(Photo by Jati Lindsay)
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The first time I heard Little Brother’s “Whatever You Say”, my mind was blown. This was before they had a record deal, just a random site had that, “Speed” and maybe “The Yo-Yo” up. I immediately obsessed over everything Justus League related I could find, material that’s now all but disappeared aside from someone’s hard drive in North Carolina.
We frequented the same online watering hole for some time, but I first met Phonte at a LB show at BB King’s in New York, I think I was on a date with my girl at the time. 2 girlfriends later, The Foreign Exchange’s Leave It All Behind was the soundtrack to my new relationship fall of 2008. The next summer there was a brief shot of me in the “I Wanna Know” video (2:56-2:57 to be exact) and a few months later I wound up meeting up with a new interest for the first time at the same BB King’s venue for a Foreign Exchange show. To say that courtship didn’t end well or smoothly would be putting it lightly, as 2010’s Authenticity gave voice to the bad period I was just starting to emerge anew from.
Fast forward through Phonte’s remarkable solo album Charity Starts At Home, this is my second time interviewing The Foreign Exchange this year, a group whose music has served as the soundtrack to my ups and downs. It’s been great to witness their growth artistically and personally, as sort of a parallel to my ongoing evolution. As a bonus, I made a mix of hoping to capture some of their label’s essence (track list after the interview). The Foreign Exchange’s new album Love In Flying Colors is in stores tomorrow.
Phonte, before you knew there would be a Foreign Exchange, what initially drew you to Nicolay’s production?
I felt like I heard somebody that listened to the same music I did, but he was able to put that through a Hip-Hop filter. He was somebody that I could tell listened to Prince, Radiohead, rock music and ‘80s synth pop music, but he still had a love for Hip-Hop and he could make that shit bang. What I heard in him that I hadn’t heard in any other producer was the ability to do so many styles in several different genres, but they all sounded good and convincing. None of his styles sounded like a stretch and that’s just something you don’t really find, it’s really rare to find someone who can pull that off.
Connected was sort of a Hip-Hop album with some singing on it, everything since has been sort of R&B/Soul with a rap verse here and there. What caused you guys to want to undergo such a drastic change up musically?
Nicolay: Just drastic changes in life, everything that happens in life shapes you. 10 or 11 years after first meeting and creating music, we’re obviously no longer the same people. We’ve evolved, grown, lived and loved, which reflects in the music we make. It wasn’t ever really a conscious shift, every album we’ve done is just a reflection of where we are at that moment in time.
Phonte: The music we make now leans more towards the music that I want to hear now. When I made Connected I was very much into Hip-Hop, but now I’m not in that same place anymore. While I still think Connected is a great album, that is the one I’m probably the most distant from in 2013 because so much has changed since then.
So with Leave It All Behind being the first album on your own label, would you say the title was an extended metaphor for everything from recording for someone else’s label to people leaving behind their perceptions of you as Hip-Hop artists?
Phonte: I would love to tell you that was the thought, like “Yeah nigga, I was a genius, I had that shit all figured out!” (laughs) but I think when writing that album the title just dealt with making a fresh start. In my mind I didn’t really expect people to be as surprised by Leave It All Behind as they were because I had been singing on records doing hooks since (Little Brother’s) The Listening and even on the Zo! And Tigallo Love The ‘80s record that came before that.
To me Leave It All Behind wasn’t as much of a departure as it seemed to other people, but once it came out I saw that people were like “what the hell?” The title signified starting new with me and Nic doing it on our own label, it kind of represented a reset button in my career. I had been doing Little Brother for so many years and that album was kind of like my second wind.
The group’s slogan for each album has been “Never the same band twice”. What can fans expect this time around with Love In Flying Colors?
Nicolay: A different band (laughs), that really says it all for us. At this point we pride ourselves on that, for this record it’s not even a new chapter, it’s a new book.
Phonte: I see how the phrase “Never the same band twice” could be misleading because if you don’t have any consistency then what the fuck are you? If you just release a different album every time (and tell people) “This is a rock album, this is a punk album, this is a ska album, this is a opera album” (laughs), we don’t mean it that literally. We just never run out of ways to invent our formula. If we was a restaurant we’d serve steak and potatoes, but I got a million and one ways to serve steak and potatoes. It’s so many different recipes and ways I could flip it that the steak I cook on Tuesday aint gonna taste like the steak I cook on Thursday.
So with this record I think they can expect to hear us and it will definitely sound like a Foreign Exchange record, but I think people can also hear that we done changed up the formula and made some god damn incredible fucking steak and potatoes (laughs).
Your roster has changed up a few times, who all is in the Foreign Exchange Music Group now?
Nicolay: Right now it’s obviously Phonte and myself, Zo! is one of our mainstay artists and he just had ManMade come out in May and we’re still very much promoting that. We also have Jeanne Jolly whose album Angels came out last October on our label, we have a pretty small roster but that’s always been intentional. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t take on a lot more just because we are very bare bones with our staff. It’s always going to be the direct people that we work with and our own releases.
You’ve developed a reputation for your stage show, tell me about how that’s been a key element to The Foreign Exchange’s success?
Phonte: That’s what keeps you going. If people just wanted to buy your records and listen to them at home they could, but the live show is about giving people an experience to remember. People download albums, listen and dissect them shits within a matter of minutes (laughs). An album can leak and in an hour people will be on Twitter saying it’s classic, or it can leak and people don’t even be talking about it the next week. Music in our society now has become a lot more transient, but the live show is where people get the experience.
They might not remember all the songs on your album, but they’ll remember “I saw The Foreign Exchange back in 2011, that shit was crazy”. That’s kept us alive because people know that our shows are gonna be a good time and a completely different experience unto itself from our albums.
Nicolay, some of your fans may not realize you worked with Wiz Khalifa at an earlier point in both of your careers. What has it been like to see him become such a big name in rap?
Honestly I’ve loved it, we worked together around 2005 and even back then he had a strong team around him and their goal was to get him to that major level. They really did it and I gotta hand it to them, I have a lot of respect for that hustle. I haven’t seen him since but he’s a really good dude and I’m happy for him. I had great experiences with him and I wish him all the best.
What would you say has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned running an independent operation?
Phonte: There are several. Just knowing that no one’s gonna work harder for you than you will for yourself, the buck has to stop with you. If you’re signed to a label of any kind it’s easy to pass the buck like “The label didn’t promote me”. But when you’re truly indie like we are, it makes you extremely accountable because there is no one else to pass blame to, we are the alpha and omega.
I’ve also learned there’s power in staying small, we may not have the power to get a record on the radio tomorrow but in lieu of that we have flexibility. You can change on the spot and if you want to shift directions at the drop of a dime, you can do that. I’ve found that to be the most rewarding, most people have aspirations of getting bigger but I’ve found so much comfort in working with a small group of people and continually seeing success with them. It just makes your life so much easier and less stressful.
Phonte, you live tweeted Breaking Bad last week (Season 5, Episode 14 “Ozymandias”). As a fan of the show, how do you see it ending from here?
Oh my god, I have no idea. I know that Walt’s last convo with Skyler was protecting her, but he was also saying a lot of shit that he and a lot of viewers were wanting to say to her for a while (laughs). I don’t think he’s going to be able to protect her completely because there’s still the issue of that DVD that Jesse made giving up the whole fucking operation.
I think the Nazis is gonna make their way onto Arroyo Drive, they coming soon. Maybe he comes back to protect Jesse, I really don’t know how it could go at this point but that last episode was one of the best, if not the best episode of the whole series. That shit was incredible.
Speaking of tweets, people appreciate all of the honesty in your music but sometimes get taken aback by your honesty through social media. What do you say to some of how you may be perceived on Twitter?
It happens! (laughs) It’s nothing really that I can say, people perceive you however they want to perceive you. With me it’s not about being right, wrong, good, bad or whatever else, it’s just about being consistent. The same way I talk it on the tweets is the same way I walk it in the streets, there’s no duality with me. I am who I am, there’s some people that don’t like that and there’s gonna be some people that ride with me because of that. You cant really worry about it either way, you just gotta keep being you and all I do is try to present my authentic self.
Lose Your Way
Greater Than The Sun
I Wanna Know
This Could Be The Night (Tall Black Guy Remix)
If She Breaks Your Heart
Everything She Wants
Zo! feat. Jesse Boykins III – If I Could Tell You No
Fight For Love
All The Kisses
Median feat. Phonte & Big Remo “Turn Ya On”
Right After Midnight (from Love In Flying Colors)
To Be Yours
Sweeter Than You
Return Of The Mack
Zo! feat. Sy Smith “Greatest Weapon Of All Time
All Or Nothing/Coming Home To You
Eyes To The Sky
Zo! feat. Phonte & Choklate “Making Time”
If This Is Love
Make Me A Fool
Zo! feat. Chantae Cann “All Is Well With Love”
Daykeeper (An Evening With The Foreign Exchange version)