The Foreign Exchange's indie success story

Soulful hip-hop duo talks new album and DIY life

In the world of independent artists, North Carolina's soul/hip-hop duo the Foreign Exchange offers a rare case of DIY done right. Since hitting the scene in 2004 with its debut album Connected, singer/rapper and former Little Brother MC Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay (born Matthijs Rook) have forged their own path without the support of an outside label.

Through their self-run FE Music imprint, the group has not only released its own critically acclaimed music (as well as DVDs, merchandise, and other products) over the last decade, but also projects by other artists, such as instrumentalist Zo!, singer Jeanne Jolly, and more. It'd be hard not to give props to such a well-oiled machine for churning out new sounds on the regular and steadily growing its fan base. With the Foreign Exchange's fourth album, Love in Flying Colors, the machine shows no signs of slowing down. This latest production presents a band that's at the next step of its organizational evolution. "We're fortunate enough that ... with Love in Flying Colors and other titles — as a label, we've already set our own record in terms of our accomplishments," Nicolay says. "Being an independent artist is not for everybody. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of time, but obviously you're working for yourself and there's nothing better than that."

Clearly a band in control of its destiny, FE puts its autonomy to good use on Love in Flying Colors, crafting an album that probably couldn't exist in the world of 21st century major label music: Electronic without being cold or vapid (on "Call It Home" and "If I Knew Then," featuring Atlanta-based singer Carmen Rodgers), and tinged with R&B, rap, and even pop sensibilities while still being poetic and thoughtful ("Better," "On A Day Like Today," and "Can't Turn Around," featuring vocals by Decatur's own Gwen Bunn).

The new album also represents a leap forward when it comes to Phonte and Nicolay's sonic approach as a whole, displaying a more defined version of the pristine-yet-funky sound they've become known for.

"With each record it's just been growing in terms of our grasp of writing songs and also from the production, mixing, and technical side," Phonte says. "Making the records sound the way we want them to sound, making them pop, making them jump out of the speakers."

Nicolay concurs. "Sonically we were looking to do something that was a little bit more of a brighter sound, but also a bigger sound, he says. "On our last album, Authenticity, we purposefully kept very sparse and even the production was very spare. On the new album, we wanted to do something that was heavier in terms of the low end — warm ... and bigger than we ever have done."

Currently on tour supporting the new project, the team now faces the task of transforming Love in Flying Colors into a live show that's satisfying for its growing audience. "It's just so hard when you go out with a new record," Phonte says. "You don't know what's gonna hit with the crowd. There are certain songs that sound great on record, but live it's like: 'Eh. OK — that's the scary part about it."

Fear aside, the group is promising a performance backed by an eight-deep band and background vocals from the previously mentioned Rodgers and Jolly, featuring — along with the new tunes — renditions of fan-favorite songs from the catalog of the last 10 years. "We wanna just maintain our show," he says. "Singing the songs to the best of our ability, being real interactive with the crowd, and just having fun."