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The music man behind much of the signature tones that have come to define The Foreign Exchange (+FE) sound continues his alchemist trick of making instrumental electronic music feel organic for laypeople who swear they don’t care for electronic music. Following a tradition initially established in jazz by artists like Miles Davis and in soul by Stevie Wonder’s experimentations in Songs in the Key of Life (peaking in the woefully underrated In A Square Circle), manipulating electronic music to distill the innate robotic coldness of its confines to cultivate something emotional and resonating is a hard row. Most lean into the coldness, creating music that stretches from the industrial and dystopian to the nihilistic and metallic.

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.

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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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Wilmington producer Nicolay relishes Grammy nomination (via Star News)

by +FE on December 9, 2009 at 3:51 PM · Comments
Nicolay (Photo by Paul Stephen) A modest home in a neighborhood near where College Road turns into Interstate 40 isn't where you might expect a Grammy nominee to live.

But that's exactly where Nicolay - the independent Dutch producer and musician who helps create the sound for R&B/hip-hop group The Foreign Exchange - received the news last week that he and vocalist Phonte, of Raleigh, had been nominated for a Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy for their song "Daykeeper."

"We've just been going nuts for the last week, man," Nicolay said, sitting in his living room with his wife, Aimee Flint, who serves as The Foreign Exchange's "director of operations," handling business dealings, promotion and a million other things.

For a do-it-yourself artist with little industry backing, the nomination was unexpected, to be sure. Still, from here on out he will be, at the very least, Grammy-nominated producer Nicolay, a designation that could have a deep impact on his career in terms of exposure, projects he's offered and artists he gets to work with.

"That's what we're really looking forward to," said Nicolay, 35. "I've done this long enough that I know it's not necessarily going to be a financial boost or anything like that. But that's never what we've really been interested in anyway. We've always reached our niche fairly successfully, but outside of that, man, it's just hard to get outside of that glass ceiling."

A trained musician who lived in Utrecht, The Netherlands, before moving to Wilmington in 2006 to be with Flint, Nicolay (born Matthijs Rook) is a well-respected producer known for compelling beats and a dynamic, genre-mixing production style. His home studio, decked out with a huge Beatles poster (a Neil Young DVD sits nearby), shows off his musical dedication. During a photo shoot, the tall, thin Nicolay, who sports a pair of small hoop earrings, a plaid shirt, cool jeans and orange-striped Pumas, fiddles around on bass while surrounded by an acoustic guitar, keyboards, a mixing board and loads of musical equipment.

The song "Daykeeper," from the Foreign Exchange's 2008 album "Leave It All Behind" (distributed by the indie label Hard Boiled Records), is a trippy, swirly, sexy masterpiece, featuring the male-female dynamic of Phonte and guest vocalist Muhsinah, as well as spine-tingling production by Nicolay.

To take home a Grammy, The Foreign Exchange will have to prevail over bigger names - like India.Arie and her song "Pearls" with Dobet Gnahore - and those with industry backing, like Robert Glasper and Bilal (Nicolay calls them "cats that I personally admire"), whose song "All Matter" was done for the famed Blue Note label.

The other nominees in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category are "Blend" by Tonex and another indie collaboration, "A Tale Of Two," by Nicolay's friends Eric Roberson, Ben O'Neill and Michelle Thompson.

Aside from his work with The Foreign Exchange - which played three dozen or so shows around the country this year, including gigs at The Roxy in Hollywood, which their cult status helped sell out - Nicolay is a prolific solo artist. His most recent album, the expansive, mostly instrumental "City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya," inspired by a mind-blowing trip to Japan, has earned positive reviews, notably on the Web site AllMusic.com.

Nicolay, Flint and Phonte will fly out to Los Angeles next month, where the Grammys are set to be held Jan. 31, and they're invited to all the official parties and dinners. They even get a nominee medal.

"If we win, it's nothing short of a revolution. It's a victory for all independent artists. It means you can't just put money on the table (and win)," Nicolay said. "But we have a saying in Holland, 'Don't sell the hide before you shoot the bear.' "

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