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Cyber connects making it big

David Goodson | 5/30/2012, 6:40 p.m.

"If there's any sort of collabo like that, it'll be on musical merit rather than just name-checking or trying to get ahead. I realize that's how the hip-hop infrastructure works, but it'll have to happen organically."

The quote was quite telling, considering the source: Nicolay, co-founder and primary producer of the Grammy-nominated group the Foreign Exchange. Thanks to the present technological era, Nicolay, who is from the Netherlands, was able to connect a world away with the co-founder of his group, Phonte Brown, who at the time was recognized as one of the best lyricists in hip-hop through his work with the group Little Brother.

The two shared opinions and mutual musical taste as chat room members on okayplayer.com and through instant messaging. Nicolay was able to send instrumental tracks and have them laced not just with the world-class rhymes of Brown, but also a talented pool of singers and fellow rappers. The back-and-forth of electronic and traditional mail developed enough material that it yielded a project dubbed "Connected." The critically acclaimed full-length was much more impressive when you take into consideration that the two didn't actually meet until the album was completed.

The popularity of the project produced a huge fan base and a second album was warranted. With their sophomore disc, "Leave It All Behind," the growth of the group was evident, as they've developed a truly unique sound. Brown, who began to flex his singing voice, described the evolution, saying, "Although we started out in hip-hop and we have a hip-hop aesthetic in a lot of our stuff, we mix the two worlds of hip-hop and soul."

The combination caught the attention of not just fans but also the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, as the single "Daykeeper" put Foreign Exchange in contention for a 2009 Grammy in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category.

Their more refined identity also has had a long-range effect. "Hip-hop is a young man's game in a lot of ways, but because we have broadened our horizons so much in the last couple of years, we'd probably be able to do this for a long time, God willing," said Nicolay.

The duo has turned into a full-fledged band and they present a highly entertaining live show. On Monday, June 4, the group, which hasn't been to the area in nearly two years, will be front and center for the first time in Brooklyn at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, located at 66 N. 6th St. "Touring keeps us sharp as a band. Some cats exist solely in the studio. You have groups that go all out live, but their recorded music doesn't really move you as much. We are of the mindset that one sharpens the other and they help each other grow.

"When we perform live, I'm looking at the reaction that certain songs get, and that informs me when I go to the studio." On the other hand, he says, "I'm very careful of doing things I can't replicate live. Sometimes you feel you can hit that high falsetto for three measures, but you gotta know that you gotta do it live every night."