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Beatnik Online interviews The Foreign Exchange

by +FE on December 14, 2010 at 1:37 PM · Comments
Leave It All Behind, the second album by The Foreign Exchange, is a beautifully produced piece of work. Producer Nicolay and vocalist Phonte released the album in 2008, surprising fans with a lush, complex soul record. The album sounds as if it could have been made at a studio like Electric Ladyland or The Hit Factory, and the elements of its production are a testament to the work that went into it. Some songs contained 64 separate vocal tracks, all expertly mixed and blended. The lead single, Daykeeper, went through dozens of different mixes alone, and took over a year and a half to complete. This was a big, powerful, major league sounding album.

But Leave It All Behind was not made at Electric Ladyland or The Hit Factory. It was made in the living room of an ordinary beach house in Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina. There, Nicolay (Matthijs Rook), newly arrived in the US from his home country of the Netherlands, sat down to mold the raw material into a cohesive album. And he did it without anything that could even remotely be called a classic studio setup.

"When I first moved there," says the producer on the phone from Wilmington, "the room was furnished, and it wasn't like I could get rid of that. Stuff like 'Daykeeper' was all done in that little room. I just sat with my stuff in the middle of the living room, and later in the small office. I've always just made it work. I look at the limits of my resources as a creative challenge, rather than a bad thing. I just adapt and make music, even with distractions around me... and 'Daykeeper' was a bitch to mix! It was the longest road to a final version I think any of us have ever had with a song."

The genesis of The Foreign Exchange has passed into hip-hop legend. Little Brother front man Phonte Coleman began chatting to Nicolay on the message boards of Okayplayer.com, and without having met they decided to make an album together. Phonte didn't even have his own computer at the time; instead he borrowed the password of his friend Median so that he could access the PCs at North Carolina State University. But despite the unusual circumstances, the debut album of the newly born Foreign Exchange, Connected, was gorgeous. It combined laid-back, effortless rapping with some truly groundbreaking production, and in the years since it has become recognised as a classic.

Eventually, the two musicians finally met (although it would have been a bit strange if they didn't). Nicolay moved to the States shortly after, and immediately began to work on their second album. The expectation among fans was that it would be another slice of hip-hop goodness. It wasn't. It was a soul album, and Phonte was singing.

In hindsight, it doesn't seem as jarring - Nic has always been, first and foremost, a soul producer, influenced by Stevie wonder and Marvin Gaye as much as he is by A Tribe Called Quest and Large Professor. But at the time it frustrated a lot of fans. Phonte took a lot of stick for his singing, while at the same time picking up a Grammy nomination. Although it's vastly different from their earlier work, Leave It All Behind showed that they were among the best soul acts on the planet.

In October, the duo released Authenticity. The album sees Phonte combining brief raps with improved vocal work (more on that later) and is a thoughtful exploration of what happens when love goes wrong. According to 'Te and Nic, the way they work together hasn't changed much. Despite being in the same state -'Te is two hours up the road, in Raleigh - they still prefer to work separately for the most part.

"We are face-to-face a lot of the time," says Nicolay, "but we still prefer to work on our own... I do more interesting work when I don't have anybody looking over my shoulder." 'Te, who has joined the conversation late (he'd "stepped out for a moment", according to their manager Aimee) says that he believes in coming to Nic with completed ideas rather than half-finished stems. "I don't want to meet the cow, just bring me the steak - that's my approach," he says cryptically.

Of the duo, it is Phonte who has changed the most. Little Brother is no more - partly the result of an acrimonious split with producer 9th Wonder - and the sharp-spitting, tongue-in-cheek MC has morphed into a full-blooded soul brother, making distinctly grown-man music. Authenticity, as we've said, deals with love and pain, and Phonte has gone the distance to explore the impact that broken relationships can have. "Love is at best an excuse, at worst it's a truce," he sings on the album opener 'The Last Fall'.

"A lot of it is drawn from my personal experiences -- being in a relationship and being married," he says. "Some of it comes from what my friends have gone through. Not every song is the autobiography of Phonte Coleman, you know what I mean? ... I'm aware of the danger [of fans taking it to be a reflection of my own life], but I write the songs anyway. As long as it's honest, I have no problem with it. I played the record for my wife when it was done -- and you know, there is some pretty hard shit on there -- but she respected me for the honesty of it, and she thought it was a fantastic record."

And what did she think of the excuse-truce line? "She loved it! She loved it. It's a male dominated album, writing about feelings from a man's perspective, but a lot of women feel the same way, and a lot of women are just as jaded about relationships as men are."

But while he is certainly an accomplished writer, 'Te took a lot of criticism for his vocal work. When he first revealed the group's new direction, some fans (this writer included) poured scorn on his vocal abilities, claiming he was outclassed in industry brimming with great singers. "[The criticism] is always something you take into account," he muses. "With every record you make, you want to get better. Even when I was rhyming with Little Brother, there would still be critics -- and rhyming was once what a lot of people considered my greatest strength.

"I am finding myself more and more with each record, and I think that people can hear the improvement and hear the refinement. One of the reasons that I started to sing was because I couldn't find anybody to sing on my records. I really just wanted to write songs and give them to other people, and I was like, if I'm gonna write a song, do all the harmonies, reference it, do all the vocals and then give it to another motherfucker for them to possibly yay or nay it -- I just thought, I may as well keep this shit for myself! Do that work for me! That was where a lot of the mentality for Leave It All Behind came from..."

It's an odd thing to say -- 'Te has always seemed to be surrounded by great singers, including Yahzarah and Darien Brockington, and is well-connected enough in the industry to call on talent when he needs to -- but the do-it-yourself method can't be faulted.

Neither can the results of the grind. The Foreign Exchange have gone from being an upstart Internet collaboration to a fully-fledged, Grammy-nominated musical collective. It's not just 'Te and Nic now; they share label space with buddies like Median, Darien and Zo!. The business side of things has progressed hugely; Foreign Exchange Music is now a viable imprint.

The Authenticity pre-order showed how much work they put in: a signed CD that came with a vinyl single, poster, stickers and (cleverly) a download code received upon purchase, so you could listen to the whole album while waiting for the post to arrive. And although their dedication to classy visuals and design on their albums has been around since Connected, Nic and 'Te have had to -- shudder -- start thinking about branding. You kind of have to when people start saying your name and Grammy in the same sentence.

"I'm really happy to see that, this long down the road, we've been able to maximise the potential that Connected had," says Nicolay. 'Te jumps in: "There's been a more deliberate approach lately in our artwork and owning what our branding is. Even before we knew it was called branding. At the time, we just wanted the shit to look hot!"

The discussion may have turned slightly businesslike, but it's a short interlude. The overwhelming impression from the conversation is that both of them are happiest when talking about music. Nicolay rhapsodises about being able to produce for a living (despite being a synth geek, he still says he doesn't keep things in his studio that he doesn't use) and Phonte is happy to discuss his singing, even when the question implies that it isn't always as good as it could be.

On each of their albums, you'll find written in a prominent place the words: Thank you for listening. Connected was so good partly because it focused on that one simple sentiment: the joy of playing music for an audience. Despite the change in styles, despite the criticisms, despite the hype and the heartbreak and the never ending mix process, those words are still on every album they make.
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