It seems like only yesterday Phonte Coleman was just a North Carolina rapper/singer, one-third of the up-and-coming hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back then, Coleman was also exchanging music files with an Internet help desk employee and aspiring producer in the Netherlands (Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook), hoping the two could make music together.
Cut to today: Coleman, 36, and Rook, 41, are several albums deep as the Grammy-winning, indie-soul collective The Foreign Exchange. And Coleman, who still lives in Raleigh, doesn’t have to go very far to contact Rook. He’s just a couple of hours away in Wilmington, where he’s lived since 2006.
During a conference call on a rainy North Carolina day, the pair reflected on how far they’ve come. Back then, Rook admired Coleman for quitting his day job and becoming a professional musician. “I just was really excited that I found somebody that I felt sounded exactly the way that I had always heard it in my mind,” says Rook. “For me, it was more just the excitement of turning out track after track after track, where it just was exactly the way that I had always imagined making music would be.”
When Rook moved to Wilmington after the release of the Exchange’s 2004 debut “Connected,” it took Coleman a while to adjust to his collaborator being so nearby. “During a photo shoot for ‘Leave It All Behind’ (their 2008 second album), I was just like, yeah, I had an idea,” remembers Coleman. “And I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get home and get online so I can tell Nic this idea.’ And I was like, ‘(expletive), he’s right (expletive) here!’”
Coleman and Rook’s close proximity has resulted in a lot of music over the past decade. Earlier this year, the pair released “Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey,” their fifth studio album. With its collection of up-tempo, designated-for-the-dance-floor numbers, “Tales” may seem like a departure for fans who adored the group for its smoothed-out, progressive-soul compositions. According to Rook, he and keyboardist/frequent collaborator Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson found the album’s tone from just hanging out and bouncing ideas off each other. “Looking back, the fact that it became, more or less, a more uptempo affair, I think, really just had to do with the fact that we were just, you know, fooling around having fun, and without any sort of preconceived notions,” says Rook.
Audiences have appreciated the album’s club-friendly vibe, Coleman says. “As far as I can see, the response has been really good,” he says. “I think people – they kind of understand that each record is gonna be a different thing, you know.”
For the new album, on their Foreign Exchange Music label, Coleman and Rook appear on the cover, along with Ferguson and vocalists Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden. (Durham singer Carlitta Durand and former Triangle resident Shana Tucker also contribute vocals.) It illustrates their evolution from practitioners of independent black music to champions and tastemakers of independent black music.
“It’s great that our own music is influential to people, but it’s also nice to know that our influence reaches beyond that,” says Rook. “And we’re reaching people through artists that we have kind of taken under our wing and helped sort of express themselves. So,That’s a very satisfying part of running a label, even though it can be very frustrating and stressful at times.”
There will be no frustration or stress when The Foreign Exchange performs Saturday night at Cat’s Cradle. (Ferguson and Rodgers do their own show at the Pour House Music Hall on Thursday, Nov. 12.) As long as inspiration keeps coming to Coleman and Rook, they will always release music and perform live, taking the bad with the good.
“We’re still always looking for ways to improve our craft, and we’re gonna be here,” says Coleman. “That’s all I can say.” Adds Rook, “Yeah, we’re not going anywhere.”
Who: The Foreign Exchange
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com