We have a lot to thank the message boards of Okayplayer.com for. Not only have they connected musicians and creatives across the globe through the experience of sound and music, but they have also birthed one of the most influential and progressive hip hop / electronic groups to date. Foreign Exchange are the counterpoint of what lies between a great music and soul shifting music, with their take of fusing the right combination of soul, hip hop and electronic beats to create a sound that is transcendent above the rest.
When Phonte Coleman, US rapper ( North Carolina ) and part of organic hip hop outfit Little Brother met with celebrated Dutch beat maker Nicolay in the online musicians forum on Okayplayer.com some 13 years ago ( 2002) , little did the pair know just how important their union would be to the shaping of the alternative hip hop movement. With a consistently growing discography, that is five albums deep, each album is a definitive case work centering around love, relationships, life and above all else the love of hip hop. Their album, Connected, was released through +FE Music in 2004 and was a showcase for Nicolay’s musical talents as well as an introduction to like-minded Little Brother affiliates who contributed to the album. The album received strong reviews and the single, “Sincere”, featuring neo-soul singer YahZarah appealed to a wide audience who were both intrigued and in need of the sound Foreign Exchange had created. In October 2008, the duo released their second album Leave It All Behind, followed by the stellar “Authenticity” in 2010, Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange in 2011 and in 2013: Love in Flying Colors was released giving us the incredibly hip hop soul track “ Better” feat Eric Roberson.
What makes this union work and thrive lies in how different and the same Phonte and Nicolay are as individuals and as artists, complimenting each other with their similarities in music and creation and challenging each other with their difference. , kind of like ying and yang, their opposites attract in the most harmonious of ways. With individual personas that pack hefty punches in their chosen musical genres, Phonte, respected rapper and also a singer (often under the pseudonym Percy Miracles), his witty and straight forward rhymes tend to be no-frills perspectives on working-class life. Nicolay, ( Matthijs Rook) becoming a household name as a sought after electronica, R&B and hip hop record producer from the Netherlands, through his creative use of live instruments rather than sample usage. Due to supply and demand for a Nicolay beat, the Dutch producer now calls America home and continues to create the legacy for Foreign Exchange and his solo projects.
Talking to one of my favorite Hip Hop groups has certainly been one of the highlights of my career to date, especially given how inspirational Foreign Exchange and their sound is. Talking to Phonte and Nicolay was like kicking it with old friends who enjoyed sharing their music, the creative process, their friendship and their overall thoughts, hopes and visions for Hip Hop. It was an absolute pleasure to share time and space with these two incredible individuals who have proven to me why Foreign Exchange are cools inspiration and how their music and message will resonate with true music fans eternally.
Phonte and Nicolay – thanks so much for your time. How has life been treating you both so far this year?
Phonte: Hey Ms Hennessey – Thanks so much for having us. We have been really busy, got a lot of work on at the moment which is great and always working on new music, so that’s pretty much it really. Doing our thing and step up our game consistently.
Nicolay: Hey Ms Hennessey, thank you for the opportunity.
First up – big congratulations to you all on the incredible success your music continues to garner on an international level. Your presence in both the hip hop and electronic music arenas grows from strength to strength on a yearly basis and your album discography has a power all its own. 2004: Connected, 2008: Leave It All Behind (#68 US R&B), 2010: Authenticity (#145 US; #23 US R&B), 2011: Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange, 2013: Love in Flying Colors (#115 US; #22 US R&B) – what do you both attribute to your creative and staying power in this game and how do you strive to remain consistent and relevant in all you do?
Phonte: I would attribute our staying power in this game to just always wanting to outdo ourselves on each record we make. To always be better than the last cut you know what I mean, to do always do something new and something we have never done before. Whenever Nic and I make a new record we will do something and afterwards always ask ourselves” So how we makes this better”? And to make sure that this is best representation of where we are right now. I never want us to get stagnant you know and it’s so easy to just rest on past accomplishments but I think that’s a shoe away from creative death and not something we do ( laughs).
Nicolay: That’s a great question. I think that we found out early on that being consistent is what set us apart from the rest. I think that the Foreign Exchange has always been like an underdog artist in a way that you won’t necessarily see us on TV or hear us on mainstream radio or even read about us in magazine so I think that Phonte and myself realised that really our work ethic and being consistent in the output of music and content is what will sustain us to this day. Just keeping the fire burning, staying relevant but also unique to what Foreign Exchange is built upon and staying busy really. I mean it’s not easy as all and it’s a lot of trial and error, sleepless nights, hard work but above all dedication to the music and to the craft and the audience and to never sell them short.
Always wanted to know what the reason is behind the name Foreign Exchange? Is there are story there?
Phonte: The name I think, it actually came from Pooh (Lil Brother), when we were all working on this record and he was like “this is like a foreign exchange” and I was like yeah it is (laughs) so that was kind of how that worked because at the time Nicolay and Lil Brother were doing records so yeah that’s how the name came up.
Nicolay: Something really funny though that always happens though is we always get asked what the currency exchanges are for the day from people emailing us and not realising we are hip hop currency not money based and it happens a lot, but it always makes us laugh. (Laughs)
You are arguably one of the most respected hip hop duo’s out there for always remaining true to your sound and style and consistently making and creating beats and music. Nicolay and Phonte, individually you are both incredibly gifted and talented producer and rapper with solo success stories of your own. Together, unstoppable and necessary to the authenticity needed in hip hop today. How did Foreign Exchange come about and did you both have a unified goal in mind for what your music would bring to the hip hop movement?
Nicolay: (Laughs) Well we found each other on Okayplayer.com some 13 years ago would you believe it ( laughs ), which we were both contributing members on and had similar tastes in the music we were following on there like The Roots , D’Angelo, Common etc. We were aware of each you know, seeing our names in the threads of the message boards and so I think before anything we kind of got to know each other as like-minded music fans first and it wasn’t until later when we started making music and appreciating each other’s music that became a creative partnership that has lasted all this time.
How would you best describe Foreign Exchange and the sound you create?
Phonte: I think the easiest way to describe what we make is fusion, meaning a mix of a lot of different styles. You know we are definitely students of hip hop and that will always be the main ingredient coursing through our sound. We always keep the drums present in our beat and we want the snares to knock, it’s a hip hop base but sways between rnb, jazz, gospel and house and dance music. It’s a fusion of all that is good and black in music (laughs). Nicolay: I think Phonte pretty much summed it up man, I couldn’t top that response even if I tried (laughs).
How would you best describe one another’s creative drive in your own words?
Nicolay on Phonte – That’s probably one of the best questions anyone has ever asked us for real – wow – ok I think that if I look at how we met and how we became constant forces in each other’s lives professionally as well as personally I think that Phonte is really the conscience of the group you know and his work ethic is something that has truly rubbed off of me. You know watching him making moves with Lil Brother, I think taught me so much, especially when I first came to the States and had to try to get a foot in the music door out here, Phonte really prepped me for that and I was able to pick up a lot of his drive and his work ethic. He is always able to create something out of nothing and is something that continually inspires my drive and creativity.
Phonte on Nicolay – Oh man I think with Nic the main thing that I admire with him it’s just never good enough you know. He is never the guy to just stop at being good, you know what I’m saying. He is never the guy that just settles for good, he always pushes and wants to better what we do, it’s like when my football coach tells me “ you’d rather have the guy that’s full speed all the time, because if you go full speed all the time in the play and you know the fuck out of the wrong guy that’s good ( laughs), that’s fine, I will show you the right guy to hit but don’t get on the field and go half speed coz that going to get you fucked up and get you out the game. So Nic is the guy that’s going full speed all the time, even so that I gotta say ok dog we gotta pull back now you know what I’m saying. So I would rather have that guy on my squad that you have to pull back than the guy you have to push forward and with Nic I’ve never in all our years of working together I’ve never had to push him forward and that is really inspiring because it’s hard to find people that can match your work ethic or drive that you have so finding that in Nic is really refreshing. He is a producers dream in so many ways, even if I don’t say it, he gets it and he is more talented than like 90% of the muthafuckers out there ( laughs) is really inspiring to me.
What would you say are you biggest musical inspirations and influences and why?
Nicolay: This is always a long list man ( laughs) because as you go through the years your influences and music styles change, sometimes you pick up where you left off, other times you discover something new. You know obviously hip hop is the foundation on which The Foreign Exchange draws its biggest influence from, and inspired by groups like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, producers like J Dilla. I am also, personally, a really BIG prince fan. (Laughs)
Phonte: Yeah he is a really big prince fan, I think ever bigger than Prince himself ( laughs). I like Prince but my allegiance is to Michael Jackson. I remember when we were younger and Michael Jackson would release a new album or music video, the shit was like an event you know what I’m saying. Like they would stop regular broadcast TV for Michael new shit to play (laughs) and that was insane so for me that was greatest inspiration and when I became a recording artist I always wanted my albums to be an event you know, not like just something I put out there. That was something that really influenced how I approach my music career today.
Can you share with us what you are currently working on and where people can follow you online / catch your performances / hear you music?
Nicolay: You can pretty much everything about us on our website www.theforeignexchangemusic.com and other than that we are on Twitter and most of the social platforms. We have just released the first single “The Brightest Star” off my upcoming solo album City Lights Vol 3: Soweto just released this June and so that is something that we have been busy working on lately.
Phonte: We do tour a lot, we have been touring a lot, the last year was a big touring year for us so this year we have spent more time in the studio working on new music but we will be going back out on the road with some dates coming up in July with Eric Roberson and Floetry in Durham NC so that’s going to be good. So we are touring but just spot dates for now, once our releases are done then we will focus on some more concert type schedules.
Nicolay: For us travelling internationally is usually a big deal as we always travel with a full band and we are a pretty large group so travelling internationally can often become financially straining or logistically problematic. We have made huge strides recently playing some European dates in 2014 and we also did some dates in South Africa, Cape Town to be exact which was amazing. You know we are hoping to make it to Australia at some point and play some dates out there because we know that there is a lot of over there, it is just a huge under taking but one we are hopeful to make really soon.
What is the creative ethos behind Foreign Exchange and what do you think your overall message through music is for your fans?
Phonte: Man, I guess the overall message for the fans is just one of inspiration and determination you know what I mean. So many people have told us how our music has helped them get through their day, to their school and one guy even told me how our track “ Leave It All Behind” got him through his divorce and he had the title tattooed on his arm and I was like “ shit, we really do touch people with our music” and I never saw that coming when I recorded that album, so yeah that’s the message we try to pass on to our fans, to be determined in their lives and inspired by our music.
Nicolay: I think if anything from the musical influence I think we would like to be that group that shows people how to think different and achieve great things through thinking and doing things their own way as long as you have drive and vision and I hope if people take anything away from us it would be that!
For more information on Foreign Exchange:
Always Hip Hop