Nate Fox doesn't want to make you a beat, he wants to help you make "the best fucking song."
It's impossible to talk about Chance The Rapper without talking about his band The Social Experiment, and it's impossible to talk about The Social Experiment without talking about producer Nate Fox. Nate has been on board with Chance since the two met at SXSW around the time the buzzing rapper had released his debut mixtape 10 Day. The two exchanged information, and Nate handed over some beats, which would end up being the foundation of Chance's breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap. "That was the starting point for the project... I gave him a flash drive or a CD. Two or three of them ended up being songs - 'Lost,' 'Favorite Song,' and 'Juice,'" he says. Living in Cleveland at the time, Nate took a trip to Chance's hometown of Chicago for the Acid Rap sessions. At that point, Fox hesitantly played his new friend a beat that he'd laid some of his own vocals on. That idea became "Chain Smoker," and the rest is history.
Nate's obsession with music began many years before that pivotal moment, as he recalls the first three albums his parents selected for him when he asked for a CD player. "It was The Beatles Let It Be, Michael Jackson's Dangerous, and Kenny G's self-titled album," he says. "Which I think are pretty accurate to what I'm into now." From there, Nate started listening to more hip-hop and began rapping over beats that he found on Napster. After reading an interview with 9th Wonder in XXL, he started experimenting with production program Fruity Loops, which is where he fell in love with composition.
Nate is now a key member of The Social Experiment, the collective made up of creative minds like Donnie Trumpet, Peter Cottontale, Greg Landfair Jr., and Chance, that has produced two of the most acclaimed projects of the last two years with SURF (led by Donnie Trumpet) and Coloring Book (led by Chance The Rapper). He's grown from a laptop beatmaker to a studio rat, widening his vision and making an effort to embody both the modern and the traditional definitions of what a producer can be, looking to Rick Rubin as an example. He's largely defined what The Social Experiment *sounds* like, often tweaking the instruments of his virtuosic collaborators into the early hours of the morning to achieve the collective's unique sonic force. He can make Donnie's Trumpet resemble a guitar or a synthesizer, and has been called the "greatest contemporary producer and arranger" by Chance on Twitter.
Fox is also constantly working with the most exciting new voices in music, many of them from Chicago; a city thats supportive scene has inspired the collaborative approach to music Nate often favors. Over the last year, he's bridged connections with his collaborators, including Chance The Rapper and Francis & The Lights, two very different but very like-minded artists who now run in the same creative circle. So far he counts D.R.A.M., Jamila Woods, Big Sean, Raury, and Kehlani among the musicians he's produced.
We spoke to Nate about the genesis of the Social Experiment, the difference in the approach to SURF and Coloring Book, and his desire to explore the wide ranges of the producer role. Read our conversation below.
How did The Social Experiment come to be?
I was on a couple tours with him when it was just him and Oreo the DJ. We did the Mac Miller tour, and Europe with Macklemore. We were travelling around - just him and a DJ. And then he decided he wanted to put a band together. And so he was about to do his first headlining tour, and Peter was the obvious first choice - a phenomenal musician, been in bands and toured. He's got experience musically directing bands and putting shows together. And then Greg and Nico - they'd recently split up with Kids These Days, so they were available, and I'm sure Chance had had them in mind.
So basically, Chance rallied all these people together, and it's kinda funny. I never met Nico or Greg until the third show of the tour. We did the show in Pittsburgh, and that was the first time we ever met each other, played together, interacted. It was really cool, it worked really great, and everything was really wonderful. It continued on the tour for a while, figuring each other out. It was a bit different for me cause all those guys kinda knew each other from Chicago, so it was kinda more me tryna convince them that I was cool. (Laughs) So anyway, when it really formulated we were in Albequerque New Mexico, and during that tour, we had two guys DJ Spinn & DJ Rashad.
They were on tour with Chance, I remember that.
They were the opener and the closer. They were our dudes basically. They taught us a lot of shit - not just music, but life shit. They're very intelligent, well-travelled, well-versed. So we were in Albequerque, New Mexico and we kinda had some time, so everyone started setting up their gear in a hotel room, and we made these four beats that were just so unique, special. And everyone kinda felt it like "yo there's something to this process" - everyone knew what elements they were supposed to add. Everyone just clicked and it turned into something really cool.
So we spent more time on the bus, and one day Chance came back and was like "I think this is a band, I think we're a band. Not just like Chance The Rapper and [blank]." So we played around with names for a while, and he was like "I think The Social Experiment." Cause the idea was to do experiments with people at the show. For instance one of the experiments Chance does is starting a song with a mic, and then stop - he'll have the first row of the crowd stop with the mic and start with the first person in the first row of the crowd and sing the song with them, and have them look back at the next person, and see how far it can build. So it was basically built on the idea of that - what kind of experiments can we do? And then it became what kind of experiments can we do musically? And then it turned into what kind of experiments can we do with music business? Then what kind of experiments can we do with album releases?
Was it crazy to see the success of Coloring Day Festival? 47,000 people came out.
Absolutely. It's a new frontier of the possibilities of doing something on your own with sheer will power and great relationships. A lot of those people did that show cause Chance called them and personally asked them to do it. All the logistics were handled by other people, but the core conversation is between two friends. I think a lot of people could feel that at the festival. Even just watching it you can tell in the crowd feeling any kind of hostility or aggression. Everyone's having fun, and there's so many different kinds of people. One of my friends said he couldn't believe he was watching his parents while they're sitting there watching 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne - like he never thought that woulda happened. But it did because Chance had the idea of "let me bring something amazing and magical and magnificent for my city. I'm always going all over the place, lemme bring my friends here."
What would you say your role in The Social Experiment is?
I play in the shows every once in a while. I'm mostly in the trenches of the creation process. I've opened a session of every song at some point if that leads to any detail as to my position. Me and Peter [Cottontale] do a lot of arrangements of the song, mixing and stuff. Me and Jeff Lane and Peter do a lot of mixing. Even the idea process. Chance is a great person to work with in the studio cause he doesn't necessarily tell you what to do but he gives you a great platform to start with. He might say - an example that comes to mind is "No Problems." He said, "I don't know what the beat's like but the first thing I'll say is 'If one more label tries to stop me there's gon' be some... in your lobby.'" And everyone was like 'cool, that's the jump off.' So we all go to our stations and try to come up with our ideas, and then you work it out from there. It's a really cool process.
I saw Chance tweeted a while back "Nate Fox is perhaps our greatest contemporary producer and arranger."
He's a very kind soul. There's a lot of really good ones out there, so I don't know if I could claim that throne. There's a lot of great producers and arrangers but it means a lot to hear somebody that you work really closely with, spending a lot of time on things like that - sometimes hours into the night debating if a snare should be in one place or not - and finally him seceding to your idea because he does feel that way. He does respect you in that way. So it’s nice to hear that.
He also joked in a tweet that you were voted most likely to be in the studio at any given time. Is that an accurate portrayal of your day to day life?
Yup. I would say so, yeah yeah. The day normally goes - I like to wake up around ten. I can't say I stay true to that all the time. I saw an interview with Rick Rubin recently, not sure if you've seen it but he does the whole interview from his sauna.
Haven't seen it, but I know he's into that kind of stuff.
The funny part is that he makes the interviewer sit in the sauna with him the whole time and do ice baths with him. He was talking about when he was losing weight and all that, one of the first things his life coach told him was you should wake up earlier - and the first thing you should do is go outside into the sun. Stand outside in the sun for 20 minutes, and your body instantly wakes up. You instantly feel better. So I'm tryna do that, but like Chance said, I'm likely to be caught in the studio at any hour, so 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, I might still be here. It's very possible. I have a studio here in LA, and anytime I go anywhere – New York, Chicago – I’m probably going there specifically to be in a studio for a long period of time.
Where do you like to record?
Sound City. It’s where they did the Foo Fighters old albums, Nirvana’s albums, Fleetwood Mac. It’s where Rick Rubin used to produce all of his rock shit. They had one of the original neve boards, one of the first he ever made. And that was why people really used to fuck with this place extra heavy. But anyway. It’s in that complex. That original building – I’m touching it right now. It’s out of the way. In the valley. People don’t just pop by here, and if you come out here, you’re here for a very specific reason.
I wanted to ask about what your involvement in the Francis & The Lights project was.
Yeah of course. First of all, Francis is probably one of my favorite artists/songwriters of all time. His earlier work inspired me at a time when I was not inspired by music at all. When I found out about his stuff I instantly became a fan. When I was in Pittsburgh a couple months before Acid Rap came out and things took off, I was working construction, things weren’t going so great, and I was like “man I should just reach out Francis” cause he had posted some random video of him in the studio working on some stuff. I scoured the internet, found his booking email and I sent him a very precisely worded email. It was basically like “yo, if you’re working on something, I’m a huge fan, and I’d like to contribute in any way”. He sent me back stems to a song he was working on and was like – “Go ahead, here's what I’m thinking.”
So we did our thing, went back and forth or whatever, and then he eventually disappeared for a while. And then I introduced Chance to Francis’s music, and we all fell in love with it. We finally reconvened at a later date. We’ve formed this amazing friendship – he’s one of the nicest – I don’t wanna say too much cause – whatever – he’s a phenomenal person. He’s been working on this project, and one of the things I wanna say I truly believe he’s said “I’m open to interpretation, I’m open to hear what everyone else thinks, and I’m willing to work with other people on it.”
So he would bring songs to the studio, play songs, we’d go over ideas as far as arrangement and certain sounds that should happen here, what if this happened, things like that. As far as physically producing something, the only song that I really helped on was “I want you to shake”. I helped with some of the arrangements and Nico’s solo which happens to be an insane trumpet tone that we’ve spent many a-night experimenting with.
So would you say you’re kind of the link between Francis & The Lights and Chance The Rapper?
I did say “Chance, you should listen to this” and I pressed play, but I think that the link is really Francis’s music – I don’t think the link is like “yo Chance, this is Francis – Francis, this is Chance”. It wasn’t like that at all. Chance instantly became his own version of a Francis fan, and through that, his love and the relationship kind of formed from that. And then once we got together and started to work on actual songs together, we realized our creation process was very similar. Our ideas came from a very similar place, and our taste was very similar as well. It just ended up working to a point where it just felt so great. Francis is doing shows now with Chance. He really is truly the new member, or perhaps he's always been a member, of the Social Experiment but now he's physically in it.
He's now worked with Kanye, was that through The Social Experiment as well?
He came with Chance to a session with Kanye, and I think it's kind of the same thing that happens with everybody with Francis - Francis and Kanye have a very similar thought process. They're inspired by a lot of different things and they have the ability to look at things in ways that other people really can't. And he became his own version of a Francis fan. Francis played him a couple records, he heard the "Friends" song, Kanye said "yo this is crazy, this is my favorite song". Kanye became his own version of a Francis fan, and then from there they formed a friendship. So it's another situation where there were people who made the introduction, but really the relationship stems from their love for that passion for making the things that they make. And they're fans of each other really.
What do you think is next for The Social Experiment?
There's a lot of room still to expound on Coloring Book. I think there's a lot of ideas left to explore. I don't think we've even found out all the way what we can do with that.
Is Coloring Book a whole new page for you guys?
I think it did a few new things in terms of the way it was released, the way it was rolled out, the way it's been followed up, this whole Magnificent Coloring Day, the tour, the puppets. I think all these things are new as they're associated with Coloring Book. They're extensions of that. I think those ideas will just grow. I think it's very much like Acid Rap. We toured off Acid Rap for three years. I think Coloring Book is the same idea. You can tour off this for three years, changing the arrangements, changing the ideas, the presentation. Not that we're gonna wait three years to put out another album.
Did some of the ideas for Surf came from live arrangements on tour?
I think a lot of ideas for Surf came from Nico's mind, they came from all his experiences of all these different musical experiences. Every thing from being in a jazz band to being in a hip-hop rock band. His idea of arrangements is very eclectic. I think Surf was a culmination of all those ideas coming together. I think that's what Surf was. To put it into a Surf metaphor - it was a lot of waves crashing into each other.
Do you see Surf as a precursor to Coloring Book? Or do you see them as two different tangents?
I see them as 2 different things because I think the approach was different. If you look at each one as a movie, the directors were different. Although the casts are very similar, and a lot of the people behind everything were a lot of the same people, the people sitting behind the director's chair guiding the story were two very different minds in two very different places in their lives as well.
So will we see sequels to both SURF and Coloring Book?
I think we've always had the idea to continue the Social Experiment - whether that means Peter Cottontale and the Social Experiment or Nate Fox. Or it could be someone like Jeremih and the Social Experiment. That idea opens itself up to be anything. So whatever the next one is is that. I think we'll kind of move around from doing a Social Experiment project to doing a Chance The Rapper album or doing a Donnie Trumpet album or doing a Peter Cottontale album - We'll move around it from being a "And The" which I think will always be conceptual albums directed by one person but always have these octopus arms of other people. Whereas an album might be more in the box or in-house.
Can you elaborate on what the director role is for these albums?
Every director directs differently. But I think it's just about choices, and the chain of command. If we were working on Surf, and Nico had an idea, and not everyone agreed with it, it didn't matter because the final decision was "this is my vision of what I see, so let's do our best to do that, and if that doesn't work, let's go to the next thing". So it's kind of like an order. First we're gonna try my idea, then we're gonna try these other ideas, then we'll see what works best. So it's kind of about leading the reins on the path to a finished goal. Just informing everybody about what the story is and what the plotline is. Making sure people know what parts they want them to play.
So what would a Nate Fox and The Social Experiment album sound like?
Well currently it kind of sounds like folk stadium music. It'd be like if Kid Cudi and Peter Gabriel did an album together.
(Laughs) I don't think that's been done before.
Just as far as big hooks, Chance stuff, big drums, big drops. I'm a big fan of simplicity, so it'd probably be a lot of well-written songs.
Are sounds the most important part for you? You talk about tweaking things for hours and hours.
That's part of where I fit into the Social Experiment creation process. Nico and Peter and those guys are studied musicians. The things that they've focused on are 'what are my changes', 'what are my sections'. 'what are my variations'. What if I do C minor 7 to a B flat 9? So they're more than happy to lay five or six piano takes down with the same piano - but my job is to say 'what if I lay a little bit of this on there, or what if i do this?' What if I tweak this? To give it just enough uniqueness. So yeah, I do pay a lot of attention to tonality.
In The Social Experiment, sometimes the trumpets sound like synths and sometimes they sound like guitars.
I'll tell you this - Nico is the Slash to our Guns N Roses. He's the lead guitarist to our rock band. So some of the most important things are gonna be the tone of his instrument. So I think that it's tight because it's lent us to think about this trumpet - I know there are people along the way who have experimented with it - but Nico's ability to create unique parts is equal to our ability to play with the sound. That's where the real specialness of it really meets. His playing ability is so great, and so special, and unique - any special things we do tonally to it just take it to that next level. Cause trust me you could sit in a room and just have Nico play you a line, and it'd be equally as impactful as whatever the fuck we do to it on the record.
What's next for you?
My next step is focusing on being good at all things because I've always been an avid student of Rick Rubin and his philosophies and his take on music and the way he interacts with artists. I've been blessed enough to have met him before and see him operate in a studio and see him speak to an artist. One of the things I noticed is that he can truly have his imprint in all aspects of the music creation process in different forms and different facets. Maybe playing something or creating something or helping someone write something.
I think in order to have longevity in any profession, being able to do more than one thing is very very important. I should be able to be in a room with Gucci and make him a beat exactly like what he would want. And then the next day get in a room with Robert Glasper, and be able to give him what he wants. I feel that's extremely important to being around for a long time, and being the best producer possible. It gets twisted - the beatmaker/producer thing. Back in the day, a producer didn't make anything. They didn't touch anything. They came in and worked on getting the players to play the parts, about making the right decisions in the right places, helping the right artists write the best thing they could. The position was a lot different. I wanna be more encompassing of both positions, not just someone who will make the beat, but also someone who can help you make the best fucking song. Ultimately that's what we're trying to do - make the best song we possibly can. That's what I'm on right now.