With a tour promised for late September, the Foreign Exchange – comprised of producer Nicolay from the Netherlands and Phonte of Little Brother in North Carolina – are making big waves in creating the first of its kind hip hop project, where upon completing their debut LP titled Connected, they hadn’t even physically met each other. It took over a year, not to mention hefty phone bills and countless of music files being sent via Instant Messenger, for the two to finally compile some of the best work yet between a foreign-based producer and an American emcee in the hip hop world ever. While most are anxiously awaiting the new Little Brother album, New Minstrel Show, that wait can definitely be put on hold to properly digest and enjoy what so far is to me, one of 2004′s most enjoyable hip hop LPs. If you’re in college, don’t take this back to campus for the Fall ’04 semester you’ll ‘misplace’ it if you have a roommate. And if you’re lucky to hold on to it, you’ll never concentrate on homework. And what if you’re not in college? Well, for the first time listening to this CD – don’t be driving. Avoiding periodic outbursts of joy and waves of incredible pleasure once this is playing, is just too risky for any driver behind the wheel. It’s so potent, I’m yet to get tired of listening to it and I’ve secretly had it since May 2004. However, not too longer back in mid-July, Phonte, Nicolay and myself all got connected, and without any static or crossed lines to interrupt our conversation, within this interview lies the key to the making of one of the most unique, soul-enriched unnoticed hip hop albums for the year.
First of all, who put y’all together… it’s just really far-fetched to most a lot here in the game that a producer from the Netherlands and an emcee from the US could pair and make a viable impact in hip-hop.
Phonte: “It all pretty much came together through the Internet man, I had Nicolay’s tracks online at Okplayer.com. Heard them, liked them and asked if I could rhyme over them. Me and Pooh (from Little Brother) rhymed over one of his beats which later became “Light it Up” – the B-Side to our single, “The Listening.” From that point on after we did “Light it Up,” me and Nic got building. He kept sending me tracks (online), I kept rhyming over them and getting people involved in it, then about a year and a half after, that’s how it all happened.”
So initially, it really wasn’t something that you’ll had planned?
Nicolay: “Nah, not at all, it pretty much happened, not by accident, but basically it started with one track and we liked what had happened to it, so we sort of just kept it going.”
So Phonte, you didn’t know or weren’t searching for Nicolay when you discovered his beats online, did you?
Phonte: “I was just really playing around, looking for new talent, looking for new music. He’d put up a poster on OKPlayer.com saying “’Check out my new tracks’ by me or whatever, and I just heard it and I was like, MAAN!!’ I gotta get with that….and from that point on, I was like, look man, there’s something with this guy, let me just stay on him, see what we could do. It didn’t start out like we intended to do an album, I just really loved his tracks and it inspired me to create and so that’s how the Foreign Exchange was born out of that desire to just make music.”
In this world today, of great communication technology, obviously a great factor in making this LP possible, what were some of the obvious and not so obvious obstacles you both encountered?
Nicolay: “Well the obvious one was like ah….the time difference. Like ah….Phonte not having a computer.” (EVERYONE LAUGHS!!) “So that was like the obvious stuff. I guess the lesser obvious stuff would be ah….well, it took time because Phonte was busy touring so we had to do it in between a lot of other stuff. So in the end, it took a long time.”
Phonte: “The surprising thing about it all was that, out of those obstacles, like none of them were musical obstacles. I never had a problem communicating an idea to Nicolay. Like we were talking about mixes granted this is all online now – I’m typing this into a computer and I’m like, ‘yo, I think the beat should drop out at such and such part,’ and he’ll automatically get it, yuhknowhati’msayin? So that was cool, we got it. All the problems I say is like external things like time, scheduling, but musically, it was never a problem, like we’d pick up on each other’s ideas almost kinda instinctively.”
Phonte, this one is for you, was 9th Wonder scared out of his sneakers after hearing these incredible tracks from Nicolay? As a producer, I would feel threatened!
Phonte: (BEGINS TO LAUGH OUT OUT!!) “Nah man, he wasn’t scared, but he was just like, ‘Maan, Maaan, I’m just glad I don’t make the types of beats that Nicolay makes, or I’ll be outta a job!’ Yeah, yeah, he makes it hard, but it was never a thing like that, ’cause the thing with the Justus League and Little Brother, our whole philosophy on making music is that we don’t have to worry about being necessarily better than the next man. I just gotta be the best me, like I ain’t gotta outshine this dude, or compete with this dude. No. As long as I’m the best me and hold my skills, then cats is gonna like me for one reason that they might not like him. Cats might like Nic’s beats for one reason, they gonna like 9th’s beats for another reason, but they both like dope music.”
Nicolay, this one is for you, is Phonte the first emcee project from the US you worked with? You’ll seem to fit so perfectly, I’m really complimenting you both on this man….
Nicolay: “Yeah he is, I know, yeah I had a good start right? Well, it was really Phonte and Pooh for “Light it Up,” they were the first cats to ever bless the track that I did, like American or European. So yeah, that was like a nice head start.”
Not to take anything away from you or this project, but in the Netherlands, are you like this lone unique hip-hop/soul music producer, or are there many other Nicolays out there waiting to be given this US exposure or break you’re getting?
Nicolay: “Right, I don’t know, I think they’re slowly picking up on what’s happening in my hometown too. So ah…..basically what was happening is that I tried to get my foot in between the door like for a couple of years, like ’90-’95 and on in all sorts of groups, but it never really happened. I guess this is my chance to do it, on my own terms and come back to enter through the back door, so to speak. Right now people are getting the buzz that actually someone from the Netherlands did some shit! It’s a combination of some people there feeling proud, and also thinking, â€˜how the fuck did that happen?’”
Every so often, there’s that LP unknown to the masses that has slipped in as one of the most classic-to-be, before-its-time type of sounds. This to me is Connected. The beats, music, just heavenly â€“ the lyrics, flow, more than relevant and entertaining and on point! This magic, where is it coming from?
Phonte: “Well, ahh maan, before I did this album, I took a fast for 40 days and I asked God, yuhknowhati’msayin’, to tell me if there’s a light out there in the universe, ’cause I was really thinking about giving up music, I was going through a lot, I was working as a Sales Clerk. Things wasn’t going too good, I wasn’t making the sales I normally was. They had me in the Gift Wrap section, I couldn’t quite wrap the gifts as fast as I should. I was just going through a hard time at my job man….so no lie, I went on a fast for 40 days and 40 nights. I asked God to send me, if there is a sign or a light, if this is really not it for me send me a light. Send me something to show me that all is not lost, and that I’m here to do this music. And the next day, that was when I heard the beat for “Light it Up,” and I just broke down and cried man, cause Nic just really brought me back, he brought me out. It’s like that song in church they sing (HE BEGINS TO SING VICARIOUSLY): ‘He’s bringing you Owwwwuuut, oowwwoohhh, he’s bring you owwwwwut!!!’ So that’s where the magic comes, it comes from up above, from God. It’s like Nic is my brother from another color man.”
You’re too funny man, so like a sort of revelation. The openness and beauty of hip hop is the nature of having lyrics already written looking for a mate, and applying it towards a groovy beat, and the same strategy can be applied vice versa. How was each track lined up to match the lyrics, or vice versa?
Phonte: “It started off with beats first, like Nic would just send the beats, then I’d write to the beats. I don’t have like rhymes laying around, I always write specifically with the beat in mind.”
Phonte â€“ upon receiving the tracks, which one was so incredible, it gave you a hard on?
Phonte: (THE ROOM BURSTS OUT IN LAUGHTER FOR 10 SECONDS STRAIGHT) “Ah well, ah….well (PHONTE STARTS TO GOOF AROUND NOW) I….I….I….at the time (NIC INTERRUPTS BURSTING INTO LAUGHTER AGAIN) ah well, I don’t know if I was getting a hard on, but I….I….I felt the….ah mean, I do like Nic and all, but we’re not Connected in that way….(PHONTE IS STRAIGHT CLOWNING NOW). But as far as the track that ah…. it AROUSED me….ah, well, ah….I guess “All that You Are” that would be the track that aroused me, that was about a woman in my life at the time, ahh..she was giving me a hard on. That track, yeah, that one….” (LAUGHTER CONTINUING)
Hey, you know I am glad I asked the question that way, I’ve never laughed so hard in an interview, and it seemed you’ll got a great kick out of it too. Nic’s literally crying with laughter. So, Nicolay, upon hearing the lyrics Phonte wrote, which once again assuming the titled song is on the album – had you the most open?
Nicolay: (A LITTLE LAUGHTER ANTICIPATES THE END OF THE QUESTION). “Right. My favorite lyrics was in the “Happiness” cut, because that’s about like daily life, about the bull shit you go through and struggle, and then at the end of the day, coming out victorious. That would definitely be my favorite lyrics, Word Up.”
FOREIGN EXCHANGE on “THE CONNECTED” TOUR
Thursday September 30 RICHMOND, VA @ Mr.Bogangles
Friday October 1 BALTIMORE, MD @ Ottobar
Saturday October 2 WASHINGTON, DC @ Black Cat
Sunday October 3 PHILADELPHIA, PA @ Okay Player Event
Monday October 4 NEW YORK, NY @ BB King’s
Tuesday October 5 NEW HAVEN, CT @ Toad’s Place
Wednesday October 6 BOSTON, MA @ Middle East
Thursday October 7 PROVIDENCE, RI @ Lupo’s
Friday October 8 NORTHAMPTON, MA @ Pearl Street
Monday October 11 – 13 Canada
Thursday October 14 DETROIT, MI @ St Andrew
Friday October 15 CLEVELAND, OH @ Peabody’s
Saturday October 16 CINCINATTI, OH @ Top Cats
Monday October 18 INDIANAPOLIS, IN @ TBA
Tuesday October 19 CHICAGO, IL @ TBA
Wednesday October 20 URBANA, IL @ Canopy Club
Thursday October 21 ST LOUIS, MO @ The Gargoyle
Friday October 22 COLUMBUS, MO @ The Blue Note
Sunday October 24 MINNEAPOLIS, MN @ TBA
Monday October 25-30 Canada
Monday November 1 SEATTLE, WA @ Chop Suey
Tuesday November 2 PORTLAND, OR @ Red Sea
Wednesday November 3 EUGENE, OR @ Wow Hall
Thursday November 4 MEDFORD, OR @ Main 1 Arts Center
Friday November 5 SACRAMENTO, CA @ Harlow’s
Saturday November 6 SAN FRANCISCO, CA @ Harlow’s
Monday November 8 SANTA CRUZ, CA @ The Catalyst
Tuesday November 9 LOS ANGELES, CA @ Key Club
Wednesday November 10 ANAHEIM, CA @ The Galaxy
Thursday November 11 SAN DIEGO, CA @ TBA
Friday November 12 PHOENIX, AZ @ Bash On Ash
Sunday November 14 SALT LAKE CITY, UT @ The Zephyr
Tuesday November 16 BOULDER, CO @ Fox Theatre
Wednesday November 17 ALBUQUERQUE, NM @ Sunshine Theater
Thursday November 18 DALLAS, TX @ Gypsy Tea Room
Friday November 19 AUSTIN, TX @ Stubbs
Saturday November 20 HOUSTON, TX @ Engine Room
Monday November 22 NEW ORLEANS, LA @ TBA
Wednesday November 24 MIAMI, FL @ Soho Lounge
Thursday November 25 ORLANDO, FL @ The Social
Friday November 26 ATLANTA, GA @ Apache CafÃ©
Saturday November 27 ASHEVILLE, NC @ Stella Blue
Sunday November 28 CHARLOTTE, NC @ TBA
Monday November 29 CARRBRO, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
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