Interview: Nico Segal a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet Talks His Many Aliases, Jazz, Poetry, and “Zion” As A Song, Place, And Person
With his self-titled EP, Donnie Trumpet put himself on the map, but Donnie Trumpet is just one side of the one man band that was originally named Nico Segal. The tape was the first solo venture from the young Chicago artist, and it showed signs at each colorful turn that there would be more to come in every direction. It was jazzy, rocking, thumping, groovy, and deeply organic; each note was in the right place, each song was like an organ in the body of work. It certainly helped to keep the organic peace that the two listed features–increasingly big names Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa–are longtime childhood friends of Nico. Now, though, he’s beginning to venture outside of the perfectly-tuned world of his youthful collaborations. Be it the disbanding of his high-school hip-hop/rock/jazz outfit Kids These Days earlier this year, or his overseas touring with Frank Ocean as part of his live band, Nico Segal is seeing a new side of the world, and luckily, he has a million sides to show it in return.
RESPECT: So you’re on tour with Frank Ocean right now, yeah?
Nico Segal: Yes sir. And, man, it’s incredible.
What is it like trying to transfer songs from the studio version to a live band?
After a lot of practice, the tunes are really startin’ to transfer live. The crowd is startin’ to respond positively. Positively? Positively? Sorry. And, um, yea, its been a real great experience. I love his music, so its great being able to play it every night. I’m just kind of blessed. I’ve been a big fan for a minute. When Channel Orange dropped I was on tour with Kids These Days and we were bumping that cover to cover. It’s an incredible project, I still listen to it.
Has Frank given you feedback about DT tape?
[Laughs] Well, he said he saw it on Hypetrack, but I don’t think he’s listened to it. We’ll see. That’s all I can say about that is “we’ll see.” I hope he does listen to it and give me some feedback, but he’s a very busy person. I never wanted to like push him or ask him to tweet anything, That’s not appropriate. If he listens to it, it should be because he [wants to] listen to it. I’ll be super super honored and blessed if he has anything to say about it. I’m waiting for that moment but I’m not holding my breath.
What’s your lyrical process for features? Do you like to work out the meaning of the song with someone else if they’re taking the vocal reigns?
I like making music with people. Vic and I have been making music previous together. And the process for us working on lyrics together is very natural. Everything happens in the moment in the studio. You know, its always about the vibe. That’s why people are so close to the people they make music with, because its such an important, organic part of the artistic journey– finding the people you enjoy working with. It just so happens that my best friend is my favorite rapper.
Having talked to Vic, its easy to see that your friendship feeds your musical compatibility.
Absolutely, man. You know, back even to when jazz trios would play together, it’s always about connection and how people communicate within a group. The Ray Brown Trio used to live together, for a long time.
So, what was your process like with Emilio Chestevez [the producer of Donnie Trumpet]?
Well it was a great time. You know, he has a lot of great ideas, and I have too many ideas, so he helped me hone in where I’m going and come up with more of a direction. He’s a super, super talented, amazing person.
A lot of these tunes, well I’m playing keys on the whole project, and I play drums on a few tracks. And he plays all the guitar, all the bass We programmed a lot of the sounds together. As far as the process…different songs come together in different ways, you know what I mean? Sometimes I would come in with a really clear vision for what I wanted to do with a song. For example, “Zion” is one of the tunes with like “l already know what I want this to sound like.” But we worked together on the arrangement, and other elements, so that’s how he was the “producer” for that song. On other ones, he really took the role of “writer” on like, “Don’t Leave.” I came up with the keys and the progression, but he really manned the song. But it never really comes together the same way twice, like a snowflake, [laughs].
“Zion” definitely seems like a track with a clear vision, seeing as it comes from that Lauryn Hill song.
Well I’ve been listening to The Miseducation [Of Lauryn Hill] for a long time. It means a whole lot to me. That song in particular, I just have a very deep connection to the idea of “Zion.” This is gonna sound kind of crazy, but I really do think that her project, is kind of like “love.” It’s like every..thing that “love” is or means. Like, love for your child, or romantic love, or a godly love, or just a deeper, more profound way of looking at love. I think her project does an amazing job of capturing all those angles. The idea of “Zion,” that place—I’m Jewish, and I’m not religious, but that’s another angle to this idea of “Zion.” I’ve got a connection to this idea of a mecca or a heaven, you know, whatever you want to call it, but everyone has a “Zion” or an idea of “Zion.” To think that “Zion” can be a person..that’s fuckin heavy! How can you even–? She named her child that. I dunno…I feel very strongly about that song, obviously. It’s come to mean a lot to me over the years, as I come to be older and have different ideas of love. With music being my one and only love…I needed to take that song and make it mine. I..kinda hate it when people do something like that, because they never do it right. And I’ll never, never do it the way she did it, but that was never my goal, you know, that never will be my goal. I just wanted to make my own version of it because I love her music and that concept of “Zion”—of that place, of that person…and making it a song. So yeah, that one was kinda for me..that one was for me.
That’s a great take on the idea. So you must have been really attached to Chance’s verse, seeing as it was from the perspective of Lauren Hill’s kid, who the original is dedicated to.
Chance…I love that verse man. It’s perfect to me. He actually said a couple times that he wants to go back into the studio and change some stuff on it, and he’s mad busy, and I’m mad busy, so it never ended up working out. It is what it is..I mean I always told him, “Dude I don’t want you changing shit about that verse.” There were thoughts about making it longer, or repeating it again, or doing it differently…The way I look at it, it’s like a jazz tune, even thought its not a jazz tune at all. The melody I play at the top of the tune and I play at the end, and in between would be the solo or what we call spontaneous composition. Improvisation, but still with a composition mentality, because every solo you play should be a song, or should be for that song. In a way, rappers taking only 8 bar verses, it like them almost taking more solos, and the trumpet is like the singer…It’s very backwards, to some people. I really want people to hear it like that. That kind of form has been lost with pop music and with the way people don’t really listen to instruments any more and don’t consider instruments like voices. They can’t really sit down and listen to a trumpet and hear it in a deeper way. They just try to sit through and listen to the rap verses so that they can relate to the words, but its important that you listen to everything with all of yourself and really put yourself in the music. If you do that, I’m sure you can feel where I’m coming from, and see that I’m connecting on a pretty wide and pretty deep level.
You’re really passionate about people focusing on aspects of music besides lyrics. Do you listen mostly to instrumental stuff?
No! I mean I listen to a lot of instrumental music but I wouldn’t say more than I listen to vocal music. I love singers. I think in a lot of ways, I’m trying to be more of a singer on the trumpet than I am a trumpet player. I listen to a lot of trumpet players, and I always have, and I’ve studied trumpet players, and I’ve transcribed trumpet solos for a long time…I mean, I definitely listen to instruments. But in a lot of ways, my love of hip-hop, of funk, of soul music, has driven me to want to sound like my favorite singers. I want my trumpet to sound like Stevie Wonder. I want my trumpet to sound like Hector Lavoe. And, and, and Lauryn Hill. And Biggie. A lot of people are purists about the art form that they’re involved in, I mean, rappers like rappity rap rap shit, where people have a simple beat, and it’s cool, and someone just raps their asses off. And I like that too. And jazz mo-fuckas just want to hear some swingin’ bebop and that’s cool, I like that too, I listen to bebop too. And the reggae heads just wanna listen to Bob Marley. And I love all that shit, I want it all to become me. I want to put it all through my horn, instead of telling myself to decide.
A lot of that passion for different types of music comes from Chicago, being such a diverse place, and my love of Chicago being so strong…I’ve just grown up embracing that a lot of different styles…could be my own style. That all those things influencing me is not a bad thing.
Well, a lot of these tunes I wrote in the studio with Vic. I didn’t even need to think “oh, Vic would be dope on this,” he’s just there, already rapping the hottest shit. And Chano too. As soon as he came in, I was like bro, I got a song and you’ve got to spit on this one. I showed him “Zion,” and he really dug it. He did it and I was like “Oh my god, it’s so perfect.” But I didn’t get to writing any of these tunes with anyone specifically in mind. The tunes that I spit on really spoke to me in a lyrical way. And the ones I didn’t, I didn’t really want to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write to it, its just that I didn’t need to. You know, being a poet and musician, sometimes those things mix really well, and sometimes they don’t, and that’s ok. I try not to push myself onto the song, I let the song tell me where I need to go, you know. I know that sounds like space—like spiritual shit. It’s really not. It’s like completely real. I promise you that’s exactly what it is.
If something doesn’t speak to words and only speaks to me with words, that’s OK, I don’t want to push anything that will change the integrity of the music. What ends up happening a lot is Vic is in the session with me, and I’m like “Oh! Here’s an amazing rapper right here. Not just a rapper. An amazing lyricist in many different ways. And musician, and artist. He’s got words. So why would I push myself when I have the luxury of having a lot of my friends around me be really talented lyricists and musicians.
I also come from a poetry background, so some things start with words first. That “Callie” verse was a poem before the song. So I just wound up spitting it over it and I liked how it fit. With “Pasadena,” I wrote that to the song. And actually that verse changed a whole lot. It was a long longer and I was singing a whole lot, but I wanted it to be more to the point, so I shortened it. Whether it’s music first or poetry first…they always come together.
So do you have aspirations to be a poet outside of the music world?
I am a poet! I’ve been a poet. I write poetry.
Have you thought of getting a book published?
Publish a book of poetry? I would love to. I mean, if there were 100 hours in one day I would do everything. But I’ve got a lot of trumpet to practice.
The thing about writing verses to songs–it is like writing poetry. On a deeper level, a lot of things are like writing poetry to me. Playing the trumpet is poetry to me. I think about poetry in a lot of different ways…intertwined with music, intertwined with art—visual art. And I think about words a lot like I think about notes. Sometimes words aren’t there to be words to me, they’re there for their musicality. And this is gonna sound very crazy, but it’s really something I learned from Biggie. The way he puts his phrases together—we know he told stories and painted pictures, and the words he uses are very different than the ones I would use—his words are always in the right place. Like Miles Davis. His notes are always in the right place, he always picks the best notes, the juicy notes.
I had a project a while ago where I just put a bunch of poems on top of beats. This project for me was about—well, not using J Dilla beats, as much as I love J Dilla—and about not just writing a poem and spitting it to a beat. I think its’ important to show the whole artist, to show the journey. If people really want to listen to me and really care to appreciate what I’m doing then they can go get that old project and they’ll see the growth and see “Oh, now he’s producing! Now he’s making song’s! Now he’s singing! Oh shit!” And that’s kinda where I left off, because this next shit I got, I’m singing a lot more, and tell a story a little more. On Donnie Trumpet, a lot of people don’t even know when it’s me singing! Honestly! I could tell you a bunch of places where it’s me and you’d be like “that’s you?” I actually kinda like that, I like that element of surprise.
So is a Donnie Trumpet LP next?
Great question. I’m not sure what the next project is but I’ve been working on a bunch of stuff. I’ve got a lot of tunes with Blended Babies, I’ve got a whole lot of work done with the O’My’s, and a lot of stuff coming out soon with my homies, my crew SAVEMONEY. There’s a project that could be coming out this summer, I’m not sure, and it’s called Save Them. It’s SAVEMONEY and Them People, which is a production crew out of Chicago. And then there’s this whole other band called Ruby Robot. And that’s a lot more—I’m singing a lot, and I’m also rapping a little bit. But that’s a whole different project. And actually—and this is some exclusive shit you’re getting right here bro—on the tune “New Business,” it goes into “Player’s Holiday.” You can hear on one of the adlibs of that track I said Ruby Robot. You don’t even need to print that, you know, gotta keep some things on the low. But yeah, Ruby Robot is next. And that’s some super, super exclusive shit. Ruby Robot.
Wait, who’s Ruby Robot?
Who is Ruby Robot? Who’s Donnie Trumpet? Who are all these people? Ah..yeah, Ruby Robot is a band.
Who’s in it?
Uhh, I’m in it! My homie Owen is playing bass and also producing and engineering….And that’s all I’m gonna say for now. But yeah that’s my homie Owen, also known as Otis from the band Milo & Otis. Definitely check them out.
Getting back to the name, why Donnie Trumpet? Just a play on Donald Trump?
Yeah, I was actually featuring on one of my homies’ tracks and in the song he said “I need some of that Donnie Trump,” and I was like “Donnie Trump, Donnie Trump—Donnie Trumpet!” That’s the whole story [laughs]. And I could give a fuck about Donald Trump, I just thought Donnie Trumpet was live, so I kept it. [Long pause] I have many aliases.
What are they?
I’m also Nico Genius, I’m also Nico Suave—matter of fact, DJ Nico Suave, I’m also Long Tone, Bud Biliken, Donnie Trumpet, Billy Shakes. When I write something really dope, on some poetry shit, I always sign it Bill Shakes.
I’ve had a few chance encounters with James Blake and I’m a huge fan of his. And um, it would just be insane to work with him. And we’re talking about dream lists here right? I really want to get Big K.R.I.T. on a record, I really wanna get Twista on a record, I really wanna get Wyclef on a record. There’s actually a song I’m working on with Ruby Robot where we were like, “Yo, we need to get Wyclef on this track”. But who knows when the fuck that’ll happen. Who else? I really wanna work with Hiatus Coyote. Lauryn Hill…and man, I’d really love to work with Anthony Hamilton.
I saw on your Twitter that you want to move to Norway. What’s so great about Norway?
There’s a million things that’s great about Norway…but…the women, bro. Gorgeous, just so gorgeous. We played an awesome festival, and…I might have fallen in love in Norway. Let’s just leave it at that. She’s gonna hit me up about that. I’ma get a couple of phone calls about that. [Laughs] I shouldn’t have said anything.
Who are some new artists you’re really into?
I really like Frank Ocean dude, seriously.
I hear he’s on tour with an ill-ass trumpet player, too.
[Laughs] Ohh shit. That’s crazy to even think about. Still crazy. I’m just so honored to be apart of what I am right now.
New artists, new artists…I listen to my friends, dude. I love my crew, I love my city…I listen to Lili K. I played on that record, so I guess it’s kind of obnoxious to say I listen to it, but I really listen to it for her and for the production. And I listen to that like every day. Um…I’m gonna go and say INNANETAPE is gonna be the best album of 2013.
Last words for RESPECT.’s readers?
[Long pause] Okay, well, expand your minds, in every way possible. And the second part of that is find beauty in everything. Find something that you like, that you relate to, especially in music, that you can grab on to that you can make your own. That goes classical music, that goes for country, that goes for the worst band you’ve ever heard, that goes for anything. I was at a festival the other day and I got to listen to Rammstein. I don’t listen to that stuff, but that show was incredible. Blew my fucking mind. I would never turn them on in my house. But I definitely loved the show and I would go see them again. Music is life, and life is music, and that’s all poetry and that’s all art…and all that jazz. Mm, damn! But seriously, though. That stuff is important.
If you’re in Chicago, be sure to catch Nico at a Donnie Trumpet-headlined event. Maybe you’ll even get to talk to him–it’s not an opportunity to be missed. Check out the flyer below.