words: Jennifer Green | images: Lendl Tellington
EXT. LOFT DISTRICT– MORNING
It's a hot spring Wednesday. Humidity hangs heavy in the air outside, seeming to whisk people through it. Door swings open underneath a red arrow pointing down toward “CAFÉ.”
INT. CAFÉ LIFT
Enter gentle hum of hungry talkers animated by aroma of coffee and sizzling eggs. Fans whirring, utensils clinking. A muted shade of fire engine red punctuates the industrial ambiance with metal chairs and ketchup squeeze bottles, in keeping with the charm of the place: quirky and hodgepodge but comforting in the way it hangs together. Gentle light dapples the space. The air smells so savory you want to take a bite out of it. Slight breeze presides over general mood of celebration as diners compete with plates on tables for the attention of their companions. Solo diners are in conversation with their food amidst the lunchtime chatter. They have it all figured out.
Stomachs grumble audibly. Weekday brunch is a luxury but here it feels like a necessity.
JENNIFER: So how’d you discover this place?
KHARI: I lived up the street and I was going to Prohibition Taproom a ton. They didn’t do breakfast. So when I started getting up early in the mornings then that’s when I started working my way down here and I found out they had the same owner. It’s just a nice place to come. I used to sit on that counter right there. The second seat from the edge.
JENNIFER: How often did you come here?
KHARI: There’s seven days in the week. Six.
JENNIFER: Six days a week?!
KHARI: Six, yeah.
JENNIFER: Damn. Did you order the same thing every time?
KHARI: Yeah, French toast.
JENNIFER: And how long ago was that? At what point in your life, in your career, were you then?
KHARI: Maybe about 3-4 years ago now. I was living in a very small studio around 7th Street and I needed more space, more room to do more stuff. I couldn’t actually work inside of the place, the little studio I had, because I was making too much noise. The apartment above Prohibition seemed like a good place because it was over a bar. A bar complaining about sound, you know?
JENNIFER: You can’t create too much noise for a bar, but they can create too much noise for you.
KHARI: Exactly. I could work in the mornings. That’s why I started getting up so early and then coming down here, because I would get breakfast and then I would go back home and work.
For me it’s all about the music. So anywhere that I go, I need to be able to create. So that’s what it was. I guess at that point in my career I just was trying to do more, and trying to continue to work, you know? I had just finished working on one of the Roots records, was doing Elevator Fight, maybe. It all kinda mushes together now. But I was definitely back from China by that point, kinda riding that high of producing music for film and tv.
JENNIFER: What did you accomplish during that time that you lived here?
KHARI: Aw man, by that time I was doing my own stuff, my own music. So that was like the very early stages of creating what my sound would be going forward.
JENNIFER: What were your most inspirational dishes here…you said the French toast?
KHARI: The French Toast here is ridiculous. And their eggs are really good. This is like a hearty egg meal, you know? So hopefully they’re still about that these days. But their whipping? Their whipped topping that you put on the French toast? Ooh, so good. So good.
JENNIFER: So did you used to come here alone or did you come here with other people?
KHARI: I would bring everybody here, honestly. I would try to extend their business as best I could, you know. My mom.. oh yeah, see I did Brick City when I was at that apartment up there, it was a TV show for Sundance…the premiere, I brought my mom here for breakfast. And I took one of my friends Gifty. She’s like this short little girl. My mom kept calling her..she was like, who was your friend? She seemed really nice. What’s her name, Present? And I was like Gifty, her name’s Gifty, mom (laughs). Yeah, it was hilarious.
JENNIFER: That’s pretty funny. What are some of your favorite memories here?
KHARI: The staff. The staff is different now. But I used to come here so much that the staff just knew me and…they let me into their lives, you know? Because I work so much I don’t really have like…unless you’re working with me, you know, you’re my friend and you’re working with me, I’m not really out just doing that, so my mornings…they were my friends, you know what I’m saying?
JENNIFER: They were a part of your ritual.
KHARI: Exactly… Oh, that’s one of the owners right there, she’s awesome.
(Gets up to greet owner.)
KHARI: Hello! I’m good. How’s everyone? What’s up? I’m good. I’m back in town for a little bit. Right now we’re doing an interview here. You’re a part of it… so they told me to pick a place that I love. And this is still being recorded right now. I love this place. This is cool.
(Sits back down.)
KHARI: So yeah. Wow. That’s the owner. I’ve seen her have two kids…
JENNIFER: You weren’t *there* but…
KHARI: I wasn’t there. I was like ahhhh… (laughs). But I’ve seen, you know. It’s real around here.
JENNIFER: Do you miss it?
KHARI: I can always come back here, you know? As long as they’re here. Then I can always come back. And that’s what that was right there. It’s just..so great. Great vibe.
JENNIFER: When you walk back in, do you reenter that time of your life that you came here all the time, or are you aware that it’s further down the road?
KHARI: I’m aware that it’s different. That it’s further down. And they can see my growth, you know? She just asked me.. she was like, damn, you look tired. I’m like yeah, really tired. It’s like, you can’t turn back the hands of time. You can’t really get that same feeling. You can just create new memories in that moment.
But when I see the people that I’ve been around, I’m transported in being here to how I feel about them, I think. So when I saw her then I was like whoa, wow, yeah, that person is good.
JENNIFER: What are your sensory memories here? Do you remember how it smelled when you walked in, how it looked?
KHARI: I’m really bad at describing the smell of.. you’re probably way better at that. But it smelled like (motions around)…this. You know, everything was really nice about how they kept it together. They got a really good system. And you know, I just remember the smell of the French toast. That was my thing. The syrup they used. It comes in a small little container. The fresh fruit was really good. I can’t really describe it in words, though. But it was always prepared really well.
JENNIFER: Did you write any songs about French toast?
KHARI: Haha, no. I never wrote a song about French toast. If I was that moved to write a song about French toast.. that’d be a day. That would be a real big day.
JENNIFER: So let’s back up. You've had these experiences at Café Lift. What brought you to Philly in the first place?
KHARI: Just cus everything was here. I’d been up to Philly. My pop was living up here. I was exposed to a lot of great artists even back then. Like seeing Scott Storch, working with the Roots, being around them. Staying at Questlove’s house. They were much older than me but I was hanging tough with them. I was probably 14, 15 years old. Playing at the club with my brother and cousin. I remember one time we had to break into our buddy’s apartment to practice. We climbed on the outside of this three story building to fucking practice! It’s like we almost died to practice. That’s what was crazy. I don’t know what the fuck we were thinking or anything.
I had another job at the movie theater when I moved here. Actually Questlove’s mom got me the job. Crazy. I was like whoa, thanks, Miss Love. (Laughs.) After a while it just kinda weighed on me cus I was like, man, I just wanna do music more and more. So I got fired. It was great.
JENNIFER: Do you look for places like Café Lift when you travel?
KHARI: Yeah, all the time. Honestly when I travel, I wanna know whatever it is in the city that’s good. So I’m always trying everything out. If I'm hungry in a new place, I'll ask around.
Well, let’s order up. I guess you know what I’m getting.
KHARI MATEEN IS A GRAMMY-NOMINATED MUSICIAN, COMPOSER, AND PRODUCER. HIS ALBUM “WAIT FOR SUNRISE” WAS NAMED ONE OF THE TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2012 BY SOUL TRAIN. IN ADDITION TO SCORING THE EMMY-WINNING SUNDANCE SERIES BRICK CITY AND THE FILM EXPLICIT ILLS, HE HAS PRODUCED SEVERAL TRACKS FOR THE ROOTS.