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City Arts Magazine interviews The Foreign Exchange

by +FE on July 6, 2011 at 4:40 PM · Comments
The Foreign Exchange's 2004 debut Connected surprised listeners with tight beats and sit-up-and-listen lyrical flow--even though North Carolina rapper Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay had never met in person. (Props to the okayplayer.com message boards for initially bringing them together.) As demonstrated by last year's Authenticity, their music now extends into R&B and neo-soul while staying true to their real-life wordplay and hip-hop roots. City Arts caught up with the duo ahead of the West Coast leg of their tour.

City Arts: The Foreign Exchange sound has shifted on Authenticity, but listening to your first album you can hear that those elements of soul and R&B have always been there.

Phonte: It's really an extension of what we had already done. We want to always build on our sound every time, but we never want to repeat ourselves. So with songs like "Sincere" [from the first album], those were kind of a foreshadowing of what was to come. There's really nothing that we did on [second album] Leave It All Behind or Authenticity that you didn't hear coming on our first album Connected.

Production-wise how is this album different?

Nicolay: Sound-wise it's much more stripped down. For this record we were inspired by the singer-songwriters of the 70s and we wanted to do something that puts the songs central.

Any singer-songwriters in particular?

Phonte: James Taylor was definitely a big influence, being from North Carolina and all.

Nicolay: We never really discuss what we want a song to sound like, it kind of just seeps its way through. It's all about listening to a lot of different sounds. Growing up I was into albums like Sign o' the Times by Prince and the classics like Pet Sounds and the Beatles albums. So our sound is never something we plan, it just happens.

You've been performing some 90s hip hop classics at shows recently, like Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack."

Phonte: That's been getting a really good reception! It's something that me and [Foreign Exchange keyboardist] Zo! just did for fun and it's something we enjoy. It's really just us wanting to have fun with the music.

Are there any other song surprises?

Phonte: Well then they wouldn't be surprises! [laughs] We're not giving anything away! We feed off what the crowd is doing.

Were you surprised that Connected is now being hailed as a hip hop classic or did you always know that it was going to be special?

Phonte: You never really know. You don't know until you know. We don't know until people tell you "This is great!" or "I love this album!" That's the only time that you know. Other than that you're just hoping really.

Recently you talked to Peter Rosenberg on [NYC hip hop and R&B radio station] Hot 97 about the evolution of the conscious hip-hop movement. Do you identify yourselves as being part of that movement or is that a label that you're keen to distance yourselves from?

Phonte: "Conscious" is an empty term. It's not like me and Nic sing songs about the war in Afghanistan. It's not like we're making protest music. We're just writing songs that deal with our everyday lives and we hope people can see the humanity in it. So in terms of conscious rappers, first of all me and Nic don't make rap music anymore. [laughs] But beyond that, in terms of conscious rap, I just don't know what that shit means.

Nicolay: I don't think anybody ever did! I think the way we look at it is that we make music for people to help them with their lives; to make their lives a little bit better.

Is that a North Carolina thing or a Dutch thing or is it just your own unique style?

Phonte: I personally think it's just me being myself. I definitely think that North Carolina has a lot to do with it because it's just a really chill environment here and it lends itself to reflection and being calm. If I lived in a big city, like a New York or a L.A., I'm sure that would play some kind of role in the art that I was making. Where I am now is the place that allows me to just be me, y'know? So I'm just happy being here.
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