90′s R&B Interview Series: Mint Condition Speaks to UrbanBridgez.com
Once upon a time there were great funk/R&B bands like Earth Wind & Fire, The Meters, War, Kool & The Gang, Slave and numerous others who constantly broke down musical barriers. The musicality of these units was superior – they could rock or funk out as easily as they could move the crowd with a tenor soulful ballad. The rise of electronic music gradually undermined self-contained bands but in the 90s a dynamic young new band emerged—Mint Condition, now the greatest self-contained R&B band of our time. Anointed early on by superstar producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Mint Condition does it all—delivering hard-bitten funk with a hip hop edge, rocking out with screaming lead guitar, and crooning lush, “baby-making” soul ballads. The much sought after band, who mark their 20th Anniversary this year, has amassed a string of hits and performs hundreds of live shows each year.
The members of Mint Condition met as teenagers growing up in the Twin Cities—Minneapolis-St. Paul amidst a thriving music scene energized by Prince, The Time, Jam & Lewis, The Replacements, Soul Asylum and many other artists. Keyboardists Lawrence El and Keri Lewis, guitarist O’Dell, keyboardist/saxophonist Jeff, drummer/vocalist Stokley, and bass player Ricky came together in the performing arts program at Central High School. Playing together in different combinations led to them forming Mint Condition; a gig at the famed First Avenue club in 1989 caught the attention of super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and they were signed to Jam & Lewis’ Perspective Records. Meant to Be Meant, their debut album, was released in 1991. Their first single, a New Jack Swing-styled number, had only modest success but it was a ballad, “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” which has become one of the classic R&B ballads of our time, that was their breakthrough, hitting #3 on the R&B charts and #6 on the Pop charts.
Two decades on, Mint Condition stands along with The Roots as the only high-profile examples of a self-contained, hit-making Black music band, and with Mint’s emphasis on songs and great singing, the sole band carrying on the great tradition of R&B funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, The Meters, War, The Commodores, Lakeside, Slave and many more that were an important, progressive element of the black music scene in the Seventies and Eighties.
UrbanBridgez.com recently talked to Mint Condition. In this interview Aries talked to the fellas about their new album 7, how far they’ve came since St Paul Central, how they create their music and stay true to their sound, their favorite songs from their catalog, Stokley‘s upcoming solo release and much more!
UrbanBridgez.com: First off congrads on the Grammy nominations for “Not My Daddy” with Kelly Price, that’s a great look for the whole band.
Mint Condition: Thank You!
UrbanBridgez.com: 20 years ago when you guys debuted with Meant to Be Meant, what type of goals did you have for the band and since then have you achieved them?
Stokley (Mint Condition): We wasn’t really thinking about it, we were just having fun.
Larry (Mint Condition): Longevity, that was one of the main goals we had.
Stokley (Mint Condition): Yeah that was a main one and not to be a one-hit wonder. We were pretty much groomed from that. We were on a label (Perspective) where they blossomed careers, not just hits.
UrbanBridgez.com: We all have something in common, with graduating from St Paul Central High School, how did Central prepare you guys for a career in music & entertainment?
O’Dell (Mint Condition): Definitely the performing arts class.
Stokley: The recording studio! Just to have access to that, being young kids who were interested in a career in music. That really left it wide open, plus it was fun. We didn’t really know the after math that would come from it.
Jeff (Mint Condition): Right!
O’Dell (Mint Condition): Alot of after school time in that little 15 track studio they had. Alot of things we got done back then, nobody was really thinking about what we were getting.
Stokley (Mint Condition): Back then see we didn’t know, we knew it was cool but didn’t know what it could lead to. We use to have to go get Larry from the back stairs from messing with them girls and everything (all laugh).
Rick (Mint Condition): I’m the only one that didn’t go there, I’m from Chicago. I don’t even think back then that it was set it stone that parents were like…like today if you want your kids to play sports, then you get them in this school. Now if you want them to get into music, they go to St Paul Central. At the time, I don’t even think their parents was thinking like that.
Stokley (Mint Condition): Nah, you’re right. We were excited that we were in there.
Larry (Mint Condition): All the other kids in the Twin Cities would try to come there just for that performing arts class. I just got into it at first to get off, because they had a two-hour block (all laugh). I was like I can just do this for two hours and get my credits.
Rick (Mint Condition): I went to concert maybe about two months ago and about three of the artists were from St Paul Central. I was like wow, I was blown away.
UrbanBridgez.com: This last year has been very exciting for you guys, as a fan it’s been exciting for me to watch. Everything from the release of 7 to performing with Prince to playing for Way Black When…what has been your most memorable memory?
Rick (Mint Condition): For me it would have to be Way Black Then playing for all those artists and with Cuba Gooding Jr. working with him on that show was like incredible. But he was straight like he didn’t know who we were. He thought we were like some kids and that was our first big thing. He would be like Stop! Wait a minute, go back to the top! I want you to do it like this, don’t do it like dadada, do it like bababababa (all laugh)!
O’Dell (Mint Condition): And he would say, now this is a really good opportunity for you guys and if you guys do great after this is done I’ll take you guys out with me and you can be my band. (all laugh)
UrbanBridgez.com: Oh Wow, he really had no idea who you guys were, too funny!
O’Dell (Mint Condition): And when Prince came up on the stage with us, for the first time ever. We’ve all lived in the same area forever. So for him to come up on the stage with us, that was it. He was like (in his Prince voice) can I get a guitar and come play with you guys? So he came up and was like when do I start… we were all like, now!
Rick (Mint Condition): Then the Budweiser tour will Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton, DJ Jazzy Jeff & Doug E. Fresh, for me because Jill was a beautiful spirit and really nice. Just watching Doug E. Fresh rock the crowd every night. Everybody in the crowd did everything he told them to do. The whole crowd was partying, that was incredible.
Stokley (Mint Condition): And to add to all of that, going to Iraq to perform for the troops. Probably one of the most different experiences we’ve had. Performing for the soldiers and just getting to see how they stay together in close in their living quarters with each other. It was so crazy and totally different than anything that we’ve ever done. Just to get a window inside of their world.
UrbanBridgez.com: What was the biggest obstacle you guys faced if any when working on the new album “7?”
Stokley (Mint Condition): Just really getting together to record it. Like time, everybody has families and different things. As usually, because we’ve been around for awhile and everybody has different things going on so getting it done was the biggest. We had all these great ideas and everything but coming together and do it…we grown (laughs).
UrbanBridgez.com: Tell people why they need to go out and pick up this album?
Stokley (Mint Condition): It’s killin man, it’s smashin! You ain’t gonna hear no CD like this. In a group where you can actually go see them live and it actually sounds better, so you’re gonna get more. You’re gonna get the real thing, not a diss to anybody else. But you’re gonna get us in our truest form, meaning you’re going to get a performance. You’re gonna get a group who knows how to turn on a crowd and keep them turned on. It’s just our dynamic, I think that’s why people gravitate to us. It resonates with us first and of course we love it, then we get that feedback from them with the comments on loving they still have a real band who plays instruments. So that’s the reason, because they will get turned on.
UrbanBridgez.com: How do you guys come together to create your music, do you have writing and playing sessions where you just knock songs out or is their a formula you guys take when working on new music?
Rick (Mint Condition): It happens like a couple of different ways, like at sound check, it may be someone who has an idea and they just pass it along to everybody. Or someone does something by themselves and we just all retouch it.
UrbanBridgez.com: R&B has been getting a bad rap lately and honestly for a good reason compared to what it once was, how do you guys manage to stay true to the genre as well as the band?
Rick (Mint Condition): We’re all perfect for each other because like I’m the artist that can do whatever but I think about radio a little also. So getting it all together is the hard part. Then it’s like hit, hit, hit. We gotta have a hit record, some of us are like it has to be an R&B record. Some of us are like it has to be something different, we gotta give people something new, we can’t give people the same thing we’ve been giving them. We have the perfect balance, so that’s where it all comes from.
Stokley (Mint Condition): That’s why you hear all of these different influences because everybody has all of these different ingredients. We’re all influenced by the same things, but different stuff as well. Jazz, Funk, etc. so we mix it all in. We don’t leave anything out, you don’t get that anywhere else.
UrbanBridgez.com: We’re celebrating 90′s R&B on UB right now and you guys had some of the biggest hits from that period, since then what’s been the biggest lesson you’ve guys have learned in this business?
Larry (Mint Condition): Times change and things have changed so much. When we first started it was all about the record company and the multi-million dollar deals. Even then when we got in, they would have these big transitions where the record company execs would get fired left and right when our record was out. And we had to make all of these transitions, like then you had to go to these million dollar studios to record. Now you can use your own Pro Tools or whatever you got and do it yourself for a lot less money. Now the game is different and people are putting out their own stuff, it’s alot more independent projects out.
O’Dell (Mint Condition): More artists are more hands on now, due to the fact that technology has changed. Alot of artists are engineers, more do it their self. Nobody really has to rely on the multi-million dollar studios anymore, just need a computer with the way technology has evolved.
Rick (Mint Condition): Not to hate on other artists that are less talented, because everybody has something special to offer. To me if everybody was great, that would probably get on my nerves too. Another thing would be, knowing the importance of what you sign. When you sign a contract, know what you are signing. Yeah those would have to be the lessons we’ve learned.
UrbanBridgez.com: Ricky you did an interview recently and mentioned how artists today are killing their careers because they don’t do real live shows, can you elaborate on that for our readers?
Rick (Mint Condition): I see artists come to Minneapolis and you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s like are they going to do a show or are they going to have a VIP party on stage. People are getting confused like what are they paying their money for you know. They’re paying from $35 to $75 dollars to see somebody drink some liquor on stage and do a couple little melodies from their songs. That’s like I’m a big artist and I’m not on a tour right now, so I’m going to do these pimp parties where people are going to think that I’m going to perform. So they’re going to come out and I’m going to get paid 40 to 50 thousand dollars to be on stage with just some friends and girls. And one of the things that have kept us in the game so long is people know what they’re going to get. They’re gonna get a fly event with alot of energy with Larry on the piano, Stokley on the drums, O’Dell killin his guitar solo he does, Jeff on saxophone, me on bass. That’s why people keep going.
O’Dell (Mint Condition): Some others where as it’s like they’re doing a track show and people are just like f*ck it, excuse my language.
Rick (Mint Condition): If all of the younger artists… it’s like if you got 7 people in the crew who are just there, turn them into crew members or management. Have people around you, if you need that but just have them doing something.
UrbanBridgez.com: Who are some of the current artists you guys really enjoy?
Rick (Mint Condition): Frank ocean (all agree).
UrbanBridgez.com: Each of you guys tell me your favorite songs from the MC catalog?
O’Dell (Mint Condition): Sometimes for me, the way Jeff be killin that sax it’s like whew! When we do it live, when it comes up it is extremely a nice show he does every night.
Rick (Mint Condition): For me Someone to Love, Why Do Fools Fall In Love and So Fine.
Jeff (Mint Condition): That’s a hard question, it would be Sad Girl, umm yeah this is hard because they’re all different. Raise Up (Stokley agrees) would be another one.
Larry (Mint Condition): I’ll have to use our usual theory which is they’re all like our children, so it’s kind of hard to reach in and pull them out separately. For me it’s different ones for different things, like I’ll say that one because man I just love the bridge on that one or Stokley killed it on that one. So for me they’re like our children so it’s hard to pick.
O’Dell (Mint Condition): That goes for me too, because on a different day I’m listening to them for different reasons. Like one I might play all of the rock ones and the next day I’m listening to Breaking My Heart. So it changes, I really like them all.
Larry (Mint Condition): Some of them are about the creation also, like we did that song Pretty Lady with Charlie Wilson and just the experience. So some of them I just remember the moment of creation where it was just amazing. Like when we worked with Ali from A Tribe Called Quest (Why Do We Try) those moments were just hot for me.
O’Dell (Mint Condition): I do have to say Breaking My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes) may be my all time favorite because it kept us here all of these years (all laugh & agree)!
UrbanBridgez.com: UrbanBridgez.com broke news last month on you working on your solo debut Stokley, can you share with fans what they can expect?
Stokley (Mint Condition): Well the plan for this coming year, we have alot of stuff. It’s in production I can’t even tell you what it is because it’s all kind of in production right now. From my stuff to Mint’s stuff as well as production stuff coming in every other day pretty much. We’re getting it together though, we have alot of tracks, so we’re going to see where they end up basically. Alot of great things that we’re doing. I don’t know when or where yet, there is no home. Good things will come though, all of this positive energy that’s happening right now it’s just going to be a great year for MC with all of these great things that we’re doing.
UrbanBridgez.com: Anything else you guys want to leave with the fans?
Larry (Mint Condition): We really appreciate all of their support through the years, like O’Dell said Breaking My Heart was so long ago and has been played over and over and if it wasn’t for our people who basically grew up into adult hood with us, so we appreciate you.
Stokley (Mint Condition): They wait for that show every night, we could do a two hour show and people wait for that song.
Larry (Mint Condition): And it’s not just them it’s their kids..
Stokley (Mint Condition): That right there speaks volumes because your kids and all the way to real little kids to grandparents we’re always told, they love your song. And how many other younger artists have that, so its amazing. It’s going to be interesting to see how todays music is perceived years from now, it may be the same. Like Lil Wayne who I love, but I’m not sure it won’t be just for this generation.