Everything seems so calm and normal: Nicolay Rook stands in his living room, glancing at CNN, leaning against a white wall, motioning at a nearby bookcase filled with several hundred CDs: "If there's anything questionable in there, it's my wife's," he says, laughing.
It's an image of normalcy for two busy young professionals. In the next room, his wife since May, Aimee, talks about a business project on the telephone. The family dog, a spry English setter mix named Fischer, bounds by occasionally, keeping tabs on everyone. Several Barack Obama bumper stickers sit on a coffee table, leftovers from the three splashed onto the back of the Honda Accord parked in the driveway. This one-story brick ranch house has blue shutters and an ample front lawn.
But life is more uncertain for Rook than his domestic surroundings may suggest. The stock market dropped several hundred points this morning, says the ticker at the bottom of the television, and he doesn't have a day job. He's a stay-at-home hip-hop and soul music producer, living off of record sales and DJ gigs around the world. Right now, the public's disposable income for such entertainment appears in jeopardy. He came to America to see if he could make it abroad as a hip-hop producer, and, so far, he has. What's the point of persevering through four more years of regressive politics, he wonders aloud, if he can just make his music from his home back in the Netherlands?
In 2006, Rook moved to Wilmington from Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. An album called Connected—made by trading sound files over the Internet with a Durham emcee, Phonte Coleman of Little Brother, and released as The Foreign Exchange—made him a star on the international underground hip-hop circuit in 2004. Connected was an interesting nexus of new musical trends. Its technological underpinnings—a rising American star finding a novice producer in the Netherlands and making an entire album, all without a handshake, all via instant messages and e-mails and Internet servers—were only as intriguing as its confluence of soul and hip-hop was successful. There were good raps, strong melodies and buoyant, steady soul beats. Its mix of airy hooks and rhymes earned the duo a record deal and critical acclaim.
On Oct. 7, Coleman and Rook self-released their second album, the expansive, gorgeous Leave It All Behind, which quickly shot into iTunes' Top 25 chart. Rook's hoping it does well enough that The Foreign Exchange, which has never played a show, can build a live band to perform the songs on the road and, more ambitious still, that it has the sort of crossover appeal to make this new American musician's income more stable. But—if it doesn't, and if his presidential candidate of favor doesn't win—he doesn't see a reason to stick around in the United States.
"[There's] the ever-strong European notion of making it in the States," says Rook, sitting in the red-walled home studio where he crafted the instrumentals for Leave It All Behind. Surrounded by two Dell computers, dual widescreen monitors, four vintage keyboards, guitars, stacks of CD-Rs, a microphone and enough cables to wire the next room, he's comfortable in his producer's chair, lounging in paint-flecked soccer shorts and a T-shirt. "I've always wanted to see if I could just do it and how long I would last. That's just one of the things I wanted to have done in my life before I die."
Staring down his approaching 30th birthday in Utrecht, Rook quit music around 2000. He'd played in what he describes as a marginally successful Parliament-Funkadelic type of band. He favored keyboards and bass but had experimented with drums and guitar. Band life just wasn't for him, though. He quit and snagged a job working at an Internet help desk.
"I got close to a deal a coupla times, but it was never really popping off. If you play in a band and it's not really happening, you've got to be ultra-dedicated for that to make sense. You sit with five or six fellas in a car. You drive X amount of hours. The food is always bad," says Rook, whose strong Dutch accent mixes interestingly with hip-hop slang. "At some point, I was like, 'I'm not making any money. I think music is cool, but I also want to have clothes or pay rent or something.'"
So, as young people with rote day jobs are wont to do, Rook found a hobby. He'd long been a fan of American hip-hop and soul, so he started making his own beats with his computer, some records for sampling, and the keyboards he'd amassed during his time as a touring musician. He also heard D'Angelo's Voodoo—arguably, the decade's first masterpiece, released Jan. 11, 2000—and wanted to know more about its origins. While searching for information about D'Angelo online, Rook found the forum at okayplayer.com, a music Web site maintained by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer for The Roots who had produced pieces of Voodoo.
Rook appreciated the open discussions of music he found there and decided to post several of his own beats and see if anyone liked them. A Durham, N.C., user named Phonte, or online known as "taygravy," responded favorably. Rook had previously noticed the user's dual enthusiasm for hip-hop and Radiohead.
"At first, [Coleman] was just like, 'This is cool.' But I started sending him more, and he realized there was a lot to it. At that point, and it sounds really sappy, but he wanted the world to hear it," he says. Rook had heard of Little Brother, Coleman's rap group, and he knew Coleman had been working with Durham soul singer Yahzarah on early material. Coleman was the first rapper to record over Rook's beats. "It wasn't until like five or six months in that someone said we should even do a project. We were just doing songs."
The material's vintage charms, released as Connected, felt like former Little Brother producer 9th Wonder, just high up in the clouds, with thicker drums and airy textures. People loved it.
"The first Little Brother album had done really well, but I think it was the Connected album that really put it over the top for [Coleman] in terms of people looking at him as an artist, the full picture, not just a rapper that's in this great group. For me, it did the same thing," says Rook, who met his wife, a native North Carolinian, because of Connected. Fittingly, they talked via the Internet for a year before meeting in person. "It did freakishly well for underground principles. Neither of us are rich, but we were able to carve out a little place for ourselves in the 'game.'"
That game changed considerably before Coleman and Rook started working on Leave It All Behind. In 2005, Little Brother released its second album and first for major label Atlantic Records, The Minstrel Show. Despite strong reviews and an intense touring schedule, the album sold fewer than 100,000 copies, a near-complete commercial failure for a major label. Little Brother's producer, 9th Wonder, summarily left the group, but Coleman and fellow emcee Rapper Big Pooh soldiered on, recording The Getback for the same label that had released their first album.
Meanwhile, Rook had issued two solo records on BBE Music, the large independent hip-hop label that had released Connected. But, like Coleman, he wasn't satisfied with the results. They decided to make the second Foreign Exchange record on their own terms, their own dime and their own time.
"Both Phonte and I grew up and started to see all of the stuff that wasn't really right. As a rookie, you don't really know. You're just happy," says Rook, now 34, five years older than Coleman. "At the end of the day, every artist learns no one gives as much as you do."
Leave It All Behind, then, takes the next step in graceful, mature stride. Even though Coleman and Rook live 140 miles apart, they again worked in their respective studios, exchanging the pieces electronically. It's again a nexus, though this time the connection comes through the non-hip-hop interests of both Coleman and Rook. The textures are richer and the drums are bigger, the product, says Rook, of an interest in rock 'n' roll percussion, production and songwriting.
"I know for a fact that this album is an album that would make label people very nervous," says Rook. "You mean to tell me you're going to be risky enough to basically lose a big part of your fans. Any label would've told us that would be a no-no."
There are only two raps, but there are resplendent, live horns. Several tracks shift directions suddenly and seamlessly. For instance, "House of Cards"—the album's most intriguing number—builds into a break, female vocals flashing out on the other side like sunshine slicing through the dawn. Coleman wanted something that sounded "like Coldplay, but with black vocals." Rook reached back even further—David Bowie's work with Brian Eno, the Berlin Trilogy of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. It was a big risk, but Coleman went for it.
"I think that's the big concept of this album—that you don't say, 'maybe not,' but that you say, 'anything goes,'" Rook says, leaning forward in his chair. "As long as it's great. As long as it sounds good."
Most everything Rook says about Leave It All Behind is confident and thoughtful: He's proud of the work he and Coleman did together. The album sounds professional, the compositions are riskier, Coleman's singing is stronger. Rook sees this record finding a place with pop and electronic music fans, and he thinks The Foreign Exchange could be playing festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza next year.
Or so he hopes. Rook admits he's a bit uncertain about how the album will fare with fans of Connected and Little Brother—that is, those who come for Coleman's raps, not singing and sonics. Indeed, on okayplayer.com, the same message board Coleman and Rook once used to find one another, listeners are currently debating if Coleman has fallen off as a rapper, if he's even a good singer or, frankly, if the album's worth buying at all.
"I mean Phonte doesn't have a bad voice, but c'mon. Where are the flows?," one user writes. "Chalk this one up as a creative L. Love your shit fellas, but this is nothing but some melodramatic lovin' on CD, MP3, or vinyl, whatever ya' choice."
Rook expected this: "Five percent of our fans are right now going off on how much of a garbage album it is because there's no rap on it. We knew we had to sacrifice those people in order to make a jump to a different situation."
After all, after you form a band on the Internet and move to Wilmington, N.C., from the Netherlands because of it, predictable moves can get left behind.
"I feel that I needed to step away from hip-hop. ... So many people are making beats," says Rook. "I wanted to do something that went deeper than that, just to be in a lane of my own."
Six Plates (2812 Erwin Road, Durham) hosts a listening party for Leave It All Behind Sunday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. Reservations are encouraged, and tickets cost $10.