Artistry: Artist Feature
Brave Soul Artist: The Foreign Exchange

January 12, 2011 Print version       Other articles by this author

Our Brave Soul Artist feature for this month are a pair of brilliant musicians/artists whose musical union has yielded some seriously powerful, memorable, soulful music.
Consisting of rapper/singer/songwriter Phonte and producer Nicolay, The Foreign Exchange came together via the online hip-hop community in 2002. After trading files through Instant Messenger for over a year, Nicolay (living in his native Holland at the time) and Phonte (a Raleigh, NC resident) completed their debut album before they ever met each other in person. The album, "Connected," was released in 2004 to positive reviews, and was praised by legendary DJ's such as Jazzy Jeff, King Britt, and DJ Spinna for its inventive mix of hip-hop, R&B, and electronica. Their sophomore album, "Leave It All Behind" (2008) found The Foreign Exchange much closer in geography (Nicolay becoming a resident of Wilmington, NC), but located much further from their hip-hop origins. On the strength of their exhilarating live show and several nationally programmed music videos, "Leave It All Behind" became the group's most successful album to date, culminating in a Grammy-nomination for the album's first single, "Daykeeper". Authenticity, which was released on October 12, 2010 on +FE Music, is The Foreign Exchange's third album.
Late last year, I had the privilege of speaking to these two men about their work as artists, their influences, and their formula for creating such amazing material. I'm honored to kick off 2011's Brave Soul Artist features with an in-depth interview with Nicolay & Phonte of The Foreign Exchange. Read on, get informed, inspired, and ENJOY.

"...there are a lot of things that come out of us and even we don't know where it comes from...we can't comprehend it. I really think that's evidence of a higher power at work and just us being vessels for a higher creation." ~Phonte~

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of how you two started working together can you share the story?

Phonte: We first met on Okayplayer and we used to discuss music a lot and I noticed we both had a lot of the same kind of tastes and stuff. So that was pretty much it. That was how we first started making music together. It just kinda made sense. We just had a real kind of chemistry and we started making records over the internet before we met each other in person.

How did the process of creating, & recording "Authenticity" differ from that of "LIAB"-[Leave It All Behind] & "Connected"?

Nicolay: We didn't so much have a formula but we do have a tried and true way of working which is I have my own space and Phonte has his and we work on each of our respective crafts separately. I think that one of the bigger differences at least for me personally, but also for us a group was this was kind of the first time that we had a self imposed deadline because we really wanted to follow up "LIAB" as quickly as we could mainly because of the Grammy nomination and the success that the album had in general. So this was the first time that we had a deadline and that we really were forced to keep that and it was interesting to see how that turned out.

Quality vs. Quantity. Can you share your thoughts on this concept & which one is more important to you as artists?
Phonte: I think that particularly now, in an era when people are just bombarded with music, I think that we're truly living in a 'less is more' kind of era. I really think it's more important to hit people with the best rather than just bombarding people with music all the time if it's just kinda like people are getting hit with content like several times a day-everyday. You can be more effective by putting out your best like that.

After having interviewed both Yahzarah & Zo! last year, both of them spoke to a degree about how important the element of family is within the FE music camp & how important the component of originality is to you both as producers, writers and artists.
Can you share your feelings about the importance of preserving your sound and being selective in terms of who you work & collaborate with?

Phonte: I think with every person we collaborate with (for me) as I'm generally the producer on the songwriting/lyrical end & the recording vocals part of it...I just look for something fresh. Every artist throughout history they kind of have different people in their careers who act as a muse of some sort. For every record it's been someone different. That's just what keeps me going. It's not really a special quality that I look for. I don't have a checklist of like: "CRITERIA to work with the Foreign Exchange " it's just something that you hear and a certain thing that an artist might have that makes you feel like if we work together we're gonna be something special and that's really it.
Nicolay: I think even especially in terms of originality, I think that The Foreign Exchange is by default a group that kind of always chooses the more adventurous road and I think that we express that in our music, we express that in the people that we work with, our album art, for us its really a kind a of bigger picture and originality is actually the main thing that makes us successful is the fact that we're doing something different than a lot of the people that are out doing "trends" or something like that.

Phonte: considering that you started out as a rapper, has singing/writing & producing been something that you've always were interested in doing or did it come about over time?

Phonte: It all just kind of came was just really a natural progression. R&B/Soul music and gospel music that was really the first music that I was introduced to just from singing in church and like hearing the stuff and my mom would play around the house when I was little. That was really my first introduction to music. I didn't really get into hip-hop until I was around like 8 years old. That was when hip-hop really just hit kinda hit me and I was like "Oh shit..." But all during the time I was in hip-hop, I was still singin in church. Soul music was always a part of it. When I started making hip-hop, it just felt natural to me, to just include a lot of elements of soul into the rap I was making just because that was just a natural extension of me. That was really it. You know, I wish I could tell you I was just this genius that had this master plan, but that just wasn't the case. I just always tried to incorporate as much of myself into my music, and that was just the way things turned out.

As producers, is there a generally a specific way the creative process works for you when crafting tracks?

Nicolay: In general, I think that as the years have progressed and we've started making more and more within the concept of the Foreign Exchange and we've released our second and third albums, I think that for me my priority has shifted. Especially after we started the label side of the operation, it just feels more comfortable to work with the people we have been workin with all this time and so I send most of the ideas that I put down...most of the tracks I send them to Phonte to begin with. Whether or not we are working on a specific project. I normally just send most of the ideas to him just to hear his opinion about it because I know that he is just a great outside set of ears to something that I'm doing within the confines of my own surroundings. I think that at this point, my process is that I just kind of 'go with the flow' to use a cliche and really kind of put every idea that comes to me, I just record it, I arrange it and I send it to Phonte.
Phonte: Much like Nic, my process is also kind of go with the flow kind of thing. To me in terms of songwriting and writing lyrics, I've just found that the simplest idea is normally the best idea. It is hard to write simple. There's a million different ways to say "I love you", but there's probably no better way to say it than "I love you". A lot of times from a lyrical standpoint, it's about stripping away all the floral shit and getting to the heart of what you're saying. So in writing songs for this album, I was really just going by how I felt and what the music brought out of me. From a production standpoint and a musical standpoint, a lot of the musical ideas for this project were really just muted and weren't as colorful as we did on our previous records and I just felt like the lyrics should compliment that and when I hear certain moods and chords it just evokes a certain mood. So I just draw on that. I feel like songwriting is a two-part process. The chords are telling a story and the words are also telling a story and you just have to make sure they are both telling the same story. That was my approach to it, and it really was not too much different than my approach with other projects.

Can you both speak briefly about your feelings regarding social networking sites like twitter as it pertains to the promotion & discussion of your work?

Nicolay: I think at this point it's one of the biggest tools that we have whether it's our albums or our shows or anything else that we have going on. We use twitter and facebook very integrally in our campaigns because ultimately, the thing for us that is key we only want to limit our promotion to what we call 'organic promotion' which is not so much that we promote the record, but that our fans or other listeners promote the record. If somebody hears about the record and they like it and they feel even more passionate about it, they'll ultimately spread the word within their social circles and that will hopefully lead to a wider appeal. That's really the key thing for us is that it allows for us to provide people with the tools to engage their friends or their family and to really let them know about our stuff which in my opinion is much more valuable than an ad in a magazine or even a review. I think that people trust their friends and their family members a lot and I think if they hear about this great new artist, they're probably inclined to check it out and that's what we're out for.

Since you two have been working together, can you share what the pros & cons have been to releasing your music as independent artists as opposed to being signed to a major label?

Phonte: Well the cons obviously, is that it's no seed money or advances or like you don't get an allowance from Daddy every week for cutting the grass or taking out the trash. Ain't none of that shit...You're working off your own capital. You're funding all of your moves. We truly are a self-funded organization. That does have its limitations. It's only but so much you can do when you're working with your own funds. Your reach is not gonna be as long as it would be if you had a lot of money to put in a lot of other places. We really just have to take a slower approach to what we do. It's all on us. Then I think in terms of the old media, the major labels still do have a foothold over things when it comes to that. A truly independent artist getting into the New York Times, or Entertainment Weekly, or's just gonna be hard. Those are some of the cons. But much more importantly on the pro side, is that you have freedom. With freedom does come a lot of responsibility but you have freedom to make the music that you want, you have freedom to put your vision out to the world as you see it, and you really just have freedom over your destiny and freedom over your life. Artists are losing that more and more. Having to give up a piece of your show money and your merch money, and your record money, its fuckin insane. So there are some cons to doing it independently. But as someone who has done it on all levels-both major, indie (small indie/big indie), I would not do it any other way than the way I'm doing it now.

Influences: Can you each name at least 2-3 artists (living/deceased) whose work has influenced you & who you'd love to work with if given the opportunity?

Nicolay: For me personally, I would have to say if I had to name three, in order of chronological appearance, I would say The Beatles, Prince, and Dilla.
Phonte: Trent Reznor is a big influence, I really like the way he's been taking songs into digital terrain with Nine Inch Nails and all his other side projects. It's really admirable. I'm probably gonna name Marc Mac from 4Hero. He's a real big musical influence and he has been for some time. But he just continues to inspire me with the stuff he puts out and the stuff he creates is really great.

How important is it for you to maintain humility as artists? Conversely, how do you each handle criticism of your work?

Nicolay: [Laughs] I handle criticism I think more poorly than Phonte does. I do like reading review because in general, I think it's always good to know where you're at even though you don't always have to necessarily agree with certain reviews. The same as there's good and bad music, there's good and bad reviews. There's definitely been times in the past where I've really kind of taken something badly if it was really something that I felt was unjust. But I've just really learned to deal with it and take what is I guess constructive out of it and really honestly learn from that and truly kind of see if there's a point to it. Ultimately the moment that you think that you've learned everything, I think it's a wrap. I know for myself if I look back over the years, I might have thought I was really really dope when I did "Connected" but looking back I know that I didn't even know half of what I know now. I think in a lot of ways similarly to how our approach to music kind of shifts over the years, it goes for everything. Obviously when you grow and mature, different things start to matter to you.

Phonte: I feel it's important for artists to remain humble. All artists, but particularly independent artists, just because your talent at the end of the day is a gift and like any gift it can be taken away. That's why I think it's really important as artists we're really in a lot of ways just vessels for a higher power. Not even speakin on anything religious but just from a spiritual aspect, there are a lot of things that come out of us and even we don't know where it comes from...we can't comprehend it. I really think that's evidence of a higher power at work and just us being vessels for a higher creation. In terms of keeping that humility, I feel it's important because you know, who's to say that God might try to give that hit record to somebody else. Nothing is promised in this game and people come and in a matter of days, so whenever we are blessed to see any kind of success, it is important remain humble and stay in touch with yourself because you have no idea how it's gonna last. People can wake up one morning and decide "I fuckin hate that guy, I don't even like him anymore"...and that's just how it is. So in handling criticism and all that, it's just a part of the game. You can't say I want to put my music out to be heard by as many people as possible and be mad when you get a bunch of opinions about it. Everyone's not gonna like you, everybody's not gonna enjoy what you bring to the table. That's just a part of the game. You just gotta take your hits. You get knocked down, you get your battle scars, and that's what makes you a man. That's what really builds you up as an artist--being able to take those hits. You keep gettin knocked down, but you keep comin back up. That's what builds your character. That's why with the criticism, I don't really take it too much to heart. I take it into account, and if there's something that's valid in there, I will take it into account for my next record or my next project. But you can't really just like get too caught up in that shit or else you'll just be paralyzed by fear and that's just not a good place to be.

How important is it for each of you to connect with your fans & those who support your music? (both at your live shows as well as online).

Phonte: You never take it lightly. I think that it's important to let people really have to let your fans know that y'all are in it together. The whole entertainment in a lotta ways is just always built on a "you're the artist, just kinda sittin up in your ivory tower just lookin down all the minions and shit..." but those days are no more. You really have to let your fans know that you are in it together because the fact of the matter is you ARE. It's really like the [Andre3000] verse from "Elevators"...that shit is like the realest shit ever. He wrote's years old but he wrote it years ago, but that shit more applies to now than ever before..."True- I got more fans than the average man, but not enough loot to last me to the end of the week." Thas some hard ass shit. It's like just cause I got more followers than you, it don't know...That shit is still real and EVERY VOTE COUNTS so to speak. So whenever you have people that support you, as much as you can, I feel its important just to let them know I really appreciate it, I really appreciate the support. Even if they hate it, even if they hated the record, even if they downloaded the record for free & just took it, they still paid with their time and as fast as the world moves now, people's time is their most valuable possession. So if cats took the time to check for you whether they loved it or hated it, I think that warrants a "Thank You" at the very least.

How important is maintaining and/or fostering a sense of identity as an artist?

Nicolay: It's vital because life is too short. That really says it all. I think the only thing you can be is yourself. Not necessarily what anybody else wants you to be or what you think people want you to be...but as I get older, I've noticed that staying true to yourself will kind of protect you against a lot of things in life that come at you whether it's people that may have the wrong intentions in the business settings or whether it's personal things. Just for me I've found that I'm most strong or most successful, even with music just by being myself and not trying to be all these other people that might be doing great things. I think it's critical in life to really look for that thing that makes you YOU. Not to make the crosslink, but "Authenticity" really is exactly about that. It is very much about finding that thing in you that makes me uniquely you that sets you apart from everybody else. We're all the same at the end of the day. On the one hand there are not really a whole lot of differences between all of us, but each and every one of's like a fingerprint or like the veins in a leaf. There are hundreds of millions of them and each of them are different and I think that people don't celebrate that enough. People are used to kind of participating in mainstream culture whether it's music, or sports or movies. I think that people traditionally have gotten their content through mainstream channels and in my opinion only seen one side of the spectrum. I think the good thing about today is that where people just rely on more things than their newspaper or their favorite TV station, the internet has really made the world so much smaller and it's easier to get a tap on what's out there. As a result people are starting to really see that they can buy that new Michael Jackson song featuring Akon and that's because that's what the whole rest of the world listens to, but they can also download something ELSE that is not downloaded by millions of people. More and more people are starting to see that. I think that as the internet invades our lives more and more I think it becomes more and more important and also how true you are to your identity. There's a lot of fakers in this game. If there's one thing that we can get from all of this turmoil in music is if it really shakes the fakers out then I think I'm ready to make a whole lot less money. If that's a bi-product, then I'm good with it.

How do you feel about having fans of your music who happen to be members of the LGBT community? What are your feelings about the way that homosexuality is addressed (or not) addressed in the entertainment industry?

Nicolay: Truthfully, where I come from... for me it really kind of a non-issue. Coming from Europe to the states, I guess I had to learn that the issue was in fact still an issue here. In Holland where I'm from, gays have been able to get married for as long as I can remember, at least for like 10-15, maybe 20 years. I think in our society, I won't say that there's not any discrimination because that would probably be naive but I think there's a much greater level of A.) acceptance of gay and lesbian people and B.) the realization that in a lot of ways, if you look at it strictly economically it makes a lot of sense---if you wanna talk about gay marriage which for a lot of Americans, is still a hot topic. I think that any two people that wanna get married are a benefit to society because they're gonna pay taxes, more likely to have a house, etc...In all reality, however you look at it's probably a productive element of society. think every single society should be down with that, but I realize I don't speak for the majority of people here necessarily. I come from where I come from and ironically, it's just a whole 'nother picture.

What is your response to fans & critics alike who suggest that "Authenticity" is 'TOO DARK' and/or a departure from your 'signature' sound?

Nicolay: Well it's a really interesting question because I actually had a twitter convo with a fan about this and I don't really normally get into those because in all reality, that's really the beginning of the end...but there was something about this one that kind of triggered me. She said "Well I was just listening to the album and what a downer and now I'm depressed...and next time I'd like some more upbeat songs" and I had to tell her ..."Well look--life is not just all upbeat. In all reality there are no highs without lows...and if there's no lows how would you know what a high is?" I think that people are used to an exuberant sound normally, and I think even on "Authenticity" there are times when you can really hear that but in all reality the mood of the album is definitely a couple of tones darker than what we've done before. But I think that every great artist at some point in their career really kind of tried to handle something like that and that is ultimately how you balance your catalog out. If the Foreign Exchange just did nothing but like 4 or 5 albums of happy shit, at the end of the day that wouldn't be authentic. I really think in general the album has been well received and I'm happy with what people hear in it. Overall people kind of understood what we put in it and it's a moment in time of The Foreign Exchange and our next album will be another moment as the previous album was. At this point we just don't really have any kind of preconceived notions of what needs to be part of a Foreign Exchange album. It's kinda all on the table and when we're done with what we're doin, we normally look back and that's when we kinda make up the balance and release the stuff.

For more on The Foreign Exchange, please visit:
The Foreign Exchange Music