The seemingly underground alliance between former Little Brother emcee Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay melds smooth, sultry vocals with intricate instrumentation resulting in electronic-infused R&B and hip-hop gems. Word has it that the duo met over the interwebs when Phonte found one of Nic’s samples on an Okayplayer message board around 2002 while the producer was still living in The Netherlands. They communicated and collaborated back and forth via email without ever speaking over the phone or meeting face to face, hence the name The Foreign Exchange.
Once their debut album Connected dropped in 2004, the pair began to feel overwhelmed by the distance and its effect on their output, so Nic made the decision to move to the States to pursue the partnership, as well as his own solo career in music. Leave It All Behind, +FE’s sophomore album, received a Grammy nomination for its single, “Daykeeper” and confirmed Nic had made the right decision.
Since the release of their fifth studio album Love In Flying Colors in 2013, +FE have been successful in making an impact on the scene. Their music defies any cookie cutter definition of what hip-hop, or even R&B, should sound like. Their fan-base extends across oceans where the NC-based duo has even more traction than in the States.
This Wednesday, December 10, The Foreign Exchange will be headlining an event sponsored by Heineken Green Room at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Brooklyn Radio jumped at the chance to speak with the guys to learn more about their introduction to hip-hop and hear their thoughts on the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. (I would mark this as a spoiler alert, but it’s been over a week, so if you haven’t seen it yet, shame on you.)
What is one of your earliest memories of hip-hop?
Phonte: Probably one of my earliest memories was my uncle taking me to the Fresh Festival that came to the Greensboro Coliseum. I couldn’t have been more than six years old. It was Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Whodini. He took me there, and he bought me a Fat Boys shirt after the joint. I can remember that.
Nicolay: I think for me my first memory would be…really kind of the record that started my appreciation for hip-hop was 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul. I got into it via the cut that got everybody into it, “Me Myself and I.” From there on, it kept going.
Which artists/acts did you guys listen to early on that could be listed as creative influences today?
Phonte: I would definitely say A Tribe Called Quest. From all the music that I do, and the several genres I like to play in, whether it be hip-hop or R&B or just pop stuff, whatever. The basis is the drums, and A Tribe Called Quest always had the drums crackin’. You know what I mean? That was always a big influence for me. Even with what we do with +FE, we make it a point to make the drums knock. So, Tribe is definitely a big musical influence.
And I would say probably Beck is a huge influence. I would say Beck and also Meshell Ndegeocello. I really admire artists that can just kind of jump around and just play in several different fields, and it all sounds the same. Well, not the same, but it all sounds consistent. Beck has made rap songs, he’s made folk songs, he’s made rock songs, but it always sounds like him. Meshell is the same way. I never know what she’s gonna do on her record, but it always sounds like her. Just that ability to just kind of shape-shift and still remain consistent is something that I really admire.
Nicolay: I definitely admire all of the artists that Phonte listed. For me, Prince has always been a really big influence. I’m talking more like classic Prince, if you will, but still a very big influence. I’ve always been influenced by Stevie Wonder in a lot of ways, especially his keyboard playing and choice of instruments and synthesizers. I’ve also always been a very big George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic fan. I think at +FE, we are definitely informed to a certain degree by the Parliament Funkadelic tradition of things. So, yeah. The list really goes on.
Phonte, you started out singing in your grandmother’s church choir. After the release of Connected in 2004, what led to your decision to sing rather than rap on subsequent +FE albums?
Phonte: I just went where the music took me. I mean, just the tracks that Nic was sending me, at the time, they just felt more suited to singing than rhyming. So, that was just what I did. That was it. It just felt more natural to me to sing over the stuff other than rhyme over it.
Did you kind of start off rhyming and then realized it wasn’t working? Do you have the lyrics ahead of time, or do you do it off the cuff?
Phonte: Pretty much everything is kind of off the cuff, kind of on the spot. I don’t really just write lyrics for the sake of lyrics. People have rap books. I never had that. You know what I’m saying? For me, every song I write is specifically tailored to a track or to a particular feeling. When Nic started sending me the joints, the first thing that came to my mind was melodies.
It wasn’t like, “Yo, I’m about to rap over this shit. I’m about to kill ‘I Wanna Know’ right now.” You know, it was dope because it was a singing song first. You know what I mean? You wouldn’t start off with a track like fucking “House of Cards” and be like, “Yo, I’m about to rhyme over this.” That’s a horrible fucking idea. That’s terrible. Like, what the fuck are you doing? Nobody wants to hear that shit. So, that’s kind of where I’m at.
Nicolay, how has the surge of technology in music influenced your production?
Nicolay: It’s kind of gone hand-in-hand with me also being a big fan and collector or connoisseur, if you will, of vintage equipment. So yeah, especially since we released our first album, and I have really started working on music on a serious level and producing music. What I was using at the time really pales in comparison to the excess of stuff that I have nowadays. But at the same time, ironically, it’s almost like you feel freer if you’re limited in your tools and your options because you have to be more creative in your choices and in what you make happen. Access to stuff is not always necessarily beneficial to creativity.
That being said, there have been a lot of really, really exciting things that have happened over the last ten years that I’ve certainly benefitted from and taken advantage of and continue to take advantage of. The way that the world of computer recording and audio plugins and all that stuff. The way that that’s evolving at a very, very rapid pace. That’s obviously very exciting, and I’m kind of right in the middle of that. But at the same time, I have keyboards in my studio that are forty years old. So, it’s really kind of the marriage of the two that I’m always interested in. The new and the old.
What’s one piece of equipment you don’t think you’ll ever want to get rid of?
Nicolay: That’s an interesting question because I had to ask myself that when I moved to the States. At the time, I simply had no option to bring anything, so it’s all relative. If you have a good reason, you can get rid of anything, especially things that are material. If I had to say one thing that I would really not want to be apart from, it would be my Rhodes piano. I have a really nice Rhodes electric piano that’s just really a favorite instrument of mine because it’s in great shape, and it’s, in general, one of my favorite instruments. I think the other thing would maybe be my Moog Voyager. That’s definitely kind of my go to at the moment, so that would be the other thing that I don’t want to get rid of anytime soon.
How would you guys describe your sound or your style to someone who is not familiar with The Foreign Exchange?
Phonte: I would just say it’s soulful, and I kind of want to say dense – a lot of layers. It’s a lot going on. There’s a lot going on vocally with the vocal arrangements and also instrumentation-wise with what Nic does. We want you to hear something new every time you listen to a track. So, that’s kind of what we go for.
Your world tour to promote the release of Love In Flying Colors wrapped up at the end of September. What’s been keeping you busy since then?
Phonte: For me, my fucking kids. That’s pretty much it. You know, just family shit. Getting back at it, back in the studio little by little. I’m working on joints for Nic’s City Lights record that’s coming next year. You know, just getting back into it little by little, but mostly for me, it’s just family and life shit.
Nicolay: Definitely as Phonte said, I’m working on the album. That’s the main thing I’ve been doing. I’ve also been doing a lot of catching up on TV watching. I’ve been catching up on a couple of TV shows that I’ve been wanting to check out and normally don’t get a chance to.
Nicolay: The last one that I caught up on was American Horror Story. It took me a while to get into it. It’s obviously…it’s an exotic show, to put it lightly. And yeah, I like The Walking Dead, most definitely.
Oh, wow. Did you watch the mid-season finale?
Nicolay: Yeah, yeah.
Phonte: I watched it! I’m glad Beth is dead. I was tired of seeing Beth.
I wasn’t sad at all.
Phonte: I was just, “Get the fuck out of there.” You know, just kind of whatever.
As long as it wasn’t Carol.
Phonte: Yeah. I’m glad. I’m looking to see what this Gabrielle does. I don’t know about him. He’s just kind of a bitch-ass. He won’t kill no zombies. It’s time his ass gets killed, too. I’m watching it just because I’ve been in it for so long, but I’m tired of that shit, too. I’m in it, but I’m just watching it just because. I kind of checked out with a lot of it. Did you read the comics at all?
Phonte: Okay, I guess I’m waiting for Negan to show up.
What about what’s his name that they keep showing at the end of the episodes? I can’t remember his name right now…
Phonte: Yeah, yeah! Morgan.
Nicolay: Morgan, yeah.
Phonte: He’s dope. I do like Morgan. But I’m glad Beth is dead. I knew! Whenever they give you an episode to yourself, that’s kind of the cue. When they broke off and was like, “Where is Beth?”
Yeah, they’ve already separated her from the storyline.
Phonte: Yeah they separated her from the storyline. Yeah, that’s true.
Nicolay: That’s the requiem.
Phonte: Yeah, you about to die.
What can you guys tell readers about the On Tour With The Foreign Exchange documentary?
Nicolay: Not a whole lot. We haven’t seen it yet.
Phonte: Yeah, I ain’t never seen shit other than the trailer. That’s all I’ve seen.
Do we know a release date?
Phonte: Uh, no? I don’t even know.
Nicolay: Yeah, not even that. It’s really kind of up in the air. “Soon” would probably be the most accurate description. Basically, it’s a project by a couple of guys that are incredibly talented. They previously put together a documentary on one of Zo!’s shows. They’re based out of Vegas, so when we finally hit Vegas this year for the first time, that kind of opened up an opportunity for them to do that again.
So, we really only have seen the trailer very recently, but we shared it with the world. We’re super excited about just the quality of that alone and the footage. We know that they filmed a couple of shows, and we know that they have done extensive interviews with us and with some of the people in the band and people around the group, so it should be great.
How did the show at Music Hall of Williamsburg come together? Did Heineken Green Room reach out?
Phonte: Yeah, my man Tayyib Smith is a longtime friend, and he’s kind of one of my mentors in the game. He reached out to us, and he thought we’d be a good fit for it. We were like, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.” I’ve had a longtime working relationship with him. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Can fans expect a new album from +FE in the future? Or the near future?
Phonte: Well, I mean, there’s definitely going to be one in the future. It’s just how far in the future….
Nicolay: What is near? Right.
Phonte: Yeah, let’s define near. Are we talking like 2026?
I just mean because your albums have come out every two or however many years apart, so….
Nicolay: Two to three, yeah. Four sometimes. I mean, I guess, we don’t really put a time on it per se—
Phonte: Yeah, our album releases. That shit is like episodes of Sons of Anarchy. That shit could be sixty minutes or two hours. It could be two and a half hours. You just never know what it is. But, nah I mean, we’ll do another one. We’ll definitely do another one. I just don’t know when. I just…yeah, I don’t know.
Nicolay: When we’ve got something to say probably.
What side/solo projects are you guys working on right now?
Nicolay: I’m working on my album, and that should be out next year. Again, not really putting a date on it because we approach it more, at this point, in a way of creating music and then releasing it pretty much as quick as we can. So, you know, that’s a big thing that we’ve got going on. There’s a couple more projects that are in the pipeline that I can’t really say too much on, but it should be another good year in terms of +FE music releases.
Is there anything else you guys want to add/promote?
Phonte: Nah, just keep supporting the music. Hit us up on Twitter and the website. Check for me in Black Dynamite this season. This season, me and my man Zo! and my man Fatin Horton who’s producing on it. We’ve been doing music for the Black Dynamite cartoon this season, and so my singing vocals are all over it. So, check for me on that. That’s about it. I’m just thankful for everybody that keeps listening.