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By now, you probably know the story of The Foreign Exchange—-Phonte Coleman and Nicolay Rook met on the message boards at Okayplayer and began trading files over the Web. The result was Connected, their debut album that found ‘Te wielding his razor-sharp lyricism over Nicolay’s blend of spacey, atmospheric production.
The duo performs tomorrow night at State Theatre in Falls Church, Va. I spoke with them recently about changes to The Grammy awards, Chocolate City, and what to expect at their concert.
Washington City Paper: The last time we spoke, you both were gearing up for the release of Authenticity. It’s been several months since it came out. Are you happy with the way people received it?
Nicolay: Yeah, we’re very happy. I think that with every album we do, a characteristic of the group is that we take a chance here and there, so it’s always an exciting time when the album comes out because that’s when you’ll really know what people think of the stuff you’ve been slaving over for a year. The album has been warmly received, especially now that we’re starting to play shows. A lot of the new songs come to life. Even the material, we start to appreciate it even more.
Phonte: The same goes for me. With every record, you take a risk, so it’s definitely exciting for me. I’m just thankful that we have a [fan] base that supports us.
WCP: And also the last time we spoke, you mentioned how random people would come up to y’all and say how Leave It All Behind was a life-changing record for them. Are you getting that same kind of response with Authenticity?
Phonte: I’ve gotten some, but moreso from the aspect of breakups. A lot of cats will be like, “Yo, Authenticity was the record that help me break up with my girl” or some shit [laughs]. So, we get it, it’s just a different album and it gives folks a different kind of emotion. Leave It All Behind was kind of a romantic album in a lot of ways; Authenticity is definitely not romantic. At all. So, it does get a response, it’s just a different one.
Nicolay: Definitely. From a male perspective, it seems more of cats coming up to us and be like, “Man, that album just really helped me through some hard times and breakups. People really get something out of the lyrics specifically. I think that’s really a trend that I’m just really hearing. It’s just really nice to see people using their music like that. It’s definitely beyond the point of where they like the music. They love the music, they’re very passionate about it, and that’s really just a blessing, to be able to evoke that kind of reaction from people.
WCP: Were there any obstacles in getting this album out to the people? Were there any challenges in doing that?
Phonte: Not really. It was just recorded at a real busy time. Authenticity came after we put out YahZarah‘s Ballad of Purple Saint James album and then Zo!‘s SunStorm album, and then the shit I dropped—-the Leftback album. So it was just a rough year, ya know. 2010, in terms of workload, it was just a very, very rough year. And so I learned what my threshold was, just what my breaking point was for me. For me, man, I’m just amazed we were actually able to do it because all our other records have been years in the making. Authenticity was something that we worked on for a year in the midst of everything else we’re working on. And the fact that we were able to do it under all that pressure, and still come out with something we were very proud of, I thought was a big achievement for us as a group.
Nicolay: That’s totally where I’m at with it. I think that it was interesting because it was definitely the shortest time we’ve ever spent on an album. It was a very refreshing experience.
WCP: You mentioned how the other albums would take years to craft. How and why did Authenticity come together so quickly then?
Phonte: The thing about Connected and Leave It All Behind, with both of those records, I was at the mercy of Little Brother and Little Brother’s touring and recording schedule. So, I could only work on those albums in bits and pieces—-do a joint here, do a joint there, ya know. I’d be on the road with LB for three months or whatever, come home and record an LB album. It was kind of here or there. By the time we got this album in, Little Brother was no more and The Foreign Exchange was my full-time gig, so I could just devote all my time to that.
WCP: Nic, I know you’ve been very vocal about the Recording Academy trimming its categories from 109 to 78. It also eliminated the category in which you all were nominated a few years back. What’s your concern with that? How do you feel about The Grammys being trimmed down next year?
Nicolay: For us, it’s not so much a concern. Our goals and our mission has always been outside of that—-really outside of the industry as a whole. We’ve always had to make our own world, because what we did was kind of different. In general though, I am kind of concerned with it because I do see myself and the group as part of a bigger kind of generation to where I do want to make sure that whatever our legacy, we are able to put it down for a lot of artists that are all musically a little more progressive than the main boxes that people put music in. We’ll have to really see next year what will really happen, but in a real way, I can only see it meaning that the indies are gonna have to go up against releases that have million-dollar backings. I guess that really just means that the indies are gonna have to come in even harder than we already had to.
Phonte: I agree with everything Nic is saying. So for me, I’m just kinda like, “Well, what the fuck ever.” [laughs] The more and more we do it, and the more and more we go on, I’m just more concerned with the bottom line. And for me, when you win a Grammy, you don’t get a check to go with that shit. It really don’t stop my grind, or really affect my day-to-day dealings at all. I’ve always kinda been on the outside, I’ve always kinda been somewhat of an outlier. So mainstream recognition, I never even thought was a possibility for me. When we got nominated for “Daykeeper,” I thought we got damn walked on water or some shit! For me, the fact that I was nominated was a big honor and I was cool with that. As for them eliminating the category, it definitely makes things more streamlined. I’m sure fucking Lady Gaga will just get more awards next year.
WCP: Nic, what kind of individual projects are you working on?
Nicolay: For me, it’s really kind of a year in which I’m really running a lot of the behind the scenes stuff. We’re just always working on something. We’re getting ready to re-release our first album Connected, that was actually out of print for the longest time. We got the rights and the master is ours at this point, so we’re able to repress that, to make that available to people who might not have had a chance to check that out. We’re working on getting out a live acoustic CD/DVD, which is a really cool project. We did a secret show in North Carolina with about 50 people in attendance, and it was at a recording studio. We recorded a fully acoustic set and that is going to come out really soon. Zo!’s working on his new release—-just visiting three—-which will probably be out in June. We’re really keeping it covered in between what we call the bigger releases.
WCP: In addition to the acoustic set, are you all working on new studio stuff as well?
Phonte: Yeah. Actually, the acoustic album will actually have two new studio tracks on it.
WCP: It’s my understanding that the D.C. market is pretty big for you all. Why is that?
Phonte: I think D.C. as a city, they just get it, you know. They just get us and what we stand for. D.C. has always been—-particularly for young, black people—-a crowd that just understands where we’re coming from and get the stuff we’re talking about. It’s very much a blue collar professional town, if that makes sense. Cats have office jobs, but they still understand the working man’s ethos. With us, we are very much rooted in reality. That’s just something that speaks to them on a lot of levels, and that audience understands that even though we make music, and we’re artists, we can speak to them on a human level and still understand what it is they’re going through. D.C. has always been a city like that, that’s always shown all kinds of love.
Nicolay: For me, it’s very much the same. Even moving to the States and taking over the country in the most modest way, D.C. was really one of the first areas where I just always found a lot of connections. I’ve done some of my first shows in the States in the D.C. area because of that. For as long as I’ve been in the States, the D.C. people have just really supported us and shown us a lot of love. They’ve really gotten behind our projects and supported with more than just their mouths, but with their wallets as well. That is something that we don’t take for granted. We’re very thankful that our fan base in general—-and in the D.C. area specifically—-are so loyal to us. And we want to show them a good time back, so we hope we see everybody at the concert.
WCP: Aside from just the difference between songs, will there be any other differences between a Leave It All Behind set and the Authenticity live set?
Phonte: I think the Authenticity set is a lot tighter. At the time of Leave It All Behind, we pretty much only had two albums to go off of. Now the catalog has grown so much, there’s a lot of material to get in, so we’re trying to make the set list that much tighter, and that makes it a lot more snappy. We’re still going for the same amount of time, but it’s just a lot more that’s in there.
WCP: So what kinds of things do you have planned for the crowd in Falls Church, Virginia?
Phonte: Same as we always have! A great show! I can’t say we got fireworks, midgets and tightrope walkers or none of that shit, but we do what we can to entertain and give them a good show. This will be my first time performing at this venue, so I’ll be curious to see how that goes. That’s always a good energy, and I’m looking forward to that.
Nicolay: It’s gonna be a great show. The last three years, we’ve been able to really sharpen the knives if you will. Just honing our craft on stage, which is something I had stopped doing to focus on production. The last three years, we’ve really done a lot of shows and we’ve gotten real comfortable and that really shows. We always have a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to playing some of the songs that we really haven’t played that much. We’re at that point right now where that stuff is really exciting to play and I’m just looking forward to it.