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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.

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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.

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Connecting with The Foreign Exchange (via SOBO Magazine)

by +FE on December 16, 2009 at 11:26 AM · Comments
The world of technology is amazing. The world we live in can now make almost anything possible with the click of a mouse and some computer skills. What's more impressive is technology has afforded many musicians and artists the luxury that would have been unheard of decades ago. For Phonte Coleman and Nicolay, it was the click of a mouse that brought these two talented individuals together to make one of the most unique duos in music history, The Foreign Exchange.

Meeting each other through the popular website forum Okayplayer.com, the two would exchange music and lyrics through e-mails and make their dynamic debut album, Connected (2004), before meeting each other face to face. Phonte, a member of the group Little Brother, and Nicolay, producer extraordinaire from the Netherlands, have blessed the masses with some amazing work, so much that at press time the duo was nominated for a Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy for the single "Daydreamer" from their second release, Leave It All Behind (2008).

Recently, Phonte and Nicolay sat down to grant SOBO an interview in which they discussed their beginnings, their respective projects outside of The Foreign Exchange, and their appreciation of a certain musician from Minneapolis.

What's happening, Phonte? Nothing much, man. Just been working hard and on the grind. You got to be on it.

Nicolay, how have you been, brother? I'm doing alright. How have you been?

It's all good and it's really good to sit down and talk to you guys. I would like to kick the conversation off by talking about how the two of you guys came together. If I am correct, you connected through the Okayplayer message board? Phonte: That's correct.

So who reached out to whom? Phonte: It was me. I reached out to Nic first. I heard his music and I thought it was dope. When I reached out to him, I asked him if he wouldn't mind if I did something along to his tracks. He was okay with it and that's what pretty much kicked us off.

Nicolay, what brought you to the Okayplayer message board in the first place? For me personally it was D'Angelo's Voodoo album. Even though I was a Roots fan, I had never made that connection until I had gotten the Voodoo album and I saw the Okayplayer link. That was April of 2000, almost ten years ago and that's when I started to visit the site and explore the message boards. At first I was kind of intimidated by it because it has a tendency to move real quick but I got to the place where I started posting myself and got familiar with the people there.

Is this when you began to post your music? Eventually, yes.

And so Phonte, this is when you heard the tracks and came on board, right? Yes. His music was unlike anything I had ever heard, someone who had the mixing of samples with live instrumentation. It was a really unique sound and it's still a really unique sound but at the time it was overwhelming.

How long did you guys send music back and forth to one another? Nicolay: We're still sending music back and forth to one another! (Laughs) Phonte: Exactly!

I think that's pretty cool that the two of you sent tracks back and forth to one another without actually getting together in the studio and it came across as this great classic album, Connected. Nicolay: Thank you.

After you dropped Connected, when did you guys finally meet face to face? Nicolay: I believe we met in April of 2004, a few months before the album actually dropped. Phonte and Pooh came to Europe to do a Little Brother tour and one of the dates they had was in Amsterdam and that's when we actually met.

Connected is a classic album from top to bottom. Every track on there is brilliant and it's just a great piece of work. Phonte: Thanks very much, man. We appreciate hearing that.

What inspired the concept of the album, from the production to the lyrics? Phonte: For me, it was just hearing the music that Nic was making. It inspired me to do something I had never done before. It was all about me doing something more than I had been doing at that time. Nicolay: For me I had never worked with vocalists in the sense of a finished product and when Phonte sent back some of the things they had been doing, it all fell into place. I felt like I had found the right person to go with the sound I felt I was creating.

Phonte, the song "Sincere" was a major hit which featured YahZarah. What was it like working with her? Me and YahZarah go all the way back to college and we've been making records together for a long time. With me and her working together, it's just old friends making music. We've been making records for so long that it's a very easy chemistry. I have a feel for what she likes and she has a feel for what I like and we kind of meet each other in the middle.

You have Little Brother, you have Foreign Exchange, and you have Zo and Tigallo. What else is up your sleeve, man? What else can we expect from you?(Laughs) Just more music. Nic and I have the new stuff we're doing with Foreign Exchange Music and that's the next step in making a lane for other artists. We have Zo's new album that we're putting out as a free download and we have YahZarah's new album that will drop in the spring of 2010 and then I have a solo record coming and as an artist, you can only shine for so long before you burn out and you kind of have to shine through other people. It's like a candle: It can only burn for so long but it can light a million other candles. That light continues to shine. That's what Nic and I are pretty much focused on and that's developing our label and developing our brand.

Nicolay, tell me a bit about your musical background. Who influenced your musical talents? For me, it was all about the stuff my mom was playing, which along the lines of 70s music like Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There was also Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and by the time I got into my own likes, I was really heavy into Prince and I would say that Prince was like my first real musical influence.

So it's all about Prince, huh? What would you say is your favorite Prince album? My favorite Prince album is probably Parade!

Okay man... you're my boy! (Laughs) To me, that is the quintessential Prince album! People sleep on Parade but that is a classic Prince album! Phonte: Man, that might have been the last great Prince album too! (Laughs) That was before Sign O the Times, right? Nicolay: Yes. Phonte: Sign O the Times was okay, but it was Parade that was really his last great piece of work.

Parade was great in the sense that it was the last with the Revolution as we knew them. Nicolay: Right and the thing for me was it was jazzy and what really set things off for me is that I saw it live and what was crazy about that tour was he expanded the Revolution and it really opened my eyes because he was going in another direction and I take cues from that for what we do.

Which leads me to Leave It All Behind, another great album. My favorite track is the Stevie Wonder remake of "If She Breaks Your Heart" from the Jungle Fever soundtrack. What made you guys want to cover that track in particular? Phonte: That's a song that I have always liked and the Jungle Fever soundtrack is a record that I really liked and it was the early 90s and it was just a damn good album!

Well brothers, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak to us at SOBO Magazine and much success in everything you do. We look forward to hearing more great music from the Foreign Exchange family. Nicolay: Thanks a lot, man. Phonte: We appreciate it.
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