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The music man behind much of the signature tones that have come to define The Foreign Exchange (+FE) sound continues his alchemist trick of making instrumental electronic music feel organic for laypeople who swear they don’t care for electronic music. Following a tradition initially established in jazz by artists like Miles Davis and in soul by Stevie Wonder’s experimentations in Songs in the Key of Life (peaking in the woefully underrated In A Square Circle), manipulating electronic music to distill the innate robotic coldness of its confines to cultivate something emotional and resonating is a hard row. Most lean into the coldness, creating music that stretches from the industrial and dystopian to the nihilistic and metallic.

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Baltimore Performing Arts Examiner interviews The Foreign Exchange

by +FE on October 8, 2009 at 8:36 PM · Comments
Seven years ago Phonte (a North Carolina native) and Nicolay (a Holland native) began swapping music via America Online's instant messenger (AIM). Now, with two critically acclaimed indie albums under its belts, The Foreign Exchange will soon journey to Baltimore.

The group's last album Leave it All Behind (2008) is more R&B and less hip hop than its debut album Connected (2004). Yet, Nicolay said fans shouldn't think of the latest album as an abandonment of hip hop.

"We are considered a group that could take on various identities in terms of musical styles and different genres," Nicolay said. Leave it All Behind is "a musical progression of the first album," he continued.

Though Phonte admitted that some fans wanted a "Connected Part Two," most of their fans "have responded to it really well," he said. They "respected us for making an artistic leap."

Another perceived risk may have been the group's decision to allow nearly four years in between albums.

"I think that we're able to stand the test of time just because we put a lot of depth in our music," Phonte said. "There are a lot of colors, a lot of harmonies. There's a lot of stuff that reveals itself over a repeated listen. The music we make doesn't have an expiration date. It's more about doing what's in our hearts."

Perhaps it is the authenticity of The Foreign Exchange's sound that has garnered them so much success as independent artists. Front-man Phonte sings, raps, and song writes. Producer/composer Nicolay plays the drums, bass, guitars, and keys. Together they have toured all over the country, and have fans from Baltimore, Maryland to Sydney, Australia.

But it's the dedication to their fans that has made them a successful act, said the front man. "When we create the record we're thinking about what a fan would want. It's the dedication to our fans that has kept us alive and going strong."

Though Nicolay believes that the group's biggest musical achievement is yet to come, "I think the last album Leave it All Behind is a very good example of our growth," he said, citing tracks "House of Cards" and "Day Keeper" as examples of what he's always wanted to do with music.

Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, 60s and 70s rock and folk are Nicolay's musical muses, he said. As for Phonte?

"The better question may be who aren't," said the vocalist before cranking out a list that includes Led Zeplin, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

The Foreign Exchange's Baltimore show will feature guest vocalists Darien Brockington, Yahzarah, and Carlitta Durand. Three days later at D.C's Black Cat, the guest list will also include Muhsinah as the opening act.

"I think that they make come to life a really important part of album and that's the harmonies," said Nicolay about the guest performers. "I'm a very big fan of the layers of vocals on the album. Outside of performing featured songs, the presence of all of them together comes close to the harmonies on the record."

Baltimore attendees can "expect to have a fantastic time," Phonte said. "It's not music so much as it is a revival. We want people to feel better walking out than they did when they first came in. Hopefully come out feeling renewed."

"Thanks to all our fans in Baltimore," Phonte added. "It's always been a real good city to us."

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