Twin Cities black pop is less a sleeping giant than a waking one surrounded by a sleeping music scene. That point was never brought home more forcefully than when Next signed to Arista right out of the community-center circuit to record the biggest-selling Minnesota single ever, 1997's "Too Close." Yet the harmony-funk trio was following the example of two long-lived local soul groups who knew the young crew, both with similarly low profiles at home and the means to bring the world to their music.
On first listen, the gospel-rooted collective Sounds of Blackness and the rhythm-and-blues sextet Mint Condition are as dissimilar from each other as they are from Next, but both share an eclecticism and ensemble identity that have blurred their pop image, perhaps holding their star low along the horizon. Both acts were taken under the wing of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, signing to the duo's A&M subsidiary Perspective Records in its late-Eighties ascendancy. After the imprint folded in 1996, Mint eventually signed to Elektra/Asylum, and Sounds to Zinc Records, the upstart indie owned by ex-Prince and the Revolution drummer Bobby Z.
Now both bands have what may be career-making new albums of versatile pop soul that sound surprisingly of-the-moment considering that they come from such veterans. The two works feel as simultaneously contemporary and old school as a classic Thunderbird low-rider rewired with a Global Positioning System and MiniDisc player. Even so, neither Sounds, a 30-member orchestra that debuted with "Optimistic" in 1991, nor Mint, an R&B band known for their chart-topping anti-OPP slow jam "What Kind of Man Would I Be," downplay their wholesomeness. (Sounds' The Night Before Christmas...remains the only Minnesota album my parents own.)
Easing on down a 30-year road paved with good intentions and enthusiasm, Sounds was founded to edutain the masses, bringing "all styles of black music to people of all cultures," as longtime musical director Gary Hines likes to say. Launched by Russell Knight as the Macalester Black Voices in 1969, the college ensemble lifted its current moniker from a black-power-inspired campus rag two years later, after Yonkers, New York, native and Mac sophomore Hines took over as director.
"The vision I had was to continue that Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones tradition of a single ensemble performing the music of a culture," says the warm-voiced, powerfully built bandleader, relaxing before rehearsal in the group's Stadium Village practice space. As Hines discusses how the group's revolving membership keeps the music urgent and current, men and women from their teens to their 50s wander in one by one and pull chairs into what becomes a long line of singers and a cluster of musicians. Before going to work, everyone joins hands in a circle for prayer.
Without diluting their spiritual base, Sounds have racked up Tonight Show appearances, Grammy Awards, and world tours, carving an international identity as one of the most popular, respected, and enduring modern gospel groups. Like former member Alexander O'Neal, they're big in England and bigger in Japan. And like roots-reggae star Ziggy Marley, they combine easy-to-translate message-music that preaches spiritual perseverance with a remarkably comprehensive mosaic of urban soul, Afro-pop, lite jazz, and blues. Uncool, perhaps, in a hard-knocks-lite-pop market hungry for ex-gangster ramblings and paeans to the butt. But the versatile, funky unit has all the accessibility, pedagogic sense of purpose, and mastery of craft that inform the Alvin Ailey dance troupe or Bring In da Noise/Bring In da Funk.
Like Mint Condition, Sounds of Blackness have grown their local legend on the basis of their national stature. Inducted into the Minnesota Black Musicians Hall of Fame in 1987, then the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame last year, they kicked off 1999 inaugurating Jesse at the Target Center, singing a stirring "Power to the People" as The Mind entered the dome in his boa. Last month the group held the release party for their fifth album, Reconciliation, at the Mall of America. They were favorably reviewed soon after, alongside Mint Condition, in November's Vibe, which noted, "Trying to be all things to all people is hardly a recipe for integrity," but added that they made "a righteous effort."
Watching Sounds perform in rehearsal, though, I can't help thinking what a shame it would be to reduce these dedicated musicians and singers to a local music "institution," to take them for granted like some neglected local symphony orchestra. Sick as I am of hearing the nouns "millennium" and "2000," I can't help but be roused when the choir kicks into a few bars of Reconciliation's title track calling for our hearts to "be as one" in the new you-know-what-ium. Hines waves the group to a stop at several points to finesse certain phrases and emphasize certain lyrics, but even in fragments the song pulls me in. The line of singers pipes the hummably corny lines, "We all cry in the same language/We can soothe each other's anguish." But such sentiments gain strength in gospel numbers, and the throng backs lead vocalist Yulanda Lunn Rambo with the sonic wallop of a collapsing skyscraper. When not on the road, the singers and their ten-piece band pop up in various smaller configurations, usually for events that are announced within the black community. But the fact that Sounds have avoided clubs for so long shouldn't obscure the fact that their live power is as pop as it is divine.