The Foreign Exchange
UNC-Chapel Hill's Stone Center
Friday, Nov. 21
After releasing two stellar and celebrated albums in four years, The Foreign Exchange, it seems, would have every right to make its live debut in its home state an aggressive, ambitious affair. After all, the story of the cyber-soul and hip-hop duo of Little Brother emcee Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay Rook is a long shot, even by serendipity's standards.
The two met on a hip-hop message board in 2002 and started swapping and pairing beats and raps across the Internet. Connected, their 2004 album, earned release from a big independent label and consistent rave reviews thereafter. The response was so strong, in fact, that Rook made his break for America, settling in Wilmington and marrying a friend of Coleman's. Though a stretch of Interstate 40 blacktop now separates them rather than the Atlantic Ocean, Coleman and Rook also recorded October's Leave It All Behind remotely, again exchanging files online. Forgoing Coleman's adept verses for soul singing layered atop Rook's hazy, billowing beats, Leave It All Behind is a surprising advance and departure for a group that would likely have done well repeating its own formula.
Indeed, this duo's not one for complacency, evidenced by its need to move from the studio to the stage. The Foreign Exchange's North Carolina premiere early Friday evening felt a lot like a new beginning, though, reflecting the humble, upstart nature of the project's origins rather than its myriad successes since. With Coleman's female soul foil, Yahzarah, in tow, The Foreign Exchange headlined the inaugural UNC-Chapel Hill Hip-Hop Conference in the modest auditorium of the school's Stone Center for Black Culture and History for a scattered 100 people.
The small crowd and setting worked mostly to the Exchange's advantage, as its emergence was, more often than not, experimental in nature and unpolished in execution. This was the group's third show ever, and even Coleman, one of the most natural showmen at work, did a nervous soft-shoe between every song, trying to dance away his opening night jitters. Powered only by the auditorium's small system, the sound was spotty and thin, too, which meant the seams The Foreign Exchange can seal in the studios were exposed and distracting on stage. Rook's live arrangements seemed isolated and spare. On record, his best work sounds like a great big envelope into which you can crawl. Friday, it sounded like something at which the crowd could only stare. An encore of "A House of Cards" sounded miniscule, and "Daykeeper" lacked the confidence that carries it on tape.
It even took time for longtime collaborators Yahzarah and Coleman to gel beneath the stage's hot lights. But any opening missteps were mostly mitigated by their complementary abilities to connect with a crowd. They were funny, friendly and disarming, revealing elements of their personal lives and asking the audience to reveal some of their own. Coleman led a lengthy discourse on the perils of e-courage: "When a man has things he will say to a woman online he would never say in his fuckin' life to her in real life ... on MySpace and YouTube and test tube and text messages." Yahzarah responded in kind by explaining to what she assumed was a college crowd that love was about accepting another's faults, even if his toenails scraped and cut your legs while you slept. They barbed about who graduated from N.C. Central (he did, she didn't, though Coleman quipped she majored in transfer-ology) and who already had to contend with their own offspring ("These eggs are good for another five to 10," she said). Sitting behind a laptop and keyboard, Rook laughed heartily throughout the 70-minute set, his bright smile adding to the show's familiar air.
Still, if The Foreign Exchange is going to work as a live act, it must answer questions of atmosphere and ambition. Friday's set felt like a lounge act, emphasizing the interplay between Coleman and Yahzarah and the backstory between Coleman and Rook more than the music itself. That variety show was as comfortable as it was enjoyable, offering, as Yahzarah aptly suggested midway through, a blend of "music and conversation." That will work for warm, attentive theaters, but—if as Rook has suggested—the Exchange wants to make the jump to bigger stages, they'll have to adjust their approach accordingly. Given what Rook and Coleman have achieved together from a distance, mastering as much in proximity doesn't seem like an impossible task.