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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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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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