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Phonte and Nicolay make dynamic duo as The Foreign Exchange (via The Boston Globe)

by +FE on June 1, 2012 at 10:12 AM · Comments
There was a point when Phonte Coleman toyed with the idea of penning a relationship guide.

Because, you know, if Steve Harvey did it, right?

By and large, Coleman originally made his name as the third of the North Carolina rap group Little Brother that balanced rhymer's rhymes crafted for hip-hop purists with stories about dating and courting (there's a difference), breakups, sex, family, parenthood, and the nuts and bolts of everyday life.

But he did it with the kind of wisdom-chased wit that happened to make for convenient pocket-size philosophies for lovers.

(Example: "A woman's life is love, a man's love is life." Discuss!)

His book wouldn't ask you to think like a woman or act like a man.

"My joint, I wouldn't see mine being as conservative as Steve Harvey on it," he said. "I'd have to be a little more evil with mine. My outlook is not really optimistic, and that doesn't fare as well. So I don't know."

At 33, the history of his most prominent relationship is very public.

Little Brother's breakup was an ugly one (complete with YouTube and Twitter wars), and even though they reconciled, there's no sign of a reunion in sight.

But in the past year, he's also gone through the process of divorcing his wife of six years, Claudia.

He's seen two of his major adult relationships falter, but with his latest group, the Foreign Exchange, which will perform at the Middle East Tuesday, he's formed a unique -- if unlikely -- bond with Dutch producer Nicolay that's led to a new creative direction and newfound success.

"For me, I have a very realistic outlook on relationships," he said. "Even, some would say, pessimistic or fatalistic. There's no such thing as a painless relationship. That doesn't happen. It's like, if you're going to be in a relationship with somebody, you're going to get kicked in the ass. So date a woman with a small foot. That's the best way I can describe it."

There was only so much he could say in couplets. The Foreign Exchange has been an outlet. They've released three studio albums since 2004, including 2010's "Authenticity."

Their blueprint is experimentation, letting Phonte largely abandon rapping for the singing voice he occasionally broke out with Little Brother while Nicolay dives into the sounds that have always influenced him, like Prince and Stevie Wonder.

"I'm married myself," Nicolay, 38, said with a laugh. "I know exactly what direction he's coming from. As much as we discuss the day-to-day stuff or life stuff or whatever, I think with the music it just comes automatically. We always just kind of drift in the same direction together. I can definitely relate to a lot of what he's talking about, because it's very universal."

They first came across each other on the message boards for hip-hop website Okayplayer and began trading music (a foreign exchange). They worked together exclusively by e-mail, putting together their first project, "Connected," in August 2004.

They didn't actually meet face-to-face until four months before the album was released, when Little Brother was on its first European tour.

"Obviously, we were taking a chance on a cat, respectively, that was like 3,000 miles on the other side of the ocean," Nicolay said. "We really didn't know each other from Adam when we first got started."

The experiment was dramatically different from Phonte's day job.

"Foreign Exchange was something that was totally new and something that not too many people knew about," he said. "The sound that we were going for, it was something that I was like, 'Man, this could either pay off big or it could lose really big.'"

The eureka moment came in December 2009 when the group earned a Grammy nod for "Daykeeper," the haunting lead single from their second album, "Leave It All Behind."

"I don't think I would have believed all that we have been able to achieve if you had told me about it up front," Nicolay said. "I've always been very confident about the uniqueness of our music, but to know that we took it as far as we did is still kind of surreal almost."

Last year, Phonte released his first solo album, "Charity Starts at Home." He's written songs for singers Eric Roberson and Sy Smith. Now, he says every so often he gets the question: Do you still consider yourself primarily an MC?

"The truth is that I don't," he said. "There used to be times where I would hear something and I would just think, 'I'm gonna rhyme on this, I'm going to rhyme on this.' But now, sometimes I might hear something I might think to sing on it.

"Sometimes I may hear something and maybe think to write something for someone else; we might not even be on the track. I just sort of think of myself as more of a complete artist now than I did, say, 10 years ago or 12 years ago."

If he did become a relationship guru, though, he'd at least have one reader.

Letting out a large laugh, Nicolay said, "I would support that."
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