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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The WHOevers – Performer Magazine

Chicago hip-hop has never been this smooth. Sorry Kanye, the WHOevers have found that feeling that A Tribe Called Quest imbibed and put their own kiss on it. They’re confident, “far from the regular” and are focused on making feel-good music to which listeners can bop their heads, as evidenced on the group’s debut album Renovations and their upcoming mixtape, due out this month.

Like Eminem, the WHOevers, comprised of Jesse Arthur Manaois (J. Arthur) and Lloyd Dotdot (DotKom), defy the stereotype for hip-hop heads. They’re not black urban teens spouting off about beating poverty with crack-slinging and back alley beat downs. They’re two Filipinos with soul and they’ve got just enough grit for street cred.

The two met at Northern Illinois University, where J. Arthur used to hang out, and formed a fast friendship rooted in their love for music. “DotKom was always looking for beats, so we exchanged numbers and started working together,” he says.

They had instant musical chemistry.

“We grew up on the same sound and we knew what we wanted,” shares DotKom.

J. Arthur used to listen to whatever was on the radio, from R&B to hip-hop from the ’90s. His parents got him into funk and soul records.  He has too many favorite artists to name them all, but makes sure to put it out there that he definitely rocks with James Brown.

Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five are a few of DotKom’s top influences, but they both agree that they’re big Tribe fans. The two show respect to the superstar group that most successfully fused jazz and hip-hop in their “Fantastic (Reno)” video. They both wore the bulging eyes Tribe used in their “Bugging Out” video.

Their album starts off sweet with a poetic intro from Jean Greezy and jumps right into “Take a Ride,” a fun Spanish-influenced uptempo track that brings to mind the feverish pace of fast cars on lonely highways. All in all, it’s a positive project that covers everything from their lyrical prowess, to having a good day to dealing with girls. Some standouts are the horn-laced and drum-punctuated “Spectacular Vernacular” and the chill “Turn it Up.”

Working with and supporting the careers of other artist friends – reminiscent of the Boot Camp Clik and State Property – are two things that J. Arthur and DotKom are committed to. The WHOevers are connected to a hip-hop collective called the SpeakEasy Rum Runners which include such acts as The Highest Low, The Kitchen, Slimbo Bombay, and the Poynt Blank Crew. They’ve only performed together once with about 15 of them jamming on stage.

Though you won’t find either of them playing the keys or wielding any other instruments, DotKom – who works as a substitute teacher – comes from a family filled with musicians. “All my uncles are musicians in the Philippines. They all skipped school to pursue music. One uncle tried to teach me keyboards and drums,” he explains.

Fallen to the same fate, J. Arthur took piano and guitar lessons in high school, but didn’t stick with it. But they do write. To get in writing mode, DotKom, the self-dubbed lyrical assassin and J. Arthur, who is always “cool, calm and collected” start off by drinking iced coffee and setting up a hookah.

“We used to write verses separately, but now we meet up and write together,” says DotKom. “Sometimes, J will start making a beat from scratch and we see where it takes us.”

J. Arthur, who works as a prep cook in a hospital by day, says they play everything by ear nowadays. Making sure that they’re on the same page creatively is important to them.

“We’ve been pre-recording our songs now. We used to go the studio and waste time and money. Now, we think it out and sing it on a program on the computer. It’s like doing a rough draft,” says DotKom.

Currently they use Cubase software for their dry runs. They have a decent mic, but the equipment and the space they record in aren’t as high quality as they’d like.

But they’re grinding. They’re on Facebook connecting with fans, shooting videos for their singles to post on YouTube, uploading to SoundCloud and tweeting. To get more of a following, they – like most artists – lean on free social media tools. “We learned to reach out to a lot of blogs. The Internet is a powerful tool. It’s the new streets now. [There is] no plastering posters. There’s social networks, SoundCloud, it’s easy access,” says DotKom. J. Arthur agrees. “We read a lot of local blogs. They put you on different stuff.”

Their hard work is paying off. Lately, the tables have started to turn when it comes to getting gigs. People have started to ask them if they’ll perform at different venues.  But they’re still working to book more shows. If there’s an artist coming to town that they like, they still try to put a bid in so they can be the opening act.

“Having a management team helps, and a street team. They are taking care of our emails, which are starting to get too crazy. Too many deadlines and asking for shows. It’s too much for an artist who wants to focus on music to handle,” explains J. Arthur.  “We were doing everything ourselves.”

In addition to their work as a group, J. Arthur – who sings the chorus on “Silly Girl” – has an EP out with Jack Flash called Out of the Blue. Not to be outdone, DotKom has a solo project called Words of Wisdom that dropped at the end of June. Even though they both have 9-5 jobs, they’re working hard to pursue their dreams.

But how do they find time to balance the demands of the group and their own solo careers? DotKom boils it down to their work ethic and respect for each other.

“We don’t interfere with each other. We love to work on music. But, if one person is away, the other person keeps on working.”

thewhoevers.tumblr.com

photos by Stefan Klapko

PDF version: Performer Magazine 09/2012- WHOevers