“I just try to make music that makes people feel a little less alone in the world.”
Ask anyone in the urban music industry and they will tell you Phonte Coleman is a legend in his own right already. Straight out the gate he took hip-hop by storm. Then he teamed up with Dutch record producer Nicolay and formed The Foreign Exchange (+FE), the Raleigh-based hip hop/electronica/R&B megagroup known for such monster hits as “Take Off the Blues,” “I Wanna Know,” and my personal favorite “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me.”
Before I interview anyone I do my research. I scoured over pages and pages of articles and watched hours of video on +FE preparing. I found stories in print either in ask and answer format or else with that cool, hip-hop flavor like you would find in Vibe or something. While I found out a lot about Phonte in terms of where he was born and where he got his start, something was missing. I was still asking myself who is Phonte the man? What does he like? Why does he write what he writes and what is his motivation? After I witnessed +FE performing at Lincoln Theater in Raleigh recently, I was hooked and wanted to know more about the multi-talented front man. So I followed him on Twitter and Facebook and started on my mission.
“2012 was a great year for my passport.” -Phonte
In 2012, in addition to performing with +FE, Phonte embarked on a solo tour and crushed stages all over the world. His solo release “Charity Starts at Home,” boasts critically acclaimed hits such as “The Good Fight,” “Everything Is Falling Down” and “Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” which features Carlitta Durand. When I asked Phonte for his 2012 highlights, the first thing he mentioned was how the fans embraced him when he was on the solo gig. He made stops in Brazil, South Africa and Moscow, but believe it or not he found Moscow most exciting. When I asked him why Moscow he interestingly broke it down this way: “To realize that I’m a black man from the east side of Greensboro, and I’m in Moscow. Like, there’s no one else, you know, on my street or in my neighborhood that can say that, you know what I mean? That was a very humbling experience.” He mentioned South Africa as being a stop where the people really surprised him. Not only did the fans know his most popular tunes from the album, but they knew the bonus tracks and the whole +FE catalogue as well. This is truly a testament to how Phonte and Nicolay have united people all over the world with their music. Contrary to the stage persona Phonte reflects, utter confidence and an almost over-the-top swagger, he is very humble about how the public has embraced his solo project and is quite surprised by it. “It’s always a surprise for me. You know, you’re only as good as your last record, so, your last record could have been “Thriller,” but it has no bearing on what the next record is going to sell,” he said. “Every time you step out there it’s a new chance to prove yourself. You know what I mean? You’ve got to reprove yourself all over again. So with the response to my record I, I was just so thankful…and very pleased,” he continued.
Moments of Clarity
Artists who gain success within a group and then set out on a solo project often soon learn it is a lot different when you have to carry the entire show yourself. Phonte however seems very comfortable with it saying there really were no low points with doing the solo thing. He said, “You really just realize you’re kind of starting over. It doesn’t matter what you did before.” Phonte recalls seeing his name alone on the marquis at B.B. King’s in New York and how it really hit him at that moment. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen my name on anything, without Little Brother or Foreign Exchange. That was a lot. I was very proud, but it gives you that moment of clarity like you are really starting over. It was exciting,” he said.
Phonte’s Soul Music
Legends in the industry don’t get to be legends without having something to say. They give of their heart and soul in their music. Fans can usually hear the message with each song and that can sometimes be the draw, even more so than the track or the melody. Listening to Phonte’s music, you can tell people will be singing his songs decades from now. The messages don’t get lost in the groove. It’s clear Phonte has something to say. He uses his music to paint the most honest picture he can, reflecting what is happening in his life, keeping his music fresh. “Everything is just kind of a snapshot of what’s going on at that time. So it’s kind of impossible to remake the same album about the same thing because your life is always changing. And when you write from your life it’s almost impossible to repeat yourself because life doesn’t originally repeat itself,” he said. “I just try to make music that makes people feel a little less alone in the world. People listen to it and think, you know, I’ve been through that so I understand where he’s coming from.” This is how he makes a true connection with the listener no matter where they are in the world and what language they speak. Life experiences are universal.
Phonte has a great sense of humor, which was evident throughout our interview. The conversation turned light when I started asking him about some of his favorites. And, no, I did not ask the typical what’s your favorite food and favorite color typed questions, because, remember I wanted to dig a little deeper and get a sense of what makes the man tick. So I first asked about his favorite gadget (you know most men love gadgets!): the Avalon 735 Pre-amp. When he starts to explain what it is, I was in trouble. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I asked for it, so he gave it to me. In layman’s terms he explained it is an amplifier that he runs the microphone through before it gets to the computer that adds warmth to the vocals. Now that I understood.
I asked him if he built a new house what one thing would it absolutely have to have in it. I could have guessed the answer, being that he is in the music industry. His answer: a studio of course. Phonte would have a basement studio where he can just close the door and go create, uninterrupted. How appropriate. Any other answer I might not have believed it. When I asked where he would build it, he said right here in Durham. Being a Durhamite myself, I was beaming when he talked about his love for the Bull City. “Durham is where I found my voice as an emcee and as a writer,” he said. He went on to say that it is a city that is tighter and smaller which gives it more flavor, and a stronger sense of community that he loves. Yeah, that’s what’s up!
Phonte is a multi-talented performer: singer, songwriter, rapper, and producer. Given how serious he is about the purpose of his music and how he wants to touch people, it did not surprise
me that he says being a songwriter is his first love, his passion. He started writing in his school English class, writing poems and stories. So when he heard Run DMC and LL Cool J he knew that performing and songwriting is what he wanted to do. He loves songwriting the most because it is cool to see other people bring his thoughts to life and to see his vision realized through others.
It’s Christmastime so I thought it would be fun to throw a Christmas question in there. So I decided to ask him what is his favorite Christmas movie. We talked about several movies before he decided on his movie of choice: A Christmas Story. We had something in common when I told him the name of my favorite Christmas movie, but I made him promise not to tell anyone what it is. He thought it was cool because he loves it too. We knew the same scenes and all. I’m still laughing.
2013 is going to be a very busy year for Phonte and The Foreign Exchange. +FE Music is releasing new music from their artist Zo! entitled “Man Made” in the spring. Fans have been screaming for more +FE and they will deliver a new +FE remix album that will come out in the fall. No rest for the dynamic duo and their collaborators in 2013. Not at all.
Phonte and The Foreign Exchange will be doing something different this year for New Year’s Eve. Phonte admits he usually finds himself on December 31 at the crib, watching Dick Clark and the ball drop in Time’s Square on TV. But for the first time ever, he will not be spending NYE at home. In case you have not heard, The Foreign Exchange will be headlining The Cotton Room Presents: New Year’s Jazzin’ Eve with Art of Cool. This is two times dope because it will mark the first time +FE has performed on NYE, and also the first time +FE has ever performed in Durham! Phonte said he decided to go with performing on NYE for a couple of reasons. He said, “It really was a new thing, so I said let’s try it, let’s just do it. And, you know, Al Strong (co-founder of The Art of Cool Project) is a good buddy of mine who is a trumpeter that performed on a couple of my records, and I really like what they (The Art of Cool) are doing. I think it’s dope, so aside from us just wanting to do it, I really just try to support good people...trying to do positive things in the area. So anything I can do to help I’ll do.” Note to all you fans out there: according to Phonte, this may be the last time you see +FE performing live in a long time. So if you want to see them blazing the stage, get your tickets for this NYE bash where the Al Strong Quintet, vocalist Yolanda Rabun, and saxophonist Marcus Anderson will also be performing. The show is at The Cotton Room, 807 East Main Street, Durham, and begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale at http://cottonroomaocnye2013-efbevent.eventbrite.com/.
My time with Phonte was over. You see, he is a very busy man, and I am sure he had a meeting or a studio session to get to. It was funny though. I really did not want to hang up the phone. Talking to Phonte was like talking to one of my good male friends or the brother I never had. He’s so easy to talk to and such a real person, not an enigma. Can’t wait to kick off my shoes and see The Man on that stage on NYE. I know it will be well worth giving up Rockin’ Eve and Time Square on TV. Why don’t you join me?
Sharon Mullen is an Ohio native and graduate of Michigan State University. She is also a marketing and promotions professional who enjoys poetry, music and the arts. She can be reached at Sharon@emergenconline.com.