Of all the musical talent Chicago has injected into the hip-hop scene in recent years, Nico Segal may be the most curious outlier. He is not a rapper or a singer. He is not a beatmaker or a DJ. He is not a businessman, and he especially isn’t a business, man. Before I spoke with him at length over the phone, I was sure it was his genius as a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire that carried him to the upper echelons of musical achievement. I was wrong.
“I really just play the trumpet. Everything else, I just kind of fake it,” he told me.
But truthfully, it wasn’t his trumpet and production skill alone that gave us The Social Experiment’s game-changing Surf, or his most recent project, Exchange (released April 22), a genre-bending and uplifting instrumental EP from his new four-piece band, The JuJu.
It’s his unique love for music—no, his unique love for sounds—that makes Nico one of the most captivating young artists of his generation.
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re a music lover yourself. Until I talked to Nico, I defined the term “music lover” as someone who yearns for music to soundtrack as many waking moments as possible; aggressive trap for a night out, boom bap bars during the morning commute, deep instrumental beats while studying.
For Nico, this passive approach to consuming music is impossible: “I can’t just listen to jazz music and do my homework. I get too distracted by the things that I’m hearing.” He compares that form of musical non-engagement to “wallpaper” in a room, and the visual analogy is potent. Stretch a patterned design across a wall, and you have a background. Put it in a display frame instead, and you have art. Nico only deals in art.
Like many, my first introduction to Nico’s trumpet was the horn section of stardom-destined teen band Kids These Days, which also showcased a young Vic Mensa, Social Experiment drummer Stix, and JuJu bassist Lane Beckstrom. To this day, their debut and final album Traphouse Rock remains one of my most cherished classics. Hell, I once wrote about how it helped alleviate my depression. But all my love couldn’t save them from breaking up in 2013.
I couldn’t resist asking Nico what the catastrophe was that split up my favorite band. “There was seven kids, man. We were really kids. At a certain point, it became too much about the individuals wanting to pursue their own careers, and not enough about hearing their own sound within [the band’s sound]. We grew up,” he explained. As some band members found indie rock, and others explored political rap, Nico grew too, but the practice of sampling and interpolation employed heavily by Kids These Days can still be found at the heart of his creations.
“I still think of myself as sampling things, but I sample things I make now. I still treat the information in front of me in a similar way, where I’m chopping through it and picking the parts I really like and arranging it in whatever way I want. To me, it’s more rewarding as an instrumentalist to create something from scratch. [Sampling] will always be a part of my sound and a part of my toolbox.”
With The Social Experiment, Nico graduated from trumpeter to de facto band leader and lead producer (originally called Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Nico has since abandoned the Donnie Trumpet moniker to distance himself from Cheeto-in-charge Donald Trump). Their free 2015 album, Surf, was studded with star appearances, but none were named in the track listing. The idea was to encourage listeners to enjoy the sonic experience of the project more holistically as opposed to focusing on recognizable names, but the instant (and often incorrect) dissections of Surf’s contributors all over the internet muddied that purpose.
Pushing that music-first mentality to the next level, Nico’s new band The JuJu decided to exclude all vocal parts from the majority of Exchange, save for Jamila Woods’ buttery soft and lyricless singing on “We Good.” With so many talented and famous friends ready to collaborate, the exclusion of a Chance The Rapper verse or a spoken word poem from Noname is a bold choice.
“It was very intentional to make something that didn’t rely on vocals—to make people really hear instruments as melody, and to hear lines that they want to sing and remember forever, and jump up and down at shows because of a sax melody or a piano chord that sounds like the record,” he said. For the “wallpaper” music lover, that ideal might sound far-fetched, but Nico is determined to train us for the better. “I think it’s just about making instruments important and making people really listen to instruments in that way, and making them really listen to the music.”
Still, for a man with a credit on Ed Sheeran’s latest album under his belt, it seems odd that Nico selected his semi-anonymous hometown friends to form his impromptu jazz-fusion band instead of established musicians. “I think the whole ‘staying in the friends’ thing is a Chicago mentality. Kind of like a loyalty kind of feeling, a gang mentality that’s instilled in all of us,” he explained, echoing the sentiment that fellow Chicagoan Saba gave to me a couple months ago. But it’s not just about loyalty; Nico is a true fan of his friends’ music, and that mutual appreciation and respect is what fuels inventive creation in the studio.
In fact, the name “JuJu” is not only derived from a nickname of Julian Reid, the band’s piano player, it’s also Japanese for “an exchange” or “a give and take” (at least, so says bassist Lane, who studied Japanese). That collaborative mindset is what makes The JuJu flourish. “Being open-minded and egoless in the studio is the goal. Being able to hear someone else’s idea around you and turn it into something new is really the spirit of jazz music,” Nico elaborated.
His words are reminiscent of hip-hop, too. The transformation of one musical idea into something else was made a staple of the genre at its birth when the first beat break was looped. The connection isn’t lost on Nico. “I want people to sample The JuJu. That’s another thing I want to stress. All the hip-hop producers out there that are rocking with our sound and with our movement—that’s part of the reason that there’s no vocals or anything on most of the album because I want people to be able to sample it and make their own thing out of it. Even 5 seconds of it.”
Now that they’ve got their formula figured out, Nico is excited about the prospect of more JuJu projects (“I think it’s definitely the first of many”). Luckily, the door hasn’t closed on the Social Experiment either. When I asked if future SoX albums are in the pipeline, Nico told me, “I definitely think so. I definitely think that’s gonna happen soon. Probably.” I’ll take it.
While we look into the future for those records, it’s comforting to know that Chicago’s musical renaissance is far from its peak. Nico believes that the next generation of artists will only further evolve the brilliance his own class has produced, and his list of acts to watch out for is convincing of that theory. “There’s tons of amazing young talent right now in Chicago, and they’re all killing this shit. So many people. On the production side of things, my little homies the Burns Twins. Phoelix was all over [Noname’s] Telefone—he’s a superstar. Knox Fortune is a monster.”
The future of jazz, in general, is not quite as clear, but given the success of The JuJu, Nico has high hopes. “I think the people are ready. People are ready to have that topic in their daily conversation. To have real music and specific instrumentalists that they love—they’re ready to have those things again. Music, like everything else, goes in cycles. And I think instrumental music has always been a thing and will always be a thing, and jazz music will never die because it continues to grow and evolve. And young people are going to be a part of that story.”
The resurgence of jazz in the modern era, thanks especially to Nico, is much like the resurgence of funk; the musical styles that once resonated with our parents or grandparents are again striking a chord with us, and dare I say it’s largely because of our similarly divided socio-economic landscape. Even the Exchange artwork, designed by Shin Maeng, reflects a personal and political quality, despite encasing an instrumental EP.
Though it is mostly still up to interpretation, Nico clarified one important component of the abstract design. “Julian has been working as a prison chaplain in Atlanta, and it’s significantly influenced his life and music. In prison, when a prisoner’s trying to escape, they go from wearing a blue jumpsuit to an orange jumpsuit for the rest of the time they’re there. It’s really fucked up, it’s really sad.”
When our long talk came to a close, Nico Segal had me so enraptured by the details in the project that I couldn’t even listen to it while writing this piece. I guess my days spent enjoying music as wallpaper are over.
But the art beneath is a welcomed replacement.