Interview: Upon the Release of Their Seventh album, Mint Condition Provides the Blueprint on How to Last as a Group and Remains a Rarity as One of Few R&B Bands
When it comes to groups performing in the r&b genre over the past couple of decades, it seems that the main constant that most share in common is they WILL break up at some point. Through the 90’s until today, fans have witnessed the demise of legendary groups like Jodeci, 112, Guy, Blackstreet and New Edition. In fact, it’s got to the point where we don’t even see many new groups coming out and having the success their predecessors enjoyed. Even more of a rarity and mystery in r&b over the past 20 years has been disappearance of bands. Sure, you will find an artist performing at a show with a live band backing the set, but groups encompassing a full band have become relatively extinct. For that reason, it’s very impressive that Mint Condition has been able to continue to not only last over 20 years as a band, but they’ve also managed to remain relevant in consistently delivering quality music over the years and keep their loyal fan base. For a group that released their debut album two decades ago in 1991, the release of their seventh studio album “7” provides plenty of reasons for the group to rejoice and reflect on this great accomplishment. In this interview, lead singer Stokley represented the group as discussed their new album, touring with Prince, feeling pressure to change their style over the years, changes they’ve noticed in r&b over the years, the disappearance of r&b bands, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Congratulations on your guys seventh album you released last month called “7”. Tell me, when you guys started the group in the late 80’s, did you ever envision that you’d have the opportunity to release seven albums?
Mint Condition (Stokley): We were hoping and praying definitely. *Laughs* We had a great beginning in that a lot of people were looking at us and we got picked up by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis which was a blessing. It just kept continuing from there and they let us know the importance of being in this business, making your mark, and really trying to make some songs that are going to move some people. As we went on we realized that we wanted to be a group that had an actual career first of all and that kind of set the tone for trying to be businessmen as well in music because music is our passion. You’ve got to do the business first, it should be business and then music, but we’ve managed to do at least some of what they taught us. We’re still here, but I don’t think we could have envisioned it in quite this way, but we just hoped and prayed and put our best foot forward.
YKIGS: How has this album been received by your fans compared to your previous albums?
MC (Stokley): It’s funny because some people feel like this is the best album since whenever that person’s favorite albums of ours released, this either tops it or is up there with their favorite Mint Condition album. That’s a great complement and we’ve seen a lot of that going on.
YKIGS: I was reading that your fans had requested you put an instrumental track on the album, and you guys did exactly that.
MC (Stokley): Exactly, and now they’re like “Make it longer! Make it longer!” *Laughs*
YKIGS: Why do you feel it was so heavily requested? Was that a testament to showcasing the whole band?
MC (Stokley): When we began in the first projects we always had interludes and it got people to expect them. But for those interludes, everywhere we went they would always say things like “We wish you would have played that interlude into a full song!” or sometimes people would say “We wish you would do a whole cd of just the interludes.” So we thought we’d pump it up a little bit on the time.
YKIGS: I interviewed Kelly Price a couple of months back and talked about “Not My Daddy” and she mentioned she had came up with a song she considered a “Mint Condition” song so she needed you guys with her on the song. She also talked about how she had to twist your arm a little bit Stokley to get you on there. What was it like working on that song and putting it together?
MC (Stokley): We had finished the track and everything, they had sent us the piano and the vocals, but I actually didn’t know that she wanted me to sing on it. I didn’t realize, but it ended up being a duet and everything turned out fine. It’s an incredible song just from jump street, the bare bones, just piano and vocals. The lyrics, the melody, everything about it was already there, we just pretty much put all of the bells and whistles. Like you said, she heard it and felt it was a Mint Condition song and naturally we tried to deliver on it.
YKIGS: I know a lot of people have probably asked how you guys have stayed together so long because a lot of groups break up. What I’d like to know is, what’s the closest you guys have ever come to breaking up or has there ever been a time when you guys were close to breaking up?
MC (Stokley): Maybe there was a time when there was a reflection when a lot of things happened around 2000 after the Elektra situation. We were traveling and lost a member at the time, Kerry went and married Toni Braxton, we weren’t really looking for another deal at the time, we were just traveling and taking classes and stuff like that. I don’t know if it so much was a breakup, it was a natural progression of when you’re together that long and do music so much, you’re trying to figure out what else you can do in life to enrich your life. All along there’s always moments that are challenging to be away from your folks and your people and certain days you’re tired and you just feel like going and packing it into the closet. But we all know that we’re definitely a small percentage of people who really do what they love to do so I think that really sobers us pretty quick, at least it does me. I’m like “You know what, I don’t have to be here doing this, I could be doing something else that I hated years ago to get to this point.” Life is challenging, so even if you have the best job in the world, you’ve got to put everything in perspective. That’s probably the closest, that time between “Living the Luxury Brown” and “Life’s Aquarium” where we were just doing different things and it was just a natural break I think. The thing is we were doing gigs in between, not a lot but a few, and recording so that was about it, we were just really quiet. People called it our hiatus, so I guess that’s a good term for it.
YKIGS: Now that you’ve reached your twentieth year as a group, do you plan to do anything to commemorate that?
MC (Stokley): Just really celebrating. Starting last year it’s just been really incredible. Going to Iraq and playing for the troops was incredible. We’ve just been on this big surge of performances, the “Way Black When” show on TV One, playing with Prince on his “Welcome to America” tour, last year starting some of the stuff with him over in Belgium and France, touring ourselves this year as well. It’s really just been an incredible ride so we’re always just trying to bigger and better things. We’re doing some production coming up so you’ll be hearing of some things coming up, a lot of projects that we’re doing. So we’re really just looking at spreading our wings so people hear about us on many different levels.
YKIGS: You mentioned touring with Prince. How did that opportunity come together?
MC (Stokley): He’s been talking about doing stuff with us for a long time, we’d all kind of play locally with different groups during our time and we’d kinda pop in and come and jam with each other. He loves to hear local talent and he’s got a lot of Minnesota pride which is the state that he’s from. He loves it, he loves to hear people play, loves music, loves being stimulated and hear who’s new and who’s doing what. I know I’ve talked to him on a couple of occasions where he’s expressed interest in doing shows with us. I never really thought too much about it other than you take it with a grain of salt and if it happens it will be great. Other than that, we just keep stepping and making our own trail because we have our own little corner that we sit in and have had some success. I think people can respect that when you’ve kinda done your work and done the actual hard road work and years of just doing what you do, trying to stay in the game. That in itself is a test.
YKIGS: Have you ever felt pressured to change your style to appease the younger generation? Based on what you’re saying I’d guess not. Talk about that.
MC (Stokley): Pressure? I wouldn’t think so. We’ve pretty much been timeless our whole time. We’ve never had that label where anyone told us we had to do a certain thing, we pretty much do what we want to do, which is how it should be. I think we’re capable and talented enough and students still in the game to realize that we don’t know everything but we’ve got enough knowledge to know how to put together songs with dynamics and things; real music. It’s really just musical music, because everything isn’t music-AL, there are different types of music, but there’s a lot of musicality to what we do. We do what we do, we keep our ear to the street and sonically what radio is sounding like, but we always keep our integrity and our music is always laced with some
Mint. You can bet on that every time.
YKIGS: Since you’ve been in the industry since the late 80’s, can you guys give me your opinion on what you’ve seen changed the most in r&b music?
MC (Stokley): It’s more of the industry itself. I think the music in a lot of ways has stayed the same. Coming from a musical perspective I’m thinking of the core changes. The melodies have been different, melodies are like the clichés of the time. Generally, there’s not that much difference, but the industry itself has changed and now we’re in a digital age basically. When we started we’d be in these multimillion dollar studios where just to record one song would be an arm and a leg. Now it’s like everybody can record and do their thing. So I think the industry itself is the biggest.
YKIGS: A lot of artists when they perform live have a band backing them, but that’s only when they are doing a show and they’re not part of the group. Why don’t we see more bands in r&b like Mint Condition?
MC (Stokley): It’s a real mystery in some ways. The easy answer is economics; it’s cheaper to be a solo artist or a singing group where the label didn’t have to worry about sending people out with all that air fare and different stuff. They leave that stuff up to the artist because that’s the artist’s expense. If all of those people are signed to the label then the company has to help send them around or they have to go and do interviews and it’s the whole band. I think a lot of it is economics but it’s still a bit mysterious because even with the economics you would think there would be a few. I think it’s also there is still kinda a social stratification between the urban music. There are tons of mainstream or rock bands but we don’t get that for some reason on the other end. It’s hard, the budget is smaller, and a lot of times with the standard record companies the budgets are smaller. A lot of times the urban companies might be partnered with a major label that would not really give them the budget that they might need. So for practical reasons they might try to downsize and bands can’t really exist on them.
YKIGS: There’s something I was hoping you could maybe speak about on behalf of the other members of the group. When people think of Mint Condition, Stokley is basically the face of the group and a lot of times people might not even know the names of the rest of the group. The whole group deserves recognition and to be known, so has that ever caused aggravation for them?
MC (Stokley): What’s funny about that *Laughs* is I would include myself in that, you’d be surprised how many people don’t know my name and might just say to me “Oh look it’s Mint Condition” like that’s my name! That’s happened a lot even in our hometown here. We always know that our music has been bigger than our image, and we try to combat that, but it’s hard to do when you don’t have a lot of videos and things; that’s a PR thing. Note the Jacksons, they were strategically on t-shirts and things, if you don’t know the name of the members they put it out there over and over. They had cartoons, Marlon, Michael, Jackie, Tito, the Isley’s were the same thing, the Backstreet Boys were the same thing. If you don’t do things like that you don’t really know people’s names, they just know the group and they know the faces. But yea that’s just a PR thing you really gotta work on that, that’s work, it’s a very strategic thing that we probably haven’t done all that we can do for that. But I think that we do what we can, fans who know us know, when it comes to shows we acknowledge everybody. Even myself, people won’t even know my name, more folks will probably know me than the rest of the group probably because I sing, but I think that’s how it goes with the lead singer of any group.
YKIGS: I’m a big fan of the history behind the music. I’d love to hear the story about you guys originally meeting with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and basically how you were discovered. Can you take me back to that moment in time?
MC (Stokley): We were submitting demo tapes out, we were trying to get signed so one of the demos we sent out to Jimmy and Terry. They had a guy who was working for them at the time named James “Popeye” Grier who saw something in us and he decided that he wanted to manage us. Actually that was a conflict for Jimmy and Terry because they supported him on managing us, but he didn’t want him working there. *Laughs* At the same time though, they agreed to come out and see our act. So they came out to see us play at this infamous club, “First Avenue”, made famous by Prince and Purple Rain. They came out and checked it out and right away that same night they told us we had a deal. We pretty much felt like “Ok, right” because we had heard that before and we knew how it goes, but they were serious. They didn’t have a company at the time so they signed us at first as just songwriters and our first job for them became writing songs for all of those acts they had back then and playing on the records. Eventually once they got their label up and running, we were one of the first ones along with Sounds of Blackness to be signed to it.
YKIGS: Anything you’d like to add?
MC (Stokley): You can find out where we are at by going on our website www.MintCondition.com and you can also Facebook us and Twitter us @MCondition. We’re celebrating the seventh release with “7”, so check it out if you haven’t.