Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mateen Sessions

By J a m e s for JUMP magazine.
Spring 2012: The Jump Off feature, p. 12.

I try to adapt to every situation musically, in the best way I know how. Music is situational. I’m not going to impose my will upon it in a way that isn't right for the music,” ruminates Mateen, who sits breezily at the helm of his impressively equipped basement studio adorned in a playfully knitted beanie.

Between puffs of hookah, his Lunchroom business partner and friend, web developer Noah Wilkinsky, interjects “I would never want to coin anyone, especially Khari. He’s like a Swiss army knife. He’s focused on being an independent artist himself. He has artists that he’s obsessed with evolving as their producer. He is already working on films and scoring. There is no continent you could sit him on. His offering is continually expanding.”

The 25 year-old wunderkind is swiftly etching serious clout amongst his peers. As a coveted Grammy-nominated producer, Khari Mateen boasts affiliation with industry cornerstones, producing on the critically acclaimed Undun by The Roots, Jill Scott’s The Light of the Sun, and touring with Icebird, the RJD2 and Aaron Livingston collaboration.  

Mateen casually describes the intricacies of production, “Am I creating a certain sound? It could be me giving [the track] certain texture.” He segues into the complexities of scoring, an offering that has grown to become one of his increasingly sought-after. An upcoming A&E series, HBO’s Prayer for a Perfect Season, Sundance Channel's Brick City, and the 2008 film Explicit Ills starring Rosario Dawson, are all credits to his silver and small screen contributions.

A cellist by trade, his creativity ambitiously explores musical faculties with intensity only attributable to sheer ability, attributable to ease of familiarity. The kid has range. He reminisces of his childhood in California and Georgia – his mother singing throughout the home, his uncle adeptly strumming the bass, and his father, a premier saxophonist, whisking him on trips to recording sessions at the legendary Philadelphia studio of Larry Gold, also a cellist.

Mateen was part of Philadelphia based music group Nouveau Riche, alongside Pennies in a Jar songstress Nikki Jean, and illustrious lyricist Dice Raw of The Roots. Continuing the indie grind, he has produced regularly for underground favorites J*DaVeY, notably on BoudoirSynema and last year’s New Designer Drug.

“She’s super cool” says Mateen of actress and rocker progeny Zoë Kravitz. Kravitz fronts their band Elevator Fight. Formed in 2009, the band spawned its name after a trip to Disney World, in which the members entertained an epiphany on Disney's Hollywood Studios' Tower of Terror.

His 2011 solo-release, the eponymic KHARI EP, and his sundry LPs, including the societally conscious Pool Side Talk, are featured on The Lunchroom, Mateen and Wilkinsky's online presence for Philadelphia artists. The Lunchroom serves not only as arbiter for musicians, but all artists – NoseGo, a Philadelphia-based mixed media muralist, on their budding roster.

Several days after his basement session, a Seattle, WA transplant and Philadelphia Orchestra violinist, Michelle Bishop, follows a commanding Mateen to the far-reaching corners of Milkboy Recording, formerly The Studio, until they reach The Roots’ privately owned workspace. Questlove’s patchwork sport coat still rests on the chair.

As he thoughtfully facilitates the session, it is evident that this is his world. This studio in Callowhill is his home. He regards Philadelphia as his base.

“Philly is fucking dope. That’s why I live here. That’s why I came here when I graduated high school. Honestly, everyone is doing something different and everyone inspires me. That’s why I’m here. I’m looking at everyone and I’m trying to work with as many people as possible – to grow from everyone in Philly. I think they’re all giving a little something different.” He continues “when I see people in Philly doing music, playing, going out to jam sessions, I think it’s a great vibe and a testament to how important music is to people that live in this city.”

The classically trained Bishop eagerly quips this is her chance to “actually create music.”

Bishop is to layer over Mateen’s cello verses for Tess Henley, a nascent chanteuse also from Seattle, who has enlisted Mateen to produce and provide instrumental accompaniment for her introductory EP. Bishop situates herself in the booth and listens intently to Henley’s soulful melodies reverberate throughout the room.

"Do you hear that? It's incredible. Michelle’s tuning her instrument completely by ear," intones Mateen sotto voce. He and Bishop share a laugh over the song’s difficult key. E flat Major.

Mateen's cello provides a sultry tone that matches Henley's, but he stresses the necessity of a complementary instrumental. “It's missing that top end. The tone of the instrument needs to be different,” he explains.

Exhibiting deft command of the production accoutrement, Mateen slides and mixes with masterful volition as Bishop familiarizes herself with the track. He interjects intermittently with suggestions and assent.

Occasionally Bishop appears unsure. She is slightly nervous and not accustom to brusque improvisation.

Mateen provides no written music during the session. He advises Bishop to “...vibe.”

There is a section in the song where Henley and the background vocalists ascend unexpectedly and then rescind dreamily in undulated harmony. At at which point Khari’s cello drifts...

He urges Bishop to play just as expressive. He urges her “to own” the part.

"Real jazzy," he says. "You want me to be a little lazy?" she responds ditheringly. "Yes," he affirms.

His ministrations and expertise distill her disquiet. He effectively wrests her of inhibition, and triggers a confidence, allowing her to lilt freely over Henley’s vocals.

Ultimately, the onus is on him.

Mateen wears the responsibility reticently – this is his element. His coat of arms.

"That’s producing,” he asides knowingly. “Producing is making the artist comfortable to create.”

The first day of spring, Tuesday, March 20,  Khari Mateen releases Wait For Sunrise. His official debut album and his magnum opus of artistry to-date

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