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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.

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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.''

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The Foreign Exchange pioneers long-distance music-making (via Fresno Bee)

by +FE on July 26, 2011 at 1:02 PM · Comments
The story of soul/hip-hop group The Foreign Exchange is a new-age tale about two guys who met on an Internet message board, traded musical ideas across the Atlantic Ocean and eventually became Grammy nominees.

It's made singer/rapper/songwriter Phonte and producer Nicolay -- who will play a concert at Fresno's Fulton 55 on Friday night -- unlikely music pioneers.

Today, it's commonplace for musicians to beam music files from studio to studio, thanks to the magic of the Internet. Piecing together a song from people in different states, heck even different countries? No problem.

But in 2002 -- back when Phonte (in North Carolina) and Nicolay (in the Netherlands) sparked a connection online -- people were lucky to have an Internet connection stronger than dial-up.

So Phonte and Nicolay would chat via instant messenger, work on their respective parts and then mail the finished tracks across the Atlantic Ocean.

"This was truly us just making the best use of the tools we had available," says Phonte. "This was before the days of Skype. Before YouSendIt.com, before Gmail. For big files, we had to send CDs through the mail."

At the time, the only other big-name group to do something like this was The Postal Service, a side project of Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard. But they weren't crossing any oceans.

For Phonte, the collaboration with Nicolay was a side project. He had some buzz bubbling in the hip-hop world with his group Little Brother.

Yet, he was so blown away by the music that Nicolay -- a bedroom beatmaker at the time -- was sending his way that he was determined they make some music. Distance be damned.

"I remember very clearly, even as far as back as then," says Nicolay. "If I wanted to do what I heard in my head, that Phonte was the cat that I could do it with."

By the time their 2004 debut CD, "Connected," came out, their story was spreading. Oddly enough, though, Phonte and Nicolay hadn't met each other face-to-face.

The CD was praised by critics and indie hip-hop fans alike, earning Nicolay enough acclaim to release his own music while Phonte focused on Little Brother for a few years.

The two came together again as The Foreign Exchange and, in 2008, released a second album, "Leave It All Behind." Its first single, "Daykeeper," earned them a Grammy nomination in 2009.

That release signaled two important shifts for The Foreign Exchange: It marked the point when the collaboration moved from a side project to a full-time one; and it was a big departure stylistically, with Phonte singing rather than rapping.

"You can't rap forever," Phonte says. "You just can't do it."

Singing soul music, he says, wasn't as big a departure as some might imagine.

"I grew up in the South, bruh," Phonte says. "We were in church every Sunday, I had to sing. Hip-hop didn't come into my life until I was 8 or 9. Before that, it was me and my mom singing Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. It was soul music.

"When we grew as Foreign Exchange and I felt it was more conducive to singing rather than rapping, to me, it wasn't a stretch."

Phonte still raps a bit -- even on the group's third album, 2010's "Authenticity" -- but makes it clear that the The Foreign Exchange is more a soul group.

In another non-hip-hop move, the band recently released an acoustic, live album.

It shows how The Foreign Exchange is still evolving, but not letting go of its past. For instance, even though they live in the same state now, they still don't work on music in the same room.

"Looking back, it's interesting how much hasn't changed," Nicolay says. "I'm still at home -- which admittedly has a lot more cool toys than it did back then. I just go crazy in my room for my part of the equation. We give each other room to experiment. We really work in a way where we present each other with the best parts we can."

Adds Phonte: "We just have a trust that's there. No matter what the other one does we trust each other to put our best foot forward. If Nic told me, 'I'm gonna make a polka joint or a waltz,' I have full faith in him."

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