We Got Us
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.
"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.
"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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