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.

"Stokley plays everything, man--guitar, keyboard, bass," says Johnson. "He's a walking band himself, and he's a world-class drummer. And I know for a fact that Terry and Jimmy wanted just Stokley. Which speaks volumes for Stokley, because he would not leave his fellow musicians. He came up with them, and they have about as much of a democracy as you can have."

Mint Condition hastily recorded a demo on borrowed equipment and were soon cutting an album at Flyte Tyme with Johnson and Greer. The whole crew then climbed into a Winnebago for a national campaign of grassroots promotion--thanking DJs (sometimes in advance) for playing the record, and touring black colleges until WHUR-FM, the influential station at Howard University in Washington, D.C., fell for the band's second single, "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)." It was the breakthrough they needed, and Williams was soon dancing in those Hammer pants on cable.

In the years since, the group has occupied an odd gray area between local and national, Hot 97 and KMOJ, touring with Alicia Keys and keeping a weekly gig playing Brazilian jazz at Babalu (which Williams, Allen, and Waddell do on Tuesdays). Before Prospective folded, Mint Condition had reached a level of prominence that found them not only touring with Toni Braxton but also serving as her backing band. The marriage of Braxton and keyboardist Keri Lewis coincided with his amicable exit from the group before Elektra/Asylum released the underrated Life's Aquarium in 1999.

Mint Condition seemed subsequently lost in the label's merger shuffle, yet they paced themselves for commercial failure as well as success. "We treat success like the lottery," says Waddell. "You won it once, spread it out, because you may never win again." And they credit this lesson--as well as not blowing their money on mansions and drugs--to guidance from older figures around them. Widely described by their elders as "good young men," these artists seem keenly aware that at every stage of their career, they had opportunities that previous generations of African American musicians could only fight for.

"Everyone's parents here are among my most admired heroes," says Waddell. "And that's also what helps keep us grounded. It wasn't even that long ago, probably less than a month, I had the drink, and one of the moms said, 'Hey, you don't need to drink.' She put the reprimand on me, so, even now, it's kind of hard to stray off."

The other guys crack up at this story as Waddell continues. "She'll let you know: The trees have switches on them, man. Even at this age."

 

If Mint Condition feel the burden of being the best face of black pop, they don't show it at the Quest. After all the other guys have bounded onstage, Williams stays behind in the greenroom, facing the mirror with a microphone in his hand, singing along to the intro number from backstage. "Yeah, party people!" he declares, bobbing his whole body for the unseen audience.

When he runs out onstage for "My Sista," a catchy call for solidarity between the sexes, he finds a swooning floor of mostly African Americans, lots of suits and more dresses, with plenty of high-pitched cheering. (Note to fans: While some of his bandmates have started families, Williams is still reportedly single. "He's picky," says one of his female friends.) The new material plays well with these old fans, and "Whoaa" gets the crowd step dancing.

After "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)," Williams does the two-drummer thing with Wesley, both of them playing along to a Brazilian-inflected jam as Jeffrey Allen blows polyphonic under a straw hat. After about an hour, Ricky Kinchen asks the crowd, "Was that, like, too much music for you?"

"Put your funk sign up like this, y'all," says Williams, flashing the devil horns, and inviting local R&B singer Kip Blackshire onstage for a stanky workout. During a scat near the end, Stokley interpolates "Salt Peanuts" with the line "Livin' the luxury broooooooooooown," then announces, "We'll be back in the fall, y'all." Two hours are over in seemingly half the time.

After the band's encore of Earth Wind and Fire's "Love's Holiday," I find a man in a graying beard who I assume must be one of the parents--he has been singing along with every song.

"No, I'm just a fan," he says. "I've followed these guys for 15 years. They make real music, and we need them now."

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