We Got Us

They write their own songs. They play their own instruments. For 19 years, they've stuck together. The rise and fall -- and rise -- of St. Paul's greatest R&B band, Mint Condition.

In the greenroom of the Quest, guitarist Homer O'Dell changes out of a Nirvana T-shirt and into a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. He flashes a gap-toothed grin for nobody in particular. His band of 19 years, Mint Condition, is about to take the stage for its first hometown CD-release gig since 1999, and the guys feel the electricity of anticipation. Saxophonist Jeffrey Allen runs through scales. Terry Wesley, the group's stage drummer, plays a cushion. Bassist Ricky Kinchen jumps up and down.

Everyone is doing his own thing until singer Stokley Williams starts clapping a beat and popping and locking, jerking his limbs as he keeps his slanted fedora in place.

"Give me some clipping," yells keyboardist Lawrence Waddell, putting down his hot tea and standing up.

When "the Stoke" has been performed, the room erupts with laughter, and the broad-shouldered singer returns to his lighted mirror, checking out the first concert outfit of the night. Williams takes at least 10 hats on the road, his road manager reports. "He packs like a lady."

Allen puts down his sax and nods to Waddell.

"So your calculus classes, are they out of the way?"

Waddell smiles. "I've got to take some more."

Mint Condition have possibly the least scandalous dressing room in popular music, retro dance moves aside. When their publicist pokes his head in to ask if anyone wants something besides beer and wine, then disappears, Allen smiles.

"He was kind of laughing when he said that. Like, 'Aren't you drinking anything harder?'"

Then again, if these were more decadent musicians, they might not still be in a group together. The only chart-topping African American live band still working the producer-propelled medium of contemporary R&B, Mint Condition are not famous--at least not in the way Prince and the Time were. Outside the black community, Bunker's, and Paisley Park, many people reading this are probably still asking, "Mint who?"

If only they could see what I'm watching now: As the road manager flashes the "five minutes" sign, Mint Condition harmonize in a close circle, barbershop style, strumming their unplugged instruments on "It's Hard." A single father's lament, this funk dirge was set to tape at Outkast's Stankonia Studios, and the version that appears on Livin' the Luxury Brown--the band's fifth album in 15 years--sounds it (complete with rap by Chip Fu of Fu-Schnickens). Within a week of this April 25 concert, the CD will debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart, and No. 11 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, inaugurating the group's Cagedbird Records label (distributed by a DVD company, Image Music Group). But the more intimate version backstage, with fingers snapping, has a quieter power.

Out in the club, female fans are screaming, "O'Dell! Stokley! O'Dell! Stokley!"

As the singers fall silent, O'Dell imitates the cries, laughing, and adding, "Jeffrey! Jeffrey!"

When the road manager stops by once more to say, "Have fun, guys," and distribute guitar picks, the room is suddenly quiet. "The calm before the storm," says Williams.

Slowly, the group gathers in a huddle, and they motion for me to join them. Everyone is hopping slightly, shaking a little, or otherwise trembling. They put their fists on top of each other's fists and bow their heads, as Williams leads Mint Condition in a quiet prayer. Thanking "the Creator," he uses the word "opportunity" three times.

 

Mint Condition are grateful for many things, each other above all. Two days before the Quest show, at their warehouse practice studio above Station 4 in St. Paul, Williams is cracking on Allen the way old friends do, setting up drums as other band members filter in.

"Nice food combining," the singer says, looking at Allen's lunch. The svelte saxophonist is holding a McDonald's apple pie in one hand and an Arizona Green Tea with ginseng and honey in the other.

"East meets West, man," says Allen, his mouth full.

Williams and Allen have the ready humor of guys who came up together. They attended St. Paul Central High School in the mid-'80s with Waddell and O'Dell, turning their collective friendship into a career by forming Mint Condition and scoring a series of pleading '90s love hits such as "(U Send Me) Swingin'" and the anti-OPP showstopper "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" Now in their 30s, the musicians dress in fashionable neo-soul casual--a long way from the MC Hammer pants that Williams once wore on BET in '92, when the group's first hit, "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)," peaked at No. 3 on the Hot R&B Singles chart below Prince and Michael Jackson.

To aficionados, Williams is that uncommon gentleman crooner among R&B dogs. Who else would sing, as he does over the steppers' lope of "Whoaa," that he wants to "peel off all your layers," and actually means having a deep conversation before sex? Mint Condition are considered old-fashioned that way, though their music helped cut a new edge for rhythm and blues, with Williams applying his agile tenor to scatting, and Ricky Kinchen's almost subliminally low bass lines swinging hard into O'Dell's squirrelly guitars.

Along with Tony! Toni! Toné!, Mint helped create a template for the neo-soul practiced by D'Angelo and Jill Scott. Only this band would perform at First Avenue with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ from A Tribe Called Quest, and know that Tribe's "Electric Relaxation" lifted the changes from Ronnie Foster's fusion classic "Mystic Brew," which the band covered to a T.

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