Phonte “Phontigallo” Coleman and Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook named themselves The Foreign Exchange because they recorded their 2004 debut album, Connected, without ever having met in flesh. This transcontinental changing of hands – forged from their Okayplayer encounters – makes their moniker simple to understand, but there’s much more to the name than that. The exchange of alien musical ideals between the two – Coleman’s North Carolina hip-hop roots as one third of Little Brother, Nicolay’s background as a Dutch electronic music producer – have come to reconcile a form of music that is not easily explained. When they received their first Grammy nomination in 2008 for the song “Daykeeper,” they were classified as Urban/Alternative; a curiously damning and contradictory title, as it combines two terms that are limiting and vague, respectively. Appropriate that such an indescribable band chose Brooklyn as a performance stop. The New York City borough is a terminal where countless cultures, sounds and spirits collide and implode. If their performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg offered any resolution, The Foreign Exchange (+FE) has to be described as a jazz band. Not jazz in its predictable preconceptions, but rather as an abstract ideal, or a means to an end. The end is to create physical and intellectual rejuvenation for its listeners; the means is to use every melodic and lyrical resource that their mental disc-changer can muster.

There’s nothing that precludes a raucous gathering like the sight of “standing room only” on a ticket stub. It almost guarantees that the rhythms you’re about to absorb will cause instinctive, if not involuntary, movement of the hips, neck and elbows. British DJ Barry King provided the soundtracks to the revolution of the feet for the hundreds in attendances. King spent 60 minutes successfully revving up the crowd for +FE with his hellacious selector skills. Scratching up Foster Sylver’s “Misdemeanor” was one thing, but to segue it into J Dilla’s Donuts treatment of said Sylvers’ on “Only Two Can Win,” now that was pleasingly devastating.

Once +FE materialized on stage, it became clear that they’re no longer a mere duo. While Phonte and Nicolay are certainly the nucleus (it’s their pictures on the marquee), +FE should be considered more of a collective, in the same tradition as Miles’ 2nd Quintet, or even the Soulquarians. The band features artists & musicians that can and have stood on their own as formidable artists, making the combination that much more potent. Vocalists Jeanny Jolley and Sy Smith are frequent +FE studio collaborators and were the anchor for the night’s sound. Keyboardist Zo! has rapidly earned a funky reputation as solo artist and producer, and was invaluable to the music’s colorful atmosphere. Rather than playing the background for Nic and Tigallo, all eight people on stage shared equal responsibility.

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Show opener, “The Last Fall” was a perfect mission statement for the evening: be prepared for introspective wordplay, soul piercing vocal harmonies and rib squeezing rhythms. For nearly 150 minutes of dynamic cuts from +FE’s catalog and solo joints from Phonte, Nicolay & Zo!, not a single false note was played nor an ill-advised turn of phrase. Coleman was as charismatic as they come; a gritty, vulnerable, gracious and hilarious front man, pulling inspiration from James Brown, Kirk Franklin and Sting with equal attention.  While Phonte was crooning on folk-hop tunes like “Fight For Love,” Nicolay led the four piece band with the intricate enthusiasm of a master chef.  As he switched between giving counted cues and bobbing his torso forth and back at his synthesizer, Nic showed there was no bigger +FE fan than him. Sy Smith was Nona Hendryx 2.0. Wearing a backless +FE t-shirt, homemade Run DMC earrings and donning a black and red braided beehive, she stalked the stage with rock star swagger and jazz starlet grace. Smith, who’s shared stage and studio with artists like Chris Botti and Rashaan Patterson, shined brightest singing lead on “Greatest Weapon” a standout track from Zo!’s Sunstorm album. “Authenticity” featured an electronic drum/bass intro that would make Prince gush with flattery. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” from Phonte’s stellar 2011 solo debut Charity Starts at Home, became the battle cry for an audience that was already partaking in gorgeous darkness.

Although the actual songs themselves were all fan favorites, a key component to the night’s success was the calculated injections of other pop songs into their own.  Phonte managed to seamlessly fuse Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” into the bouncy, somber “Take Off the Blues.” The band juxtaposed Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” with Drake’s “Find Your Love,” and it was all so right. The audience went into a frenzy when Zo! acknowledged the Brooklyn brethren by kicking off an impromptu performance of ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” prompting Phonte and the crowd to belt out the words of the late Wu Tang killer bee. The show’s climax came at the end of a three song encore, when +FE gave a rousing rendition of Mark Morrison cultish 90’s jam, “Return of the Mack.” Phonte was in his glory, acting as part crooner, part rapper, part preacher, part comedian. “Return of the Mack” tied the performance with a logical bow.  And some were still confused by what kind of band they are, consider this: The Foreign Exchange are well-rehearsed artists who don’t cut corners when it comes to musicianship, but refuses to take itself too seriously. They give honest music; they get back honest love. That’s a fair trade Brooklyn can get behind.

Set List:

The Last Fall
House of Cards
Fight For Love
Greater Than the Sun
All or Nothing/Coming Home
Nic’s Groove
Come Around
Greatest Weapon
Ball N Chain
Beautiful Night
Sendin My Love
Don’t Wait
Make Me a Fool
Take Off the Blues
Maybe She’ll Dream of Me


Laughing at Your Plans
I Wanna Know
Return of the Mack

Words & Photograph by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)


1 Replies to "Beats, Bartering and Brooklyn: The Foreign Exchange Live at Music Hall of Williamsburg"
Steph says:
June 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I have some dope photos from the show if you want them 🙂

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