Foreign Exchange talks hip-hop, creative control, fatherhood

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April 24, 2014
Written by Jacquinn Williams
Published in Entertainment

The hip-hop/electronica/R&B duo, The Foreign Exchange, comprised of Phonte (rapper, vocalist and former member of Grammy-winning hip-hop group Little Brother) and Netherlands-born Nicolay (producer) will be at World Café Live on May 3 at 8 p.m. for their “Love in Flying Colors” tour.

The two talented music heads met on the website Okayplayer.com more than 10 years ago when Phonte heard a beat by the Dutch producer and asked if he could lay some vocals over it. Nicolay agreed, and the song, “Light It Up,” appeared shortly after as the B-side to Little Brother’s 2002 single, “Whatever You Say.” The two continued to work together — relying on instant messages and email — sending beats and vocals back and forth until they had enough content for their first album, “Connected,” which was released in 2004.

The album’s success spurred the two to keep making music and has resulted in four more albums including: “Love in Flying Colors” which they released last year, “Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange” (2011), “Authenticity” (2010) and “Leave It All Behind” (2008).

Despite critical acclaim, a cult-like following and Grammy nominations, Phonte, a divorced father, claims he’s “always looking for his next score.” Between working on albums together, Phonte, who hails from North Carolina and is wildly funny, released a dope solo album, Charity Starts at Home,” did another album with Little Brother in 2010 and joined forces with musician Zo! for “Zo! and Tigallo Love the 80’s.” Nicolay released a number of albums including, “City Lights Vol. 1.5,” “Nicolay – The Dutch Masters Vol. 1” and more recently the “Shibuya Session EP” with jazz trio The Hot At Nights.

Phonte and Nicolay recently opened up to The Philadelphia Tribune about their creative process and being able to pay bills doing what they love.

Philadelphia Tribune (PT): For those who’ve never seen a  Foreign Exchange show, describe what it’s like.

Phonte: A lot of fun! Spontaneity. It’s very much a family atmosphere. It’s like a family reunion.

PT: I’m not sure if you guys get to spend much time in the cities you visit on tour, but if you’ve had the chance to hang out in Philly, what are your favorite spots?

Nicolay: Wow, Philly. The truth of that matter is we don’t really. Our tour routing is from one city to the next. But, Philly is a special place for us. A lot of our videos were shot in Philly.

PT: Phonte, I saw earlier today on Twitter (4/16) that you said going on tour is a pain in the ass. It seems that fans romanticize the industry. What would you tell them about the industry that you don’t think they know?

P: (Laughs) I think the whole idea of touring the world [seems grand]. They see our tour schedule they think: you’re going to South Africa [or other places], but after a while it’s the same in every city. We only see the hotel, the venue … it’s one continuous experience. The only real fun is the stage. I’m still thankful, [but] it’s not a luxury. It’s not glamorous. [It’s hard] Being away from home and family. It’s fun at first, but then it’s like, enough of this, I’m cool.

PT: When you were putting together your first album, did you know there was magic happening? Did you know it would change your lives?

N: Yeah, I think so. At the very least, we had some very interesting moments from jump. We have something beyond a good match. I don’t know how to explain it. There was a lot more going on. We didn’t set out with a specific plan.

PT: You’ve both been in music for a while now, grinding. Have the goals for your music changed with age? And if so, how?

N: That’s a good question. I think maybe not the goals, but we have changed. We’ve learned a lot over the last 10 years. A lot more savvy than we used to be. Our approach, our strategy has changed.

PT: Phonte, how do you balance fatherhood with music?

(Laughing) I get too little-to-no personal time to myself. I don’t get to do what I really want to do. I just get to go to the gym when I feel that primitive ball in my chest. Real man time. I tried the treadmill, but it’s not crude enough. … I have to remember that I am making an investment. The investment doesn’t pay off for like 30 years. No one cares about daddies’ struggles. It’s a thankless job.

PT: Nicolay, how did you start making beats, and when did you decide you couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else?

N: Um, I think it’s something I gradually got into. I was a musician playing the guitar and keyboards. At first, it was straight up production. Beat-making came with listening to hip hop in the ’90s.

PT: Nicolay, what’s your creative process? Are you inspired by sounds or emotions and then you run to lay something down, or does it just come to you?

N: No set way for me. There’s a lot of different ways. Sometimes [something comes to me] as is — start to finish. Sometimes I struggle. It will be weeks before they take shape. I just go with it and follow the music. I always give everything a chance no matter how weird it is.

PT: Phonte, What about you? Do you wait for beats, or do you come armed with lyrics for songs?

P: I wait for the sound. That’s what I write about. If it’s a bright and shiny record I go that way, or if it’s dark and introspective I go that way. It always starts with the music.

PT: Have you ever gotten a beat and thought: what is this?

P: We’ve been together so long, [that] doing something bad, is just not possible. That’s not the question. The question is: is it gonna be great or good?

Sometimes, I have to ask: “Does this work for me?” Sometimes it’s dope, but it doesn’t work for me. It might work for City Lights. Can I bring something to it?

PT: Do you guys feel like you made it?

P: In some aspect. Some [people] say: is this it? [I say to them] Are you making music and paying your bills? Then yeah nigga that’s it. Once you make it, then you always have to do more. I’m always looking for my next score.

PT: Phonte, producer Illmind (who has produced albums for Kanye, 50 Cent, Eminem and more) tweeted that along with Cam’ron and Mase you (Phonte) birthed a lot of rappers today. How does that make you feel?

P: It’s cool. I’m glad to have some influence.

PT: Did either of you ever want to give up?

P: Everybody has!

N: I have. That’s how I got started. I consider this my second life. One life I lived as a musician trying to pay bills. I tried to do a 9-to-5 and live a slightly more comfortable life. That was my life before “Connected.” I felt like, screw it, and threw in the towel. The only reason we haven’t so far is because we set up this structure for ourselves. We are in control of everything.

PT: Phonte, I saw you were interviewed for the documentary, “The Hip Hop Fellow” with 9th Wonder (Formerly of Little Brother). A commenter by the name of David Goldberg said: “don’t see it, DO IT YOURSELF. I’m absolutely proud of 9th Wonder, but the truth is that hip hop will forever only thrive outside of formal institutions.” Do you think that’s true? Do you think you can teach hip-hop?

P: Teaching the art and craft…I don’t think that’s possible. I can teach a writing class… I can teach you the mechanics but the creativity has to come from within. I don’t think it’s possible to teach the craft. You can learn about the history. I think it’s important for someone from (9th Wonder) and a contributor to hip hop to tell that story. Otherwise our kids will think Eminem is the greatest rapper ever or that hip hop started with Macklemore! Nothing against Macklemore.

PT: What’s your greatest fear?

P: I don’t know. Not raising good kids. That’s every parent’s fear. You can do whatever you want. You can start a war with another country. You can be with strippers. But if I don’t raise my kids right, I’m horrible forever. Everyone will say where your parents at? Oh, he was on tour. I want to set a good example. Legacy is really what your kids say about you because they knew you best.

PT: Tell me something you wish your fans knew, but no one asks?

N: Wow. I think that we’re really excited to go back out on the road. And getting in front of everybody, that direct contact never gets old.

For tickets to The Foreign Exchange show visit: http://tickets.worldcafelive.com/event/462071

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