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Nicolay: Never Losing His Way (via The Indiestry Magazine)

by +FE on December 22, 2009 at 6:53 AM · Comments
Nicolay (born Matthijs Rook) has always been behind the scenes when it comes to his production. Unlike other well-known music producers who shout out their names on records like Swizz Beatz (SWIZZY!), DJ Khaled (WE THE BEST!), or Lil' Jon (YEEEAH!), Nicolay remains relatively quiet and let's his music do the talking for him.

Born and raised in Holland, Nicolay was trained to learn how to use classical instruments and has worked to become a music producer since his youthful days.

"My motivation is based on making music and music-related things," Nicolay said. "I've always been the type of person to mess with instruments and recording devices for hours on end."

"I figured that the best possible way to make stuff happen for you is to make music full-time," he further explained. "I just knew from, as far as I can recall from being a teenager that I just wanted to do something in music. You know what I'm saying? Not necessarily what I ended up doing even though I can kinda see the logic of that, but I definitely wanted to do something in music as long as I can remember."

The beginning of his music career wasn't easy, especially considering that his style of music was a different breed compared to those of his peers.

"Holland is such a small country that it doesn't really allow for sub-cultures (that I want to say) to level that you see here in the [United] States," he said. "Something can be incredibly niche over here and still have a decent amount of people that support it and keep that going; but once that becomes too small then obviously, that's not something that you can make work in terms of finances, and that's why I moved to the [United] States. It's because [in Holland] if you sell 1,000 records you're in the top 40 [laughs]."

Nicolay admitted that he struggled to find his audience in Holland.

"Ironically, the funny thing is in Holland I didn't have much of an audience since most people thought that my music was 'American sounding,'" he laughed.

Nicolay made his decision to move to the Untied States and got his big break when he met Phonte (born Phonte Coleman) of Little Brother through Okayplayer, the popular online social forum co-founded by The Roots' drummer, ?uestlove.

"There's a big central part of Okayplayer; the instant message boards," Nicolay said, "and that's where we were hanging out and we found each other in the same sort of discussions from time to time. So, that's kinda how it started. We started talking at first on Okayplayer and we started working from there on. That was around '01 or '02. We joined forces and never looked back."

From that point on, they began to communicate to each other through AOL Instant Messenger. Nicolay would send his beats to Phonte via e-mail; Phonte would rap over them, and send them back to Nicolay. This is how Foreign Exchange's debut album, Connected (2004), was formed.

Afterwards, the two men began working on a slew of projects. Nicolay has worked with Phonte's collective crew of MCs (the Justus League), as well as his own projects [the first City Lights album and it's follow up solo effort, Here (2006)]. In 2008, the two musicians released the critically-acclaimed follow up to Connected, Leave it All Behind (2008). Recently, he released the second volume to the City Lights series called City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya, named after the popular section of Tokyo, Japan.

"The City Lights series is more of an idea that loosely involves musical interpretations of city life," Nicolay said. "The first volume was more or less inspired by New York, and...um...both in terms of the actual city, as well as the musical foundations of New York like "boom-bap" and stuff like that. So, by the time I kinda got interested in doing another one, the theme presented itself to me when we were invited to do a show in Tokyo and Shibuya is one of the areas in Tokyo. It's basically kind of like the craziest part. You know? The busiest part. We were there for five, six days. For me personally, I can't really speak for other people, but for me being in Japan alone was the first time I saw quote, unquote "different world." You know? Even though I'm from Holland, and coming here to the [United] States in itself was a big deal, but Japan is a different culture. So, the two kind of came together like that. It kinda makes sense to make homage to Tokyo, and have that be the second volume of the City Lights series."

In an interview with The Indiestry, Nicolay talked about what he has been up to, what his motivations are, his initial struggles, the supposed rumors of a conflict with FuseTV, and the future for indiestry artists and the music entertainment industry as a whole.

The Indiestry: So my first question is how does it feel to make it this far in the game and earn such acclaim? You've been credited as a great producer and composer?

Nicolay: Um, it feels good. It feels really good without a doubt, but I try not to look at [my] accomplishments or anything like that just because it has a tendency to make you feel comfortable. You know what I'm saying? It makes you feel lazy to some whatever degree. So, I'm very thankful for everything, the opportunities and whatnot because I realized within the music industry, especially in the independent scene, a lot of people haven't been granted with the same opportunities. At the same time, I feel like I'm not satisfied yet with the amount of people who have heard our music. So I consider it, you know, still in the next five years that we still have a lot of work.

TI: What made you decide to continue the City Lights series? I know that there was time in between the first volume and second volume that you made several albums, but it's only now that you decided to go back to the City Lights series. Why now? Was it because you weren't inspired by the locales you initially were or is it something else?

N: No, it was basically time because I was in Tokyo at the end of '06 and it took me another three years to realize the whole thing [and] also because the fact that I was working on multiple projects like Leave It All Behind so it was more like something where I feel like City Lights is really a good preference for me to, you know, basically experiment since it's not necessarily a high-profile album. It's more my own little canvas to do instrumental stuff. It will pop up; you know what I'm saying, every couple years whenever I have something to "get rid off." I figured that's the perfect platform to do that.

TI: Sonically speaking, we were trying to digest the album. We were trying to figure out what kind of sound you were trying to invoke on the album. It seemed like you were going for something in-between electronic downbeat and late '70s soul, but I'm not sure if that was what you were aiming.

N: Well, no not necessarily, the '70s are a clear reference, as well as the electronic part. I think I was...I definitely was kinda looking [to] marriage styles of like something that is really critical like digital and electronic and hi-tech, with something that is really organic.

TI: Let's talk about the Internet for a second. I know you and I guess the rest of the Justus League members are well-affiliated with well-known blog sites like Okayplayer. How would you describe the music industry's change since the rise of blog sites?

N: Well, it's a double-edged sword and it's always going to be a double-edged sword. There are a lot of opportunities that the Internet and blog sites offer that we didn't have before. For example, we were not ever really able to gain access to major forms of listening like radio, television, and magazines. Now, it's easier and more accessible through means like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. So, we maintain a relationship with these blogs because they keep the word of mouth going and tell people when we have something new and they make up our little board. You know what I'm saying?

TI: Yeah, I feel you on that one. Um...but I mean you know with everything that has happened, you know how easily people can download their music off of blog sites and how people really don't go into record stores anymore. Most people can just buy the Leave It All Behind album off of iTunes.

N: Right, right.

TI: Plus, there are more benefits to buying the album online. I remember when I purchased the Wale album (Attention: Deficit) online; I received bonus tracks that I wouldn't find on the actual CD copy.

N: Definitely.

TI: Do you feel there's a better benefit to purchasing your albums online as opposed to going to the store?

N: Yeah, I think that's also a double-edged sword for the simple reason that in general, an incredible opportunity for people to have their stuff digitally because people can instantly gain access to your music, and for artists like us it's harder to have our CDs in stores. It's a simple equation. In indie terms, you have a harder time making sure all these stores across the United States are stocked with our product since we are a smaller player. However, online that difference doesn't exist. It doesn't cost anything to have anything in stock. It's all files. You know what I'm saying? That is the future for the very simple reason that it's so cost effective and for independent artists it's very important because they are essentially not trying to spend any money [laughs].

TI: I know you and Phonte met through Okayplayer, and, I don't know if you heard of these guys, Tanya Morgan.

N: Yeah, they are actually good friends of ours. They actually kind of modeled what they are on us. Von Pea, who's one of the men of Tanya Morgan, was on our first record back in '04. So, yeah I know who you were talking about.

TI: Oh, the Connected album!

N: Yeah.

TI: Yes, I am familiar with that album.

N: Yeah, Tanya Morgan has almost the exact same story! [laughs] You know what I'm saying? They all met at the exact same spot. The message board is called the Lessons. So, we are all...it's kinda the same group of people really.

TI: Huh? I really like this! I mean, I think that's great! If the same group of people like Foreign Exchange and Tanya Morgan emerged on that Web site, I can imagine the possibilities.

N: Definitely. [laughs]

TI: [laughs] OK, so my question for you is do you see anymore talented groups emerging from Okayplayer?

N: Oh yeah! I think they [Tanya Morgan] are the best example as to a group that, you know...the test is how well they [work] outside Okayplayer. If you frequent the message board, it may seem the world to you, but it's just one place of many. So, the real test is if you can really exist outside the forum, but they are showing that they can. So I think that alone will probably inspire other people that are talking about the boards and they have some music or whatever and that will inspire others to try something as well.

TI: That's real cool! Man, I can't wait to see what the future holds.

N: Me too man! [laughs]

TI: [laughs] I mean, you know the thought about it gives me goose bumps! It makes me wonder who else is gonna come up.

N: [chuckles] Well yeah, I'm sure it's bound to be some cool stuff. I mean, there are a lot of talented people over there.

TI: Right, right. OK, so let's talk for a minute about your role in Foreign Exchange. I mean, I know both you and Phonte are Foreign Exchange but it always seems like Phonte is the frontman and you remain behind the boards.

N: Yeah.

TI: I always wonder will you ever branch out the way he did because he was originally part of Little Brother and he did the Foreign Exchange thing. I also believe he co-wrote and produced four songs on the City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya album.

N: Yup, correct.

TI: Yeah, so would you see yourself producing for other artists like Tanya Morgan, DOOM, or Mos Def?

N: Yeah, I think so. I'm always down but the thing for me to remember is that it's important to work with people with the same work ethic that we have; and we are the type of people who like to keep it moving. When we work with people, it's essential that they do too. You know what I'm saying? So that's why I'm really comfortable staying within the group of people that we are in just because I know I can depend on them. However, I have done a lot of work recently with other people. I just finished the remix for RJD2 for his new album, and (I want to say it will come out next year), I did a remix for Vikter Duplaix, who is like electronic/house. He's a really great producer, artist, and singer. So, I really take it in as much as I can.

TI: That's cool. So, I remember I did hear something on the blogs. I'm not sure whether or not if that's true, but I do remember that there was a rumor circulating that FuseTV [http://www.fuse.tv/] refused to air Foreign Exchange videos.

N: Right.

TI: Wait, that's true?

N: That is true, yes. Well, "refused" is a big word. I would say they passed on the offer to play it. They did not want to play the video in their programming.

TI: OK, that sounds weird.

N: Yeah, that's what we thought. [laughs] The thing with us man is that we are really the type of people that if people love us and support us we always sell a lot of love and support back. Whether it's someone huge or small, it doesn't matter, but if someone messes with us, we mess with them back. FuseTV, we submitted all of our videos and we spoke to them and we were encouraged to send our material, and then we didn't hear anything back. Mind you, we have had our videos [play] on stations like MTV, VH1 Soul, and BET J (now called Centric). So, it's not like we got some garbage that people can't place anywhere, which is proven good stuff, but we didn't hear anything back from Fuse. So, Aimee, our director of operations, got in touch with them and it turns out they passed on them because "we're not hit artists."

TI: Oh man...

N: So...um...we already know we're not hit artists. Obviously...I mean my bank account would look different if we were [chuckles]. So, it's kinda like, "what?" So when we found that out we decided that our fans needed to be aware of the fact that, you know, that FuseTV...that was their decision. We encouraged our fans that if they have an opinion on that, then they should let that opinion be known. You know what I'm saying?

TI: I get it. You guys aren't "pop artists" so they won't play your videos.

N: Well, no I mean the thing that makes this an interesting case is the fact that their mission statement states that they tend to (or at least intend to) combine hit artists with bubbling, upcoming people. So that's why we initially approached them. We thought we would be perfect for them but I guess not. So, it is what it is. I'll give them one more year and if they have this kind of attitude, I don't see how they can exist much longer. I don't see how if you have that kind of attitude how you can run a business like that.

TI: I know that MTV has a sub-channel where they play mostly independent artists.

N: Yeah, you mean mtvU.

TI: Yeah, and VH1 they have a program called "Sub Soul" that airs on VH1 Soul.

N: Right.

TI: Yeah, and I occasionally catch the Foreign Exchange videos on those networks.

N: Yeah, exactly! So, our thing is that if other channels like that play our stuff then why would there be a reason you would do this differently? But hey, it is what it is. We're not really the type of people who lose any sleep over that or become bitter but it is something that we take notes of like, "OK, well...FuseTV will go on our little mental black list and if down the road, that moment of time, whether it is 20 years, 25 years from now, FuseTV comes to need something from us, that will be our moment when we will say "no, thank you." [laughs] So, you know that may never come, but then again we might one day sell a million copies and that day will come. So, you know, I never forget stuff like that. If you didn't want to mess with us while we're little, then you don't need to mess with us when we're big.

TI: I guess the next question I should ask is when are the fans going to see another Foreign Exchange album? I know it took four years for a follow up to Connected.

N: Yeah

TI: So, when are we going to see another Foreign Exchange album?

N: Um...I don't want to say another four years since it was an exceptionally long time just because everything changed in our lives. Just you know, personally, and it had nothing to do with the two of us together but both of our personal lives, you know marriage, kids, all that crazy stuff. It won't be that long, but it will be a minute. We are all doing each other's projects first in the sense. I mean, I had the Shibuya album come out. Next year, we're releasing Yahzarah's [Yahzarah article] album. She was on both of our albums and she tours with us. Phonte is also planning a solo album and it will come out in the fall. That album is going to be absolutely ridiculous. So, those all come first, but then we'll definitely start working on it again. I probably would say...2012 is a safe bet.

TI: 2012?

N: Or...2011. My bad. 2011. That's a pretty safe bet. I don't think it will be next year because of everything we already have laid out or planned out and scheduled but by 2011 we will have a new album.

TI: That's great! OK, quick question: you just mentioned Yahzarah. I wanted to ask you about another artist linked to Foreign Exchange, Carlitta Durand.

N: Yeah.

TI: OK, describe her. Is she your artist?

N: Not necessarily. She's somebody that 'Te (Phonte) knows and um...she's on a number of Little Brother records. She was on the GetBack record and a couple of other ones. So, when I did Shibuya album, I was working with the sound of the material. 'Te brought her along, and he's like my co-pilot on the four tracks he co-wrote and arranged. Carlitta, she has a smooth, airy, very...very nice voice. So it fit very well with the electronic vibe that we were going with. So that's how she became a very important part of the element. You know? She's on four songs, and she kills all the songs. Earlier in the fall, she did some shows with us. You know what I'm saying? She's not necessarily someone we work with all the time, but she is definitely part of the family.

TI: That's cool. So, are there any other projects you're working on besides Foreign Exchange or the ones you mentioned?

N: Uh, yeah. As I mentioned, as of now it's Yahzarah's album, and I'm remixing other people's albums. I've been working full time for the last three years and I've been doing a lot of shows with the Foreign Exchange. So, I'm looking forward to the Holidays and take a little break; but...um...yeah, we continue to push new music.

TI: Great! OK, well my next question is in regards to the independent music scene. It seems nowadays people are paying more attention to indie artists than commercial artists. I mean, you see buzz generated for artists like your Foreign Exchange, Tanya Morgan, The Cool Kids, and J*DaVeY, but they still remain signed to their independent label. Why do you think that is the case?

N: Well, probably because they do something that people don't really hear from artists on the radio; and that's knocking the good artists on radio. You know what I'm saying? I'm not one of those people that hate everything on the radio. I like certain pop music as much as the next person. The problem is the balance.

TI: Right.

N: I think that people are into indie music because they may not get what it is that they like from commercial artists. They may like their stuff a little more different, or edgy, or left-field. There are a lot of things that major label artists can't do. They can't really take big risks with their sound or with their music. For them, they have to make sure that they have to stay in the top tier. And indie artists, they don't have that pressure. I mean, people don't really buy our products anyway so we can do whatever we want to do [laughs]. Our hardcore fans, our army they pick it up. So, we, all the artists you mentioned, they add something musically that exists off the beaten path and I think that the people that are probably bored with the stuff they hear coming from commercial artists, they wanna dig into something more original.

TI: Come on, don't say that. "Nobody really buys our products." [laughs]

N: [chuckles] Oh no, I mean our FANS buy our products. Our loyal fanbase support us. We don't have a reach outside of our fans in the sense that we go on Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, or do "The David Letterman Show." So, we don't have to worry about what the big crowd thinks of it. We don't have those people. That's what I'm pleased about because you see a lot of artists that do put a lot of "water in the wine" because personally I believe someone like John Legend, who is in all aspects a phenomenal artist, I do believe he waters his stuff down because of what he's trying to do with his music for commercial stuff and I'm not knocking the hustle. I respect anybody who makes their choice, but musically I feel he could be doing a lot more interesting things.

TI: What advice would you give for up and coming producers who are trying to make a name for themselves?

N: Um...not necessarily advice, but a note beforehand. I think people before this point must be ready to work their asses off for minimal rewards, and if it's not something that you feel you can do with your life, then you are better off choosing a different career path; but if you really want to do this music because you have a passion for music and you have a good work ethic, then there's a lot of opportunities out there to put your music out there via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, or start your own blogs. Talk to people about what you did in the studio. Put yourself in that little spotlight. The point is that if you're ready to work and give it your all, then there's a lot you can do nowadays.

[ED Note: A few weeks after this interview was completed, Foreign Exchange's first single for Leave It All Behind, "Daykeeper," was nominated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in the category for Best Urban/Alternative Performance at the 2009 GRAMMY Awards nomination ceremony. The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards will be held on Sunday, January 31, 2010 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. In a press release by the group, Nicolay said, "In close cooperation with our physical distribution partner, Hard Boiled Records, we have developed a grass-roots model for releasing our music directly to our fans, without frills. That has made all the difference when it comes to the release of our sophomore album, Leave It All Behind, the success of which has already surpassed our wildest expectations. This Grammy nomination is the crown on an incredible year."]
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