Interview: The Foreign Exchange On Grammy Nomination, Music And MorePublished by Krysten Hughes on Monday, January 25, 2010 at 9:00 am.
Hands down, The Foreign Exchange was one of the most genius singer – producer collaborations to happen to urban music in the early 2000s. The trans-Atlantic duo, who first met on the popular online message board, Okayplayer, is categorized best as R&B meets contemporary electronic meets hip hop. The first ingredient is Nicolay, a Dutch producer from the Netherlands who hones in on his talent of concocting original composition. The second ingredient is Phonte, rapper slash singer, and one half of the acclaimed hip hop group Little Brother. The rest is history.
I first grew fond of The Foreign Exchange after hearing the 2004 debut album, Connected, which featured a host of appearances including Rapper Big Pooh (of Little Brother), YahZarah, Darien Brockington and Median. Tracks like “Nic’s Groove”, “Happiness” and “Be Alright” were on constant rotation. Now, six years and one album later, The Foreign Exchange are practicing their acceptance speech. Their sophomore album, Leave It All Behind, is nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the track “Daykeeper” which features one of my favorite jazzy soul sistas’, Muhsinah. I was more than delighted to catch up with Nic and Phonte and talk to them about The Foreign Exchange, their exciting nomination, and what’s in store for the future.
Krysten Hughes: The two of you were first introduced on the Okayplayer message boards while Nicolay was living overseas and Phonte, in North Carolina. You put together an entire album before having even met in person. Tell me how that went down and eventually lead to the idea of The Foreign Exchange.
Phonte: I remember Nicolay posting up some of his music, wanting others to hear it. I listened and I thought it was incredible so I hit him up and asked him if he wanted to do music together. He agreed so we started exchanging songs back and forth through instant messenger and e-mail. From there, we created The Foreign Exchange.
KH: Nicolay, what do you feel you have contributed as a Dutch producer to American R&B and hip hop music?
Nicolay: I think that what might set me apart from other producers is that I have a wide variety of music that I like, and music that I like to make. I like to incorporate different styles and overall my desire to experiment with different types of music.
KH: You tend to use live instruments rather than samples like many producers today. Why?
Nic: Truthfully, I run into a wall with creativity when sampling music. I am not able to branch out how I would like to. It’s also incredibly hard to get music that is sampled licensed for music and television shows, so I like to create music that is 100% original and be the owner in terms of rights.
KH: Phonte, how is working with Nicolay under The Foreign Exchange different then your collaboration with other artists you have worked with in the past, like 9th Wonder, Kev Brown and DJ Shadow?
Phonte: What sets him apart from other producers is because we have chemistry, we don’t have to talk about a whole lot. Overall putting music together and the feel of what we are going for goes together. He will send me a track and I won’t have to do anything, and vice versa. I can send him a song and he will have it completed immediately. I don’t explain a lot. Not that I have had to explain a lot to the other producers, but we just kind of intuitively get it. That is very rare.
KH: The Foreign Exchange is nominated for a Grammy in Best Urban/Alternative Performance for “Daykeeper” featuring Musinah from the “Leave It All Behind” album. As artists that have emerged from the underground, what was your initial reaction to the nomination?
Nic: My first reaction was what in the world!? I didn’t believe it. I think the main thing that we take out of it is that you can follow your heart and instinct and stay true to yourself and still elevate within the industry.
KH: “Daykeeper” is a beautiful record, both lyrically and as an instrumental. It is one of my personal favorite tracks to zone out to. How did you guys come up with the context of the song?
Phonte: All songs come from real life experiences to some degree. The lyrics weren’t focused on any one singular event. It was something that, in terms of a situation, two people in a relationship who are addicts of some sort. Trapped in a relationship, they want to leave but they don’t want to get away, or can’t get away. I ran with that theme lyrically and tried to express it the best way I could. There are a lot of different interpretations of the song.
Check out the music video for the Grammy nominated “Daykeeper” featuring Muhsinah.http://www.vimeo.com/2316217
KH: Do you feel as though your nomination will open doors for other artists who have not been previously recognized in the mainstream?
Nic: I think all of that is changing as the Grammy nomination is the first sign of that. We are an organization yet we don’t really have a partner or label or a money supplier behind us so everything that we do is a direct result of us grinding out and our fans supporting us and spreading the word. We don’t have the same platforms as other artists but we do have a very loyal fan base. I think that with the Grammy nomination and all of the releases it will change. I hope other artists see that an example of putting in the work, having talent and making it.
KH: Phonte, what new artists are you excited about and are there any that you consider to be a reflection of the musician that you were when you first started out in the industry?
Phonte: As far as new cats, I see a lot of emcees that are, what you would call, fruit from the same tree. A lot of stuff that Drake is doing reminds me of myself when I was younger. We have done tracks with him before, and he has shown us a lot of support. Also, Wale is another young emcee that I check for. He is cut from the same cloth as me in a lot of ways. I think what we did as Little Brother opened up the doors for a lot of other artists like Drake and Wale to rise up and be themselves.
KH: Can you explain The Foreign Exchange Music label, which is now comprised of YahZarah and Zo!?
Nic: The Foreign Exchange Music first came up when we were getting close to releasing Leave It All Behind. We had parted ways with BBE Records so we wanted to start up our own situation. As we went along, I was able to release my solo album Shibuya, City Lights vol. 2 through the same channel. As we were touring with some of our friends like YahZarah and Zo!, we saw success and we feel very strongly that we want to help our friends and see to it that they have success as well. We want to support them as much as we support our own.
KH: What projects, tours, albums etc are you working on for 2010?
Phonte: We are just finishing up YahZarah’s album, The Ballad of Purple St. James, which will be out in the spring. After that we have Zo!’s Sunstorm record, which will be out in the summer. Also Median will be dropping an EP. I will be kind of overseeing and executive producing the project. There will also be a new Foreign Exchange album coming out in the fall of 2010. In terms of mapping it out, 2010 is over. It’s going to be an exciting time. It’s an extreme amount of hard work.
Nic: Since dropping my solo album Shibuya, City Lights vol. 2, I am just focusing on Zo!, YahZarah and Foreign Exchange for the rest of the year. I will be doing mixes outside of that as always. Most recently, Phonte and I both worked on RJD2’s new album The Collossus, which dropped January 19. Also, I will be working on various things on the side, but we are definitely committed to our music family this year.
The Foreign Exchange Music Group Family