[Art by IAmPencilFingerz]
Do you believe history repeats itself?
As you may or may not know, I was quite literally obsessed with Surf. You can read about my descent into madness, but just know that when a grown man is tweeting gifs to an artist nonstop, the thirst is most definitely real. My first listen was filled with excitement, not knowing who would pop up or what the next song would sound like was a thrill; I haven’t enjoyed a first listen like that in a long time.
But the honeymoon is over.
Honestly, for as big a deal as I made over this project, I haven't listened to it as much as I thought I would since it was released. Sure it got some spins on my road trip, and has been fun to blast with the windows down on the more mild, less sticky summer days, but it hasn’t been plugged right into my veins. I haven’t fiended for it, with no regard for logic or reason, like I have say, Action Bronson. I’ve always stressed replayability, and while Surf has it in spades, I haven’t necessarily been replaying the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a phenomenal project. I’m still finding new wrinkles, hearing things in a completely different light, and at the same time appreciating some of the intricacies that jumped out on the first listen; that little guitar intro on "Miracle" gets me everytime. Whenever “Something Came To Me” begins I have to stop everything I’m doing, close my eyes, and just listen. That’s almost the problem, though. I can’t just listen to a song here and there (except for “Sunday Candy”) because this album is meant to be heard cover to cover. Amazing, yes. Practical, no. While it hasn’t been played the most, it still evokes so much passion. This album both sooths my soul and awakens something deeper inside me at the same time.
Through this whole experience, I’ve been trying to figure out just what made this album the one I went off the rails for, what makes it hit me so deeply that I can’t just casually listen. Then, while reading Queslove’s memoir, Mo Meta Blues, on the metro, something really did come to me; it’s not Surf itself, but what it means to me and what it means for music moving forward.
As the fully-packed red line train screeched in and out of my Cleveland Park stop, I was sitting dumbfounded, too absorbed in how what I was reading reflected what I was listening to. The music played in my headphones, but the story of Surf lay right before me. Except it wasn't Chance or Donnie, it wasn’t an interview form 2015. It was Questlove telling a story from 1997.
We wanted them [MCA label] to spring for a bunch of jam sessions at my house...We hired a chef to cook the best food, and that was the siren song that started bringing people in before i knew it there was round-the-clock music: singers, musicians, MCs. Some of the people there were from The Roots but most weren’t. Most were normal people who aspired to careers in entertainment. All were welcome. And so the next thing you know the girl who worked at Jeans West wanted to sing. That was Jill Scott. The pizza delivery guy, Jamal, thought that maybe he’d take his turn on the microphone., too because he had done some singing and thought he had something special to contribute. That was Musiq Soulchild. The little teenager up past his bedtime, wailing jazz songs out of his iind, was Bilal. The stripper girl was Eve, who was calling herself Eve of Destruction. A friend of mine visited from Atlanta and brought a girl with a guitar, and that was India.Arie. Jasmine Sullivan was there, ten years old, but the voice of a grown woman. Common was there. All of this unfolded in my living room in South Philadelphia in the late nineties.
It was a madhouse. People were milling around outside, waking up the neighbors playing loud music until all hours. But it wasn’t people playing loud music on boom boxes or sterops. They were actually playing loud music, putting it into a space where there had been no music before….
There we at least eighteen record contracts in the room and at least nine of the people who became recording artist ended up bigger than us. And yet, it was an indisputably magical time, a kind of rebirth. If hip-hop had died at the 1995 source awards, I felt like something new was being born on St. Albans [his street].
I knew I was reading about The Roots, but the parallels to Surf, the very project that was humming in my ears, were uncanny. The late 90’s climate Questlove describes just before that excerpt feels like to todays climate. It was the atmosphere their “What They Do” video satirizes; wealth and excess over music. Back then hip-hop was divided, hip-hop was unbalanced. Back then you had Puffy and Jay, not Fetty and Ricky Rozay, but the idea is the same.
Hip-hop isn’t dead, hell it wasn’t dead back than, but there’s a similar imbalance and it’s left us stuffed and bloated yet craving substance. If hip-hop was reborn after the ‘95 Source Awards, you could argue it “died” again at the 2014 GRAMMYs. Like D’Angelo, Common, The Roots, and Dilla back then, there’s amazing music being made today--scroll through the pages of DJBooth--but you still have to dig. These songs aren’t on the radio, there’s no hive, and they aren’t charting on Billboard or iTunes. Surf and the people making it have the ability to change this--in some way they already have.
By looking at the past in relationship to Surf, I get excited about the future. In some ways, Chance and The Social Experiment are the next The Roots. The next great hip-hop collective to provide a lane different from any other, to be unique, to be challenging, and above all else, put the music first. I normally shy away from comparing artists, but the similarities here are uncanny. They may not be sonically similar, but the context is almost identical. Think about how Surf was created and who it was created by. If you need some help, these passages from The Fader article on Chance should help.
Though they've all united with the common goal of finding pure joy in music-making—and sidestepping some of the industry expectations that so often stifle that joy—a lot of that translates to just hanging out….
Surf is a collaborative project without borders, and most tracks are tangled and packed with different vocalists and instrumentalists who aren't immediately identifiable. "Every record has like 50 people on it," Chance explains. "The idea is to make a singular, four-minute-and-30-second song that feels like a year's worth of music." As he plays the album, he seems to strategically skip around certain tracks as if to conceal the presence of more prominent stars. When he does mention collaborators by name—like fellow Chicago spitter Noname Gypsy or the budding Atlanta singer Raury, who appears on Chance's favorite track from the project, an airy number called "Windows"—he tends to refer to them as "my friends.
Instead of Philadelphia it’s L.A. Instead of a pizza guy or a neighborhood kid, it’s former Red Bull girl Eryn Allen Kane. It’s not Bilal and Jill Scott, but rather Mike Golden and Lili K; it’s Erykah Badu on both (that alone is an omen). Or how about bass player Carter Lang, who has also appeared on Free Weezy Album and ALLA? A bonus perk of Surf has been discovering these new, amazing artists who have nowhere to go but up. The best part is that all of these artists came together organically and are doing this not for money or fame, but because they love music and love making it with one another. Surf isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. To quote Questlove again, “...I started to enter this alternate world of sound where human error was perfection, where warmth and organic playing mattered more than precision….” Surf is in that alternate world as well. I said it a million times in the 1-Listen review and it still rings true countless listens later, Surf’s biggest victory is how well the love and passion translate in the music. The feeling I get listening to Surf is the same feeling I got so many years ago when I heard my brother’s Roots’ mixtape. I didn’t understand the music and the culture like I do know, but I could sense greatness, I could sense uniqueness. I sense that with Surf. It only make sense the stories are so similar because the feeling I get listening to both is almost identical. Challenging, heartfelt, unique, and fun; that’s what music is supposed to be.
Will Surf be my most played project by the end of the year? Probably not. Is the project perfect from start to finish? Does that matter? Not to me. I realize now that Surf and my insane excitement for it was never about an album, it was about what it meant to me and to music. It was about the recognition of something special, the start of something big. Surf is as much about the Surf’s to come as it is the wave we have already rode. In 15 years, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Chance writing memoirs and Donnie playing on The Tonight Show, while their Surf brethren win GRAMMYs and sell out arenas.
Hip-hop has changed a lot in twenty years and it will change in another twenty, but one thing that I think will always remain the same is a need for something different, the desire to seek out music that defies definition and tradition. The Roots are making it now and so too are The Social Experiment. I’m just glad I got to be here for the start.
Do you believe history repeats itself?
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]