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The Social Experiment Talk Grammy Nominations & Paul Simon Collaboration: 'We've Always Done It Our Own Way'

Marcus Hyde
The Social Experiment 

On Tuesday morning (Dec. 6), Chance the Rapper -- along with his band and closest friends, The Social Experiment -- woke up to some incredible news: The rapper and his critically acclaimed project Coloring Book were nominated for seven Grammys, including best new artist and rap album of the year. Furthermore, Coloring Book is now the first streaming-only album to receive a Grammy nomination.

This news is especially satisfying for members of The Social Experiment. While in one capacity, they serve as Chance’s backing band on tour, in many ways, they’re equal partners with the Chicago rapper. They’ve been there every step of the way with Chance, from growing up together in Chicago to helping write and produce music on his 2013 breakout mixtape Acid Rap, their 2015 group album Surf and, most recently, this year's Coloring Book.

Additionally, as members Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet) and Nate Fox discuss in an interview with Billboard, The Social Experiment have since parlayed their success into a career as an in-demand songwriting and production team, having worked with a variety of artists over the years from Big Sean to D.R.A.M. and Kehlani.

Now, the Social Experiment can add Paul Simon to that list, as the iconic singer-songwriter commissioned Segal and Fox to re-imagine his music. The resulting "Stranger" is a jazzy, spaced-out mash-up of "The Clock" and "The Werewolf," two tracks from Simon’s 2016 album Stranger to Stranger. "It was fulfilling a childhood dream,” says Segal, who grew up listening to Simon’s classic albums. Adds Fox of working with Simon: "There’s a lot of elements in his music that are very hip-hop."

The pair continue discussing their recent Grammy nominations, the fluidity of their creative process and the importance of networking in the full interview below. 

First off, congrats on the Grammy nominations!

Nico Segal: Man, it’s crazy! It’s an honor. I woke up today to four nominations. 

Nate Fox: It’s a very blessed day.

I imagine seeing Chance and yourselves be honored not only for your music but how you all changed the music game as independent artists is quite satisfying.

NF: Well let me just say this: we’re in the studio together right now. It’s amazing and it feels really great but it doesn’t stop. I’m in the studio celebrating today by making more music -- if that gives you an indication of who we are. We’ve spent so much time thinking about something and now it’s blooming.

NS: We’ve been making music as a collective for a couple years and we’ve always done it our own way. We were the first independent act on Saturday Night Live and we’re about to go back and do it a second time. I want to give a real shout out to independent artists and really just musicians everywhere on their hustle and on their grind because this industry is changing. And if you work on something hard enough and will it, it could come true. You could change the entire industry. I’m really proud of everybody involved with the album and [its] release but man, I gotta give a real shout out to my brother Chance the Rapper because things are literally changing before our eyes. The music industry is growing with us as musicians and people. It’s a fluid thing. We can really impact change. We can do sh-t. It’s a big win for us.

NF: It’s amazing to see the results of what happens when you stay true to your idea and what you believe in. This is a testament to that for sure.

How important is working on outside-the-box collaborations like this one with Paul Simon?

NF: I think it’s extremely important. Musically, we try to be very versatile. We look to lots of different types of things for inspiration. So it’s intriguing to work on different things as well. I think it’s important to the process of creating.

NS: It’s also how we’ve met some of our best friends and collaborators, like Francis from Francis and the Lights. We were just fans of his music before we started working with him. We just happened to be blessed enough to be put in the same room as him and be able to make songs with him and that informs our whole creative process now. Meeting these new people or old people or heroes or whoever it is and being put in the room and feeding off each other’s energy and coming up with something.

What was it like to dig into the Paul Simon mash-up for "Stranger"?

NS: Paul Simon is one of my musical heroes. I did a project in high school on an album that he did called Songs from the Capeman which were songs from a play called The Capeman based on a really crazy story. I did this whole research project and Marc Anthony was singing on it, who I actually just randomly met at the White House which was super cool. I’ve always just been a fan of his music. My parents have always played his music around the house and in car rides so I grew up with a lot of his songs meaning a lot. My grandfather recently passed away and his name was Alan and his wife was Betty so that song "You Can Call Me Al" was their song. It was a big deal to work with him.

NF: I don’t think that it’s that outside of the box for Paul Simon to do something in the world of hip-hop. So much of his music is so rooted in rhythm and a lot of the elements that hip-hop was based on. His albums have a lot of him like rapping or talking lyrics or speaking in melodies.

NS: And his writing, the words that he chooses, that’s super important to me when working on a song. Specifically a remix where it’s somebody else’s words and we’re putting our name and our sound with somebody’s words. He's obviously one of the greatest wordsmiths and songwriters of all time. So it was an amazing experience to be chopping up those stems.

It must be a balancing act to keep his sound while putting your own mark on the track.

NF: Sometimes it’s luck. You just try a bunch of things and you’ll be like "Oh wow! That worked really well together." Or I can implement this thing. That comes from having so many different influences and listening to so much different music. We know the possibilities of anything so we try it all. Some things stick. It’s just identifying what works and what doesn’t.

NS: I was actually working on the remix at a different studio and sent a whole other session that had four sections in it that three of them weren’t used. So we’re building pieces. The same way we were working with his stems, we create our own when doing remixes and trying to mesh everything together.

Let’s talk a bit about The Social Experiment. People often view it as a band, more specifically Chance the Rapper’s backing band, but it’s in many ways a collective of musicians and songwriters. How do you see it?

NF: I look at it as a group of friends and a family who have a similar vision and similar goals. Whatever anybody is into, let’s try it. Let’s figure it out. Let’s all work together on some stuff.

NS: The name Social Experiment pretty much encapsulates what we’re trying to do. There can be four members of The Social Experiment. There can be 20 members of The Social Experiment. That’s part of it. We all work on so much different music -- not different meaning genres; different just in terms of a million different projects and a million artists and we’re all basically rooted in so many different styles of music. The possibilities are endless when you really do open your mind to everybody, every style and every sound possible. And one of the greatest minds to do that is Paul Simon. He opened his mind to all different styles and he makes his own version of it.

So many talented artists of all stripes -- from Erykah Badu to Kanye West, Kirk Franklin to Young Thug -- have floated in your orbit in recent years.

NF: We’re fans of music and we’re fans of people that make music and through just being fans and being in a position to reach out and tell them, that has led to a lot of great relationships.

NS: The whole industry is based on relationships. It’s who you know and who knows you and who knows who. A lot can get done like that -- everything from visual branding to making songs obviously and playing various instruments. There’s always different people. "Who we gonna call now? We need somebody who plays violin. We need somebody who plays tuba.” In high school, I was in Marist School of Music and I was surrounded by all these incredible instrumentalists and I’ve kept in touch with a lot of them. We jam and make songs together and I call them in to do sessions all the time. It’s crazy how much you can do.

Nico, you’ve been doing that since your days with your high school band Kids These Days.

NS: Yeah, Kids These Days was my first version of that.

NF: The process of making music for us hasn’t changed. It’s just who’s involved.

People largely know you for your work with Chance or on a project like Surf. To that end, do you place extra emphasis on your work with Chance?

NS: The point of it all being so fluid is that we don’t have to deal with that. I can work on something and it can be just me and Nat [or] it can be just him. We pride ourselves on working with artists and giving them something that they wouldn’t expect. Not necessarily something we’re known for. Just something they would feel was new and exciting for them.

NF: The approach is that everybody is unique. Everybody is doing their version of them. The process to get to the end result might be similar but how we get there is much different.

Can you tell me any artists you’re working with right now or any projects you have in the works?

NS: Yeah, maybe. [Laughs] Nah, sorry. We’re always working on each other’s projects and we all have our own projects so there are constantly things being made. Who knows what it ends up being called. Just know there’s a lot in the pipeline.

2017 Grammys