Kay (left) and Nicolay
Around the year 2000, Dutch hip-hop producer Nicolay discovered that making cross-continental collaborations was as easy as exchanging music online. After befriending Phonte Coleman of North Carolina's Little Brother on a music message board, the duo became Foreign Exchange and went on to release the highly praised album Connected (BBE, 2004), which was made entirely by sending beats and vocals via e-mail. And while the pair has another LP on the way, Nicolay has been focusing much of his energy into a new collaboration with another MC from the States: Houston's own Kay.
Despite his affiliation with Ali Shaheed Muhammad's Garden Seeker Productions, Kay is somewhat of an unknown figure — something that Nicolay has no problem with. Although because Nicolay met and began working with Kay on the Net, much like he did with Phonte, he does worry slightly about comparisons between this new collaboration and Foreign Exchange.
“Ever since the Foreign Exchange came along, that's usually the basis of comparison for anything else that I do, which is understandable,” admits the Netherlands-bred producer. “We just wanted to make sure that [the project] has its own face.”
Building a new foundation with Kay in recording their album Time:Line (Nicolay Music, 2008) meant deliberately taking chances he normally wouldn't. As a longtime fan of Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Nicolay has always hoped to make a proper concept album. And once Kay received a batch of 20 divergent beats from Nicolay, he knew this was also his chance to make a true conceptual effort happen — specifically an album about the cycle of one man's life that is both personal and fictional.
“You can hear the influences of different times, whether it was '60s-sounding psychedelic music or an '80s pop sound,” says Kay of the beats Nicolay initially sent. “In doing this concept record, [we] actually take people on a musical journey from a '60s era to now to what's next.”
After receiving the beats and discussing the concepts with Nicolay, Kay got to recording vocals at his Houston home with his Røde NT1000 mic. In the process, he tried to keep his vocals as organic as possible so when Nicolay got them, he could add just the right amount of EQ and compression to complement Kay's self-described “nasally” flow. “I've been told by engineers if you can really hear the effects, then you probably put too much on there,” Kay says, laughing. “So I try not to overdo it.”
Once Nicolay downloaded Kay's sessions at his new home studio in Wilmington, N.C., the producer mixed the tracks with Pro Tools and a Digi 003 interface on his Dell computer. And, eventually, Kay made the trek to North Carolina to help Nicolay with the sequencing. Long before that point, though, Time:Line began with Nicolay's lush, multilayered compositions.
Being a former guitarist and a bassist for live bands, Nicolay approaches producing from both a classically trained musician's vantage point and one of a hip-hop sample junkie. In addition to Pro Tools, the producer uses synths such as the Moog Prodigy and Roland Juno-106, and an assortment of Ibanez guitars (bass, acoustic and electric). Sticking with the album's theme, Nicolay used his varied setup to craft an explosive funk/rock/soul beat for the track about birth, “Blizzard.” And by the time the character passes away on “When You Die,” a spacey Stereolab-inspired sound is in effect.
“Timing is the most important thing out of the process, by far,” says Nicolay about syncing up samples with live instrumentation. “The timing of where there's space and where there's no space is the key. When I have drums, they might not be quantized perfectly, but they're usually quantized exactly how I want them.”
Nicolay also notes that having a close knowledge of the music he samples and the ability to play it back on live instruments by ear has helped him immensely. And for the Time:Line project, working with Kay, an uninhibited MC and vocalist who can produce himself, was vital.
“[Kay]'s very influenced by jazz musicians,” Nicolay says, “so a lot of his flows are more like a jazz soloist blowing away.”