The Foreign Exchange Are Still On Their Own Time

“The Grey” propels us into the uncertainty of space through the coordinates of hip-hop’s sonic past.

The Foreign Exchange Are Still On Their Own Time

The Foreign Exchange — the vocalist/producer brainchild of Phonte (Coleman) and Nicolay (Matthijs Rook) — has always moved somewhat outside of its time. 

Amid the radio eminence of early 2000s hip-hop, it was an online chat room where the North Carolina emcee and the Netherlands-based producer first linked, on the then-budding hip-hop superfan site Okayplayer. Their transatlantic file sharing led to a cheekily named 2004 LP, Connected, before the two ever even met on the same continent — one of the first albums to be co-created remotely over the Internet.  

Flash forward to 2024, and it’s little surprise that the group’s organic pace doesn’t seem predicated on the demands of the content-rich streaming economy that dominates modern music. Case in point: their latest single, “The Grey,” which represents the first new FE music in six years. Rather than invite us to listen with a TikTok teaser or an Instagram reel, the group offered the tracks as 180g color vinyl with a limited 300-item pressing (already sold out), literally evoking the 12” singles that dominated the musical scenes of the 80s and 90s. For those of us who never got to wait in line for Tower Records to open so we could get the Tuesday releases, The Foreign Exchange is taking us back in the archives with a playfulness that has been at the core of hip-hop since before the youth-movement-turned-multinational-phenomenon even had a name. 

If anyone thought that sparse releases over the past five years might have rendered Phonte rusty, the Greensboro-raised emcee quickly puts those notions to rest over a bed of space-age synths and Galaga-esque sound effects within the first ten seconds of A-side “The Grey.” All of his beloved signatures unfold over the densely packed single verse: his puckish wordplay (“I do not gas, I do not overrate/ if we’re going to face off, let me exfoliate”), Golden Age references (“been waiting and debating like a Cool J song”), and doleful reflections (“God blessed me with the best of life/ but I still look at my sons and see two Trayvons”). 

Couching social critique next to battle provocations and boasts, Phonte closes with a seasoned contemplation about his journey as a rapper. All of the triumphs of his career don’t mitigate the harms of anti-Blackness that have always accompanied hip-hop’s development: “but still we’re being attacked/ they say consider both sides, but I don’t see it as that/ telling us to see the gray when all they see is the Black.” 

Phonte’s frequent collaborator (and +FE label signee), Dallas-based singer-songwriter BeMyFiasco, beckons us into the gray before ceding the floor to DJ Wally Sparks' deft cuts. As the track fades, it’s hard to miss the historical influences in the futuristic soundscape. Like Sun Ra by way of DJ Premier, “The Grey” propels us into the uncertainty of space through the coordinates of hip-hop’s sonic past.  

Complementing this futuristic nostalgia is the duo’s dub cover of Sade’s 1992 “I Couldn’t Love You More.” This B-side captures a sepia hue of the Golden Era through the rapturous, seductive lyricism of Sade Adu and the key of bass-heavy dancehall. The duo takes full advantage of the experimental tradition of the B-side (think Prince’s “Erotic City” or Gang Starr’s “DWYCK”) with a nod towards the DJ-centric dubs pressed onto the back of 45s in Jamaica. As Phonte’s layered voice repeats the lyric “be the one right now baby,” we’re disoriented by distortion and a deepening echo that buries us in the mix, bridging Sade’s 1990s and DJ Kool Herc’s soundsystem-led 70s. Like “The Grey,” it’s a celestial homage: a journey to elsewhere fueled by the archive.

In under six minutes, the duo subtly conjures a true Hip-Hop 50 — encompassing the musical traditions that powered the form’s global rise, and mirroring the teenage interest in the present-past that led young folks in the 1970s Bronx to spin their parents’ records and dance in the shadow of Robert Moses’s disastrous urban “renewal.” Just like their hip-hop predecessors, Phonte and Nicolay have always been a little out of time. Twenty years later, though, they still sound as fresh as ever.

Tyler Bunzey is an educator and music journalist based in Charlotte, NC, where he covers queer pop, community events, R&B, and hip-hop for publications like CLTure and The Queen City Nerve. In his spare time, he works as an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Johnson C. Smith University, where he also runs the Cultural Studies major program.