+FE: Checkpoint

What began as a friendship between Dutch producer Nicolay and former Little Brother frontman Phonte in a forum on Okayplayer.com, lead to the birth of indie-soul juggernaut, The Foreign Exchange. Now a decade strong, the group reflects on their evolution and their search for authenticity.

Words: Cola Janneti
Images: Gregory Sturgeon and Tobias Rose.

Since embarking on their collaborative endeavor nearly ten years ago in 2002, The Foreign Exchange members Phonte Coleman and Nicolay have been breaking down non-believers with their modern take on timeless Hip-Hop Soul music religiously. But for what seemed like an effortless creative front, the duo actually spent their first two years conceiving the foundation for their sound via non-stop emails, with Nicolay sending his production and Phonte recording to them. “Light It Up,” one of those records recorded during that time span, became the B-side to “Whatever You Say” from Little Brother’s 2003 debut album, The Listening, (Nic also produced the “5th & Fashion” skit on LB’s highly-anticipated sophomore album, The Minstrel Show) while the others helped to deliver Connected, +FE’s classic debut LP in 2004, without the pair ever meeting face-to-face.

That same year their first officially meeting took place at a Little Brother show in Amsterdam — the meeting place coincidentally taking cue from the influences within the sound that we’ve grown to love. A sound where experimentation with Hip-Hop, Electronica, Soul and Psychedelic was the norm for the group, and long before the music industry began to accept genre-bending formats as the new standard. +FE even drew inspiration from everyone, from The Beatles to James Taylor and Prince. So as the underground buzz began to stir, the idea of creating an new album under the same pressures of the first, seemed a tad ridiculous and extra. So Nicolay moved to Phonte’s home state of North Carolina, where they began to work on another project.

Backed by Nicolay’s organic live instrumentation, Phonte found his inner soul singer, which sparked the group’s natural evolution witnessed on their sophomore album, the R&B-infused 2008 opus, Leave It All Behind, which was also independently released. “Staying independent gives you a whole lot [of] control on how you want your music presented, the type of music you want to make,” Phonte said. “There are limitations on being independent, but at the end of the day you know that the work you’re doing is your own and you’re there because of your hard work and the hard work of people on your team.”

In 2009, the duo received a Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance by The Recording Academy for the standout track “Daykeeper,” which resulted in the expansion of their +FE Music imprint. They recruited new additions and already frequent collaborators Zo!, YahZarah, Median and Darien Brockington. And by 2010, their third collective album entitled, Authenticity, they flipped the script, stripping down their approach on tunes, which prompted a more dark, emo kind of vibe. Sure, they were searching for authenticity, as the album’s title suggests. They were also searching for the truth about love, taking big risks to tackle subjects like heartbreak, romance and marriage with a mature sensibility. Regardless of the industry climate or the temperature of the marketplace, the duo remained true to themselves, showing tremendous growth and sustainability through the years.

Conquering their quest to create a cohesive and genuine album, over and over again, each album serves as a time capsule— snapshots of moments in their lives during that given era. While +FE remains sadly underrated, true enthusiasts will not be disappointed with their latest, Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange, which dropped June 28. An ode to their fans that have become “friends” in their eyes, the duo recorded a private acoustic set at Sound Pure Studios in Durham, NC this past February, using both the video footage and audio captured to lay down a melodious live album. “It was an idea originally of Phonte’s to give people a snapshot of our live show,” Nicolay said. “It is a different way of interpreting our songs.” Chiming in Phonte agreed, “We had a really strong show, a couple of sold out shows. The show gets tighter and more well tuned, and the fans become more and more appreciative every time we come out.”

A 19-city Authenticity Tour was also launched to support the effort, which began this past June and continues through November. Dear Friends is a double sided CD/DVD, with one side featuring acoustic gems off the Authenticity album and a DVD on the other side, which offers a look into their reputable live show. Giving people music that they can relate to in their everyday lives, +FE has made an honest living by giving listeners the sweetest escape and that formula will not change.

Images courtesy of Gregory Sturgeon and Tobias Rose.

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