Mint Condition, known for ballads such as the gold singles “Swingin”’ and “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” arrived on the music scene in 1991 with Meant to Be Mint, progressively carving a niche for themselves in the world of rhythm and blues over the years that followed. The Minneapolis sextet built a fanbase the old-fashioned way: through live performances. Taking cues from groups before them like the Gap Band and Earth, Wind, and Fire, Mint Condition remained one of the genre’s few acts that play as a self-contained live band—a rare occurrence in today’s market-driven music industry.
Whereas many contemporary R&B and soul-inspired groups arrive on the musical landscape solely as an “album act,” Mint Condition, a union of dedicated musicians who believe that playing their own instruments helps to vocalize their art, have always preferred to “keep it real,” usually opting to record in a live studio. For this reason, Mint Condition stand apart from their peers, courageously resisting the temptation to implement formula over function. Their 1999 album, Life’s Aquarium, a collection of songs that centers on life experiences, continued to showcase Mint Condition’s unique dedication to an ideology that was conceived a full decade prior.
The members of Mint Condition include Larry Waddell on keyboards, Homer O’Dell on guitar, Stokley Williams on lead vocals and drums, Jeff Allen on saxophone and keyboards, Kerri Lewis on keyboards, and Ricky Kinchen on bass. All of the members, excluding Kinchen, who came to the group from Chicago, graduated from Central High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before joining forces as Mint Condition, all the band members played in various bands and backed singers around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The products of a similar musical environment, the members of Mint Condition also shared a musical sensibility that transcended cultural and generational boundaries. Not only do they remain respectful and indebted to the rich African American musical tradition, but they also recognize the countless varieties of expression from around the world.
Mint Condition, who dabble in funk, jazz, and rock in addition to R&B, admire and pay tribute to a myriad of artists from the past as well as the present. “We came up listening to all those bands from the ’70s—Cameo, Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, a bit of everything,” Williams recalled in an interview with USA Today’s Steve Jones upon the release of the group’s 1996 album Definition of a Band. “On a lot of the songs we just set up and played in a circle and recorded mistakes and all because that’s what musicianship and real music is about—the element of surprise.” This sense of musicianship, note many critics, lacks in much of the hip-hop and producer-driven vocal acts that dominated the R&B scene throughout the 1990s.
Formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1989, Mint Condition started out performing in local clubs before attracting the attention of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of Perspective Records, a subsidiary of A&M Records. “There was definitely a kinship there,” Williams told Jones, adding that Mint Condition received a lot of useful advice from the production duo. “After they came out to see us at a live show, they told us we had a deal.” After signing a record deal, Mint Condition set about their dream of revitalizing the live band sound.
Mint Condition viewed this as an important mission, Williams said, given the fact that so many public schools have cut music programs out of the curriculum altogether, leaving many musically inclined youngsters to become either rappers or DJs as outsets for musical self-expression. However, Williams does admit that there are some positive signs emerging from the rap scene. “We see a lot of changes even within the hip-hop community. They are actually starting to have bands and they are actually helping a lot of the old bands to come back out just by using their samples and reviving the whole sound.”
In 1991, the sextet debuted with Meant to Be Mint, an album containing the hit songs “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” which rose to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, and “Forever in Your Eyes.” Mint Condition returned in 1993 with From the Mint Factory, which yielded another hit single that reached number two on Billboard’s Hot R&B chart entitled “U Send Me Swingin’.” However, both albums, with regards to
Members include Jeff Allen, saxophone, keyboards; Ricky Hinchen, bass; Kerri Lewis, keyboards; Homer O’Dell, guitar; Larry Waddell, keyboards; Stokley Williams, lead vocals, drums.
Formed in Minneapolis, MN, 1989; signed with Perspective Records, released debut album Meant To Be Mint, 1991; released From the Mint Factory, 1993; released Definition of a Band, 1996; signed with Elektra Entertainment, released Life’s Aquarium, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Entertainment Group, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, NY 10019, (212) 275-4000. Management— Arnold & Associates. Music publisher —Mint Factory Tunes/EMI April Music.
sales, failed to achieve a mainstream breakthrough for the group.
Hoping to attracted more buyers, record company executives and Mint Condition made a concerted effort—without sacrificing quality—to propel the group’s third album, 1996’s Definition of a Band, higher up the charts. The first single off the album, “What Kind of Man Would I Be,” about remaining faithful in a relationship, smashed the Billboard Hot R&B top five. The video received regular television rotation and featured the musicians playing their instruments. “We would show up for shows, and they wouldn’t have any instruments for us,” O’Dell explained to Jones. “They would have six mikes set up and we’d say, ‘Where’re the drums? Where’re the keyboards? So for this album we wanted to make sure that we got that point across.”
Another single, “Let Me Be the One,” featured lyrical/vocal flavor by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Overall, the album won critical praise for its mixture of R&B, rock, soul, jazz, funk, and Caribbean and African sounds. Most importantly, the members of Mint Condition were thankful to have survived the ups and downs of the music industry. “This is our third album, and a lot of people we came out with in ’89 are not here now. To me, that’s more successful than selling a million albums,” observed Williams, as quoted in Jet magazine. “We haven’t won a Grammy,” remarked Kinchen in agreement, “but we kind of have when you get Stevie Wonder calling you saying he likes your stuff. It keeps you going when you have the support of your peers and musicians who have paved the way for you.”
After a three-year absence and a switch to a new label, Elektra Entertainment, Mint Condition resurfaced in September of 1999 with Life’s Aquarium, on which the band continued to serve up a blend of funk, jazz, rock, R&B, and even Latin rhythms. In addition to the uptempo romance track and first single “If You Love Me,” the album also included a song entitled “Pretty Lady,” recorded with one of Mint Condition’s idols, Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson. The collaboration came about after Mint Condition attended one of the Gap Bands shows in Minneapolis. “It was an honor recording with someone we’ve always listened to,” Williams told Billboard’s Gil Griffin. “I learned humility, staying down to earth, and practicing my craft from him.”
“Breakin’ My Heart,” Perspective, 1991.
“Forever in Your Eyes,” Perspective, 1992.
“Are You Free,” Perspective, 1992.
“U Send Me Swingin’,” A&M, 1993.
“Nobody Does It Betta,” A&M, 1993.
“Someone to Love,” A&M, 1994.
“So Fine,” Perspective, 1994.
“What Kind of Man Would I Be,” A&M, 1996.
“You Don’t Have to Hurt No More,” Perspective, 1997.
“Let Me Be the One,” Perspective, 1997.
“If You Love Me,” Elektra, 1999.
“If You Love Me” (maxi single), Elektra, 1999.
Meant To Be Mint, Perspective, 1991.
From the Mint Factory, Perspective, 1993.
Definition of a Band, Perspective, 1996.
The Collection (1991-1998), Perspective, 1998.
Life’s Aquarium, Elektra, 1999.
Billboard, August 10, 1996; September 7, 1996; January 11, 1997; June 28, 1997; August 14, 1999; August 21, 1999.
Jet, February 24, 1997.
USA Today, October 28, 1996.
Mint Condition: Life’s Aquarium, http://www.mintfactory.com (June 14, 2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (June 14, 2000).
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