Mint Condition: On & On, Pt 1

From “Pretty Brown Eyes” to “You Send Me Swingin” and “What Kind Of Man Would I Be”, Mint Condition has created some of the most memorable ballads in modern R&B music. While the success of their love songs has been satisfying for them, there are other sides to the band that have rarely been mentioned […]

From “Pretty Brown Eyes” to “You Send Me Swingin” and “What Kind Of Man Would I Be”, Mint Condition has created some of the most memorable ballads in modern R&B music. While the success of their love songs has been satisfying for them, there are other sides to the band that have rarely been mentioned in their career. After several years of recording under major label contracts, the group has set out independently to release their new full-length album, Livin’ The Luxury Brown on their own Cagedbird label.

Mint Condition first arrived on the scene in 1991 with their debut album Meant To Be Mint, and their unique sound took the already exciting legacy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to a new level. Before you begin to form the words ‘old school’ in your brain, you may want to keep in mind that the men of MC are still younger than some of your favorite emcees. During the group’s recent visit to New York, Alternatives sat down with lead singer and percussionist Stokley Williams and bassist/lead guitar player Ricky Kinchen to discuss their longevity in the game, the changes they have endured, and their refreshed freedom of musical expression. Alternatives: Do you feel pressure to compete with the market today with all of the Hip-Hop infused R&B?

Rick: We don’t feel any pressure at all, we’ve never felt any pressure. When we first came out Hip-Hop was just blowing up big, that’s when it started getting into everybody’s homes across the country in the suburbs and every place else. So we never really felt pressure, we just do what we do. We don’t think about making hits, trying to compete with everybody, trying to get a booty song. Some of us might think that we need to do that, but some of us feel that would just be chasing the beat. We just need to do what we feel, we need to do music but still keep an ear to the ground in just knowing what’s going on and just being open to a lot of things. But for the most part we just go in and record a record without thinking about all that stuff.

Stokley: But if there is competition it’s between Mint Condition and Mint Condition, to raise the bar for ourselves and challenge ourselves which we think we’ve done, and to get a little bit more substance on the lyrics to challenge not only ourselves but our fans to raise them to a level. We did another interview today, and I definitely agree, the guy was saying the public is smarter than what mainstream radio gives them.

AHHA: Obviously you guys are independent now, but do you feel at the labels may have questioned you, like why don’t you appeal to that? Why don’t you go into more of that kind of dumbed down R&B?

Stokley: For us because of where we were at when we first started, [Jimmy] Jam and [Terry] Lewis never did that because look at what their label was about. Their label was about signing artists that everybody else didn’t want. Look at Low Key, Mint Condition, Sounds Of Blackness… The music had a lot of depth and breadth to it, these artists weren’t just the run of the mill, cookie cutter thing. They actually had some depth. [Jam and Lewis] gave us our opportunity to do what we do. They understood from their perspective coming from The Time, they got it – ‘You’re a band, we understand you wanna grow and create your own stuff’, and I think it was great thing for me to just bless them that way and to have them do that.

Rick: I think labels today feel like it’s too many people in a band, they’re used to doing track acts. It costs too much to move ‘em, it costs too much to do a show, there’s a big cost. But they don’t really have the time to think about being creative and to think about other ways of doing things without spending a lot of money. They just cut their mind off to it, and then it’s being done on the rock side all day long – getting in a band, going across country, promoting and playing in clubs. I think the corporate thing put the labels in when corporate people started buying the record companies and it started being about the dollar. The executives basically have to cater to them because that’s their bosses. They have to think the way they think, not spending dollars and doing creative things with us.

AHHA: Some people are calling Toni Braxton the Yoko Ono of the group… Do you guys feel like her marriage to Keri Lewis contributed to him not singing in the band anymore?

Stokley: [laughs] Nah, it wasn’t like no Beatles thing. It’s funny because people will always look more and deeper into things than we will. Obviously being a musical marriage it’s going to create some type of feeling at first but you gotta realize that life is short and you gotta go ‘head roll with it and do your thing.

AHHA: Well I think fans liked the group how it was.

Stokley: Exactly, people don’t like change. It’s hard to do that, but it’s necessary and that’s gonna happen.

Rick: At the same time I don’t know if when we were going through things with him there was an influence or not with her or somebody else. That’s a question for Keri, but some things change since leaving the group you assume with business and stuff you have to take care of everything will still be cool – because we weren’t really falling out about everything. Some things on the business end just kind of took a different corner and made us not be as close as we used to be. I don’t know if she had any influence. It could have been the pressure of getting married, who knows what was going through his head.

AHHA: What is harder: breaking into the business, staying in the business or making a comeback?

Stokley: Good question. All of them are equally challenging, getting in is crazy right now, staying in is crazy. [laughs] Especially when you have a certain level of success, it’s all a grind. You’ve gotta keep grinding.

Rick: If you didn’t get a hit something wouldn’t have took off for you coming in there. Once you get in there you have to continue doing great records. So many artists come out with their first record that’s great. There’s this rock band in England – their first album was incredible, their second record I couldn’t find one good song.

AHHA: How do you feel the media has treated you different as you’ve moved on and progressed through your career?

Rick: I don’t feel a difference, I’ve felt that it was the machine not really doing their job. They spend a lot of money to get you in bed, but then don’t really make your record happen. It’s like once that first single don’t hit it’s over, it’s a done deal. I didn’t really look at the media, because I couldn’t think of any bad press we’ve ever had.

AHHA: Well, it’s not that you really got bad press, but do you feel there was a lack of it or perhaps people not taking enough interest?

Rick: Well, I just know what was going on with [Life’s Aquarium]. I don’t think anything was done, period. There wasn’t a second video, barely was a second single. We knew what we were getting into – we were told – but it’s that money that gets you in bed.

AHHA: That’s a sad story with a lot of artists right now. It’s like the labels don’t even know what songs to pick as singles sometimes.

Stokley: Well, what do they know? You’ve got A&R’s… it’s like, if you don’t know at least as much as I do [about music], I don’t even want to talk about it.

Rick: We never really had to deal with A&R people, but we were working with a couple of artists, and the A&R person was in there picking the songs to work on. It was just weird. [They were saying] ‘Something just doesn’t feel right with it’ – and it’s an unfinished song. We’re sitting there writing the song, and they’re just all up in the mix.

AHHA: Everyone should get young people in the streets to pick songs. They’re the most honest people in the world.

Stokley: You know what? We believe in that, and that’s what we did with [Livin’ The Luxury Brown]. We sat people down – a few times. We kind of had an idea of what we wanted, but the five songs that kept coming back…

Rick: We put those five songs together, and had people come back and pick what they liked best – then we sent the CD out to the person who was going to be working the record and he picked the same song. With [Life’s Aquarium], they didn’t believe in that. It was just like ‘I’m the person in power, I believe in this song’. We went with it, but we didn’t really believe in it. It was a slow song, a little mellow…

Stokley: The funny thing about that is, we had a couple of songs on there that had a little more of a rock edge. They heard that and were really excited about it. They were like ‘Okay, we can do that – really go there on the rock tip’, then they’re like ‘Oh, but we’re going to put a remix on it’.

Rick: They were so hype about the rock songs, so we came in and played about three rock songs. Then the vibe started to change, and they wanted to bring in producers, Timbaland and all that, because that’s what everyone was doing at the time. So we pretty much never turned in the record.