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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.

Phonte and Nicolay remain focused on The Foreign Exchange (via Creative Loafing)
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.''

The Foreign Exchange Evoke Chaucer on 'Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Exclaim!)
''More than anything else, the biggest crime as an artist is to be boring.'' Phonte Coleman, the primary songwriter, vocalist and animated gif half of the Foreign Exchange, has probably never been at the receiving end of such an accusation. Over the course five albums with partner Nicolay, Phonte has equated love to an excuse, displayed affection through lunchtime chicken wing delivery, and made a gorgeously passive-aggressive ode to the better mate. His songwriting is unparalleled in its combined frankness, humour and relevance in our everyday dalliances.

The Foreign Exchange introduces its own Song of Solomon: 'Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey' (via Washington Post)
Phonte Coleman, the rapping, singing half of the hip-hop/R&B duo the Foreign Exchange, has a complicated relationship with religion. When he was growing up, he detested the mandatory trips to his grandmother’s baptist church, so he joined the choir just to make the ordeal more palatable. At least from the choir stand there was an added element of entertainment. Stationed behind the preacher, young Phonte could gaze upon the flock and see who was fanning themselves, who was trying not to fall asleep and who was struggling to stay on beat.

The Foreign Exchange's Nicolay tours to find new inspiration (via IndyWeek)
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.

We Be Spirits interviews Nicolay
Nicolay is one of the most eclectic and innovative music producers around, full stop. His first notable achievement as producer came in 2004 after Connected was released – the debut album of The Foreign Exchange, of which he is half. The album was famously recorded with the 'exchange' of electronic files across the Atlantic; the artists meeting only after it had been finished. He has since gone on to cover new and exciting musical ground releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as part of TFE.

Nicolay wraps his experiences abroad into a jazzy album (via Star-News)
It was around 3 a.m. one morning in May of last year when the Wilmington-based musician Nicolay and his neo-soul band, The Foreign Exchange, crossed Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were dead tired from being on tour, and only hours earlier had played a sold-out show for fans they didn't know existed.

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Nu-Soul Magazine's +FE Music Interview Series Part 3: Zo!

by +FE on November 24, 2010 at 7:56 AM · Comments
Lorenzo Ferguson aka Zo! is the epitome of the music producer. The multi-instrumentalist, former baseball player and current public school educator has long been someone whose music was loved, but whose face was never seen. With the release of his highly anticipated project, SunStorm, we get to see the man behind the music in a whole new light.

Zo! is a man whose music I've come to love over time. Not just for the incredible production, heartfelt lyrics, or haunting melodies, but for the realism and honesty that is conveyed on each track. His latest project, SunStorm, an autobiographical album that is the culmination of a musical journey, is his best work to date. While his musical resume grows and he continues to hone his craft, this musical architect creates feel good music for the soul.

The Detroit native, and current DMV resident released five projects from 2001-2003 to create industry buzz and let people know who he was and what he had to offer as a musician and producer. According to Zo!, "It was done as a means to stay productive and churn out good music. It wasn't about grinding, but rather a means to mold my style as a musician and as a producer. It helped me mold a solid work ethic and a particular style." Those projects were well received and garnered the respect of fellow musicians and the love of fans across the globe.

Zo! is truly a unique artist that can't be pegged into one genre of music. He says, "My style is making good music. Whatever falls under the good music umbrella, that's what I want to do. I don't want to get boxed into one particular category. My style is more a feeling and emotion to connect with listeners a little bit better." That connection is evident on every project he's released, and especially with SunStorm.

The album is reminiscent of a time when music was put out for the people to enjoy, as opposed to being concerned with record sales and meeting company expectations. While it was a goal back then, it wasn't the primary objective. In that respect the industry has changed because it's more technically and financially driven. When asked his thoughts on the music industry today, he says, "Things aren't that much different than twenty years ago because there was music people didn't like. But today there's hip hop and more types of music to choose from. Some music is dumbed down, but there's a lot of good music available. Due to technology and the internet [Rapsody, BlogTalkRadio, iTunes, etc] the music is out there. You have people putting other people on to different musicians." This helps the industry grow, but also helps independent artists whose music may not be in stores, gain popularity.

The internet has also been helpful to allow fans to connect with their favorite musicians via Facebook, Twitter , Myspace and YouTube. According to Zo!, "Those who follow you, and have gone on a journey to find you, tend to be more loyal." They also have an opportunity to interact with artists on a personal level, have access to exclusive material and participate in contests.

When asked what advice he would give to people who want to break into the music industry, he says, "be consistent and develop a solid work ethic because at the end of the day, no one can take that away from you." That is sound advice because having a sound work ethic will carry you far in an industry where the "diva attitude" has been known to run rampart and wreak havoc in the most talented artists, causing promoters, producers and company executives to shy away from them.

There are so many talented artists who never get signed to a record label. As an independent artist, you have to work harder to get noticed, get bookings, and garner a following because you don't have the label and a team of people working on that for you. You have some artists who can get a million downloads of their song in a week, and other artists with material that is just as good, and in some cases better, than never get airplay, let alone see those sales numbers. What do you say to that independent artist who is working hard, but not getting the notoriety or exposure? Zo! says, 'As an independent artist, one of the things you have to deal with is a sacrifice of exposure. If you're independent, you're doing everything yourself and its tough when you don't have the label backing you. You can also have a situation where you're on a label, but they don't know what to do with you. That's why remaining consistent is so key to achieving success as an artist."

In the technological age we're in, people put out music every day. You can sell it on your personal website or on iTunes. But Zo! makes a great point that everyone needs to keep in mind: "Good music is good music, but good music isn't the only thing." With a plethora of choices available to the consumer, artists making good music have to compete with everything else out there. He says, "It all comes down to a choice."

Many students see videos and the seemingly instant success of some of their favorite artists. While most know it takes a lot of hard work, and sometimes years to get discovered, this falls on deaf ears sometimes with the youth. As a high school educator, what do you share with your students about the music industry? "I share with them the truth about the industry. It's like owning your own business. You're going to have to put in two to three times as much work on the front end to see any type of result, much less one that we may categorize as being successful. I'm very cut and dry with them to separate fantasy from reality." This is very crucial to understand the amount of work required to "make it" as well as knowing the business side, such as the benefits of owning your masters and controlling your publishing. His students are so fortunate to have a teacher who cares so much about them to ensure they understand the totality of what it means to be an artist.

As an independent artist who has worked with the Grammy nominated group The Foreign Exchange, it has helped with his exposure. He says, "A producer isn't a frontman, but touring with +FE has helped fans to see him onstage and get to interact with him after the shows." This helps them associate a face with the name behind the music they hold near and dear to their hearts.

His favorite vocalist is Faith Evans and he would love to work with her someday. His musical influences are those from the early days of Motown, such as Detroit native Leon Ware, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. Zo! states, "I take pride in studying legendary cats and learning how to do things. How do they manipulate a song to achieve that feeling? I don't want to know how they got goose bumps from a song, but why. As a producer, you want to create your own goose bump music."

Zo!'s music is passionate, soulful and radiates an intimacy unlike any other musician to date. His Just Visiting and Just Visiting Too are projects where he covered popular tunes. Although I'm not a big fan of covers, he proved it can be done by making the songs his own, instead of trying to recreate what the original artist did with the song. This is evident on "HighWays of My Life", an Isley Brothers track that was masterfully redone with Darien Brockington on vocals. While listening to the track, you are catapulted into a moment in time where you feel the angst of the person singing. That raw emotion conveyed in the lyrics, coupled with the subtle nuances of the change in music and words, made the song a favorite. So much so that it's been requested by the audience at The Foreign Exchange concerts.

That same emotion was displayed on SunStorm with "Make Luv 2 Me" featuring Detroit native, Monica Blaire smoldering on vocals. The song takes you back to the days when a love song lasted longer than three minutes. The track, which is longer than 10 minutes, takes you on a journey of seduction as she asks her lover to "Make love to me with intention and purpose." This song, which is the essence of foreplay, goes beyond goose bump music into the familiar territory of baby making music.

Zo! is just as serious about the creative aspect of the music industry as he is the business side. With so many people doing seemingly well in terms of record sales, yet filing bankruptcy and ending up poor, homeless, etc, it appears the business side takes a backseat to the creative side. How important is it to understand the business side of music? Zo! says, it's extremely important if you're making a living at your craft to know what you're getting paid. You should know the ins and out of your profession. One of the things that you should concentrate on is knowing the ins and outs of your publishing because if you don't, you won't take full advantage of what you could be getting. I'm learning myself, and it's not anything that's just common knowledge."

SunStorm, the title for the album, didn't come from a deep involved process. He initially fought the title, but later relented. According to Zo!, "It's just a word that represents the storms of things going on in my life. It's a strong title, and something I can stand behind, be proud of and say with conviction. It fits and works."

The cover art was created by Tobias Rose for Kompleks Creative, Inc. from North Carolina. Zo! States, Tobias had taken a lot of photographs in DC and Detroit. Since it's an autobiography, I wanted my history to be portrayed on the cover art. It will make it more personal to those who listen to the album."

Zo!'s "This Could Be The Night" video concept was a collaborative effort between director Matt Koza and Phonte of Foreign Exchange. Zo! Speaks with excitement as he recalls his experience shooting the video. He states, "It was my first video and it was a journey to get to this point." Indeed.
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