Consider how hip-hop duo The Foreign Exchange came together. North Carolina native Phonte (of the rap group Little Brother) and Dutch producer Nicolay met on the Web site Okayplay.com and began to send tracks and vocals to each other via instant messaging. Those tracks eventually came to constitute the duo's first album under The Foreign Exchange moniker, Connected, which was released to critical acclaim before the artists ever met face to face.
Phonte couldn't quite believe his ears when he first heard Nicolay's rich production. "We had a bunch of conspiracy theories going on, because at the time he was overseas and was kind of like a mysterious figure," Phonte recalls during a recent phone interview. "It wasn't like we could hook up over at his house. We thought, 'What if he's really a girl? What if he's got a whole staff of beatmakers?'"
To Phonte, the music seemed too good to be true. "It was the sound I'd been looking for this whole time but had never found anyone to do it. I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff, and I always dreamed of making music that combines those influences. So when I finally heard Nicolay, it was like, 'He is a cat that really gets it.' I found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Once they finally met, it took time for Phonte and Nicolay to adjust to working together outside of the virtual world. It wasn't until after the release of the band's latest album, Leave It All Behind, that The Foreign Exchange booked a full tour.
"We were in a photo shoot one time, and he was sitting next to me," Phonte says. "I remember sitting there and thinking, 'Man, I got this idea for this joint. I have to tell Nic when I get home.' Then I realized, damn, the dude is sitting right there! You've been doing it so long, logging in and talking. So a lot of our communication is non-verbal. I'd forget he had an accent."
While the band's debut, Connected, found Phonte flexing his impressive rhyming skills, Leave It All Behind finds the frontman showing off his formidable singing chops. There's no auto-tune trendiness to Leave It All Behind, just honest singing about mature topics.
"I was just doing what I thought fit the tracks," Phonte says. "The tracks that Nic was sending me just felt like tracks that a singer should be on more so than just someone rapping."
Phonte sang years before he rapped -- he performed in church as a child -- and he has sung some hooks on early Little Brother recordings. But putting sung vocals in the forefront has opened The Foreign Exchange up to a whole new audience, getting them airplay on stations that don't spin hip-hop.
"We got a hip-hop audience already, and now we also got people around my parents' age, or anybody who's into soul and R&B," Phonte says.
While it took some time for Phonte and Nicolay to learn to communicate verbally, the band's musical chemistry fell right into place. The Foreign Exchange live show sees Phonte on vocals in front of a full live band including Nicolay on key and samples, and vocalists Darien Brockington and Carlitta Durand.
"Seeing the band come together just takes it to another level," according to Phonte. "It's not just a group, we're making a movement."