At 32 years of age, Phonte Coleman is now looking toward the future—mostly, what the hell he’s gonna do with his life once he gets too damn old to kick it with all these young whipper-snappers.
At the moment, Coleman is a highly regarded MC. The North Carolina-born-and-based brotha is best known as one of the members of Little Brother, the now-defunct, critically acclaimed hip-hip trio that consisted of him, rapper Big Pooh and DJ/producer 9th Wonder. And while Coleman is still known to drop a few bars on a rap track every now and again (he recently did a guest spot on a track from Bay Area Internet fave Lil B the Based God), even he realizes he may be getting, shall we say, too old for this shit.
“You have to do something that, you know, allows you to make music, but grow old in your craft,” says Coleman, on the phone from Raleigh. “And, for me, hip-hop—I just didn’t really see that happening. I don’t wanna be, you know, 50-60 years old jumping around, [saying] ‘Throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.’ That shit is not in the cards for me. That just ain’t what I’m trying to do.”
Thankfully, the man can sing, which he’s been doing very well in his other project, the Foreign Exchange. Started nearly a decade ago when he and Dutch producer Nicolay Rook began working on music by sending audio files to each other online, the pair is now a full-fledged musical outfit. Ever since Rook moved to North Carolina a few years ago, the duo have been joined at the hip, dropping three albums (including Leave It All Behind, their Grammy-nominated 2008 effort, and last year’s Authenticity) and going on tour with a full backup band.
The guys’ music can be definitely described as, for lack of a better word, grown-ass. Performing the sort of music that would go great with sipping a nice glass of wine (“White Zinfandel Music—that’s the next joint,” says Coleman, laughing), the duo has created a mature, progressive style of R&B music—kind of like the Alan Parsons Project with soul.
“I just think that—for me, personally—I just had to make music that is indicative to where I am now and something that I can grow with, something that will allow me to grow,” says Coleman. “I mean, hip-hop has yet to see a 60-year-old hip-hop star. Like, I don’t know if Jay-Z is still gonna be rapping when he’s 65. I don’t know if there will still be a market for that. But there’ll always be a market for, you know, a great song with a great melody. And, so, for me with Foreign Exchange, it’s just a brand that allows me to—you know, it’s like my retirement package. That’s my 401k, you know, for me and Nic. I don’t think that he, you know, wants to be 70 years old and still doing DJ gigs.”
His partner agrees that performing as the Exchange has been a great life-insurance policy. “I think that, for us, as a duo and as a company, we’ve really just been able to consolidate a lot of things—just taking control of a lot of different things that involve, you know, our music,” says Rook, 36. “And not only am I very proud of what we were able to put together, which was truly something that we built up, like, with our own blood, sweat and tears, but it really gives us a platform with a lot of possibility towards the future, in just keeping our name going, having our own unique way to release it and to directly get it in the hands of fans. And I just look forward to really keeping building on top of that foundation.”
At the moment, Coleman is working on his solo debut album, which he’s being very mum about. He will say it comes out in September and will feature production work from his Little Brother mate 9th Wonder. If this was a year ago, it would be shocking news considering 9th and Coleman weren’t on speaking terms back then. The two had a falling-out when 9th left Little Brother in 2007 to produce for other artists and start his own label. But, earlier this year, the pair kissed and made up, memorably dropping a photo of the two of them together on each other’s Twitter feeds. Now, the guys are helping each other out, with 9th producing music on Coleman’s solo album and Coleman doing guest shots for artists on 9th’s It’s a Wonderful World Music Group label.
Says Coleman, “The point we’re at now in our relationship is just kind of where I would always hope it would be, where we’re not just helping each other out as friends and as musicians, but also just helping each other out as businesses and the brands. And anything I can do to help him, I got his back and the same on my side. So, we’re both very excited just to see what the future has for both of us.”
Coleman says Rook won’t be helping out much on his solo joint (“We like to keep the Foreign Exchange brand different from everything else.”), but he won’t be taking time out from performing with his Exchange partner anytime soon. They’re currently making more concert rounds across the country, as well as releasing an upcoming CD/DVD package of a live acoustic performance they recorded a few months back. So, even though Coleman is thinking about life when he gets old and gray, it hasn’t stopped him from working his ass off like a young kid.
Foreign Exchange perform Thurs., May 19, 8pm. $25-$40. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St.
PW's Music Issue 2014