INTERVIEW: Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange

From the O-H: Who is Nicolay?

Nicolay: That’s a good question.  I am a producer, musician, performer and a writer.  I'm originally from Amsterdam in the Netherlands and I moved to the States about 10 years ago after the success of the first album that we (The Foreign Exchange) did.  We originally met in 2002 on the website for The Roots (Okay Player) that’s why the name “The Foreign Exchange” is kind of a play on me being foreign and Phonte being in America.  We did our first album in 2004 and that did well enough for me to consider making a career out of it and so 10 years ago I quit my day job, I was an internet help desk clerk/agent or whatever.

From the O-H: Wow!

Nicolay: Yeah, Wow!  That’s a whole other story.  I did that for awhile, it’s good clean work but it’s mind numbing.  So I came here in 06’ and we’ve been steady pushing since then.  Releasing albums, we started our own label, we do tours every year or so.. So yeah it’s been a busy 10 years.

From the O-H: Now you touched on a couple of things that I actually wanted to talk about.

Nicolay: *laughing* Yeah I kind of spoiled the interview.

From the O-H: *laughing* My blog is an indie blog and I have a lot of readers who have a 9 to 5 or 2 and 3 jobs and their trying to do that plus aspire to their dreams.  You already told me what you did, how in the world did you make that jump to say, “Ok, it’s time to go ahead and do music full-time now?”

Nicolay: Looking back, it’s easy to pinpoint and at the time I really made the jump without any sort of safety net.   I think in a lot of ways in society you’re taught to go for security and stability and I think in a lot of people's minds, that includes a job, a credit card ...

From the O-H: a savings account ..

Nicolay: Right, Right! In all reality, that’s like a prisoner being in actual prison. The security of a job? I never really took that very seriously because they can fire you tomorrow.  So I made the jump.  I quit on December 31st of 2004.

From the O-H: I love the fact that you know the actual date

Nicolay: Yeah, December 31st I was like, "You know what tomorrow is"?  "Not me!" and I never came back.  I won’t lie, the first 2 or 3 years were a struggle in the sense of keeping your head above the water.  I believe you have to go through that in order to find out if you're worth your salt.  The irony is if you are having day jobs and you try and push your stuff at night ultimately there's ceiling to what you can do just because of time.  You're giving your best time to your job. So I personally felt that it would be worth the sacrifice to cut that whole paycheck out and just dedicate all my time to music. I was going to kind of sink or swim honestly, it could have easily been a sink situation but luckily it wasn’t.  I was young and I think when you’re young you can do those types of things and I think again I've been very very lucky, very fortunate that we found an audience that at this point, supports us.  It's like a Band Aid, you just gotta rip that motherfucker off.  You just gotta go through the fire, I’d encourage everybody to do it because even if you fall flat on your face you know for a fact that you tried.  

From the O-H: What made you go the indie route?  Have you always been interested in indie labels or just having no strings attached to a major label?

Nicolay: I think the main things for us was that early on we discovered that we’re really head strong, opinionated and convinced about what we wanna do.  We found very early on that it would be better for us to just keep control in our own hands and take a step back.  We know we’re not going to be on TV, we know we’re not going to be on most radio, we know we’re not going to be in Rolling Stone magazine but the silver lining is that no one is telling us what to do. We have our own label, we do our own manufacturing and we do like literally every single thing ourselves.

From the O-H: Can’t that get hard though?

Nicolay: Yeah, it’s a lot of work.  It’s stupid amounts of work but I just rather work myself to the bone then trust in somebody else.  For us, it was the control over everything else; our image, our brand, our moves, even with these shows.  We book our own shows, we do everything literally ourselves and that’s not for the faint of heart.  A lot of artists don’t have that business hat that they can put on.

From the O-H: Now what about putting those prime people in your circle?  I noticed when you have a really good team, you have people that are passionate about what you’re doing so their not looking at the dollar figure, it’s more so the passion because they know if you as the artist grow then you’re going to be that genuine person that's going to take them with you.

Nicolay: It works both ways, and that’s very true.  On the other hand, you have to really give people their due, and not ask for "free work".  In that sense, we found it really important to pay everyone around us handsomely before we ever see a dime.  We keep our hands clean, I never want anyone to say in 10 years that, "He got rich and we’re all eating McDonald's every night." I think we decided early on that we’re going to take care of our people just to show appreciation for what their doing.  Like our band for instance, they could be playing with anybody, their that good so I think it’s important that we give them what their worth.  Sometimes that means we are last in the chain but we do that on purpose.  I just want to be able to look people in the eye and know that I don’t owe you shit. That’s really important to us.

From the O-H: With you guys being indie, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) just modified their certification in which they are including music streaming.  Well not only that you have the Grammy's that modified their nomination process where free music such as mixtapes can be recognized as long as its commercially available.  I'm seeing alot of artists are not happy with those decisions.  It may help the indie artists but may hurt the seasoned artists.  What do you think about that?

Nicolay: I think the whole "free" thing is a bad road to go down because at that point there is really no distinction between Prince dropping a free record or your cousin Harry dropping a free record.  Right now, the Grammy's you have to have music that's commercially available in order to qualify and that's kind of the threshold where the bullshit stays on the side.  I don't know, the whole counting streams thing is like.. you get people talking like.. “Oh now Rihanna just broke all the records of the Beatles" and its like, "No she did not.” Those are apples and oranges and back in the day, the Beatles sold physical singles.  This streaming thing counting, I think its just a desperate attempt of the music industry to keep those charts going because I really think the real problem is those charts don't really say anything anymore. Record stores have kind of disappeared, people listen to music now pretty much any way they can get it and so measuring sales is almost like.. Its just an antiquated principal and I get why it's something that the industry is holding onto and the Grammy's too.  Institutions are just trying to protect and keep things the way they were just because it effects their place in the pyramid.  I think in 5 years there may not be a chart because right now the relevancy is at question.  

From the O-H: You have guys like Kendrick and J. Cole that are actually doing something positive for the culture of Hip-Hop but there was a brief moment where I was a little worried.

Nicolay:  Especially, J. Cole!  What's clever about him is, he doesn't really get the same kind of hype like Kendrick but what a lot of people don’t realize is J. Cole makes his own beats, he writes his own rhymes, he writes his own songs, he doesn’t work with ghostwriters so at the end of the day this cat gets a fat publishing check.  If you see a Beyonce or Drake song,  it might be 12 writers on it so a guy like J. Cole really is smart about it.  He may not be independent but he mapped out his own way.  He has control of all of his aspects.  He does that shit himself and he's like the highest paid.  In North Carolina, he’s like a god there.  I respect him very much for charting his own course.

From the O-H:  If you could work with any artist (dead or alive), who would that be?

Nicolay: He just died, enough said.  *pointing to the Prince t-shirt he’s currently wearing*  If I'm very honest with you, I don't think I'd really want to work with somebody like that because that would be way too intimidating. He is kind of like a god to me in that instance.  I really like Kendrick, I wouldn’t mind doing something with him.  I also really like, King. I don't know if you've heard of King but they are an rnb group from Minneapolis and their fantastic. We did a song with them a couple of years ago and I'd love to work with them again.

From the O-H: what tips would you give up and coming artists?  What would you tell them?

Nicolay: Well, I think first you have to ask yourself if you're built for this.  I think if you wanna do music as a hobby then just do whatever the fuck you please, it doesn't matter.  But if you really wanna do it for real, you have to ask yourself do I have what it takes?  Do I have 24 hrs in a day, 7 days a week to work at this?  You gotta ask yourself do I understand things like social media because the guys and girls who are killing it right now are killing it on Snapchat and Periscope.  Its really just a question of self.  You also need to ask yourself.  Am I really that good? You know how your family can be sometimes, “Oh man that’s great!” Ask yourself the question, Do I really have something to offer?  I think a lot of people may not be honest with themselves.  If you can answer "Yes" to that question then you need to ask how can you have that get out to as many people as possible.  That is a crap shoot, there is really no golden key to that door.  You’re competing with so much and there's so much noise right now that you really have to be original and figure out a way, whether that’s starting local and building up a fan base by doing local shows and kind of hope that it can transition to something nationally or whether you kind of focus on social media and you build a following through Facebook or Twitter.  At the end of the day, only great stuff will surface.  Once you find your audience then you have to keep them.  You have to constantly remind them that you're still here and that is something that doesn't ever stop.  Unless you blow up.  We have to constantly remind people that we are still here, be it with videos or shows.  

From the O-H: What can we look forward to from The Foreign Exchange in the future?

Nicolay: Right now, Phonte is working with Eric Roberson to release an album with him, that should be releasing in July.* We’re kind of mixing that on the road.  Erro is the shit.  He’s another one who is independent and he’s got it figured out.  He's got his audience and he may not be a main stream guy but he has his fans and they love the shit out of him.  I love Eric.

From the O-H: Me too, he is amazing.

From the O-H: I thank you so much for giving me this opportunity Nicolay, you just happen to be my first interview.  

Nicolay: No, thank you!  Oh really?  You did a great job!

* NOTE: This interview has been in the vault but since then, Phonte and Eric Roberson released their album "Tiggalero" and it is currently on iTunes for purchase.We also managed to do an interview with Eric Roberson, stay tuned.