Five years ago, the smart money was on Little Brother's being the Triangle hip-hop act to make a Grammy Awards breakthrough. The group was recording for a major label, Atlantic Records, and it had the combination of smarts, critical acclaim and commercial appeal that the Grammy folks tend to reward.
Well, the Grammy Awards are being passed out tonight in Los Angeles, and Little Brother's Phonte Coleman is indeed up for one - but not in his capacity as emcee for Little Brother. Instead, Coleman is a nominee with Foreign Exchange, his one-time side project that has become a full-time occupation.
Foreign Exchange is nominated in the urban/alternative performance category for "Daykeeper," lead track on the group's 2008 double-album "Leave It All Behind."
"The Grammy thing does help," Coleman says. "It raises your credibility in some ways, and it gets people to ask about the next album, when it's coming. But I'm just happy we got it the way we did, on our terms and the strength of music we enjoy. We just did what was in our hearts. That to me is the moral of the story."
It's remarkable that Foreign Exchange has evolved into a flesh-and-blood entity that plays actual live performances (including a Valentine's Day show at Carrboro's Cat's Cradle), given its on-the-grid origins. The project began as an online collaboration between Coleman and Dutch producer Matthijs "Nicolay" Rook, who met on the Okayplayer.com Web site.
Sharing at a distance
Coleman and Nicolay began sending tracks back and forth, eventually amassing enough music to yield an album - 2004's "Connected" - before they ever met face to face. "Connected" was successful enough for them to keep the collaboration going between Little Brother albums.
Nicolay moved from Europe to Wilmington in 2006, and you would think his relative proximity would facilitate more in-person collaborations. But he and Coleman chose to stick with the same at-a-distance method for "Leave It All Behind," another excellent collection of atmospheric, worldly R&B. They're continuing on with a follow-up Foreign Exchange album, due out this fall.
"Every album has some similarities," Coleman says. "But with Foreign Exchange, Nicolay and I feel like our goal is to go in a different direction with every record. We never want to make the same album twice. There will be some familiarity as to how stuff feels. But we also want to have something completely unlike anything we've done to this point. I'm excited about people hearing it."
More of Little Brother
In the meantime, Coleman has one unfinished piece of Little Brother business: "Leftback," a swansong album that will be out in April. It started as a collection of outtakes from Little Brother's 2007 "Getback" album, which was the group's first since DJ 9th Wonder left to focus on his burgeoning career as a producer. And it was supposed to come out not long after "Getback" dropped in the fall of 2007.
But delays ensued, and enough time went by that Coleman decided he wanted to rework and rewrite a few things. So it stands apart from "Getback" a bit more than originally anticipated. "Leftback" is still, however, the last album that Coleman and Thomas "Big Pooh" Jones will release under the name Little Brother.
"Me and Pooh are still the best of friends, no friction or nothing," Coleman says. "But we've pretty much said everything we have to say. It kind of ran its course, so we'd rather end it with dignity and say, 'OK, we made our point.' We'll still make music together in some capacity, so it's nothing like a breakup. I'll be on Pooh's solo record, he's got stuff, I've got stuff. It's just that the Little Brother brand is done."
Branding the label
The Foreign Exchange brand, however, is expanding with Foreign Exchange Music, a production company and record label. The company's first two releases will be albums by singer YahZarah and keyboardist Zo, who both turned up on the first two Foreign Exchange albums. There's also a mini-album by Justus League rapper Median in the works for this year.
"And, of course, the third Foreign Exchange album in October," Coleman says with a laugh. "When I say the work never stops, I mean the work never stops."