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Wilmington musician headed for the Grammy awards (via Star News Online)

by +FE on January 30, 2010 at 8:45 AM · Comments
Nicolay (Photo by Paul Stephen) For any performer, there's always that moment just before he steps out on stage, into the spotlight.

For the Dutch-born, Wilmington-based musician and producer who calls himself Nicolay, that moment is now. It just depends on how bright the spotlight is going to be.

If The Foreign Exchange, Nicolay's R&B/hip-hop collaboration with Raleigh vocalist Phonte, wins a Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy for the song "Daykeeper" on Sunday, it's going to be blinding.

If they don't, well, it's still going to be pretty bright.

"I do really want to get it. It's not like, 'I'd still be happy (if we don't win),' " Nicolay says, kickin' it from the couch of the crib he shares with his wife off North College Road. "I mean, I'd still be happy ... I think we're confident enough in what we do to realize that barring any type of, you know, forces beyond our control, whether it be God or nepotism or whatever, if you really look at it just as a competition based on who is the best, then I think we have a really good chance."

Confidence to be sure, and honesty, but respect as well. In the same breath, Nicolay gives props to his competition.

"We're up against like, some people that I personally admire and some that are really close friends of ours, like (Eric) Roberson. That alone is really cool to be in a category where all of the artists are people that we think really can use the little stepping stone," he says. "It's cool and satisfying to know that the industry, to whatever degree, still sort of has that."

As part of the crazy business of Grammy week in L.A., where Nicolay has been since Tuesday, The Foreign Exchange did a showcase on Friday with two of the other artists nominated in their category, Robert Glasper and Bilal (up for their song "All Matter") and Roberson, Ben O'Neill and Michelle Thompson ("A Tale of Two").

Also up for the Grammy are two better-known names, experimental gospel artist Tonéx ("Blend") and soulful singer/songwriter India.Arie ("Pearls"). So, in some ways, it's amazing that Nicolay, an independent artist who releases his own music, is there at all in the midst of the biggest music celebration in the world. Glasper at least has the support of the Blue Note label, but Nicolay and his friend Roberson got here on their own.

Independent Minded

Not that it happened by accident.

"It took me all this time, the better part of 10 years, to learn what I wanted to do and how to do it," says Nicolay, 35. "But just the sheer randomness of being one of 300,000 artists and going on to the next round, so to speak, is kind of crazy."

Billy Mellon, a Wilmington music promoter and huge hip-hop fan who was a partner in the old Bella Festa nightclub and now helps run the Wilmington Unplugged music series, has watched Nicolay's star rise.

"He's got thousands of fans, and he's worldwide," Mellon says. "He's worked real hard at that guerilla marketing, social networking, putting music online."

When Mellon was at Bella Festa, he hired Nicolay for a few DJ gigs.

"I really want to work with him again, but he's gotten too big for Wilmington, really," Mellon says. "He'll put up something on his Facebook, like, ' "Voodoo" by (R&B singer) D'Angelo came out 10 years ago,' and get like 60 comments. He's really hip into music and the history of it."

For Phonte Coleman, a founding member of acclaimed hip-hop group Little Brother and Nicolay's collaborator in The Foreign Exchange for nearly a decade, watching his friend reach new musical heights has been more personal.

"For me, (the Grammy nomination has) been a big affirmation that me and Nic have really been on the right track all along," Coleman said. "Not focusing so much on everyone else and following trends as making the music we want to make. And we did it on our own terms."

In Phonte, Nicolay says, he found a spiritual brother he connected with despite their wildly different backgrounds - a white guy from the Dutch city of Utrecht hooking up with a black dude from Raleigh - who was willing to work as hard as he was.

"We don't do vacation," Nicolay says. "We've been doing this, really, since '07, every day. We have released three albums since then. That's all original music, and I personally don't suck it out of my thumb. I have to work for it real, real hard."

"We both have that same drive, that same focus on music that is almost an obsession," Phonte says. At the same time, he says, they share a quiet intensity: "We're both just really chill, laid-back people. He is definitely more of the early bird. That's why I say The Foreign Exchange never sleeps. When he's asleep, I'm awake."

They completed their first album, 2004's "Connected," by passing zip files back and forth while living in different countries. They still work largely the same way now that Nicolay's in Wilmington and Phonte's in Raleigh. They also spread their music over the Web, and it would not be a stretch to say that without the Internet, The Foreign Exchange would not exist.

"We consider ourselves to be really forerunners in terms of ways to promote music," Nicolay says. "It's always been kind of really hard to, you know, just reach above. For an independent artist our albums have sold very, very well, considering, but ... there's only so many people you can reach. 'The masses,' that's something that is still in the hands of the labels and the money."

Also instrumental in the success of The Foreign Exchange has been the support the group has gotten from Nicolay's wife, Aimee Flint, a Wilmington native who met Nicolay through his connection to Little Brother. Flint handles the group's publicity, maintains their Web sites and deals with booking, among other duties.

"Nic used the word the other day, he said that we had 'penetrated' into that system," Flint said. "And I was like, 'That's the perfect word, that's exactly what we did, you know, because it truly was the strength of the music that got us there."

Early Days

Nicolay was born Matthijs Rook in Zwijndrecht, a small town at the southernmost tip of The Netherlands, before moving at a young age to Utrecht, a city of about 300,000.

Neither of his parents is a musician, but both are music lovers, and Nicolay credits his mother's record collection - Neil Young, Joan Baez, The Beatles - with "start(ing) that spark in me."

His father attended the University of Oregon and lived in Eugene with Nicolay's mother, a time Nicolay says was among his parents' happiest. As a child, he went on family vacations to Oregon and California. He describes his upbringing as "normal, protected, sheltered."

The first instrument he ever played was "the recorder," he says. "That sucked."

But he at least learned to read music and picked up some guitar from his uncle, a finger-picking folk musician.

"I remember as a teen getting really into Prince. That was the first music of my own," he says.

That led him into funk, Sly Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic, what he calls "my entry into black music."

Nicolay played bass in a Prince cover band and a Blues Brothers revue in high school. After he started attending The University of Amsterdam, where he studied Musicology, in 1995, he formed his first serious band, a funk outfit called Groove and Pick.

"At the time we thought we were hot," he says. "But looking back I see why we were not."

Still, he picked up keyboards and worked on writing, arranging and producing. The band developed a reputation for being rowdy and getting into fights - they were even banned from some clubs - but all the experiences, positive and negative, taught him "what it takes to be in a band."

He quit school after seven years without earning a degree, something he has mixed feelings about. While he'd like to have a degree and still uses things he learned in school, the academic experience "nearly knocked all the love for music right out of me."

By 1999, he'd quit the funk band and was getting more into hip-hop. He worked on a help desk by day, assisting people with their computer problems by phone, and worked on his music at night.

One day, his younger brother - Nicolay also has a younger sister, and both siblings live in Holland - showed him a rudimentary computer program for making digital music. Not only did he love the level of control, but it allowed him to make beats for the music he loved.

"I didn't rap or sing," he says. "But I could still make hip-hop."

Evolution of an artist

Early in the 2000s Nicolay grew more comfortable with his newfound computer skills. Influenced and inspired by the music of artists such as J Dilla, The Roots and Common, he started posting music and entering into collaborations on OkayPlayer.com, a hip-hop Web site and message board.

That's where he met Phonte, and by 2004 they'd completed their first album, "Connected," without having ever met face to face. Nicolay followed that with albums of his own, a couple of them on the BBE label, and his rep began to build. Nicolay moved to Wilmington in 2006, partly to make touring with Foreign Exchange easier, but also to pursue his romance with Flint.

The marriage and business partnership has brought the couple closer, she says.

"Sometimes I can say it probably makes it really hard, but at the same time, not many people can be around the same person every single day," Flint says. "We work really well together and we really enjoy each other's company."

Shortly after moving to Wilmington - the couple lived in Carolina Beach for a little while at first before moving to their present home - Nicolay played some shows in Tokyo with The Foreign Exchange.

"We went there and it really kind of blew my mind a little bit, just the craziness of Tokyo," he says. "There's a Times Square on every corner."

Something about the experience inspired him to take his game to the next level.

"I wouldn't really call it an epiphany or a vision or whatever, but I think it kind of showed me that I needed to be even more open-minded," he says. "I'd just kind of been, maybe like censoring myself a little bit."

Upon his return, he began to work on the new Foreign Exchange album, "Leave It All Behind," which, with Phonte's influence, took an unexpected turn into R&B. On "Time:Line," he collaborated with the singer Kay. And his own solo album, "City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya," incorporated all of his influences - rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop and more - into one sonic, largely instrumental stew. "Shibuya" was also the first original music he did without using any samples.

"The thing about sampling is - and I don't have any moral objections to it, I come from it, and I would never sell it out by dissing it - however, you learn as you go, that when you sample something it's never truly yours," he says. "And even legally, you have to go through all these hoops ... It limits what happens with your back catalog, we have found. Like hey, someone wants to use your song for a commercial, that's awesome, but it's like, 'Uhhhh.' ... It's just more clever to do 100 percent original stuff so that you can say yes without any hesitation."

Living in the ILM

Contrary to what one might think, living in Wilmington hasn't hindered his career. On the contrary, Nicolay says, it's a nice, quiet place to work.

"It's much easier (living in Wilmington). I will not deny that it frustrates me sometimes the level of things that are not going on here," he says. "But there is nothing like being able to come back after all of this crazy stuff to somewhere where there's really none of that. It's a great safe haven."

When he first moved here, however, "I had my own stereotypical ideas of the South,' he says. "The most I knew about the South, truth be told ... was all these images from movies and TV."

His worst fears have been unfounded: "It's been really, really cool. Honestly, the people here are fantastic."

He even takes a pride in what he now considers his home.

"I think North Carolina, musically, has been overlooked," he says. "(The Foreign Exchange) showed up in Hollywood (in 2009) and we sold out The Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Prince played there, man, Guns N' Roses started there... I can't say we always wanna take the whole state on our back, but we definitely rep North Carolina, we definitely will. If we are on that red carpet and we are able to make some moves, obviously it's going to be a North Carolinian victory ... I'll always be Dutch, and I can imagine I will always keep my Dutch citizenship, just because. But at the same time, I'm very much here, and I very much feel like I'm from here at this point."

Grammy Time

Nicolay and The Foreign Exchange will actually find out their Grammy fate during the show's pre-broadcast, but they'll be all up in the pre-parties and, especially, the after-parties, trying to get their name out there. They've even hired an L.A. publicist, anticipating a future of collaborating with high-profile artists and building on the 40 or so tour dates they played last year.

And winning will almost certainly raise the profile of Nicolay and The Foreign Exchange, even though the Grammy nomination isn't in what's considered a major category. Still, he's keeping it in perspective.

"The thing we wanna get out of it mostly is to just kind of network, show our faces," he says. "I think the cool thing is... in all modesty, we come with an extraordinarily good product. And nobody has heard it yet."

No matter what happens tonight, Nicolay has already succeeded out of all proportion with what could've been expected. He's here to stay.

"For any European, that's always a measure of success: If you can go to the States and not get kicked out or come back broke, then you have made it," he says. "And I think that's kind of how America started anyway, so it's kind of funny how you can still do that."
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