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.

"These guys are part of what I believe is a dying breed in R&B," says Muhammad, who collaborated with the group on his solo album. "At least on the mainstream level. They actually go out there and play live music, not just R&B but jazz fusion, Latin, rock 'n' roll."

Mint Condition might seem like a wholesome throwback in the Ying Yang Twins era, like the Cosby Kids getting pulled out of a TV set in their live-action movie. (When Mario Van Peebles required a '60s group in suits and Afros for his 1995 movie Panther, he called Mint.) But they don't sound retro.

Taking a break from practice to tell their story, the musicians laugh about their origins as a teen band jamming in the shadow of Prince, complete with heavy Jheri curls. "You'd have to sit there and interview us with a raincoat," says O'Dell.

"That made the funk more better, man," says Williams. "Something greasy."

Stokley Williams and Homer O'Dell met in a steel drum class taught at Central by Trinidad-born Cliff Alexis Sr., and the bright plink of the pans can be heard on Mint Condition tracks such as "My Sista" and "Look Whachu Done 2 Me." Alexis had taught Williams since the singer was a kid, and had known O'Dell for years as well. Soon all three were playing in the school's Steel Experience band.

Teachers remember Williams as a quiet kid with a rare abundance of talent. He had been drumming and dancing since he was four, mastering the splits at age five, according to his father, and joining his first group around age nine. Both of Williams's parents were teachers, and some of the other guys knew his father. Mahmoud El-Kati was always active in the black community--he has maintained a 30-year affiliation with Macalester College, and still teaches a course on the African American experience at North Community High School, underwritten by Flyte Tyme Studios producer Terry Lewis.

"He's kind of like everybody's father," says Williams. "Every conversation, he would relate what we do back to black history." The son half smiles, as if remembering all those lectures with mixed feelings.

O'Dell seems to sense the ambivalence, and jumps in. "One of the many reasons I used to love to go to his house was his dad was teaching all the time," the guitarist says. "I remember times when Stokley and them was probably just used to it because they had it. Like, 'Aw, Dad!' I'd be like, 'Man, what you talking about? Listen to this guy!'"

Homer and Stokley started practicing as a band in the Williamses' basement on Lexington, and gradually took in other regular members: keyboardist Lawrence Waddell, a classically trained pianist who was in the jazz ensemble at school, and saxophonist Jeffrey Allen, who was part of the magnet arts program for recording. Other early members included keyboardist Roger Lynch, the late son of funk great Roger Troutman, and Michael Bland on drums. Most of the kids had grown up within a mile of each other.

Casting for a full-time bassist, they approached Ricky Kinchen, who had grown up on the south side of Chicago. Kinchen wrote the title song of Livin' the Luxury Brown about his childhood there, and like most back-in-the-day jams, the lyrics are about remembering having less, when less went a bit further. "I had everything but nothing," Williams sings in an old-man voice, conjuring a screwed-up, reedy wail to describe a childhood of shared beds and hand-me-downs. "Even though it was rough/I was eating enough, and thought I was cool rocking shoes that were my brother's."

"I remember when I was a kid, my dad stole gas," says Kinchen now, explaining the song. "They would come and cut off our lights, and he would go cut them back on. He needed some heat, so he would go down in the basement and drill a hole through the wall, piping up the neighbors' gas to our oven." Kinchen adds that he slept in the dining room, where he kept a BB gun for shooting rats as they came out from the kitchen.

"When I was growing up, everybody was poor. So we never knew we were poor. That's what the luxury brown is."

Williams admits that he lived in affluence, compared to that. "I didn't have rats," he says, laughing. "I might have had a little mouse here and there."

"We were as hood as it gets in Minnesota," says Waddell. "But it doesn't get very hood. We had a range from Good Times to The Jeffersons."

 

All five present-day members of Mint Condition, along with keyboardist Keri Lewis, were in the band by the time Jellybean Johnson (of the Time) and James "Popeye" Greer recruited them from off the stage of the Riverview Supper Club in 1989 to record for Flyte Tyme's fledgling label, the A&M subsidiary Prospective Records. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had already signed Sounds of Blackness, and Mint Condition seemed like a natural and urgent addition--a similar offer came from Prince, too late.

Today, Jellybean Johnson says Jam and Lewis were initially interested only in Williams.

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