Ebony and Ebony

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.  

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."

Aquarium's organic mix of live instruments and programming was recorded song by song in six different home studios around town--one belonging to each band member. Williams believes the fluid results came from the ability to record spontaneously in the studio. "They tried that whole multitrack thing before," he says of earlier collaborators, "but it was defeating our whole purpose as a band. So we had to stick to our guns: We signed as a band, and we're going to stay a band. We get a lot of love from people who say, Keep doin' what you're doin', be strong: It'll happen."

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