When The Foreign Exchange’s Leave It All Behind dropped 10 years ago in 2008, Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook was a bedroom producer who had just moved from the Netherlands to the United States a couple of years before. A decade later, he’s still a bedroom producer, but The Foreign Exchange is a Grammy-nominated group that’s five albums deep and has earned a reputation for being one of the best live acts taking it to the stage.
Nicolay originally teamed up with Little Brother co-founder Phonte Coleman, to create Connected (2004), working with the gifted emcee remotely by sending him tracks from across the Atlantic Ocean. But then he made it to North Carolina, and the duo set out to take the next formal step under The Foreign Exchange group moniker. The next step entailed shifting from an approach where the group recorded mellow but solid hip-hop informed by soul/R&B sensibilities to pretty much a full-on R&B/Soul album. It was definitely a risk, but it was one that both Nicolay and Phonte were willing to take, because that’s where the music was leading them.
And anyone would be hard-pressed to say that the “risk” didn’t pay off. The success of Leave It All Behind carved a path that’s led The Foreign Exchange to release three more albums, each one sonically ambitious in its own unique way. It was the first release on their own eponymous record label, an independent footprint through which they continue to release their albums and those of their affiliates. And furthermore, their support the album by touring helped them hone what really is an amazing stage show. If you have the chance to see the pair live, do NOT pass it up.
Nicolay generously sat down with me recently to speak at great length about the legacy of Leave It All Behind. He expounds on the group’s creative process, their audience’s expectations, and why wearing suits on stage looks good on paper but is difficult to pull off in practice.
Jesse Ducker: What do you think it is about Leave It All Behind that resonates the most with both Phonte and you as a group and with your audience?
Nicolay: I think the album in a lot of ways for us represented kind of like a second debut album, if you will. I think that the progression that we made with the second album really kind of opened us back up to a larger audience. A lot of people actually started with us with Leave It All Behind. It became kind of like a thing where there was an element of surprise there, there was something of a direction change, even though at the time, we didn’t really truly, consciously search for that. Obviously the album is a departure of sorts for us, and at the same time, that became part of the mythology of the album: the fact that there’s predominantly singing involved versus rhyming.
Then I think musically in general, it’s a little bit more adventurous, to say the least. I think that it all contributed to the album being something that hit the mark the way we haven’t really done before. We’ve come close a few times since, but I think for us, that was obviously just a real milestone, and a real pinnacle for the group.
JD: You’ve mentioned this perception that you moved in a completely new direction, and how you saw it as a natural progression. Can you explain?
N: Especially listening to it now, there’s more that Connected and Leave It All Behind have in common. Both Phonte and I are eclectic music fans. We like a lot of different things, and for Connected, it was a very focused album of what it was going to be, partly informed by Little Brother being kind of the predominant group in our universe at that time. Connected was very clearly a hip-hop album, even though it had a few R&B elements.
I think when you listen to them back to back now, with this much time passed, they don’t really sound that different. Sonically they’re kind of on the same plane and something like “Come Around” on Connected really sort of heralded the Leave It All Behind thing a little bit. If you’re looking at them now, I don’t think it’s so much of a left turn, per se, but obviously, when any rapper turns to singing, it’s going to be notable, and especially if that rapper happens to be one of peoples’ favorites.
JD: How did you decide to transition from an album featuring mostly rapping to one with mostly singing?
N: Well, Phonte has said before that the music that I was sending him prompted him to look into that direction versus rapping. If I think about it now, I don’t know that that was necessarily my primary objective, but I fully realize that I was sending him things that definitely opened up different lanes for him. I think both of us at that time were very interested in pushing the Foreign Exchange sound to a new level, and I think this just happened to be the way that it came out. Especially once we started doing stuff like “Daykeeper” and “House of Cards,” which are more like true composed songs with verses, choruses, bridges. We were both interested in pursuing that and really pushing the Foreign Exchange sound as far as it possibly could go.
I was definitely consciously sending Phonte stuff that was a little bit more out there. I don’t foresee anybody ever wanting to rap over something like “House of Cards.” “Daykeeper” could have gone probably either way. I think, in fact, Kendrick Lamar rapped over it at some point on a mixtape, and that shows you the potential. Same for “Take Off the Blues.” I think it all was part of a natural movement that probably had a lot to do even with where we were in life at that time.
We were four years down the road and interested in taking it to the top, and so looking back, it looks super deliberate. With The Foreign Exchange, we’ve always been kind of flying by the seats of our pants, honestly. A lot of the things that people think are super calculated from us, it’s stuff that just kind of happens. I wish that I could say, “We were sitting here plotting all day and all night.” It’s more that we’re just being us, and I think it has this effect of making it seem like it’s all super deliberate and calculated when in fact, we’re just kind of winging it, dude. Real talk.
JD: How many times had you met Phonte before you came to the United States?
N: We met a couple of times over the years. The very first time that I met Phonte, he actually came to my neck of the woods, which was The Netherlands. He came out there for a Little Brother show. He came to Amsterdam. This was April of 2004, so this was three or four months before we dropped the record, but very much after we had finished it. That’s when we met for the first time, and then it became more of a thing.
Once it became clear that we were going to release it, and it became an album and everything, I started going to New York relatively frequently for promotional activities. We saw each other a couple of times over the years, but obviously it was still something where I would travel. So once I moved here [in 2006], it kind of changed the game for us, because we were able at that point to do in-person interviews with the both of us or photo shoots or videos.
It really helped us to become truly a group. Before I moved, it was a side project, truth be told. But once I moved and Leave It All Behind became a big deal, it started becoming clear. It was like this is going to be the mothership from here on out.
JD: So what was it like working in the studio together after working remotely for Connected?
N: Truth be told, I don’t feel like we’ve ever truly worked together in a studio.
N: We have a saying between the two of us: “Don’t show me the cow, just show me the burger.” We’re products of the home studio generation, the Daft Punk generation where you just do the shit in your bedroom, and that part never really changed about us. I do the music in my home studio, and once I like it enough, I send it to Phonte, and he records the vocals in his home studio. There’s really no need for us to be around when the other does their magic.
I’ve come to think of it as something that actually works in our favor, because I know a lot of musicians tend to sort of change their demeanor, their approach, when there’s other people around. It can even have an inhibition sort of effect to it. So we do our thing in the utmost privacy, and I think it allows us to really go there. It’s one thing to be real adventurous and kind of out there with your music. It’s another when there’s somebody looking over your shoulder. I think that has worked for us, honestly.
JD: So has the recording dynamic always been the same?
N: Yeah, 100%. I think the only thing that has changed is we’ve upgraded our equipment over the years. You get a better microphone here and there, but it’s essentially still very much the same thing. Instead of like ten hours between us and some time zones and shit, now it’s only two. At some point, we just started almost not wanting to jinx it. Again, we’re not really the type of group to go into Electric Lady Studios or Sunset Sound or book serious sessions. We’re home studio guys, so we just do it.
JD: So was it difficult putting together these ambitious songs and complex compositions when you weren’t in the studio together?
N: Just in general, you feed off of what you get back. It’s different than somebody playing a great note on stage with you, and you’re just like, “Oh, wow. I’m going to respond to that.” It’s kind of a delayed situation where I send him some music, and I might get some vocals back; it could be the next day, or it could be a year or two later. It really depends. Phonte is a very specific listener, and I think he’s looking for something specific, and sometimes it’s something that manifests itself later down the road. There will be tracks that I think are absolutely fantastic, but they end up on the shelf just because it may not necessarily fit what he is trying to get out there.
Phonte is kind of like the A&R of the group in the sense that obviously what The Foreign Exchange does musically comes through his filter. I send him music, and what he chooses, and what he chooses to do with it, determines the direction. Even some of the songs that were more complex, it really all came together just based off of imagination, off of hearing something in your head and, with very limited means, trying to make it happen.
On Leave It All Behind, it started coming together where we were trying things that were musically something that we had never done before. When Phonte listens to the album now, he just hears the mistakes. He hears a guy that just started singing for real. I think it wasn’t until later albums like Love in Flying Colors specifically that Phonte really grew to like what he was doing. But at the very first onset of it, he was just trying to find his voice.
JD: What do you hear when you listen to the album now, ten years down the road?
N: I hear a hit! I hear just a stone cold Gold record! [laughs] No, it’s kind of the same for me. I think for one, it’s a little awkward to listen to your own stuff. Once we put it out, normally we lose interest, truth be told, because you’re just like it’s been years. When I listen to it, I hear a group at a specific moment in their timeline. As an album, I think it’s really, really great, but I hear what we have improved upon since. That’s going to always be the thing. As a musician, you’re always striving to make the perfect record, and you just don’t always quite hit it right. That’s what motivates you to do the next one and, I guess, repeat.
JD: So what was your reaction when you found out you got nominated for a GRAMMY award for “Daykeeper?”
N: It just wasn’t really in our purview at all, truth be told. Again, we’re bedroom musicians and producers, and we put the album out on our own label, and we were honestly just hoping that our fans would like it. We were not really worried about anything other than that. We just wanted people to like it. That was largely true, so for us, it was a successful album in that sense.
I think we never imagined for that GRAMMY layer to come into play, and I think when it did, I remember I was home, and it was actually YahZarah, one of the singers that is featured on the record, who mentioned it, as she was more connected with the recording academy at the time. We weren’t even members yet. This was very much not in our periphery. But she was kind of connected, and she got word that we were nominated, and so she let us know like, “Look, there’s going to be a call soon, so get ready.” That was really it. We got the official word, and it was just really surreal.
For both of us, it was a moment where it may not have been what we were after, but it was a huge honor, obviously. It was mainly something for our friends and family to realize, “Okay, these dudes are not bullshitting. This is not just a crazy hobby or anything. These guys are really doing something.” I don’t think we needed the recognition, per se, but for our environment, it was really nice to see the establishment giving us a shout. It kind of confirmed what a lot of people felt, that we were doing cool stuff, but that’s really it.
Even when we didn’t win it, it wasn’t even so much a disappointment, because we never really thought we would. It was just beyond our wildest dreams. Just to be at the Grammys and meeting everybody from Weird Al Yankovic to Jay-Z to everybody. Quincy Jones. As a musician, you can only dream of a moment like that. It’s weird because, for us, it came and went. It was really the only time that we’ve ever really truly been embraced by the industry as a whole, and after that, it was over again. It was really weird. We were in the spotlight for a couple months and met everybody.
In a way, I think we thought maybe it would kind of kick us into the next phase, but truth be told, the GRAMMYs, especially on the indie level, doesn’t really make that much of a difference. There’s just more people that pay attention. You can ask for a higher show fee, which is great, but the same doors stayed closed. It didn’t really change a lot for us, but it was truly like nice icing on the cake for that project.
JD: So what kind of reaction were you guys anticipating when you dropped the album?
N: We were cautiously optimistic. We were aware that there would be discussion. We felt that the material was good enough that it warranted us to take a chance with it, and that hopefully, ultimately it would translate. That prompted us to put “Daykeeper” front and center, instead of putting it as track nine or something, and we came out with it as the first single to rip the Band-Aid off and to really make a point that this is deliberate. This is really what we want to do.
Once “Daykeeper” came out a month before the album came out, the reaction showed us that okay, this might work. We might actually not piss off everybody. This might actually be something that we can get away with. It could have gone either way, truth be told. I just think the material was so universal that it really kind of lifted it above that discussion, but it could have gone either way. There could have totally been an alternate universe where people didn’t like it, and it was the last Foreign Exchange album. We really didn’t know.
JD: So you thought there was a possibility that your fans would rebel against it and it would be back to the drawing board?
N: Some people definitely did. It was definitely a whole discussion. People form bonds with music based on what that music represents in the particular time of life that they’re in, and so Connected became peoples’ college record. That was the golden time in their lives when everything was carefree, and Connected was the soundtrack for that, and hip-hop in a lot of peoples’ minds and hearts was still a thing.
When you realize people have formed a bond with this music, you recognize that they’re going to want to have more of that. However, whatever you do that would try to recapture that same feeling is obviously going to fail miserably the more you progress further in time. We’ve always told ourselves that as artists, we have a responsibility to not look back, to get outside of our comfort zones, and I think we’ve always made music that we want to make. We’ve never sat down and said, “All right, we’re going to make an album that is going to sell a hundred thousand copies. What can we do to make this music sell?” No, we were always like, “These are the twelve songs that we came up with, and now it’s time to put them out in the world and hope for the best.”
People to this day ask us about Connected Part 2. I think it’s cute, but I think most people don’t fully realize that any attempt in that direction would just be pathetic, especially now, fifteen years down the road. Music has to be a representation of where an artist is in their life. It’s much more interesting to imagine the untreaded ground the Foreign Exchange can walk on than, “Let’s try to do a Connected-style record, but we’re ten years down the line.” I think they’re all books to me. They’re not necessarily chapters of the same book. I think every album is a new book and deserves to be a fully blank canvas.
People are frustrated about that sometimes, because they tend to think in boxes. They tend to think, “But this is not hip-hop, and I like hip-hop.” I think we’re much more fans of the philosophy that music, just like life, presents a lot of different occasions for a lot of different music. I could personally never imagine myself only listening to hip-hop. I’m on a date with my girl and I’m going to crank some Black Moon? We don’t really think in boxes like that.
When people say, “When are you all going to do another hip-hop record?” I’m like “Well, they’re all music records to me, and I don’t really know what to tell you.” Yes, it’s not like hip-hop, but at the same time, the foundation of our sound hasn’t ever really shifted that much. The same sensibilities are still at the foundation of it.
JD: So where would you rank this album in your discography?
N: That’s a great question. It’s not the best we’ve ever done, but it’s right up there. I think it’s number two. I personally think Love in Flying Colors is our most complete record, and at that point we had really, truly become sort of the best kind of us, whether it was musically or vocally or arranging or writing, and I think that’s my favorite. But Leave It All Behind is right under there.
It really became much more than an album for us. It was a time when we had a certain aesthetic. It was black and white. We were wearing suits on stage. It was much more than just the album and the music. It was an era for us, and I look back at it super fondly because it really represented something great, and I think even more so than the first album, which kind of arrived with a little bit of a bang, Leave It All Behind is our audio business card.
JD: Well, you guys don’t wear suits on stage anymore.
N: No, we definitely stopped. I’ll tell you, that is a bullshit idea because, for one, it gets hard to keep that shit looking good on the road. It really is impossible. You’re lugging all these suitcases around and stuff, and it just became this whole thing, so we quickly learned and came to our senses. Shit, at this point, man, I might walk on stage with what I got on. I may put on a nice T-shirt or something.
And I think the album sort of called for it. Once we progressed into stuff like Authenticity and everything, it became important for us to be more authentic, if you will, and really be more ourselves with all the layers sort of stripped away. That led to us to being more “us,” if you will, onstage. It was fun, though. It looked great. We looked fucking amazing coming onto those stages, but it was just like, “Bruh, why do I have to bring three fedoras?” It’s not very practical.
JD: Fedoras are hard to transport.
N: Yeah, especially suits and stuff. There’s nothing worse than a wrinkly suit. You might as well not wear the suit. It became just harder and harder to make it happen. We do everything ourselves. It’s not like we got a wardrobe person doing shit for us. On a practical level, we had to scale it down. But if you look at the videos from those days and the photos, it’s like yo, it looked incredible. We started doing concerts around the Leave It All Behind time that were our first forays into playing with an entire live band and just translating that. We had to look the part.
JD: The tour for Leave It All Behind was the first time you guys performed together, right?
N: Yeah, pretty much. We never really got to tour for Connected because, for obvious reasons, I was still in Europe and Phonte was primarily promoting Little Brother. So when Connected came out, we had one leg in one world and one leg in another. It just ended up working out where the Connected tour was something that was tagged on to like a Little Brother thing. Which at the time made sense, because it was Phonte and Pooh doing most of it.
For Leave It All Behind, it became this whole thing of, “Well, we know the music calls for us to do more than just have a DJ. It really calls for us to play this live.” So that was also the start of us as a live group.
JD: Was it difficult going from being a bedroom producer to performing with a full band on stage?
N: Yeah, it was definitely difficult. The first year or so, we were searching. I have a recording of the very first one that we did, which was like two months after the album came out. We did a show in New York, and you can just hear we’re all just fucking scared shitless. It’s a good show, but you just hear we’re nervous and we’re using all these technical things that didn’t work out, so we’re kind of building it. It took us a while to develop what the stage version of The Foreign Exchange is like. That just wasn’t something that happened overnight at all.
We really had to work at it, and once we started getting more comfortable is really when we started doing stuff like the Authenticity album and everything. At that point, the live show was as important, almost, as the recorded material. That definitely took a lot of work. It took a lot of tooling and retooling to find the sweet spot.
JD: You guys are now known for your live show.
N: Yeah, it definitely worked out. I think we’re always going to be a studio project first just because that’s how we started, but the live act definitely has gotten its own viability and really allowed us to keep the group going even at times where we didn’t really have new music out. At this point in time, we’ve played all over the States, we’ve played in a lot of different places in the world, and it allowed us to take the music and bring it to the people, but do it in a way that we felt did it justice. That included finding a great drummer, great vocalists, and band members that could play their part in bringing that to the stage.
I’m telling you, that has been a lot of fun in its own right, just playing the live shows. The live show is where a lot of extra layers come into play. Phonte, obviously, is just a hugely funny frontman, so it became its own monster over time.
JD: So what are your five favorite albums?
N: In no order, Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, Parliament’s Motor Booty Affair, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants, and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate.