Three Years Later: How The Social Experiment Turned Friendships Into Indie Rap History

“It shows anything is obtainable in this industry.”
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The Social Experiment exists solely for the love of music.

Comprised of Chance The Rapper, Nate Fox, Nico Segal, Peter Cottontale, and Greg "Stix" Landfair, the group's debut album, Surf, is, first and foremost, a family reunion—a record packed with more features than songs. Now three years removed from the album's free iTunes release on May 28, 2015, to discuss the album’s impact is to first give credit to the intimate core of the work. The mystique that SoX built around the album—both during sessions and in the years following its release—has proven that organic beginnings can and will inspire impressive and groundbreaking ends.

Speaking with Spin in 2015, Chicago rapper-singer Noname described the intimacy of the sessions as “a work party.” Sessions were insulated with an air of communion. “We had so many of our friends or friends of friends come into [the 'Sunday Candy' session], even Ty Dolla $ign,” JP Floyd, former Kids These Days member and Surf’s primary trombonist, tells DJBooth. "Great energy in the room and so many incredible artists, it was only right that a song like ‘Sunday Candy’ was created in that space.”

For the stormy and enlightening “Questions,” singer Jamila Woods explained that a big budget studio was not necessary; the living room would do. “Nico was just playing me beats in his living room,” she said. “I started writing to it and he said, ‘Let’s record it right now.’ He had his laptop and his little SM7 microphone and we did it, and those were the takes that ended up on the final version.”

That’s the sum of what helped make Surf a cultural milestone: each track was crafted in the spur of the moment with the dire need to create some lightness in a dark world. “You’re just in a space creating with all your homies,” Noname added. “It was all the people I came up with, just chilling.” Honing in on warmth and chemistry quickly became a staple for The Social Experiment, who spent 2017 creating some “special universe shit” with upcoming singer Grace Weber. As it were, the mentality of the Surf sessions, then, became the blueprint for the group’s creative endeavors to follow.

For Chance The Rapper, the de facto face of the group, Surf was a critical stepping stone. It represented an opportunity for the star-in-the-making to exist outside of himself and bring to light all of the talents in the Midwest. So many prospecting fans were anticipating Surf to serve as the formal follow-up to Chance's acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape. Though the proper follow-up, Coloring Book, would come in another year’s time, Chance gave fans—and the industry at large—a masterclass in utilizing your platform as a tool of music discovery.

While each and every artist benefited from being on Surf’s expansive feature list, the work of Nico Segal (fka Donnie Trumpet) is a prime example of the barriers this album was meant to break. Just a few days after the album’s release, Segal told Noisey that Surf was, in part, meant to establish him as “a producer and not just a trumpet player" in Chance’s band. "This is supposed to be the beginning of something, the first of its kind for something new,” Segal said.

Three years later, consider his mission accomplished. As leader of his jazz band The Juju Exchange, Segal released Exchange, one of 2017’s best jazz albums and a project that in itself challenged what jazz could be much like Surf aimed to challenge the whole of the music industry.

Which brings us to the macrocosmic importance of Surf, where much like the artists that appear on the record—Chance, KYLE, Raury, and more—the record itself stands as a landmark for indie success. “Immediately it surprised people due to the newly introduced 'Get' button on iTunes, and it was right before Apple Music released so that was pretty wavy,” Nate Fox tells DJBooth.

“To my knowledge, Surf was the first free album release iTunes allowed for distribution on its platform,” JP Floyd said. “That’s an amazing accomplishment, especially from a group of friends that I grew up with in Chicago. It shows anything is obtainable in this industry.”

Surf was SoX’s way of returning power to the artists and to consumers. First, by proving that a gang of friends will always make more evocative music than label-manufactured collaborations, and secondly by allowing music fans to determine the value of their music based on the relationships they form with the work and not capitalistic pretense. “I think it really hammered home the idea that music could be free and you don’t need a whole bunch of random execs to make a big album,” Fox concludes.

An album featuring the legendary Ms. Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes alongside upcoming artists like Joey Purp, Saba, and the aforementioned Noname could only be concocted by the minds of big-dream-having indie acts with the determination and ingenuity to bring something of this magnitude together.

With that, Fox isn’t promising a sequel, per say, but new music is on the horizon. “I’m not sure if they’ll ever be a Surf 2,” he admits. “It would certainly be even greater of a feat than it was the first time around to get all those people on an album again. I mean, we had DRAM, KYLE, Quavo, Ms. Badu… It was a blessing, for sure. I think 'Pass the Vibes' will lead to something bigger. Nico and I really connected on that song and inspired a lot of music between the two of us, so I can say strongly that there will be another offering from us fairly soon.”

In 2015, Nico Segal told Noisey that, at the least, Surf was a “moment in time.” “That’s all music can really be is history,” he said, “cataloging a moment in time and a feeling and a movement and a collective of people… It definitely made history to me.”

Surf made history to everyone, actually. The album stands as a critical moment in indie rap and digital music history, the result of the camaraderie and humility that went into each session, and a brand of hype stronger than any PR blast.  

Now, DIY-aspiring creatives across all mediums of expression can look to Surf as an example of the boundless success indie acts can achieve on the back of meaningful connections, immeasurable hard work, and a healthy dose of creativity.

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