Proper fusion can be a messy and tricky plane for an artist to conquer. Mixing and matching different styles of music can make a final product come across like a random mish-mash of sounds. Experiment too much and you risk losing much of your audience. Experiment too little and you risk losing critical support and not achieving the perfect hybrid you were in search of. Despite the possible pitfalls and the risks involved with making something that synthesizes multiple, disparate sounds, R&B/soul fusionist duo The Foreign Exchange has seemingly hit a sweet spot between all possible positive outcomes.
Dutch producer Nicolay and North Carolina rapper/vocalist Phonte spent the better part of the past twelve years perfecting their premium blend of soul, R&B, pop and similar stylings. Tastemakers such as Pitchfork have lauded the pair for their organic take on the aforementioned genres.
"It's just a melting pot," producer Nicolay says of his act's sound. "It's hard to give it a name or give it a genre or find a box for it. It's like a chameleon: it can be one thing one moment and something completely different the next, but both would be Foreign Exchange. It's an eclectic mix, for sure."
"If you can't be put in a box, that means you got options," Phonte says. "You're never cornered, so I like the idea that people hear our stuff and when they're trying to describe it they're like 'how do I describe it? Who can I compare it to?' and a lot of fans are just like 'You got to just listen, you have to hear it.' I find comfort in that, because that to me is truly freedom."
Nicolay and Phonte started working under the Foreign Exchange moniker in 2002, honing that "eclectic mix," which includes everything from neo-soul to alternative hip-hop. A continental divide – Phonte being based in the US and Nicolay initially residing in the Netherlands at the time – meant that the two didn't even meet in-person until April of 2004. Finally, Phonte came to Nicolay's home country to perform a show as part of the acclaimed hip-hop duo Little Brother.
"For me, it wasn't really anything different. It wasn't like a Catfish situation or some shit," Phonte says, describing their first meeting. "We had been talking online and pretty much created an album together and pretty much knew each other."
Nicolay has since relocated to the states, but the geographic differences and sometimes-difficult desires to tastefully traverse a diverse range of styles never appeared to put a damper on their work together. Both artists identify with a strong chemistry that was both instant and cultivated over time, even without initial face-to-face encounters
"I'd send him vocal tracks and do stuff over his beats and send them back, and he'd send them back adding accents and I'd be like 'man, that's it – that's perfect.' Early on we knew that there was a chemistry that we definitely had."
Even now, the process still remains mostly the same. "When it comes to music, we still work the same way," says Nicolay. "We prefer for each to be in our own space and just really give the other guy the very best of what your idea can be before you send it over."
Phonte and Nicolay's work as cross-genre stylists finds both at their most fulfilling points as creators, constantly striving to create the "perfect album" while still feeling comfortable and satisfied. It's something they both enjoy immensely, and something they plan on doing for an incredibly long time to come.
"This is very much our retirement plan," Phonte says. "If you ever had a retirement plan in music, the closest to that would be Foreign Exchange. This is something we can do well into our sixties, seventies, eighties — however long we're here."
The Foreign Exchange perform at the Constellation Room tonight at 8 p.m. For full details, click here.