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Making connections 

Little Brother's Phonte Coleman reaches across the big pond and collaborates on a hit

Let me say at the outset that there's no truth to the rumor on the street that a local emcee was tight on cash and outsourced the beatmaking for his CD to an Eastern European sweatshop, where oompa loompas--newly freed from the grips of communism--toil around the clock in dank basements, hovering over SP-1200's and churning out tracks on old Tandy computers running bootleg copies of Fruity Loops under the menacing glare of an overseer named Nicolay. Naw. That ain't happening. But the true genesis of The Foreign Exchange: Connected project is only slightly less improbable. A brother from Greensboro records a hip-hop album with a dude from the Netherlands with neither of them ever meeting each other until well after the product is finished? Makes you wanna say, Forget 'Who?' and 'When?' and get straight to 'How?' 'Why?' and 'What the???' The story behind The Foreign Exchange illuminates a significance that, in all seriousness, eclipses the mere release of a dope rap album, and instead offers a glimpse into the future of culture and society.

Rewind. Phonte Coleman is one-third of Little Brother, a local, rapidly up-and-coming crew whose album, The Listening, released last year, made a major splash on the national and international hip hop scenes, garnering critical praise. Phonte and fellow emcee Big Pooh weren't hurting for tracks in the least, considering that their producer, 9th Wonder, came from damn near out of nowhere, hustling remixes, to become one of the most talked about and sought after beatmakers in hip hop.

The trio, who met while attending North Carolina Central University in Durham, first showed up as a blip on the radar while interacting on (okp to the locals), the online community of The Roots, the legendary hip-hop band. Their posted tracks garnered enough buzz to make it to the attention of the headman himself, drummer Ahmir Thompson, aka ?uestlove, who responded with high praise, free publicity and a big push into underground hip hop's limelight (that's supposed to be ironic).

Fast Forward. While doing shows with Little Brother and finding out about the bizness firsthand, Phonte continued hitting the 'boards on okp, frequenting the parts of the cyberhood where established and aspiring producers swapped techniques and beats.

It was there that he came upon a producer from the Netherlands named Nicolay, whose tracks were so nice that one joint, "Light It Up," ended up as the B-side to LB's single "Whatever You Say." The two continued to collab, culminating in their christening themselves The Foreign Exchange, and dropping Connected.

Play. I LOVE this CD. It's hip hop that is unafraid to be grown-up, and brave enough to be beautiful. More importantly, it makes me happy. Sonically, Connected is nothing short of stunning. I'm all for the boom-bap, but on this trip, Nic takes it elsewhere. His beats are orchestral without being overproduced. Loops and chops are fused with sweeping chords, creating the lush, expansive soundscape that leads me to believe Nicolay could eventually end up being the Ahmad Jamal of hip hop.

The mixing of the album is just phenomenal, especially given the fact that Phonte and Nicolay basically traded the files over the Internet via Instant Messenger during the year and a half it took to bring the project to life.

You can't tell it, though. Most of the record was mixed and engineered at Chopp Shopp Studios in Durham, by Khrysis, 9th Wonder and Big Dho, who collectively crafted a seamless tapestry, with strands of soul, R&B, hip hop and electronica interwoven and interconnected.

Known for his witty and fiercely intelligent lyricism as an emcee, Phonte dons the Executive Producer cap this time out and tilts it to the side. His arrangements and execution (he sings, too) of background vocals on this disc are among the best I've heard since R&B singer D'Angelo's groundbreaking Voodoo LP, and it's no accident. It's no 'bite,' either, as those D'-esque, haunting, multilayered harmonies are just one of many sources of inspiration evidenced here.

As a singer Tay plays the back, though, leaving the lead duties to Yahzarah and Darien Brockington, for whom he'll be exec producing solo albums in the coming months. Their showcases, including "Sincere" and "Come Around," are what R&B could be/ should be/ usedta be, delivering sentiment without syrup, sensuousness without sex. Consequently, you'll probably never hear them on the radio.

Aside from a couple of appearances from Little Brother partner Big Pooh, Connected is a who's who of local talent on the verge, with Phonte's rhymes accompanied by guest spots from Critically Acclaimed, Joe Scudda, Von Pea, Median and a host of others, while managing to not sound like a compilation record, or as if he opened the studio up to his wack cousins. Everybody shines here, and in particular, Oddisee and Ken Starr absolutely rip their verses on "The Answer."

Despite all the hired help, Phonte and Nicolay are The Foreign Exchange. Just as the beats are unmistakably Nic's, the rhymes on Connected carry Phonte's heat signature. "Real shit we can all understand," he proclaims at the end of "All That You Are," and that really serves as a fitting description of his style. Tay can trade battle verses with the best of them and is in fairly rare company when it comes to punchlines, but he can hold it down topically, also. On the same track, he speaks on the unglamorous aspects of being a touring musician, and the domestic consequences of the lifestyle: "...complaining that her life's competing with mine/ cuz I be out of the house, for weeks at a time/ and she be stuck at home, playin' housewifey wit a attitude/ ...before we had a kid... we shoulda had a clue...."

On "Brave New World," he waxes philosophic over an ethereal track from Nicolay, kitted out with vocodered background vocals to give it a Roger Troutman feel: "it's funny how we start out cool, but get corroded/ by our quest for power, and the people that behold it/ we up one minute, then down before you know it/ with no preliminary warning or advanced notice/ I guess that's the reason why our eyes can't focus/ Can't afford to raise kids cause we gotta raise soldiers/ Its satellites looking at my pad when I wrote this/ A brave new world, y'all better know it."

Next. I can assure you that the evocation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (in which future technology outstrips ethics and morality with frightening societal impact) was by no means accidental. Phonte did, after all, graduate from NCCU with a degree in journalism and English. As with Orwell's 1984, Huxley's dystopia has long since overtaken us.

Nonetheless, even in the face of future shock, there is hope, and potential, and it's embodied in Foreign Exchange. Despite the many evils of the Internet, it's also a space where people can interact directly, crossing the customary lines of race and class and place, bypassing Fox newsified media gatekeepers, and under the radar of corporate mercenaries who would reduce all of our global interactions to profit-driven transactions. Nicolay and Phonte bartered beats for rhymes with hip hop as the medium for the exchange, and created a beautiful thing.

In doing so, they rendered irrelevant the stranglehold that the entertainment megaliths hold over the production and distribution of music. I've had "Nic's Groove," probably my favorite cut on the entire CD, on my hard drive since March 2003. And I got a free reviewer's copy of the finished effort. And I will still go out and buy the CD, just as many others are doing, to show these artists my appreciation for their dedication.

Human intelligence increases with the creation of neural pathways, connections in the brain. Likewise, humanity can be smarter, and better, as people become more and more connected. We wouldn't be so quick to bomb each other. Or treat the suffering or deprivation of others as mere statistics. It's not just hip hop. And it's not just Phonte and Nicolay. We all need to get Connected.

  • Little Brother's Phonte Coleman reaches across the big pond and collaborates on a hit

More by Derek Jennings


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