Segal’s tenacity to push deeper into new sound territory and assert himself as a jazz artist (in “Something…”) before he seamlessly slips under Chance’s reappearance in “Rememory,” wherein he effortlessly riffs apace with the rapper’s rhyme schemes. In “Something…” and “Rememory,” we truly hear Segal’s ability to “transform the tone and sound of the trumpet for the song…It’s almost like a lead guitar,” producer Nate Fox expresses —“like he’s Slash.”
The penultimate track, “Sunday Candy,” is arranged to attract all audiences. It is abundant with fusion and energy, marrying the soul of gospel and the collective New Orleans improvisation of free jazz in a song about Chance’s grandmother. Each member of the Social Experiment is heavily present in “Sunday Candy,” boasting not only their individual talents, but furthermore their ability to effortlessly come together as a neo-jazz-hip-hop-gospel-fusion group as well, resulting in the album’s central and dynamic burst of life.
Both jazz and hip-hop come from a place of struggle and, for a time, were almost exclusive to African-Americans and artists playing in locations such as New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. Yet as jazz and hip-hop expanded, the genres opened their doors to artists of all backgrounds, leading to new styles, perspectives, and sub-genres in a natural, organic process that eventually lead to the union of the two and the creation of “jazz-rap.” By itself, Surf has everything a strictly hip-hop album needs: lyrical rap verses, exciting and fitted guest features, original beats, masterful transitions, replay value, and album unity. But Surf meets every qualification of a jazz album as well, and not just through instrumentation. Surf draws on a century-old style that feels improvised, spontaneous, and in the moment. Jazz—a genre that, statistically, is dying—finds new life in Surf. The album pulsates with energy and joy alongside deep introspection and personality—it feels alive. Exemplifying what is arguably the most critical element of both jazz and hip-hop, Surf simultaneously pays respects to and challenges both realms of music in a seamless fusion of the two. Carefully crafted by people “who hold Miles Davis, Rich Homie Quan, and Kirk Franklin in similarly high esteem,” Surf is a powerful, spirited testament to Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s unique ability to create original and unprecedented sound while still paying respect to the greats of both jazz and hip-hop. In it’s own amalgamative niche, Surf wholeheartedly embraces the two genres of music that most notably encourage innovation and change while never forgetting their individual histories.