Introducing Stokely

Talk about loyalty, as the longtime front man of the band Mint Condition, Stokely Williams could have produced a solo project years ago. But with his soulfully gifted and golden voice, the wait for him to branch out has been well worth it. Introducing Stokely made the Music Industry Quarterly Essential Top 10 List of 2017. The album is a balance of mid and up-tempos (“Level,” and “U & I,” featuring Estelle), to gorgeous ballads (“Organic,” and “Think About You”), to the Robert Glasper jazzy and poetic (“Art In Motion”). Even with his longtime success as the lead singer for Mint Condition, it’s an industry sin that Stokely has somewhat been underrated. Once again, it was an honor for us at Music Industry Quarterly to chat with this Minneapolis-bred artist.

What took so long for you to do a solo album?

Timing [laughs]! I work to my own beat. I know when I do things I like to go 100%, and this is just one of many different projects that I’d like to do. The time is right for me when it’s right for me, and not necessarily everybody else. The usual thing would be to do a couple of albums with the band and then doing my solo thing. I don’t really subscribe to the norms of the industry and the way it runs.

This day and age there are many ways to work your project; different ways to work your artistry. It takes longer; especially if you’re independent. There’s a lot of moving parts. There are a lot more people now doing music that ever. Technology has made things more simple and accessible. There are people who are doing music who don’t even know how to do music and winning. You have to embrace that too. That brings out another kind of industry within an industry, and that’s creative within itself. I just think my timing is when it’s supposed to be, not on everyone else’s time table, but when the spirit hits me.

There are fans and observers who may wonder if Stokely is leaving the group, or is this a sign of group disarray?

Right now we’re just exploring other avenues. I’ve been on the Mint Condition journey for 31 years. Just because you’ve done one thing that people know you for shouldn’t mean you’re limited to only that. There are other things I want to explore.

There’s a bit of irony too in calling your album, Introducing Stokely.

When you’re in a band you make room for democracy. We all have our influences in the band. You’ve gotten my portion where you hear my vocals and me playing drums, etc. As a solo artist from the ground up it’s pretty much all you, and I run every aspect of my ship. In the group, everyone’s voice gets heard. That’s a beautiful thing that we’ve been able to sustain for so long.

Some would guess as the front man or lead vocalist of Mint Condition, you would have more influence; possibly two votes in group decisions?

We truly are a democracy, and we always wanted to make that clear. When I think back to some of the groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s, maybe some of those lead singers had two votes. But we have a democracy. It was kind of an experiment but it’s worked for us. Everybody has got their way and we were able to contribute and share in the profits of that. It is a business. On the practical side, there are groups like Earth Wind & Fire with nine members. I’m sure with the White brothers [Maurice & Verdine] getting the lion’s share. You can only roll that way for so long. The pie is only so big. We decided when we first started out that we would all share in the profits and show you it can work, and it did. We built ourselves a great following, and the records have done really well.

You mentioned the word, experiment, which leads me to the Robert Glasper Experiment, and the song “Why Do We Try,” from Black Radio 2. You recorded with him again on your album for the song, “Art In Motion.” You two have remarkable musical chemistry.

Robert’s been a longtime fan of Mint Condition. I was happy to be a part of “Why Do We Try,” and hanging out with him, and he returning the favor by being on my project with “Art In Motion.” We’re always looking to working together. He’s always on my radar. He is just one of those musicians who are truly free. They are who they are and what they do is just brilliant. Music flows out of him like water.

Even without the band, you’ve continued to produce some superb R&B power ballads for this album, songs like “Organic,” and “Think About You.”

When Mint Condition started [ballads] really weren’t our forte. The band used to do a lot of stuff that made you move. We used to do a lot of choreography. It was natural because as a band we were always competing with other bands. We may have had one ballad in the set. We had only one ballad on our demo, and that was “Pretty Brown Eyes.” It made it to the album. It was so powerful when it hit and people loved that sound.

We weren’t just a ballad band, but that’s what we became known for when those songs became highly successful. People put you into a box. It’s what happens with anything popular – even if you can do another million things great –the powers that be want to capitalize on that one thing. That’s the power of popularity and marketing. That’s the thing about artistry, it’s a beautiful curse. It’s great when you’re able to sustain yourself. We created a signature sound, and people started to recognize my voice. But unless you came to a show, you would only get one facet of what we do.

How much of a challenge is it to maintain your signature sound, stay familiar and yet expand musically?

That’s everything, and the whole thing about Introducing Stokely. When you look at the CD artwork. It’s the fire and the ice, the opposites. When you look at the red there’s an intense image, and when you look at the other side it’s blue and cool. I have smiles and cries, and everything else in between. Which is life and it’s many moods. I come from an era of analog, and now we’re in the digital space. But it’s moving so quick and makes everything so accessible at moment’s notice. I’m a hybrid of both of these worlds, and not just from the technology space but from a sonic space. I’m taking the old and the new, and bridging it. I’ve been working with artists like Wale. I’ve taken some of the old and new energy and meshing both worlds. I do love technology but I’m steeped in the world that I came from, too, folks like Earth Wind & Fire, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Miles Davis, and others from the tree of African American music. I stand on the shoulders of all of that. The essence of life is change. We know that, and sometimes it hard to do, and hard for people to accept sometimes. With music, people want to put you in a box, but you have to keep moving forward. It’s kind of a double edge sword.

When you released the album, you made an appearance on Jimmy Fallon sitting in with the Roots. What else are you doing in marketing and promoting?

I’m doing everything I can to get the word out about the album, including interviews like this. A lot of people know about the album, but there are even more people who do not know. Again, when you don’t have the bigger machine like we’ve had in the past, you have to spread the word with radio, press, television, social media and create awareness with all of these different platforms. I don’t mind the slow drip way…it’s almost when you tour country by country, that’s what live performances are about when you let people know what you’re doing. It might be 500 people here, 1,500 people there, a festival might be 10-15,000 people. You go around each night and let people know there’s a new project out.

You’ve been sitting in with Prince’s old band, The Revolution. What did the late Prince mean to you and your career?

It still seems unreal that he’s gone. His music and presence meant everything. It is one thing to have a musical hero that you could look at from afar, but this dude was from my backyard [Minneapolis]. I could actually see him at a festival, at a local club or at the movies, and at different times in my life. To see him become what he became was very real to me. He was amazing at what he did. We first knew of each other, because of various musicians we each played with around town. When we formally met, I joked with him about how, ‘I’ve been hearing a lot about you,’ Prince said he heard a lot about me, too. We became friends, he became a mentor. He ended up taking Mint Condition on the road with him in Europe and throughout the States. I’d come to Paisley Park and we’d have long conversations. He wanted to help get the word out about us. He was just the type of guy who wanted it for you.