by • Jake Krez
photos • Kay Ibrahim
Six years ago I was sitting around a fire in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin as Nico Segal stared deeply forward with tears in his eyes. The band he’d known since high school, Kids These Days was no more and he found himself on the cusp of a musical journey without certainty that had existed days before. Likewise, about the same time I would wake up regularly and open my door to find Nate Fox sleeping on the couch in the basement of our house on the Northside of Chicago. Fully dedicated to the hustle, he’d arrived from Cleveland on an open-ended sabbatical. At some point that Fall they, along with Chance The Rapper and Peter CottonTale created the core of what would come to be known as The Social Experiment. Five years later, the journey that began in late 2014 continues as strong as ever. The latest chapter to the tale emerged last month as Segal and Fox unveiled their collaboration, Intellexual.
The result of a connection realized during time spent on SURF, this latest album is a natural creative outgrowth the pair have curated over time. Born from an eagerness to create something Segal refers to as both “purposeful and personal”, its a creative exploration and bookmark for a duo that’s come a long way.
Nico just bought a house. Nate just flew in ona private jet. Without flaunting at all, its readily obvious how things havechanged in the last few years. Three Grammys, tours around the world, namerecognition from Chicago to Singapore. While the world in their periphery maybe evolving at a fever pace, the two things that haven’t changed are the musicand deep sense of friendship that permeates from it.
“Today is a crazy experience because I rode on the jet for the firsttime and all I could think about the whole time was when we were all packed upin an RV,” said Fox, casually unpacking a Backwoods. “[The jet] was reallysmall and its crazy that the guy sitting next to me was in the RV and now we’rein this crazy jet. I’m sure everybody else has that experience who’s had thatjourney before but thats where I think the feelings for Intellexual camefrom and me and him making music together started.”
Like a strong backcourt in basketball, Segal and Fox have an unspoken understanding. When making music one can anticipate the other, a side effect of hundreds of hours spent in the studio together imagining and building off one another, particularly in the lead up to their collaborative SURF release.
As that project demonstrated, they came up cutting their teeth in a sort of timeless practice of working hands-on with fellow artists.
For Nico, it was a comfortable outgrowth for what he’d done to that point in life. Raised honing his craft atthe vaunted Merit School of Music in the city’s West Loop, all he’s known iscreating music with those around him. Luckily for him he’s also had a knack forbeing around folks that could aptly reflect his genius behind the trumpet andeventually in arrangement of songs as well.
“I was led to only trust myself or people likeNate and Peter; people who know and understand what I’m trying to makemusically and can also switch it and make it their own in some sort of cool wayand I can trust that process too,” Segal explained. “I think that’s muchmore liberating creatively”
Fox arrived in a typical Midwest Migration. After establishing himself as a soulfully-informed producer in his hometown of Cleveland, he linked with Chance The Rapper and company producing Acid Rap’s lead single “Juice” as well as “Lost”, “Favorite Song” and “Chain Smoker” while performing on “Pushaman”. To put it lightly, Fox quickly became part of the team.
For a project largely realized in Chicago by Chicagoans, Fox was an outlier. His slight frame, quick smile and perpetually chilled disposition quickly endeared him to the rest of the collective. His addition to the Social Experiment largely was the one that closed the ranks. Regularly sleeping on couches and spare beds while working on new music and live show creations, Fox was and is at home wherever he is.
When the collective first started heading west and finding themselves in studios with names from across the gamut of music, the conversations they had were different than what you’d expect. Rather than name-dropping, bragging or complaining Nico, Nate and Peter spoke about knowing how to move in a studio. They traded notes on how to make others feel comfortable and produce the best work. It was an evolution of their musical lineage, taken to the highest level. That mentality, shared directly between Nico and Nate is what made this project come to life.
“All that happened was a situation where people acknowledged a piece of work [in Coloring Book]. It was a good piece of work. I’m on to my next good piece of work. That tends to be from what I’ve seen of other people and ourselves, that tends to have a stronger impace on your longevity if you take that route,” Fox said.
Intellexual represents a sort of breath of air for the pair. It’s generationally Chicago in its ability to lean in and out of genres gracefully while familiar elements act as through line in discography. It’s perhaps an outgrowth of Segal who never seems too far from an instrument, computer or studio and has made a point to release projects that feel as much like children as they do creative endeavors. In 2018, his first release since Coloring Book was Exchange, a largely instrumental jazz project with a group of artists he’d played with since his teenage years by the name of The Juju Exchange. Projects tend to not see the light of day unless there’s a necessity to do so.
Chicago’s a city in never-ending need of context and there was a time when the public looked to writers like Studs Terkel, Mike Royko and Nelson Algren to understand the idiosyncrasies of the Second City. They turned to their articles, books and poems for understanding, to feel accepted within the world they inhabited. And they found it there, day in and day out. Today, as digital mediums edge out the printed word and emojis replace letters, its artists who hold a lot of that responsibility of storytelling, giving sense to the day to day. Perhaps no one understands this better than Segal.
The opening track,featuring Liam Cunningham, another former KTD member, is a 21stCentury anthem steeped in past epochs for anyone who’s connected with this city’sdistinct personality. “City, city of mine. I just want to know, how far my feetgo” opens the project. It’s a microcosm of the larger mentality ofperseverance, utilizing one’s talent as a tool to grow. As they get older, thesentiments of the music become thicker, more understood from both the perspectiveof musician and listener. The same way soul beats dominated the 2000s, rockballads held things down before that and house stepping, blues and the likesbefore that, the honest, soulful meanderings of this pairing will be rememberedin the larger context of their creations as a backdrop for those who came up atthis time.
“I will say this is one of the only projects I ever made with such a clear concept going into it already. We knew for some reason we had this wavelength where we just understood what it was supposed to sound like,” explained Segal. “It wasn’t just a collection of stuff, it was purposeful material.”
Midwesterners aren’t always great at marketing themselves. It’s a plight of authenticity. We build each other up, rally around our heroes. We also know how to work hard. Both of these aspects could be true of Fox and Segal for the best reasons. Intellexual represents a necessary creative outgrowth, a turning of the page that couldn’t have happened as seamlessly without it. Likewise, those from the center can at times be insulated from the coasts. Whereas New York and Los Angeles claim to set the trends for the country at-large, its often initially misunderstood themes from the middle that grow into international motifs. These two have seen it before and are once again operating in that narrow realm of innovation affecting the next wave.
Whatever that brings. Things are proving to not be all that different, despite everything life has brought this far. The present is never far from the beginning.
“Somehow, some way the universe put all members of Kids These Days on this album in some facet. I don’t know about a reunion, but I know that the stars aligned and put all of them on the same plateau for this one and it’s exciting for me as a fan for real,” Fox said. “I finessed a full album of Kids These Days features. And thats tight to me. Thats super tight to me.”