— by Alyssa Rashbaum
If someone tells you they made "beautiful music" over the Internet, they're probably using very corny language to talk about an online dating connection.
That is, unless you're talking to the computer-conjoined hip-hop duo, the Foreign Exchange.
A coupling story for the digital age, Amsterdam-based DJ Nicolay and North Carolinian rapper Phonte met via the Okayplayer Web site, which is affiliated with the Roots and other like-minded hip-hop artists. They conceived and created the Foreign Exchange — and recorded their debut album, Connected — without ever meeting face-to-face, or even having a phone conversation
"Every once in a while, producers on that site would post up music," said Phonte. "Nic was one of the producers that posted some of his tracks, and I heard 'em and, I mean, I just thought they were incredible."
Nicolay's purpose for posting his beats online was to garner feedback, to find out if "it was cool or if it was wack." Phonte contacted the Dutch DJ asking if he could rhyme over his beats.
"I reached out to him, like, 'Yo, can we work?' and he was like, 'Oh man, I would be honored,' " Phonte said. "Once I got over that first initial shock of him wanting to work, it was easy from there on out."
Not "easy" in the conventional sense, of course. Given the distance between them, Phonte and Nicolay had to find a way to collaborate that wouldn't drain their bank accounts. With air travel out of the question, the pair relied on the Internet.
"[Nicolay] sent me MP3s and I would just take them to the studio and record vocals," Phonte said. "After we finished the song, I would send it back through [AOL] Instant Messenger."
This exchange process ultimately led to the innovative album Connected, which layers steady yet inventive beats and fresh rhymes over symphonic instrumentals. "Hustle, Hustle" includes a horn section that provides an infectious hook, while "Raw Life" features live drums. "Let's Move" opens with sweet, airy instrumentals, reminiscent of an animated Disney film soundtrack.
"The first two or four tracks kind of paved the way," Nicolay said. "I thought that the vocals that I got back were stellar — and everything that I would want to hear over my beats — so, for me, it wasn't even a question from that point on. It just clicked from the start."
The collaboration was so smooth that Phonte managed to do his parts without even owning a computer.
"I was broke," he said. "I ain't have no computer. I got the album done by just bummin' off my friends' computers and stuff. It'd be like 3 o'clock in the morning and I'd be like, 'Yo, wake up, man! I got to get this track!' "
Naturally, Phonte expected the same dedication from his European counterpart who, given the six-hour time difference, was often just getting home from his day job when Phonte wanted to start working.
"I'd be like 'Nic, send me this beat,' and he'd be like 'Man, I just got home from work. I need to eat some spaghetti,' " Phonte recalled. "And I'm like, 'You don't need to eat! You need beats! Come on, punk!' "
After two years of this process, the pair finally met when Phonte's other group, Little Brother, was passing through Amsterdam on its European tour.
"By the time I met him, honestly, it really wasn't a surprise after working with him for so long," Phonte said.
Nicolay and Phonte have, to date, only been in the same room three times, which Phonte sees as an advantageous in terms of proving what they are capable of.
"A lot of the concerns people had about recording in a setting like that is: 'I don't want my mixes to sound bad and MP3s are gonna be terrible and this and that,' " said Phonte. "But you listen to [our] album and, unless someone told you we did it the way we did, you would've swore it was in a studio."
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