Once again we’re back with another Catalog Shuffle, where artists get their entire discographies thrown into a playlist and give the stories behind randomly selected songs. This month’s guest is producer Nicolay. As one half of the duo Foreign Exchange (along with Phonte Coleman), Nic has never been afraid to explore new musical territory with his group and solo projects. In going through his tracks, we talk about how Okayplayer message boards changed his life, the influence that electronic music has had in his own career, and how Neil Young inspired one of the darker albums in the FE catalog.
Nicolay “Memory Lane” (City Lights, Vol. 1.5, 2005)
I feel like if I put someone on to your current music and then played them stuff from this era, they might not be able to make the connection that it’s by the same artist.
Nicolay: This is an interesting place for us to start because this was all kind of the same era when I was working on what ultimately became [The Foreign Exchange’s debut album] Connected. City Lights represents what wasn’t used on Connected, to put it bluntly. I had really gotten into beatmaking and a lot of that process was nothing more than continuous exploration and experimentation, often involving samples. “Memory Lane” is interesting if only for the fact that it’s a sample of a Minnie Riperton song of the same name. I wasn’t trying to hide it. It was briefly considered for Connected, but a lot of the obvious sample-heavy stuff ended up on the cutting board because we had other really great stuff that was a little more developed.
This time was really just my figuring out that I love making hip-hop beats. It’s the Rosebud of The Foreign Exchange [laughs]. It was also when I began thinking that I had something I could contribute, whereas for a long time I just wanted to be a fan. It took me a few years to realize hip-hop was evolving in a direction that I thought opened itself up to me, especially with the music that J Dilla was creating. That discovery is how I (and so many other people) all got on Okayplayer.com [where Phonte and Nicolay first met and began collaborating online]. We were all different people, but I think we all had something in common. In a nutshell, the story of Okayplayer and The Foreign Exchange are parallel to one another.
I would guess your process has changed a lot in terms of how you create music today versus your process back then.
Nicolay: There is literally not a single element that has remained the same. At the time, I didn’t have access to gear, a lot of instruments, or good speakers. It was much more renegade than I think people realize. Phonte represented that on his side where they were recording vocals under some of the most hilarious circumstances in those days. I think what was so strong about what we did is that you don’t hear that in the music. When I listen to the earlier stuff now, I think it still translates and I’m incredibly proud of it. I can hear what I can do better, but it takes 10-15 years to figure that shit out.
I’ve always had the mindset that I just need to release music continuously, because that is ultimately the only way I’m going to learn how to do this shit. Ironically, my first album [Connected] ended up being a relatively successful record, and to the end of these days, anything you do is going to be compared against that—which is a blessing and a curse. I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know at the time, even on a technical level.
Nicolay “My Story (feat. Kay and Sy Smith)” (Here, 2006)
Nicolay: I moved to the States after the success of Connected. Phonte was still very focused on trying to make Little Brother as big as it could be when they were still signed to Atlantic, so that was definitely the priority in his life and career at the time. We had always figured Foreign Exchange was a side project that maybe at some point we would revisit. I was trying to figure out what I could do at this point. I started getting calls from people that wanted to work. I was interested because I felt like I could further my producer brand, but at the same time I wasn’t going to give them any sort of Connected stuff and just dish out the magic like that. I realized I didn’t want to be that guy who just does a few beats here and there, working with random people. Creatively speaking, that hasn’t ever really appealed to me.
I figured the best way to further my career was to keep doing albums versus spreading myself all over the place. Here was a reaction to the success of Connected in the sense that you see me kind of pushing back a little bit. The album doesn’t feature Phonte, which is interesting now that I’m looking back at it. I intentionally kept the music a little more “simple,” because I really wanted to showcase a different side of myself that was more of a straight-ahead boom-bap sort of sound. Everybody loved how pretty Connected was. Here was me kind of trying to be gritty, with mixed results. That album to me is like a 6/10. It serves a moment in time when I was kind of ready to uproot my entire life and just come here to unlock the next level for me.
“My Story” foreshadows the album that I would do with Kay in 2008, TIME:LINE. It was our first shot at it. Sy is another frequent collaborator. Despite everything I just said, this song is the most Connected-sounding track on Here. It’s the most lush and evolved-sounding; an exception to the rule. I loved it so much at the time. It’s got a nod to Jaco Pastorius in it. It’s not sampled, it’s replayed. I tried to sneak it in there, but people made it out fairly easily. If you had to put together a Top 20 of stuff I’ve done, this would be in it.
The Foreign Exchange “All That You Are” (Connected, 2004)
Nicolay: “All That You Are” happened towards the end of finishing Connected. At that point, we knew what we were doing. The first couple of tracks we worked on were two people who hardly knew each other. I mean, we had spent a fair amount of time on Okayplayer at that point, so I guess we did know each other—enough to know that there was no bullshit involved. We knew we had enough in common that the risk was kind of minimal.
As much trust as you could have with somebody on the Internet in 2003.
Nicolay: It really sounds crazy looking back. But as those of us who were aware of what that Okayplayer world was, I feel like we did know each other in a way that kind of mattered. You may not have known personal things, but you knew sort of what page you were on with somebody. It was early on in the evolution of the Internet, so it had its own sort of trial and error. If you look back at it, it kind of foreshadows the entire Facebook experience. It was so niche when it started that it was very powerful because I think even though there were a lot of different people, at the end of the day they had something in common. I hope somebody one day does a serious kind of research of that entire phenomenon: the Okayplayer phenomenon.
It’s funny because I always say that site changed my life, but I realize who the fuck I’m talking to right now…that site REALLY changed your life.
Nicolay: It kind of made my life. Not only did it bring Phonte and I together, but we kind of rode that wave all the way to where we could. [Record label] BBE really liked the story of these people who had never met, yet made something that was more than decent.
Do you guys still collaborate in that way?
Nicolay: We’ll get together and listen to stuff in the same room. I might go and hang out with Tay and he might play me some stuff that he’s done that he would otherwise send me MP3s of, but the hamburger is still made very much in two separate parts of the kitchen. There’s a practical reason for that, as we live two hours apart, but there’s also some of what I call our Clare Fischer superstition. Prince had a collaborator named Clare Fischer who was the string arranger for a lot of his stuff, starting in the ‘80s. They worked remotely and Prince loved him so much that he became convinced that magic should never be broken, so he went to great lengths to never meet the guy. And he never did. I think Phonte and I always looked at it that way. We’ve never created in the same room, face-to-face. It started as a limitation, but at this point, it’s just how it goes.
The Foreign Exchange “Asking For a Friend” (Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey, 2015)
How did the elements of house music start to infiltrate your creative process? It wasn’t really present in your earlier work that was more Dilla-influenced. Were those genres always in your playlist, but you didn’t know how to incorporate it? Or did your love for that music come later?
Nicolay: Connected has a decidedly hip-hop-influence, but we probably could have started making music in any number of genres. I was more exposed to a lot of house stuff when I first started making music, but just like with hip-hop, I never could find a way in to contribute. I did a remix of [Connected track] “Foreign Exchange End Theme” that was a full-on, hard-house club sort of track. It came out primarily in the UK and kind of showed us that we could expand outside of just hip-hop. We could get away with it as long as we made it dope and weren’t just doing it for the gimmick.
Phonte and I have both always been huge dance music/house heads. Coming from Europe, I’ve always been very fond of it, whether it’s Kraftwerk or Jazzanova or 4hero. Phonte is just a very curious and continuously thirsty listener. He listens to more music than anybody I know, and he’s very deliberate in what he listens to. It’s really rare that you can stump that man. He’s got very deep house music knowledge.
As freeing as hip-hop can be, it can also be very limiting especially because of the audience, which is not always as open-minded as it could be compared to something like indie rock, where fans will essentially take whatever they can as long as it’s dope. Over time, we’ve sort of tested our fans to see if they were open to new kinds of music from us. We may have lost some of the Connected fans, but now we’re in the luxurious position where we can pretty much do whatever we want. As long as we don’t make it corny.
Even hearing you mention indie rock just made me think: Is the next Foreign Exchange album going to be indie rock?
Nicolay: [laughs] It could be. A lot of fans called Authenticity an indie rock album because it was stripped down and less optimistic. Phonte and I are very big into indie music like Flock of Dimes, and here in North Carolina, there’s a lot going on with Merge Records. You’d be crazy if you didn’t listen to it and take something out of it that you can appreciate and interpret and translate into what you’re doing.
Nicolay “Give Her Everything” (Here, 2006)
Do you miss sampling?
Nicolay: Yes. But that song actually contains no samples. This was 2006, so I can talk about this now. At the time, we were skirting around using all these tracks that had some prominent samples involved. I’ve never talked about this, but it had an Eddie Money sample. It’s not in the final track because BBE felt a little nervous about it.
They didn’t want to give up that Eddie Money.
Nicolay: Right. They definitely didn’t want to give him everything. We had cleared some other stuff; we weren’t trying to be illegal with it. But BBE is a small label so you can only do so much, and Eddie Money looked like it was going to be a tall order. My man Eddie at BBE was A&Ring Here, and he had the idea to get his guy who was a singer/guitar player to come in and replay it. The whole replaying of samples is a touchy subject because for one, it kind of feels like cheating. Making an interpolation absolves you from using the actual recording, which is normally the main obstacle in clearing samples. But it also doesn’t normally have the same sort of feel. I was nervous about doing that, but we did it for a few tracks on the album.
I’d never met the dude before. I flew to NYC for some of these sessions. The guy laid down this one lick, and he hit it on the damn nose, so much so that it broke away from sounding like Eddie Money. I took the recordings of him and processed it in the same way as I did with the original sample.
I joke about it and call it my “Moby track.” It’s sort of like a hip-hop-infused Fatboy Slim-ish feel from the ‘90s when they started putting hip-hop in a lot of stuff with prominent vocal samples.
The Foreign Exchange “House of Cards (Live)” (Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange, 2011)
Nicolay: Authenticity came out in 2010, and it was a big departure right after we had been Grammy-nominated [for Best Urban/Alternative Performance on Leave It All Behind’s “Daykeeper”] and were basking in the sun for the second time in our careers. We stepped away from LIAB and realized that we had taken a really big chance. At the time we didn’t really give a fuck about stuff like that, but the Grammy nomination was the official acknowledgement that we made the right decision. That album became big and made us think, “What can we do next?” Due largely to some personal life circumstances like Phonte going through a divorce, Authenticity became very different than what people were hoping for.
I’m a Neil Young stan. He made “Heart of Gold” on [1972 album] Harvest, which intentionally propelled him to superstardom. To sort of sabotage all of that, he went on tour and not only didn’t play any of the songs from Harvest—an album that has sold millions of copies—but he brought a rock band with him and had these two-hour Vodka-fueled wild shows of nothing but new material where he was spinning out of control. I think he even aborted the tour halfway in. Then he released a live album of that tour [1973’s Time Fades Away]. It was a very dark and depressing and ugly album; it even sounds bad. But it’s a great record.
That always stood out to me as a lesson. Authenticity is our Time Fades Away. A lot of FE fans were really ready for “Take Off the Blues Part 2,” and they didn’t get it. Authenticity had more of a singer/songwriter kind of feel, so doing an acoustic take [with the Dear Friends: An Evening With Foreign Exchange live album] made a lot of sense. We figured we could record an acoustic version of it but that could be kind of sterile, so why not bring fans from all over into the studio so they can witness it? We held a contest and got 75-80 people who had no idea what we were going to do at all. We did the whole thing on the spot, with no rehearsal outside of the morning of when we figured out the different arrangements of the tracks. That was the first time I’ve played guitar publicly.
Our fans maybe didn’t fully pick up on it because our regular live show is very different from the stripped down, MTV Unplugged style. It’s not a representation of our live show at all. It’s a hidden gem in the FE catalog and worth seeking out because it has some cool and different arrangements. I think it was a seminal moment in our development.
The Foreign Exchange “Something to Behold (feat Darien Brockington & Muhsinah)” (Leave It All Behind, 2008)
Nicolay: This was one of my final sampling moments. One night I was going through my ‘40s piano music collection on vinyl. Phonte really liked that track. Everything that makes it on a FE record has to pass through him first. Whenever we work on a record, I’ll do specific things for it. But if it doesn’t resonate with him, it won’t make the cut. It always goes in a different direction than what I may have envisioned at first, which is great. This harkens more back to our Connected days if you will, which we need a little bit of to go with the “Daykeeper” sort of stuff.
Nicolay “Satellite” (City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, 2009)
Nicolay: Phonte calls my City Lights projects [the] companion pieces that highlight some of the more adventurous material that wouldn’t work on a FE record. Shibuya is a companion piece to Leave It All Behind. It’s from the same time period. And if you really look at my solo records, they’re incubators of ideas that we revisit in a more focused way later with FE. Shibuya kind of connects to [2013 FE album] Love in Flying Colors.
At the time, we gave each other carte blanche to do whatever, and that coincided with me going to Japan for the first time at the end of 2006. I only got to spend a week there, but it blew my wig off. It was a completely different world, unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. I came back from that trip thinking that I didn’t want to limit myself in any way, shape, or form. Anything that I feel that is worth pursuing, I just want to do it. I don’t care if it doesn’t have a hip-hop snare; I just want to fully tap into what I know is my talent. Part of that was my wanting to walk away from sampling because it was limiting me musically. I regard some sampling producers as high as I can think of, so it’s nothing I look down upon. I just wanted to write songs, do changes, and play my own basslines.
“Satellite” was the first time I did something of a suite—where it’s like four tracks in one that share a lot of musical, melodic, and harmonic material. It’s part of my impressions of my trip to Tokyo. As always in these things, I don’t want to just be like appropriating Japanese koto music. I want to pay homage, but not steal their shit. It doesn’t sound like Tokyo per se, but it has elements that tell me about what I experienced. It has a real frantic pace, with a lot of synthesizers that I really let loose.
The Foreign Exchange “Call It Home” (Love in Flying Colors, 2013)
Nicolay: There have been a few moments in the career of FE [when] we knew we were doing something we had never done before. This song is kind of the FE in its absolute nucleus: just me and Phonte, no guests or background vocals. We’ve had people come in over time to do various things and expand the sound, but when it all boils down, the magic of the FE is just sort of how my mind connected with his. And to this day, that’s how it works.
I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be a bit too far. “Call It Home” is definitely my paying homage to my European influences. I deliberately put stuff in there that you could link to the Prodigy or Goldie or 4hero. Once Tay gets a hold of it, it takes a completely different turn, and I love that about us. It’s like taking your baby out of your hands and watching someone else put clothes on it and be like, “Yo, you’re going to make this child wear bright fucking neon?” But it works. We couldn’t stop listening to it. It represented another moment of growth.
It also showcases the sheer prowess of Phonte as a songwriter. [We] are like brothers, we’ve built up so much together. But sometimes I take a step back and look at him and am in complete awe. Here’s somebody so comfortable in expressing themselves, yet he does it in a way where people relate to it so hard. It’s an incredible talent, let alone his Little Brother stuff that has so much brilliance in its own right. But just seeing his growth as a songwriter has been a crazy ride.
The Foreign Exchange “I Wanna Know” (Leave It All Behind, 2006)
Nicolay: “I Wanna Know” is the first track we made for LIAB. It was our reunion where Phonte and I rekindled the FE project. A lot had happened with Little Brother at the time. After 9th Wonder left, the roles got reversed and FE became the main project for Phonte. “I Wanna Know” is definitely in the Top 5 in terms of fan reception, when we play it live. It’s a song that connects with what so many people feel and want to say. Phonte is such a master at embodying that role.
We’ve spent a lot of this conversation talking about wanting to push your sound forward and not revisit territory you’ve been in before. So what are your feelings about your more popular songs? Do you feel like you’re over it, or do they hold a special place for you because fans love them so much?
I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with the process of putting things out there in the world and knowing someone is going to let you know how they feel about it, especially in the age of social media. When someone feels like we were swinging for something and not really hitting, it can be difficult. For [older fan favorites like] Connected, I have to step back and distance myself because to this day I get questions about why we moved away from that sound or if we’re going back to it.
In my golden years as a music fan in the late ‘80s and 90’s, I couldn’t send Prince a tweet saying Sign o’ the Times is the bomb but this other album isn’t hitting. Or imagine a situation where you sent A Tribe Called Quest a Facebook message saying The Love Movement is not hitting the way Midnight Marauders is hitting? It’s a new phenomenon that is very interesting. I knew a lot of people would always look back to older material of ours, not just because of the music; but because of where they were at in that moment of time. Some people were starting to get on their own feet—whether in college or the first steps in their lives as adults—and we could never try to replicate that moment. It would come off as pathetic and it wouldn’t really deliver. It’s always been clear to us that we should try to do the opposite. Instead of writing a new chapter, start a new book.
Now that over a decade has passed, I can re-appreciate how successful it became. But I can’t lie; it’s interesting when you’re fighting against your own legacy. I’m very fortunate and don’t want to seem like I’m complaining. It’s a little more complicated than that. You’re just aware that you’ve created something that people love very much, and it’s a beautiful thing. We just have made a decision to not always give them more of what they want, which is more of the older stuff.