Mint Condition: The Real McCoy
Following in the esteemed tradition of such legendary funk/soul ensembles as Kool & The Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire and War, Minnesota-based quintet Mint Condition are arguably today’s only high-profile example of a self-contained, hit-making R&B band. Which in turn makes the release this month of their self-written-and-produced eighth studio album “Music @ The Speed Of Life” a significant event in itself.
Indeed, pioneered by the slow hypnotic bounce of its current offshoot single “Believe In Us”, the 13-track set - which showcases admirably the band’s seamless ability to uniquely blend adult-oriented soul and R&B/funk with elements of hip hop, jazz and rock - boasts guest appearances from the likes of hip hop icon DJ Jazzy Jeff; underground MC Brother Ali; talkbox maestro Bobby Ross Avila; plus former Prince saxophonist Eric Leeds. While standout tracks range from the solidly chunky opener “In The Moment” and sensually undulating “Slo Woman”; to the charmingly romantic balladry of Completely” and smoothly swaying, free-flowing closer “SixFortyNine/Changes”.
Formed in the late-Eighties in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Mint Condition’s original line-up comprised Stokley Williams (lead vocals/drums/percussion); Ricky Kinchen (bass guitar); Homer O’Dell (guitar); Larry Waddell (keyboards/piano); Keri Lewis (keyboards/synthesizer); and Jeffrey Allen (saxophone/keyboards). Signing to R&B super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ A&M-affiliated Perspective Records in 1989, the band would go on to release three successful studio albums during their tenure with the label - 1991’s “Meant To Be Mint”; 1993’s “From The Mint Factory” and 1996’s Gold-certified “The Definition Of A Band” - while simultaneously attaining two-Gold-selling, US R&B Top Three singles with the soulful ballads “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” (1992) and “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” (1996).
Meanwhile, following the closure of Perspective/A&M, 1999 found Mint Condition signing with Elektra Records for their US R&B Top 10 album “Life’s Aquarium” - a record which would ultimately prove to be their last outing as a sextet. With the band - following the departure in 2000 of aforementioned keyboardist Keri Lewis (who would go on to produce his wife - singing superstar Toni Braxton - amongst others) eventually re-emerging as a quintet in 2005. When the arrival of their fifth LP “Livin’ The Luxury Brown” also marked their first independent release through their own Caged Bird label. Since which time their sixth and seventh studio albums (2008’s “E-Life” and 2011’s double-Grammy-nominated “7…”) have impressively both hit the US R&B Top Ten as independent releases - with the enduring ensemble’s acclaimed international live profile at the same time being retained via funk/rock megastar (and long-time fan-cum-mentor) Prince prestigiously featuring them on his 2010/2011 Welcome 2 America tour.
… Which pretty much brings us up-to-date. As Mint Condition keyboardist Larry and bassist Ricky take time out of taping a major US TV spot to discuss with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis such pressing topics as their aforementioned new album (which also marks the band’s second LP release through US-based indie Shanachie); their early formation in Minnesota’s Twin-Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul amidst a then-thriving local music scene energised by the likes Prince, The Time and Alexander O’Neal; plus their views on surviving today’s music industry as an independent recording act.
Titling their new, eighth studio LP “Music @ The Speed Of Life”
LARRY: “Well, what we found this time was that, as we were writing the songs, we were actually writing about what was happening in our lives AT THAT MOMENT. Which is why we say this album is not music to be just LISTENED to, but to be LIVED by. Like when you listen to the tracks, what you’ll find is that you’ll be listening - and then along comes a twist and a turn in the music which kinda reflects how life ITSELF was going for us. For instance, the song “SixFortyNine/Changes” is basically talking about how the block that housed one of the group members’ - Jef’s - multi-generational home was bought by the city and torn down for development purposes. And how, because thinking of all the generations that had lived there was such a bittersweet thing for him, he’d find himself actually driving out of his way to avoid PASSING it. But then, from there he goes on to say how the whole experience actually taught him a lesson in acceptance of life and its CHANGES… So yeah, as I say, this CD definitely speaks to those real things in life that were actually happening to us as we were MAKING it. Which is why we titled it “Music @ The Speed Of LIFE”!”
How Mint Condition (who, except for keyboardist Keri Lewis’ departure in 2000, admirably still retain their original line-up to this day) break down the soulful musical diversity displayed on their latest release
LARRY: “Well, because we love many different styles of music from all over the world, what I think you’re getting basically is just a big, eclectic musical HYBRID. Like we grew up in the Mid-West of the US where, when you listen to the radio, you get a total mixture ranging from Led Zeppelin to Earth, Wind & Fire to Stevie WONDER. And so when you add that to our world music influences - like calypso, reggae, and even French ‘muzak’ - and then mix it with the fact we’re obviously big jazz fans, all of that does come to play in the music we actually MAKE. Which means you’ll hear steel pan, you’ll hear accordion, you’ll hear slide guitar… You know, all that is very much a part of our sound, and we’re not apologetic ABOUT it! Because we don’t try to pigeonhole and CONFINE our sound. Instead we like to CELEBRATE everything!”
With “Music @ The Speed Of Life” being released unusually soon after the band’s last album (2011’s double-Grammy-nominated “7…”), the main ways they feel it stands out from their previous releases
RICKY: “Oh, we’re just on FIRE right now, man! I mean, this band has all my favourite writers in the industry together in one group; we all inspire each other... So yeah, we really did feel ready to go in and do another RECORD together! And I have to say, the actual recording experience this time round was actually very INTERESTING - largely because of certain things some of the band members were going through in their PERSONAL lives. Like in my case (lead-singer/drummer) Stokley literally got to watch me laying bass tracks in TEARS from certain stuff I was going through at the time! You know, it was just a really special recording for us. Plus we all genuinely loved the way it all turned OUT. Like this was one of the first albums that we’ve ever done where we all had nothing bad to say about each other’s SONGS! You know, while normally there’s a little bit of hate or there’s some constructive criticism being dished out, with this record nobody had ANYTHING negative to say! It was all just really POSITIVE!”
Mint Condition’s early origins in St. Paul, Minnesota
LARRY: “Well, most of the group actually went to a local High School that had a Performing Arts section with a recording studio in it. So aside from Rick - who hails from Chicago and actually came into the picture right AFTER our High School days - we all pretty much got our feet wet playing and writing our own music in that High School RECORDING studio. After which most of us then actually began playing out as part of the rhythm sections behind OTHER local musicians. But then what happened was, because each time these local musicians would hire a band Rick, Stokley and myself would always find ourselves in the same band playing together, eventually we kinda just said to each other ‘Hey, let’s do this OURSELVES!’!... So we tried out various group personnel - and the combination that really stuck, and that had that lasting magic when they played together, eventually became the six original members of Mint CONDITION!”
How Mint Condition first came to sign with Minneapolis super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ A&M-affiliated Perspective label in 1989, and their memories of their time spent working with said multi-Platinum twosome (who at the time were red-hot from their world-conquering productions for the likes of Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson)
LARRY: “We actually invited Jimmy and Terry out to a show we were doing at the infamous First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis club that was immortalised in Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie. And that one night they came out, they straightway started talking about giving us a DEAL! And though at first - because we’d already been through so much - we didn’t quite believe it, it did end up being TRUE! You know, because at the time they were still working out the final details for their label, they actually first hired us as SONGWRITERS. Then after we’d done a lot of writing for them, a year or so later we were actually signed to Perspective as ARTISTS!”
RICKY: “Yeah, and we definitely learnt a lot from WORKING with them! You know, some great moments like being in New York for the first time and hearing your record being played on the radio, touring and setting up equipment yourself... As well as the HARD times! Like when Terry asked us to put up the money to go all across the country in an SRV to visit every radio station to try and get people to play our second record (the band’s breakthrough 1992 US Top 10 ballad “Breakin’ My Heart”) after our first single (the uptempo “Are You Free”) hadn’t hit!”
The group’s short stint with the Warners-affiliated Elektra Records, which in 1999 spawned their US R&B Top 10, fourth album “Life’s Aquarium”
LARRY: “Well, when we left Jam & Lewis and Perspective/A&M and then went over to Elektra, that deal basically changed our LIFE for a little bit! Because the deal we’d had previously simply hadn’t been that GREAT. You know, I’d basically describe it as getting paid below minimum WAGE! So, once we hooked up with Elektra and Sylvia Rhone really took care of us and gave us the best deal, that was when we started building houses from ground-up; that was when we started going to the lots, taking out whatever car we wanted, paying cash for it and driving off... You know, for a short while there our life did kinda CHANGE. But, you know, unfortunately that whole situation proved to be short-lived because of the problems that the industry ITSELF was then starting to go through.”
The background to Mint Condition becoming an independent recording act in the mid-Noughties, and their ideas on how their career has progressed since then
RICKY: “Well, once the whole industry started crashing down and all the different companies started merging, there wasn’t really a lotta OPPORTUNITIES out there. You know, if you weren’t going Gold your music wasn’t being RELEASED. And so once the Elektra situation was over we basically found ourselves back in the situation we’d been in at the START, where we had to hustle and make something happen for OURSELVES - with no manager, no assistant... And so it was only in 2005 - when we got the Image distribution deal - that we actually started recording records again and then releasing them INDEPENDENTLY... Which I guess has brought us to where we are TODAY.”
LARRY: “Yeah, and while we are definitely thankful to still be here, at the same it IS TOUGH! Because we’ve always been fighting against SOMETHING! Whether it was back in the Nineties when hip hop was really blowing up and we were competing on the chart with Biggie and 2Pac and trying to have the only R&B song being played on the radio… To today, where as an independent act we now find ourselves fighting against major-label stars like Alicia Keys and R. KELLY on the charts!... But you know, having said that, I am kinda happy with the way things have worked OUT for us. Because - unlike so many groups who’ve broken up and are no longer around - we’ve been consistent, we’ve charted with every record... I mean, we’ve been independent and still had a Top Five record on the US “Billboard” chart for 11 MONTHS! Which is like UNHEARD of!... So yeah, I guess these days for us it’s about having smaller budgets but still writing good songs that are out there fighting for us and taking us to where we need to BE!”
The album “Music @ The Speed Of Life” and single “Believe In Us” are both out now through Shanachie
Words PETE LEWIS