Phonte Coleman and Matthijs "Nicolay" Rook keep their distance.
Together, they've made several albums, toured the world, been nominated for a Grammy and built a little independent empire under the name The Foreign Exchange. But Coleman raps and sings from Raleigh, while the Dutch-born Nicolay lives in Wilmington. The space between them must be fertile, as they both pursue separate artistic offshoots. Coleman has his hip-hop and TV endeavors, while Nicolay has just released his expansive fourth solo album, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto, in which he offers up a Euro-soul take on South Africa's native rhythms.
After The Foreign Exchange's May 2014 performance in Johannesburg, the group left the city by way of the colorful Nelson Mandela Bridge, pictured on Soweto's cover. The city's bridge, house music, people, Zulu language and the unexpected pandemonium surrounding their performance there inspired Nicolay when he sat down to make the first City Lights set in six years.
From Wilmington, Nicolay spoke about the thought process behind the record and how he hopes to avoid the pitfalls of Prince and Paul McCartney.
INDY: What did you expect for The Foreign Exchange in Soweto?
We went not knowing what was going to happen. We paid for our way to get there. We invested heavily because it's like 10 flights to South Africa. We didn't have any idea because we don't even have record distribution there. At some point, the homeboy that brought us over came in the dressing room and said there were 1,200 people. The fire code was preventing more people from coming in. Not only were there a lot of people, but they knew lyrics from songs that people in the States don't know.
Did you decide then that Soweto and Africa would be the theme for your next City Lights?
I really wanted to do another City Lights because it had been six years, and I wanted to scratch that itch. I left it open to chance, but once we were there, it was pretty clear.
How much of Soweto's nightlife and club culture, specifically its house music, play into these recordings?
Phonte introduced me to a lot of that stuff. I felt a kinship to artists like Black Coffee, because their house music is very musical. It's not as aggressive as some stuff you'll hear out of Detroit or Chicago. It's soulful. It's not soft, but the drums are not necessarily in the forefront. I like my drums to be prominent, but I'm primarily working with things like melody and harmony.
It's been hard for people in Soweto for a long time, but now the younger generation is getting ahold of software like Ableton because it's not as expensive. It's really inspiring to see a country like South Africa, which is on an economic come-up, do this stuff with minimal means. Out here, cats have hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of equipment that does a bunch of crazy shit. Out there, there'll be a dude doing the same crazy shit on a Dell laptop that's probably still running XP.
You've said that you were very intentional about not taking music from South Africa and reinterpreting it. But a song like "It's In The Way That You Smile" sounds heavily influenced by African rhythms.
That's the one example where you can say that I did it, just because the song has those kalimba sounds. I really didn't want to be the Paul McCartney to South Africa's Fela Kuti. Even when I did the Shibuya album, it wasn't overtly Japanese. It was me looking through the lens of a European that has moved to the States and is looking at Japan, or in this case, Soweto.
I was inspired by how the people embraced us and received us. I did want to put my musical stamp on those sounds, but I didn't want to be playing the djembe and sampling voices. I didn't want it to be some tourist shit. I wanted to give them a gift rather than using and taking.
You also paid homage to South Africa by having a narrator, Nomusa Nzima, break down some of the Zulu language.
Phonte met her the first time we went out there with 9th Wonder. On the Shibuya album, there's a lot of atmospheric stuff I recorded around Tokyo. We didn't really have that this time. Our idea was to have her be the Midnight Marauders tour guide, if you will— somebody that could be a narrator and provide a local feel.
Does making these City Lights albums free you up from some of the confines you might run into with The Foreign Exchange?
The City Lights albums are the test tubes for The Foreign Exchange. I will use those records to try certain ideas. It allows me to experiment or indulge myself. It's me wearing my mad professor hat.
What do you indulge on Soweto?
The full versions of "The Brightest Star" and "The Secret" are seven-and-a-half minutes. We'd have to have a very good reason to do something to that extent on a Foreign Exchange record. Even though we're a very free group, we always have the listener in mind. While we want to challenge the listener, we never want to overwhelm. With the City Lights albums, I worry about that a lot less.
Given how much jazz has started to stretch, can Soweto be classified as such?
I don't think there would be anything wrong with classifying it as a jazz album. I just don't call myself a jazz musician because that implies a lot of things I don't bring to the table. I'm not as well-versed as artists like Thundercat or Kamasi Washington. I haven't paid the dues. I take a lot things and put them in the melting pot. The results are definitely jazzy. I always compare it to what Prince did with his Madhouse projects— basically, Prince doing jazz. Eric Leeds, his saxophonist, wasn't really too big on the idea because, to him, it was a very rudimentary version of jazz. While Prince had an incredibly rich vocabulary, he lacked a certain kind of harmonic background to be on that kind of jazz level.
Over the years, it seems you've matured from being a mere beatmaker into a bona fide composer. Is that distinction important?
It's been crucial. When I started producing and we dropped the Connected album, we got a lot of love and hype. But it wasn't like other artists were coming to me and asking for that sound. Instead, artists would get other beatmakers to make music you could say was heavily influenced by what we were doing. When Connected became really big, I started hearing it left and right. It became a necessity for me to move away from the stuff we were doing to show people that it originated with me.
There's always going to be fantastic beatmakers—young, talented guys that make beats that make my jaw drop. But I felt early on there was no real point for me to compete with that shit. That ultimately was not what my strongest points were. My strongest points were that I play instruments, that I compose, that I know about harmony and melody and rhythm. I saw my biggest skill set and took it where it needed to go.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The internationalist."