Ebony and Ebony

Mint Condition and Sounds of Blackness trace soul's tributaries to the cusp of the mainstreamMint Condition and Sounds of Blackness trace soul's tributaries to the cusp of the mainstream

Reconciliation begins with the twist of a radio dial and verbal intros from five local DJs--a kickoff that's appropriate not only because Hines listens to four stations at once while making his routine post-tour drive from the airport to his one-bedroom flat near Portland and 15th. Fact is, Sounds of Blackness have never sounded better-equipped to drop a dose of jubilant solidarity and optimism into the "Can You Pay My Bills" materialism of Timbaland and Swizz Beatz-ruled radio. Not that Sounds have never ventured out of church before: Longtime lead vocalist Ann Nesby trained and managed Next (T-Low is her godson). Having graduated J.D. Steele, Sounds employs Billy Steele as assistant director and keyboard player, and he helped, along with Hines and mixer Jeff Taylor, to radically hip-hopify the group's music, elevating its funky cloud to Kirk Franklin altitude.

"This new album," says Hines like a proud papa, "is much more similar to how we used to sound in terms of the scope of our repertoire."

The epileptic high-hat patterns, wiggly DJ scratches, and fashionably spare horn charts are all departures from previous less contemporary recorded outings. Hines even brought in rising Minneapolis MC Lil' Buddy to kick off the intricately structured, full-ensemble "You Are the One" with a Christ rap-ture that spiels, "Church is always in my heart/Even though that I'm thuggin.'" The cut sounds perfectly at home on the radio, where gospel harmonies have been seeping into the foreground of hits by neo-soul icons like Deborah Cox and Angie Stone. The airwaves sound more like Sounds than ever.

 

Reconciliation's sprawl does nothing, of course, to help Sounds of Blackness solidify a pop identity: The band's concept has always evolved slowly and from within. The equally omnivorous Mint Condition would similarly leave the pesky job of crafting an image to people less busy making music, though the musicians are sharp dressers, and lead singer Stokley Williams maintains a distinctive, medium-sized patch of neat dreadlocks. Rather than build one member into a star and risk obscuring their six-member democracy, though, Mint Condition approach their songs from six directions, putting everyone's ideas on the assembly line. When off the road, the members spend most of their time in the Twin Cities relaxing, though they maintain a nearly nonexistent live presence here.

Like Hines, Mint's Williams won't be pinned down on a favorite genre. Speaking over the phone from a promotional tour stop in Los Angeles, he reports that he has been switching Cuban diva Celia Cruz, the Roots, early Chaka Khan, and the Cardigans on his CD player. Despite the way his new, fourth album, Aquarium, playfully flips from Tony! Toni! Toné! dance-funk to the requisite bedroom balladry to tangoed silliness and dance-rock rave-ups, it all sounds of a piece.

"In some ways, this album's probably more focused than our others," Williams allows. "We've still got the ballads, but this one is equally strong in mid- and uptempos."

Like the Isley Brothers in their underrated Seventies heyday, Mint Condition jell around two prominent voices: Williams's compelling alto, and the subtly atmospheric, loopy squeals of guitarist Homer O'Dell. With bassist Ricky Kinchen, keyboardist Keri Lewis, sax player Jeffrey Allen, and keyboardist Lawrence Waddell filling out the group, Mint are perhaps most recognized by R&B heads as that increasingly rare late-Nineties species: an African-American band that plays contemporary soul styles live, with "real" instruments. Hailed for 1996's Definition of a Band, which critic Tonya Pendleton dubbed one of the ten most important soul releases of the Nineties, Mint were soon joining Toni Braxton on the road and receiving fan mail from TLC. Without making a show of it, the musicians managed to equate manhood with bandhood, harking back to a local tradition that many thought went the way of publicly worn garters and mirrored trench coats.

Half a generation younger than the Seventies funk-soul-brotherhood led by Prince in Minneapolis, Mint Condition's members grew up in St. Paul closely following the fortunes of Prince-associated bands like the Family, his Grand Central, and Jam and Lewis's Flyte Tyme. Like those groups, who learned their licks in school and at the Way Community Center on Minneapolis's north side, Mint Condition began their musical education in the classroom. As Purple Rain washed over the world, band members attended music classes at St. Paul Central.

"It was a magnet arts program, as they called it," Williams says. "They had a studio class and a steel-drum class, and we got involved." Williams kept his drum, and its distinctive West Indian plink pops up on one of Aquarium's hidden tracks, "Decuervo's Revenge." (The only non-band local brought in for the sessions was expert Brazilian and Cuban jazz percussionist and Artist accomplice Esther Godinez.)

Speaking wistfully of his longtime admiration of local blues-funk greats Dr. Mambo's Combo, Williams seems to sense that he's got a tradition to uphold. But he has mixed feelings about being "the last band" in a shrinking field.

"There's no direct competition right now for what we're doing," he says. "But it's kind of a sad thing as well. That means all these programs in school are cut, so nobody's learning any of these instruments. That's the first thing that's gonna get cut, because they aren't gonna cut no sports."

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