Netherlands-born producer Nicolay is no stranger to unusual working conditions. After becoming Okayplayer message board buddies with Little Brother’s Phonte shortly after he began producing in 2000, the Dutch master soon began exchanging musical ideas with the North Carolina emcee online, a virtual meeting of minds which resulted in the recording of 2004’s critically-acclaimed Foreign Exchange album “Connected”. The project received a huge amount of attention, not only for its top-notch content, but also because many were interested to find out how such an organic sounding album could have been recorded by two individuals halfway across the world from one another frantically swapping MP3 files.
The success of “Connected” subsequently led to Nicolay working with a diverse selection of artists, including underground Hip-Hop favourites Supastition and Median, jazz legend Roy Ayers and soulstress Jaguar Wright (a new Foreign Exchange album entitled “Leave It All Behind” is expected to drop this summer).
Now in 2008, history appears to be repeating itself, with the release of another Nicolay-helmed project featuring the gifted producer once again working closely with a Southern emcee whom he initially met through the worldwide web. “TIME:LINE” (released this week) is an ambitious album that covers a lot of ground both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. The set’s colourful sonic palette is, of course, thanks to Nicolay, but the album’s impressive lyricism comes courtesy of Houston rap artist Kay, whom some might remember from his appearances on A Tribe Called Quest producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s 2004 solo album “Shaheedullah And Stereotypes”. Initially signed to Shaheed’s Garden Seeker imprint, the nimble rapper went on to record a solid debut album, “The Talk Show”, which due to industry politics only ever received a release in Japan (he was also featured on Nicolay’s 2006 solo project “Here”).
Thankfully, on “TIME:LINE”, Kay once again has the opportunity to introduce his brand of witty, thoughtful wordplay to a wider audience, touching on everything from music business woes and materialism to relationships and social ills.
Here the duo talk to Old To The New about their online creative process, respecting history, and the future of the music business.
It’s widely known that the two of you met online first of all rather than in-person. So what was it about each other’s music that drew you together?
Nicolay: I heard the stuff Kay was doing with The Foundation around 2003 and was just really intrigued because there were many different artists affiliated with that project but at the same time Kay stood-out and was touching on a lot of important things in his rhymes.
Kay: I just liked what Nicolay was doing musically. I always tell people that I think his stuff sounds very deliberate and he has a real clean sound. Even when he does more edgy music, it still sounds real professional and well produced. I find it very easy to be able to zone out and write to his music. Nicolay is a producer who can really motivate me to write about different things.
At what point did you actually decide to start collaborating?
Kay: When I was with Garden Seeker, Ali (of A Tribe Called Quest) was really trying to give everyone an opportunity and a platform to be heard. But just because of the way the industry was going at the time that didn’t really work out how we’d planned. It didn’t really go to well so we were all just sitting around wondering what we were going to do next. Nicolay was someone who I’d talk to about the situation sometimes if I was feeling frustrated. Then one day Nic just called me and said ‘I’m doing this “Here” album, how would you feel about putting something on there?’ The track I did (“My Story”) got a real good response and from there we just started recording more songs and that’s basically how “TIME:LINE” came about.
What’s the concept behind the “TIME:LINE” title?
Kay: The concept behind the album is really about respecting the different eras of music from the past and trying to go forward with something new and unique. You’ll hear a lot of influences on the album from the late-60s psychedelic sound to 70s pop and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Nicolay, how much of a challenge was it for you from a production standpoint to try to pull so many diverse influences together and make the album sound cohesive?
Nicolay: It was cool. Once we decided that was going to be the concept of the album my challenge was in knowing that we needed to have certain tracks sound a particular way and be very defined. But at the same time we had to make sure that the music didn’t sound corny or seem like a parody. I wanted the different musical influences to be under the surface, but evident enough for people to be able to pick up on them.
I also wanted to use the album to pay tribute to our own musical tastes because we both love a lot of different stuff. I mean, I’ll listen to everything from The Beatles and Marvin Gaye to Coldplay and A Tribe Called Quest. So you have a track on the album like “I’ve Seen Rivers” which has something of a Carpenters sound to it, and then there’s the cut we did with Stokley of Mint Condition which is based on 70s Elton John records and has a very pronounced piano sound.
In the end, making “TIME:LINE” was a lot of fun because we were able to try a lot of things and go in different directions musically.
How different is it making music with someone over the internet compared to working face-to-face?
Kay: Because we met each other online we were already conditioned to work like that. I guess in terms of creating the tracks, Nicolay gives me a lot of freedom to just do what I want to do, and then once I’ve finished with it he’ll give the thumbs up or the thumbs down and we’ll go from there. But when we actually got to meet properly, it was great to be in the same space to talk about the songs because we were both able to just zone in.
Nicolay: That whole discussion has always been interesting for me because I’ve never really known anything else. Due to circumstances and situations, a lot of the time I wouldn’t have been able to make some of the music I have made if it hadn’t been for the internet. Obviously it does take away from the spontaneity of making music together in a studio, but it also really gives us an opportunity to analyse what we’ve done and push ourselves to constantly raise the bar.
Kay, as a Houston-based rapper do you feel that because your music doesn’t necessarily fit into the typical ‘Southern Hip-Hop’ box you’re constantly having to fight against people’s preconceptions of how a Southern artist should sound?
Kay: It can be awkward to a degree from an outsider’s perspective. I mean, I’ve recorded with Bun B and I know a couple of the other big Southern guys in passing, and obviously that’s a part of who I am. But I’ve always thought that Southern Hip-Hop in general needed more balance. There’s a lot of artists in the South with a lot more to offer that just what people hear or expect from Southern Hip-Hop, but there’s not really much of an outlet for it.
What I think is so great about what me and Nicolay are doing is that, kinda like what the whole Justus League movement has done, we might make people start looking towards the South for different music other than what they’re constantly hearing. If what I do can help provide an opportunity for other artists to start providing a balance to Southern Hip-Hop then maybe you’ll start to see different artists working with each other.
See the thing is, people down South really support all types of Hip-Hop, although from an outsider’s perspective it might be difficult to see that. Even someone like a Bun B, he’s a real cool dude and a lover of all Hip-Hop. I remember seeing him at a Talib Kweli / MF Doom concert in Houston and he was just hyped.
Considering the constant changes the music industry seems to be going through nowadays in the face of downloading, declining sales etc, how much of a struggle is it to continue pushing forward as independent artists?
Nicolay: I’ve personally been really involved with that struggle on a daily basis since I decided to start my own label. I mean, we’re pretty much doing most of our own promotion for this project right now and it’s tough because about fifty percent of the magazines that wrote about me when I did the Foreign Exchange project in 2004 / 2005 are no longer in business. Then you have websites like HipHopSite.Com deciding to switch to selling nothing but digital product. So we see a lot of changes daily that affect us as artists.
But on the other hand, it’s really important to see beyond all the problems and concentrate on the fact that the playing field has kinda been evened out by a lot of those changes. I’m not saying it’s easy to make a living as an artist right now, but there are definitely more tools you can use than ever to make some noise and get yourself heard. So with this album we’re really getting involved in the online stuff and trying to reach as many people as possible. And by that, I don’t just mean we’re talking to the people who write about us, I also mean the fans who hit us up on sites like MySpace because I think that’s really the future, using these online tools to establish a real connection with your fans.
I mean, it can be kinda sad when you’re hearing all this bad news about the industry, but at the end of the day, we’re involved in this because we love music and I think those people who will be able to survive this industry nuclear winter are the people who are in it for the right reasons.
“TIME:LINE” album sampler