Foreign Exchange: The Love Movement

    For every “Wipe Me Down” there is a “You Make Me Better.” In 2007, after much media criticism on Hip-Hop’s separating the sexes with misogyny, objectification and male-dominated subject matter, there are plenty of hope stories in the mainstream and independent realms of the business.        Foreign Exchange, born as a side-project between Little […]

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    For every “Wipe Me Down” there is a “You Make Me Better.” In 2007, after much media criticism on Hip-Hop’s separating the sexes with misogyny, objectification and male-dominated subject matter, there are plenty of hope stories in the mainstream and independent realms of the business.        Foreign Exchange, born as a side-project between Little Brother’s Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay blossomed into a celebration of melodic beats and sensitive rhymes that spoke three-dimensionally on relationships, beyond just seduction and subsequent sex. Now, three years later, Nicolay lives in the United States as Phonte has followed passions as a singer and songwriter in addition to his certification as a widely-respected MC. reached out to Nic and Tay early to discuss the makings of Leave it All Behind, as well as the role of love and gender balance in records. Just as they did so masterfully in 2004 with the like-titled LP, Nicolay and Phonte help us get Connected. What do you think is love’s role in Hip-Hop? And what should it be?Phonte: I just think that love is in all things, all subjects. It should just be an honest portrayal of it – love is not always beautiful, it’s not always roses and chocolate and s**t. It’s a lot of other things too. With [Foreign Exchange’s] music, particularly with the first album [Connected], we were interested in making songs like “Sincere” or “Come Around” that just really gave you, in my opinion, honest depictions of love and not watered down, simple versions. It’s easy to just say “I love you” to somebody in a bunch of different ways, and call it a love song. But from the songwriting perspective, I try to keeps things as real as I can and as honest as possible.Nicolay: For me, I guess it’s more of an abstract type thing because I’m usually not really dealing with subject matters as much as I’m dealing with vibes and textures and the sonic side of it. For me, I guess it’s something that I put in every thing I do on some subconscious level. Given the first album, how deliberate was it to make an album that zeroed in on these subjects on tracks like “All That You Are” or “Sincere”? Was that by design, or a stream of consciousness thing?Phonte: For me, as a writer, it was stream of consciousness. It’s kind of a natural thing. I would get a track from Nic and just go take it to where it was. I wouldn’t try to force it. On those particular tracks, that’s just what I felt. At that particular time in my life, I was goin’ through a whole lot with my son’s mom. That just came out in the music. Nic’s tracks played a big role in helping me bring that out and helping me illustrate a lot of those Great MCs are often contradictory. On Little Brother’s “The Becoming,” you cleverly rhymed about “studying abroad or two or three or four.” I loved that line, but you’ve also got a work like Connected, that arguably unifies the sexes. As everybody, Oprah and Al Sharpton included, points to Common as this great MC, do you want to say, “Hey, look at us!”Phonte: I don’t think that’s a good thing to do, personally, because whenever you self-appoint yourself, you just f**k up and draw negative attention. I would just much rather put the music out there naturally, and let people draw their own conclusions than for us to stand up and say, “Hey, we are the positive Hip-Hop that you’ve been waiting for!” That’s f**kin’ corny. The music it out there, we make it, and as long as people aren’t hearing Foreign Exchange on the radio, it’s never gonna happen. [Chuckles] The music is out there. Nic, now that you’ve got that album past you, you’ve worked with other rappers like Wiz Khalifa and Black S####. Are there certain tracks in your repertoire that are Phonte tracks? Nicolay: It’s pretty much every track, man. Most stuff I do, I run it by him, whether it’s something that could be included in something that we’d do together, or just to hear what he’d think of it. Especially now that we’ve been very consistent on the new album, it’s pretty much every track. Phonte, you were one of the art designers on Connected. Tell me about the decision for the cover. That might be the only time in Hip-Hop history, that we’ve seen kissing on an album cover…Phonte: [Laughs] Pretty much, man, it was just something that just kind of came to me one day. We had been so busy working, that we didn’t have time to finish some cover art and stuff. One of the things that I saw when I woke up one morning was the Herbie Hancock Man-Child cover. It was over in my record [crates]. I just saw it and said, “F**k man, that’s it,” because I feel that Connected was an album that was straight-up. Just the standard Hip-Hop cover of me and Nic ice-grilling wouldn’t have done the music justice. Once we saw that [Herbie Hancock] cover, we went to the art director [Frank William Miller, Jr.] and he recreated it damn near to a tee. To me, that was the inspiration behind it – to have something to let people know that this was not going to be a typical Hip-Hop album. When Lupe Fiasco came out with his Food & Liquor cover, everybody had comments. Did either of you catch flack?Nicolay: Not really. But then again, we didn’t put ourselves on the cover. Everybody gave us flack ‘cause we weren’t on it. I think people respected it for being different. I remember going to New York to Fat Beats right when stuff was all happening. That was just the [poster] that stood out amidst everything else out at the moment.  I think people really felt it and really liked it. With the first album, there was such a level of innocence and dedication to it. Your careers have furthered a lot in the last three and four years. How do you keep that mood and feeling found from the first go-round?Nicolay: Wow, that’s a good question. You can say what you’re saying, and you may be right, but at the same time, there’s not a whole lot of changes for me personally, as far as the music I want to make and how I want to make it. For me, it is something that I’ve always wanted to do – a new Foreign Exchange, but we needed to find the time, and be clear where we wanted to go with it. If we were gonna do that, we needed to find something that would be just as fresh as Connected was in 2004. I think we did…I think we started finding that spot. It’s an abstract question, but what was it that you found?Phonte: For me, it took me a while to find my voice as far as doing this record. I was just thinking the other day about when it comes out, it’ll be damn near four years since the first record. Both of us have been hard at work during that time on other s**t. Personally, I think this album, for me, was coming into my own as a singer and songwriter. There were a few verses on the last album that I might have [put on other projects]. With this album, I found my voice. The guest-list on this was a whole lot shorter, whereas the first one was almost like an ensemble record. This is just me and Nic, straight up and down. It was just tapping into places that I’ve never been before and executing. F**k it, let’s go for gold. So much of the history that Connected made came from how it was made – over the Internet. Nic, you’re in the States now. You had the ability and means to do this sophomore album the traditional way. That being said, why continue to do it the other way?Phonte: If it ain’t broke… [Laughs]Nicolay: We wanted Abbey Road [Studios], but they were booked. [Laughs] It works. It works really efficiently [too]. It was just like the same situation, with just me being a lot Three or four years later, is it hard to find the time to check your email and go through beats and verses?Phonte: I didn’t. I needed to do this project. It wasn’t so much me finding time, it was a need. Nicolay: Tay will have the most stuff going on in the group. For me, this is my main thing – the stuff that I do that I’m most proud of. This is the thing, man. Hours and hours and hours, no problem.Phonte: There’s no deadlines either, without being on a major. No “We need this single.” We can finish it, then shop So this one won’t be through BBE/Rapster again?Phonte: I don’t know for sure; I won’t say no. The label situation is definitely up for debate. Being in the States now Nic, is this an album that you can tour?Nicolay: Oh hell yeah, man. Phonte: Yeah. I wanted to keep the guest-list tight so we could tour.Nicolay: For one, some of the material is different. It’s gonna be interesting to see the how, what, when – just ‘cause we did branch out, musically. That’ll be awesome. Especially right now, where the music business is going, I think a lot of emphasis will go to live music instead of recorded music. Connected is an album that I often play in the company of women, and it’s always clicked. [Phonte and Nicolay laugh] In any genre, what are the songs or albums that you both fall back to, or used to, when it came to your dealings with the fairer sex?Phonte: Man, God…it’s so much! I got so many girls in college off of my records. [Laughs] One joint that worked for me like gangbusters, every f**king time, it never failed was a song called “Superheroes” by Esthero. It was on her first album, Breath from Another. That joint, it never failed. The thing about it was, it sounded like a Sade joint. So I’d make my little mixes for ‘em and just ride around in the car. Every girl would be like, “Who is it that? Is that Sade?” I’d be like, “Nah, that’s something else.” I’d just get their minds open. That’d kill ‘em. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack was another one. Portishead’s “It Could be Sweet” on my joint…”Digital Vibrations” by Jamiroquai was another. A lot of joints, ‘cause I was just comin’ from left field in genres that cats wouldn’t expect. Music got me in a whole lot of trouble. [Laughs]Nicolay: When it comes to all that, I’d have to give the nod to Prince all the time. That’s what always did the trick. The slow jams. Phonte: “Girl” was the joint.Nicolay: Yeah! You know that he actually does that live nowadays? That always on my mixtape, man.Phonte: Hell yeah! That s**t was hard.