Listen Up: Phonte Coleman, Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange began an ocean apart (via The Fayetteville Observer)
Phonte Coleman, one half of The Foreign Exchange, lived in Raleigh and was part of hip-hop group Little Brother at the time. He swapped music and ideas with Nicolay, a producer living in the Netherlands, on okayplayer.com, an online hip-hop community.
The idea of making an album together through digital exchange was ahead of its time for 2002, even though Coleman didn't see it that way.
"At the time, we were just sort of working with what we had," Coleman said in a phone interview last week, shortly after returning from Atlanta, where he hosted the Red Bull EmSee competition national finals with rappers Big K.R.I.T., David Banner and others.
"We didn't think what we were doing was revolutionary or groundbreaking. It was, 'Look, we gotta get an album done, and I'm in North Carolina and you're in the Netherlands. What choice we got?'
Email and Instant Messenger erased the thousands of miles between them. Now both live in North Carolina - Coleman is in Raleigh while Nicolay is in Wilmington. They'll perform Friday at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre.
The pair completed their first album, "Connected," in 2004 without meeting face to face. The album was lauded for its fresh take on combining soul and electronic music, with some noticeable hip-hop elements.
By the time 2008's "Leave It All Behind" was released, Nicolay had relocated to Wilmington. Working closer together, the group garnered a Grammy nomination for the single "Daykeeper." Strangely, though, the process wasn't much different from how it started when Nicolay was in the Netherlands.
"We pretty much still worked the same way," Coleman said. "To this day, we've never recorded a song together in an actual studio with him working the boards and me singing. That just never happened."
For Coleman, the group dynamic was familiar, but the music was a shift.
"It was something that I had always done - even from the first Little Brother album - but I guess it just wasn't something that I took seriously," Coleman said. " 'Leave It All Behind' was the first time I really started to just go all out as a singer, to sing my own songs."
Up until that point, Coleman had been writing with other singers in mind. Then, he decided to make a go of singing himself.
"I was like, 'I'm just (going to) sing my own songs then and just go for broke, and it ended up paying off in a big way," Coleman said.
Together, the group has built a diverse following from fans of neo-soul to those of down-tempo electronic music. For longtime listeners, the change in tone from the group's first album through 2010's "Authenticity" was stark. The music remained in the same genre sonically but the shift was darker. The songwriting felt deeper. Coleman says he didn't really notice the shift until he played "Leave It All Behind" and "Authenticity" back to back.
Coleman said "Authenticity" was his most-prized work as a songwriter, but he would still hand a new listener "Leave It All Behind" first.
The success of "Leave It All Behind" still baffles Coleman. Offers to perform started coming in almost immediately after its release, which presented a nerve-racking situation.
Not only had The Foreign Exchange duo never shared the same space, but their style of music required their shows to be completely different from the rap concerts Coleman had grown accustomed to performing with Little Brother and later as a solo artist. He had to craft an entirely new experience.
"I was petrified. It all happened kind of fast," Coleman said of the lead-up to their first performance.
"I gotta buy some more clothes, buy some suits, I gotta change my life!" Coleman said with a laugh, describing the panic that ensued. "I'm thankful for it, but I was not expecting it."
Coleman still maintains a solo rap career, and he juggles that with his commitment to The Foreign Exchange, making a point to give each project a chance to succeed.
His first solo album, "Charity Starts at Home," came out in September to positive reviews, earning a rating of 89 out of 100 on Metacritic, which compiles the average of all reviews received from major outlets.
"You have to give every record its breathing room, particularly when they're so different from each other," Coleman said. "You have to give your fans time to digest one before moving on to the next thing."
The Foreign Exchange is currently plotting ideas for a fourth album, but Coleman says it definitely won't come out until 2013.
"I really think we're in a less-is-more era where there's so much music being put out every day that people are just bombarded with material," Coleman said. "It's almost do yourself a favor by being scarce to some degree, just because that's what makes you stand out."
Coleman says the idea of sitting on his current catalog and touring on previous material would bore him. While he doesn't foresee a Little Brother reunion in the near future, he doesn't rule out the group reuniting when they're older.
For now, Coleman is happy traveling the world and hearing his music in unexpected places like South Africa, where he caught songs from "Authenticity" playing in a hotel lounge and at nightspots.
"It's good. ... It's always better to be ahead of the curve than behind the curve," Coleman said. "That way, people are always chasing you. People are always catching up"