Source: Oh DratAfter meeting on the internet in 2002, Phonte and Nicolay have made waves with The Foreign Exchange, both as a hip hop and a soul group. The lead single from their last album Leave It All Behind was nominated for a Grammy, and they recently released their third album Authenticity to across the board praise (check my review here). I caught up with the guys to talk message boards, sampling, leaving a legacy and more...
Oh Drat: Hey, how are you doing? Nicolay: Yo yo... Phonte: What's goin on?
OD: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to me - N: Not a problem! P: I'm a big fan of the site man!
OD: Thank you! That means a lot to hear! So, with Authenticity having been out around six weeks now, reception's been overwhelmingly positive - for me it was a highlight of the year - what's been your favourite reaction so far? P: I had one fan hit me up on Twitter, and he told me that the album was like The Empire Strikes Back, in the sense that of all our albums Authenticity is the darker one, and you know, of the Star Wars movies The Empire Strikes Back was where stuff started getting real. I thought that was a very flattering comparison.
OD: Nice analogy! So with it being the third album now, the story of The Foreign Exchange and how you met is pretty well documented - but even all these years later it's still a fairly unusual story. Do you think that now forums and message boards are less, or maybe even more, useful ways to link and collaborate with likeminded artists than when you met on OkayPlayer in 2002? N: You know, I can only speak for myself but I do know that since then a lot of things have come around and taken their place. I mean this was really before any type of social networking - there wasn't Twitter, Facebook, or anything like that - and definitely in my life, messageboards, and particularly OkayPlayer was where I spent a lot of my time. Not just talking about music but talking to people and with people, and I think that in a sense Facebook and Twitter have kind of stepped in and taken a lot of that with it.
OD: That's an interesting point - things are definitely changing, I don't know whether you guys have seen the buzz around the forthcoming Ohm Force DAW, which is built around collaboration, it's kind of all built in, the message boarding, recording, file transfer... have you guys seen or tried anything more avante garde? P: We've just always kinda stuck with what we were doing, you know what I'm sayin? Me and Nic made our first album just through the internet trading files, and we just never saw the need to change it - it still feels like an effective way for us to work, so we keep working that way...
OD: Absolutely. When I was watching your short film, I liked the little skit where Phonte you say that all great musicians are thieves, taking from foundations others lay down - as you've grown into singing and live instrumentation, do you think about things coming full circle, and you being sampling material for a new generation of hip hop heads? P: Um, I like to think we're bringing it full circle, you know what I'm sayin, I hope that our records are inspiring the next generation to take it even further and build on our sound, take what we've created and build on that, take it even further than we could take it, you know? That's all you can hope for as an artist, that you can create a legacy so that people can pick up on what you did and nurture it.
OD: Does it excite you that you could be a part of that, in the same way that sounds of the 60s and 70s music laid the landscape for hip hop that you could be creating the building blocks for people in future? N: I would really hope so, I mean I wonder a lot about 30 years from now, how will people look back at music of the present time, and you know, how much of it is going to translate into true classics like we know from the 60s and 70s... it'll be interesting to see how people look back not just on our stuff but on music in general. What will be the stuff that'll definitely still get played?
OD: Now, even having spoken about the change in style to more singing, there's a rap on the lead single - was there anything particular about Maybe She'll Dream of Me's subject matter that made you pick a rhyme for that track? P: With Maybe She'll Dream of Me, me and Nic just kinda made a conscious decision with that as the lead single just to be something of an olive branch for our fans, maybe fans of our older material, know what I'm sayin? When we came out with our first single on Leave It All Behind it was Day Keeper, and that was something that was so different to anything we'd ever done up until that point - that was something we had to do to try and let people know that it was going to be a totally different animal from Connected. So with the lead single for Authenticity we thought we'd pretty much made that distinction one time before, so people... not knew what to expect, but we didn't have to quote-unquote get them ready for the next evolution our our sound, you know. It wasn't that big of a leap in terms of going from Leave it All Behind to Authenticity, so we decided to kinda split the difference between Connected, Leave it All Behind, and the new sound of Authenticity.
OD: Okay! So do you think that there'll always be a place in The Foreign Exchange's sound for rapping? P: Um, I dunno! You know, I did it on that track because it felt good, but that was the only track that I did it on, know what I'm sayin... Me and Nic never rule anything out, and I never want to say never. If it feels good, and it makes sense, then it's worth doing.
OD: Absolutely. Perhaps in a similar vein, Nic, I didn't hear any samples in this record, are there any specific moods or types of track that make you want to get the turntable out? N: Um... I don't really think so, no. Same as Phonte said earlier, I'm not someone to say never, but the creative process behind the music has kinda shifted from, you know, enjoying looking for that nice loop or that nice little break to pretty much coming up with that nice loop or break yourself and building it from the ground up. I think I'd always done a mix of the two, on the older records there'd be instrumentation I'd add on top of samples to kinda obscure things, but really for me right now one thing is the creative aspect but there's also the legal aspect - in that it's much easier to exploit music that's 100% yours. But really, I don't see myself doing much sampling again, I feel that I really did everything that I had to put out there... I mean there's definitely a lot of material from that era that I'm very fond of but I did everything with samples that I think I can and I think ultimately there's a limit to what you can do.
OD: Okay, great. Something else that really struck me about the album was how Phonte doesn't feature in the final track at all, and it's just YahZarah with the record to herself. What was the thinking behind that decision? P: That was a song that I wrote for her, and I thought it would be interesting to place it at the end of the album as a closer because it's pretty much a male dominated album, you know. It's really just me on vocals for most of the album and the guests are Jessie Boykins, Median, Darrien Brockington... Chante Cann was on the record but that was really the only female voice so I thought it would be dope to just end the record with a female voice, kinda like telling the other side of the relationship if you will. It just worked out, me and Nic listened to it over and over and both agreed that it was just the best closer.
OD: Yeah, I really liked how it showed that other side to relationships. Okay, so looking at the show footage I saw Ableton Live, a couple of Motifs and of course the live instruments... does that translate to how you approach the creation of tracks in the studio? What kind of gear inspired you the most for the sound of the album? N: Well, I mean especially for the Authenticity show in particular, we've only done one, I think we combine all of the different textures of our music - we play with a full band and so we have the dynamics of a full band but with the Authenticity show it was the first time that we'd done an acoustic encore. We did Laughing at Your Plans totally broken down, and it really worked, it really did what we wanted it to which was ultimately show that the strength of the songs was really what it was all about, and the right performance of the arrangement and background can really move people. It kinda showed us that, you know, our sound can go through the full dynamic of a live band and all the technology to a vocal, acoustic guitar and piano and I think everything in between that we do on a night is just to give people a total experience of what we're about.
OD: I see - I noticed how the album has a very electronic sound, whereas the show was very live and immediate, and I thought that echoed well what you say about a good song standing up regardless of the backing. So finally I guess, what's next for you guys? P: Rest! (laughs) 2010 was just a really busy year for both of us and we're just really exhausted you know, putting out our record, YahZarah's record, Zo!'s record, The workload for 2010 was pretty incredible. So you know, right now we're just laying low, regrouping and recharging our batteries, getting ready for 2011 to hit the road with the album, go out and take it there. N: Yeah as Phonte says we've had a really busy year so it'll be nice to have a low key holiday and regain the energy to go at it hungrily next year - the first thing next year actually we'll be coming to London, playing Cargo on January 6th, as well as shows in Amsterdam, Paris, and Cologne, so we're excited.
OD: Well all the hard work you've put in this year, as tiring as it's been has really paid off and been evident in the quality of the work that's come out... anything you'd like to add as a final note? P: Just thanks to Oh Drat and all our fans for the support, talking about our music, and recommending our music to their families and just spreading the word, you know what I'm sayin?
OD: Absolutely, well Phonte, Nic, thanks for talking with me, hopefully we'll get another chance soon... N: Absolutely, have a good one. P: For sure, peace.