But if there's any other reason to like MC/vocalist Phonte and Dutch-born producer/instrumentalist Nicolay, it's that they make incredibly good music. Their third album, Authenticity, continues down a similar path blazed by their last release, Leave It All Behind. However, as they describe it, Authenticity is a little more stripped down than their previous offerings. What remains constant, though, are fantastic sonic arrangements and some quite adept songwriting which, for example, makes the "odd guy gets dream girl" trope seem fresh and probable on "Maybe She'll Dream Of Me." Regardless, it's apparent that a relationship born out of mutual respect for each other's work and facilitated by the Internet has blossomed into a full-blown musical operation that's garnered a worldwide fan base and critical acclaim.
Last week, we caught up with both Nic and Phonte, and talked about why winning Survivor trumps winning a Grammy, collaborations and the future as they prepared for the D.C. stop of their "Authenticity Tour 2011" at Falls Church's State Theatre tomorrow night, April 22nd.
The last time we spoke, it was Fall 2009. Since then, you have put out more music and received a Grammy nomination. You were busy back then, but have things been even more amplified in the wake of the Grammy buzz and Authenticity's release?
Phonte: Life has been busier than ever. We're always working. There's always something to do.
Nicolay: I was fortunate enough to take a vacation in March, which was really the first break in a real long, long, long time. In all reality, we've all been on the move in some way or another since 2007 or 2008. A lot of records have come out and we played a fair amount of shows. We run our own company and that takes a lot of time. There's never a dull moment.
You're currently out promoting your latest release, Authenticity. Tell us a little about it and what you were aiming to do with it.
P: Authenticity was a record that was more stripped down, more back down to basics.
N: The record was liberating for me because we took that stripped-down approach and focused on the nuance of the songs and the performance. In general, we pride ourselves on releasing albums that are collections you listen to from start to finish. I think Authenticity is probably the furthest we've gotten on that quest [to create a cohesive album]. Performing it live is cool. It's like a shot of energy. We get to play a lot of new songs which allows us to switch the show up and come with an even tighter package.
Nicolay, a few weeks ago you made some comments on Twitter regarding the Recording Academy's recent decision to reduce the number of Grammy categories, including the "Best Urban/Alternative Performance" category in which The Foreign Exchange was nominated. How important is getting recognition through an outfit like the Grammys to you as an independent artist and what effect, if any, will the changes have to you and other indie artists?
N: It's as important as you make it. It's one of those things that means everything and nothing. On a daily level, it means very little because we are in this for music reasons. Our goal is to do the best music ever, the music we would like to hear. On a larger scale, obviously the recognition of your peers or people in the industry is not only an honor, but it can be helpful in opening certain doors. My main beef with the situation was not necessarily about us, but that there's a lot of music out there now at the indie level that's really outside of those main categories that have more boxed definitions. It's important for me as an independent artist to speak on that. I want to see that independent music is recognized and has the same artistic merit as music that's promoted with a lot of money behind it. More than anything, I want to make sure that the legacy these independent artists build up is represented across the board.
P: It's sad to see [the category reduction] happen but ultimately for me, it doesn't mean shit. We had our Grammy experience and saw how much of a money game it really is. When you win a Grammy, it doesn't mean you get the check that comes with it. As far as our bottom line, that shit doesn't really effect me. I hate it that cats in our lane won't have that exposure anymore, but at the end of the day, we still have to go out and work and keep pushing. That shit [the Grammy award] is a trophy, not a cash prize.
N: Yeah, you make more money winning Survivor.
Given the increasing size of the The Foreign Exchange Music brand, with more acts under your tent and more music to promote, how are you able to manage the business aspects with the creative, musical side of your endeavors?
P: You will find very few people who are able to have the business mind of Steve Jobs and the artistry of Prince or Michael Jackson. Being business-minded and creative are different skill sets, but as the industry evolves, you pretty much have to have both, to some degree. You have to be at least business-minded enough to where you control your own career. There isn't that much money to go around. More and more, I'm seeing cats booking their own shows and conducting day-to-day operations of being a working musician. It's like you have two jobs -- by day, you're Clark Kent working at the newspaper, and when nighttime comes, you become Superman and that's when you go back to the studio to work on your craft. Both the business and creative sides need each other to exist.
N: I enjoy the business aspect. We're able to take a great deal of control over what's going on. What Phonte said is very true -- the creative and business part are two different brain halves. However, you can be very creative in how you run your business. Since we're self-financed, we can do the things we think are smart and will work to build what we're trying to do. It makes it easy to work hard because we're working towards something that's ultimately ours. It's very rewarding, even though there are aspects that can be annoying or boring. At the end of the day, it's all part of the bigger picture to get our music heard by as many people as possible.
Phonte, a lot of hip-hop websites were buzzing weeks back when the track you did with Lil B hit cyberspace. It wasn't the most likely collaboration, to say the least. But applying this concept to The Foreign Exchange, are you aiming at all to work with bigger named artists on future projects?
P: Only if it makes sense. In the case of Lil B, we're very different MCs, but there's a middle ground. For me, it all comes down to the music. If I can make a dope record with that person, I'll do it. There's a lot of cats out there that are way popular and whose music I can listen to and appreciate for what it is, but I can't see making a record with them because I don't think it would work musically.
N: I've had a growing feeling over the last few years that I really want to use the music I make for a Foreign Exchange record or my own record instead of giving it to other artists. Right now, we need all the focus we can get because we don't have certain resources. I'm keeping the focus on the group and the people we work with, but I've always been very fond of working with people who are "on the come-up" with me.
Have other artists reached out to you in order get on a Foreign Exchange project?
P: Not really. Every once and a while we'll get some things coming through, but for the most part, it's pretty quiet. I think people realize we're a pretty self-contained unit. Working with us is very much a "don't call us, we'll call you" thing. If the right situation presented itself, I would certainly want to do it because it's something both Nic and I have always wanted to do.
The last time we spoke, Phonte was working on his solo album. Is that ready to go yet and what else can we look forward to in terms of new material from The Foreign Exchange Music?
P: I will be rapping and singing on it, and it'll be out September 13th. That's about all I can say about it.
N: I'm really spending this year re-inventing myself, just really writing and recording and experimenting. We're re-releasing our first album, Connected. It's been out-of-print for the longest time. In the next month, there's a live acoustic CD/DVD we recorded and filmed in February here in North Carolina we're looking to release. It's a really cool re-interpretation of some of the songs off of Authenticity and Leave It All Behind, as well as some covers. We're working on a project with Median, who was on the first FE album. Zo! is doing a new installment of his "...just visiting" series. It's definitely next level-type stuff. It's got a Steely Dan cover and stuff like that. It's Zo! doing what Zo! does best. Next year will be The Foreign Exchange's 10th anniversary, so we're trying to do something special for that. We'll see what that holds.