Mint Condition has been consistently crafting songs and albums, all while enjoying the benefits of a devoutly loyal fan-base for more than 20 years. They came upon the scene in 1991 with the Gold-selling Perspective Records release, Meant to be Mint, featuring their Top 10 R&B/Pop crossover hit, “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” then struck Top 10 again with “Forever in Your Eyes.” Two years later, they followed up with another R&B Top 10, “U Send Me Swingin’,” from their sophomore project, 1993’s From the Mint Factory. Despite the band’s penchant for writing and performing a diversity of material, Mint Condition has become ostensibly known for its soulful power-ballads, as evidenced in their stretch of `90s singles: “Someone to Love,” “What Kind of Man,” “You Don’t Have to Hurt No More” and “If You Love Me.” Those ballads became their formula for success and hold up well today as they continue to perform them regularly in concert halls around the globe.
After over a decade contracted to major labels A&M and Elektra, the band decided to take the independent route, starting in 2005 with its fifth release Livin’ The Luxury Brown followed by Live from the 9:30 Club and E-Life on their own Caged Bird Records imprint (distributed via Image Entertainment). Mint Condition recorded their two most recent releases for Shanachie Records: 7 and their latest, Music at the Speed of Life, featuring the single, “Believe in Us.” In all, Mint Condition has released eight studio albums, one live project and a greatest hits package with two new songs. Lead singer Stokely received a 2011 Grammy nomination for “Not Your Daddy,” his riveting duet with “R&B Diva” Kelly Price.
As celebrated as Mint Condition is for carrying the torch of the great R&B bands that came before them, they also represent a dying breed of collaborative musicianship unfortunately no longer active on Urban radio or the charts today. They are masterful songwriters, arrangers and instrumentalists, and feature a front man who is one of the most gifted vocalists in all of music.
Their line-up, with the exception of one departure, has remained consistent; currently comprised of Ricky Kinchen (bass-guitar), Homer O’Dell (guitar), Larry Waddell (keyboards), Jeffrey Allen (saxophone, keyboards) and Stokely Williams (lead vocals, drums).
Thanks to our good friends at Kobalt Music publishing where Mint Condition are signed to an administrative deal, Amalgamation got an opportunity to chat with members Ricky and Stokely. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
On composing songs and collaboration
Ricky Kinchen: A lot of the songs we’re writing are about what’s going on in our lives – and in real time. I can go over to Stoke’s house with an idea, start singing it then he may start playing piano as we come up with the melody, the lyrical concepts. Sometimes it would be different. On “The Girl in My Life” [from Music at the Speed of Life], I came up with the whole track with the exception of the grand finale. Once Stoke added that [movement], I wanted the song to have an amusement park feel with strings and a horn section; a feeling of people being in New Orleans. I wanted the song to feel good.
Sometimes we’ll come up with something and don’t hear anything. We’ll then pass it on to one of the other guys and they might hear something. The creation of our songs can happen in various ways. Sometimes it can be by yourself, sometimes it’s with other people; sometimes the music can be created first. There’s no one way to doing things!
On creating timeless music
Stokely Williams: To me, timeless music is something that doesn’t get old, no matter when you made it. The sounds don’t matter. The themes do not matter. There’s no shelf-life. It’s timeless.
Ricky: We don’t intentionally think about creating something timeless. We concentrate on what feels good and how it feels when it is live. We can’t simply try and do what everyone else is doing.
On their favorite Mint Condition songs
Ricky: For me, it’s probably “Why Do We Try Sometimes” [from E-Life] or maybe one of our recent songs “Believe in Us” [from Music at the Speed of Life].
Stokely: That changes day by day. You have to ask is it from the old stuff or the newer stuff? If it’s classic Mint, it could be something like “What Kind of Man” or “10 Million Strong” [from 1993’s The Mint Factory]. If it’s from the new stuff, “Believe in Us” could be one of my favorites.
On signing a publishing deal with Kobalt
Stokely: They’re currently administering our publishing. We have a vast catalog and we needed them to drum up some business and to let people know we’re still here. They’re a big company so we are learning them and they are learning us. I think we’ve gotten to know quite a bit about each other now. We’re really excited about the relationship and the future with Kobalt.
On Stokely collaborating with Wale on the rapper’s latest album, The Gifted
Stokely: It was an incredible experience and we made some new relationships from it as well. First, Wale had a meeting to express his vision. He’s from Washington, D.C., and he listened to a lot of the D.C. music which has a Go-Go sensibility and an organic instrumentation. Wale’s a cat that’s not afraid of sound. He loves Mint’s music and he gave an example with everyone in the room—playing different songs by Mint—the various sounds, the different textures, the dynamics…all those types of things he was looking for in his project. We massaged that project for just over a year. A lot of the stuff from the first session kept ringing through every time he played it for people or played it for the label. A lot of those things stayed on the record; some songs didn’t make the album. It was an incredible experience and we’ll definitely continue that relationship.
On being open for more outside collaborations
Stokely: Yes, whether it be Hip-Hop, R&B, or Country-R&B, music is a mash-up of different things right now. As segmented as genres are, people aren’t as afraid to try things because music has opened up. Currently we’re pitching a few things. We’re trying to figure a few ways to bring some of the younger generation to tap into what we’ve learned. [Grammy-winning producers] Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis helped to launch our careers but they gave us the autonomy to do what we do. They were Executive Producers and we were signed to their label [Perspective Records], but they let us do what we do artistically – write, produce and arrange everything. They felt we knew what we were doing and they gave us a few tips, but gave us their blessing into the relationship.
On adjusting comfortably to the independent (do-it-yourself) nature of the music business in 2013
Ricky: I’m not sure it’s about being comfortable. You’ve gotta roll with the way the industry is going. Not too long ago, people started downloading music for free and the music industry changed. You have to figure out how to survive with the changes, and use the good and the bad with those changes. You gotta keep pushing; you can’t complain about things. You’ll never hear Mint Condition complaining about music or where the business has gone.
Stokely: We’ve done 4-5 albums on our own, independently. Of course, we came up with the music, but there was the administrative, the operations team; we needed the distributor. We realized what we gained because the middleman was cut out; that money that was once going to the major label. Many artists on the independent side are now seeing that. The numbers are different. The major labels get you fame, they are the big machine. They get you on radio, the videos, the tours, and the big production. Being independent is a beautiful thing. I’ve talked with a lot of artists who are scared to do it, though. I tell artists once you do it, you wonder why you didn’t do it in the first place. Now, it does require a lot of work; you’ve got to be on the grind. Some people do need major labels because they are not cut out for this. Since day one, Mint Condition has been use to the grind. We looked at the bands from the `70s like Led Zeppelin, the Ohio Players, Parliament, James Brown & the Famous Flames; a lot of those groups played chitlin’ circuits back then. When we started out, we drove around the country in a Winnebago and toured Black Colleges. If we could get a hotel room for a day, then cool. If not, we slept in the van. It’s a lot different now. We stay in hotels, thankfully, but you have to have that grinding kind of mindset if you’re going to do this successfully.
On recommending a vintage album for our young songwriter-producer readers
Ricky: If you’re thinking lesser known titles like in the `90s, I’d like to recommend Plumb by [Folk-Rock] Jonatha Brooke & the Story. She’s an artist that a lot of people haven’t heard but it’s a well put-together project. I believe it influenced artists like Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan because they sound a bit like her.
Stokely: I definitely would say one of the Quincy Jones’ albums like The Dude or his earlier works with Michael Jackson such as Off The Wall. Quincy is always a good model for songwriting and song-crafting. He’s great all-around from a production standpoint and with arrangements. I do like a lot of the Beatles stuff which was everything they learned from Blues and Black Music – as they interpreted it. Growing up, I used to mimic Al Green or Earth Wind & Fire. Al Green was like 10 people in one to me. Stevie Wonder, of course, and his albums Hotter Than July or Innervisions. I can throw Songs in the Key of Life in there, too. All of those artists have an amazing body of work.
Interview Conducted by David A. Mitchell