Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf
Take a look at the commanding heights of the music industry, and you notice that most of the transformations that have occurred in producing and distributing music have left its old guard unaffected. If anything, the core music industry is more centralized than ever, a consequence of banding together to bolster their profit margins through the decline of the CD. Even the basic rituals of album contracts, release dates, and PR are more or less standing in the most lucrative parts of the industry. It’s largely been at the fringes that we’ve seen the intensely networked, more decentralized tendencies enabled by the Internet embed themselves. And even then, it was more because the old structures could no longer provide a full-time job. As in so many areas of life, musicians had to become self-promoters and “business innovators” as a second job to creating music. They’re all neoliberal entrepreneurs, or at least encouraged to do so, and the results, judging by the widespread reports about how even popular bands struggle to pay their rent, are not as promising as DIY utopian rhetoric would have us believe.
Different acts have experimented with different coping mechanisms. There was the notorious tip jar approach that Radiohead took with In Rainbows in 2007, which is now the bedrock of the Humble Bundle game sale model. Meanwhile, we have Chance the Rapper, who has yet to release anything under his own name that that requires you to pay for access––even in theory. His biggest solo release to this point, the exuberant Acid Rap, was a mixtape rather than a commercial product, whose popularity is measured in Youtube views for its songs or download numbers on mixtape sites. With the old centralized capitalist music industry hurting, he has chosen to stick to his own abilities, building webs of associations with big name rappers and producers and selling merchandise to generate publicity and goodwill from fans. And revenue, of course.
Surf is not a Chance the Rapper LP, though it, too, requires no payment. Its creator is Chicago Northsider Nico Segal AKA Donnie Trumpet, an old friend of Chance’s. But Chance does appear on almost every track in some capacity, and the band he put together, the Social Experiment, works as Donnie’s accompaniment. It’s a deliberately communitarian enterprise, sporting a “yes, and” approach to instrumentation, genre, and guest appearances. Its marketing, including the music video for lead single “Sunday Candy,” suggests that (elaborate, heavily rehearsed) community theatre supplies the underlying ethos for Surf. This seems a natural fit for the band, most of whose members developed their skills in high school youth programs and community bands in Chicago. Major label guest stars like Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Big Sean might not be native members of this Chi-town club band, but they’re treated without fanfare or ostentation, hospitably ushered into the spacious good vibes the Social Experiment summons. Jazz, rap, psychedelia, soul, whatever. It’s just about the vibes.
Given that its genesis was so loose and collaborative––and protracted––the music expresses a remarkably cohesive set of themes. The music rides a line between jazz, psychedelic soul, and hip hop, pulling in synthesized beats, real drums, Segal’s omnipresent trumpet work, and whole crowds of harmonized voices. Anti-coolness manifesto “Wanna Be Cool” praises personal authenticity with triumphant trumpets, Chance’s breathless rapping and singing, and overlapping guitars worked into the background. Not surprisingly, references to social media posting come up, and the 21-year-old Chance seemingly recognizes that, despite building his own image through those services, there is a self-destructive side to all the posing in front of the cameras.
Meanwhile, over in “Familiar,” which bridges the two halves of the album, the album makes good on the band members’ protestations that despite the difference between their music and the grim swamp of drill music, they’re all from the same musical scene. After all, how different can they be if Donnie Trumpet can comment sarcastically through his instrument while Chance the Rapper and King Louie commiserate about indistinguishable, vapid women? It’s probably the best instrumentation and arrangement on the album, with a piano, horn section, and even a 1970s-style flute player providing an upbeat accompaniment to the rappers’ cutting comments.
My pet term for huge collective music like this is “Sesame Street music,” and I previously applied it to bands like The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene. Surf’s neo-hippie optimism, excellent playing, and sunshine-drenched production all lend itself to this label, even if a few f-bombs would keep it off PBS. Though it won’t change how music fundamentally “works” for and under capital, I appreciate the attempt to keep production in the family, even if it does reinforce a certain fetishism for localism and smallness that is already too prevalent in independent music. What I see in Surf is a great example of what is possible when a chorus of egos gets roped into a huge sing-in. It’s excellent music with a beautiful way of complimenting the sunny days and sympathizing with you on the rainy ones. A keeper for sure, and hopefully a portent of more to come.