A sidesplitting emcee dials back the antics to create beautiful music.
When a colleague recently called Phonte Coleman--co-emcee for the North Carolina-based hip-hop group Little Brother--a "cotdang fool," I couldn't help but concur.
His cotdang-foolishness can currently be sampled in several different forms. You can hear him do covers of a-ha's "Take on Me," Human League's "Human" and other Reagan-era hits on the Zo! and Tigallo Loves the 80's EP (with him and producer Lorenzo "Zo!" Ferguson wearing jhericurls and Teddy Riley glasses on the cover).
You can hear him do dead-on impersonations of DMX, the whole Wu-Tang Clan and even Michael McDonald on The Story of U.S., a low-budget comedy CD he did way back at the turn of the millennium, which can now be downloaded from iTunes.
And you can hear his radio personality, going off on whatever topic hits his dome--from child-rearing to fake rappers to his top 10 "black coffee" sistas of all time--on Gordon Gartrell Radio (www. gordongartrellradio.com), a periodic podcast he does with Brooklyn beatman DJ Brainchild.
But Phonte can also be serious. And whenever he's serious, something strange happens: He sings like an angel. This is evident on Leave It All Behind, the new, wondrous album he's done with Dutch DJ/producer Matthijs "Nicolay" Rook, under the name the Foreign Exchange.
Coleman has been taking singing very seriously these days, even contributing vocals to "Look What You're Doin' to Me," the opening track on Jazzanova's superb, recently released Of All the Things album. But while some rap fans may be surprised (perturbed, even, considering the influx of rappers going the crooning route these days) to find Coleman soulfully vocalizing over a whole album, Coleman (who's dabbled with hook work in the past) felt singing would work well for the music Rook provided for him.
"Well, I'm pretty much the songwriter, from a lyrical standpoint, of the group," says Coleman, 29. "It was never a conscious decision where me and Nic sat down and said, 'Okay, man, for this album, I'm gonna sing.' It really never was that. It was just a thing, really, where I went where the music took me. So when he sent me a track like 'Daykeeper,' as beautiful as that is, I felt like rapping on it wouldn't have done it justice."
Behind is the second album to come from the Exchange. Their equally great 2004 debut Connected received some buzz mostly for the way the two men worked with each other. Coleman first met up with the Netherlands-based Rook online on the Okayplayer.com website. Rook began sending Coleman beats over email, where he'd lay down rhymes and send them back. After several back-and-forth collaborations, they had enough material for an album.
Coleman going full-tilt troubadour for Behind wasn't the only change that surfaced while making the album. A couple years ago Nicolay moved to the good ol' U.S. of A.--to Wilmington, N.C., to be exact, not that far away from where Coleman resides in Raleigh. While they weren't continents apart anymore, their creative process didn't change.
"[That process] grew out of a necessity in the sense that when there's an ocean between you, there's not much else you can do," explains Rook, 34. "This process has created a different kind of chemistry, but it's a very strong type of chemistry. I think we've just grown very comfortable working this way.
"It honestly is the most productive way. People are, you know, far away from you. Even [for] Phonte, it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive or whatever. So for quick things back-and-forth, there's really nothing else like it."
Even though they've mastered the art of making beautiful music together while being apart, they're beginning to get the hang of playing together in the same room. Recently they embarked on a small tour to promote the album (sorry, no Philly dates yet). Coleman hopes audiences will groove to the smooth vocal stylings he brought to Behind, and realize that rapping over Rook's glorious beats was just out of the question.
Says Coleman, "Making a hip-hop song in 7/8 time is like, you know--you can do it just to say you did it. But at the end of the day, nobody can dance to that shit, so it's like why? It's kinda masturbatory."
See what I mean by the whole "cotdang fool" thing?