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Indie-soul collective Foreign Exchange plays the Cat's Cradle (via The News & Observer)
It seems like only yesterday Phonte Coleman was just a North Carolina rapper/singer, one-third of the up-and-coming hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back then, Coleman was also exchanging music files with an Internet help desk employee and aspiring producer in the Netherlands (Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook), hoping the two could make music together.

Phonte and Nicolay remain focused on The Foreign Exchange (via Creative Loafing)
With their fifth studio album, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange has perfected its sophisticated take on R&B, incorporating not only a range of sticky sweet melodies, but also a smattering of nuanced romantic themes like domesticity and compromise. But whatever you do, don't call it ''grown man music.''

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''More than anything else, the biggest crime as an artist is to be boring.'' Phonte Coleman, the primary songwriter, vocalist and animated gif half of the Foreign Exchange, has probably never been at the receiving end of such an accusation. Over the course five albums with partner Nicolay, Phonte has equated love to an excuse, displayed affection through lunchtime chicken wing delivery, and made a gorgeously passive-aggressive ode to the better mate. His songwriting is unparalleled in its combined frankness, humour and relevance in our everyday dalliances.

The Foreign Exchange introduces its own Song of Solomon: 'Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Washington Post)
Phonte Coleman, the rapping, singing half of the hip-hop/R&B duo the Foreign Exchange, has a complicated relationship with religion. When he was growing up, he detested the mandatory trips to his grandmother’s baptist church, so he joined the choir just to make the ordeal more palatable. At least from the choir stand there was an added element of entertainment. Stationed behind the preacher, young Phonte could gaze upon the flock and see who was fanning themselves, who was trying not to fall asleep and who was struggling to stay on beat.

The Foreign Exchange's Nicolay tours to find new inspiration (via IndyWeek)
Phonte Coleman and Matthijs 'Nicolay' Rook keep their distance. Together, they've made several albums, toured the world, been nominated for a Grammy and built a little independent empire under the name The Foreign Exchange. But Coleman raps and sings from Raleigh, while the Dutch-born Nicolay lives in Wilmington. The space between them must be fertile, as they both pursue separate artistic offshoots. Coleman has his hip-hop and TV endeavors, while Nicolay has just released his expansive fourth solo album, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto, in which he offers up a Euro-soul take on South Africa's native rhythms.

We Be Spirits interviews Nicolay
Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the 'exchange' of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.

Nicolay wraps his experiences abroad into a jazzy album (via Star-News)
It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.

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San Francisco Bay Guardian Online interviews The Foreign Exchange

by +FE on September 9, 2009 at 6:37 PM · Comments
"I love singin', but I think I'mma call my solo album, 'Fuck That, Coretta ... These Niggas Thaink I'm Soft,'" tweeted Phonte Coleman. "Thoughts?"

The message appeared on the Southern rapper's Twitter page a day after our interview, when I asked him, "All your projects seem to have a smooth, soulful, almost smooth jazz kind of sound. What is it about that sound that appeals to you?"

While I don't know if my question prompted Phonte's subsequent post, it's clear that Leave It All Behind (Foreign Exchange Music), his 2008 album with Nicolay as the Foreign Exchange, charts new depths of mellowness. In person, Phonte is a hilarious, extremely un-PC wisecracker, as subscribers to his Twitter account (and, back in the Stone Age, his MySpace page) will confirm. However, Phonte's turn as sincere loverman simply explores a side of his personality already revealed in his work as one-third of Little Brother, the hip-hop group for which he remains best known.

For the moment, let's dispense with the clichés about smooth jazz and neo-soul, because that would distract from Leave It All Behind's lushly romantic longings. As one of the better hip-hop producers of the moment, Nicolay knows how to mix dynamic drum tracks -- check the hard-stepping rhythm on "All or Nothing" -- with sweet yet funky keyboard melodies. At his best, he makes beats filled with uncompromised beauty, from the airy blasts of "Daykeeper" to the clipped, jazz-fusion workout, "House of Cards." "I've always had a deep affinity with hip hop and R&B," says Nicolay, who has a formal music education and plays multiple instruments.

Meanwhile, Phonte has an unmistakably memorable tone, one well suited to the album's suite of tumultuous, make-up-to-break-up songs. Sometimes he flattens his voice too much, thinning it out. But he can carry a tune, and his harmonic style fits Nicolay's melody-rich sounds.

Phonte says, "I did grow up singing in church, as did most black kids in the South. With a Christian grandma, you really didn't have no muthafuckin' choice. [But] I didn't really start taking it seriously until 2005." Once he did, he adds, "I started developing my voice, doing vocal exercises, taking piano lessons and doing voice lessons, little stuff like that." With Little Brother, he mostly stuck to hooks and elaborate chitlin' circuit in-jokes like Percy Miracles. Leave It All Behind marks Phonte's formal singing debut.

Nicolay and Phonte met in 2002 on Okayplayer.com's message board. Since Nicolay lived in the Netherlands and Phonte lived in Durham, N.C., the two collaborated virtually, sending tracks back and forth via the Internet. Released on U.K. major-indie BBE Music -- and costarring Phonte's rap friends Tanya Morgan, the Justus League and Darien Brockington -- the Foreign Exchange's 2004 debut Connected drew comparisons to The Listening, the 2003 debut by Phonte's other group Little Brother. Both albums sounded like down-home jam sessions, with backpack MCs blacking out in freestyle ciphers and sticking to a true-school aesthetic.

"We were trying to give the Foreign Exchange its own sound, rather than it being another Little Brother record," Nicolay says. "I've been more on the R&B side of things. That was only part of the equation with Connected, and it was much a bigger part of Leave It All Behind." It also helped that, with Little Brother disbanded (Phonte says they're "on hiatus"); Leave It All Behind focuses primarily on Nicolay and Phonte. (There are a few guests, chiefly rising L.A. artist Muhsinah.)

Nicolay, who recently moved to North Carolina with his wife and business partner, Aimee Flint, released Leave It All Behind through his independent company, Nicolay Music/The Foreign Exchange. Despite modest publicity via a few respectful online reviews and banner ads on indie-soul friendly networks like Fusicology.com, Phonte says "the demand for it has been high." It has sold nearly 20,000 copies, solid numbers for a solid indie release.

This unusual (albeit increasingly common) approach to issuing Leave It All Behind has only enhanced its intrinsic preciousness. For all its depth, the Foreign Exchange's music is very slick and clean.

One of Nicolay's inspirations is Coldplay, which has reduced U2 arena rock theatrics to a hard science. Yet Nicolay's music isn't as cold; it burns with intensity. People who listen to Leave It All Behind without someone to hold them may feel weird and self-conscious.

Neither Phonte nor Nicolay can explain why they're drawn to such lush soul. But they won't apologize for it, either. "It seems to be a recurring theme throughout my career," Phonte says. "Those positive vibrations ... it just makes me feel good."
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